Welcome to an almost surreally incongruous world. Yes, there are sleazy nightclubs full of masturbating men and innuendo. But we also get serious authorship, acting, passionate leftish political activism, endless charity work and, finally, a career as a popular TV presenter. Nothing was predictable or conventional in the rollercoaster, rags-to-riches, 59-year life of America's most famous striptease artist.
Born in Seattle, probably in 1911, Louise Hovick, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, was on the road from infancy, touring vaudeville with her elder sister, June. The girls' mother exploited the talented June ruthlessly while dismissing her second daughter as talentless – which at least meant that Louise got some education. Nonetheless, by 1929, the younger girl was working as a chorus girl. Her stagecraft was instinctive and she soon recognised the entertainment potential of witty, tantalising stripping. Her trademark was to talk sexily as she stripped to a few strategically placed bows. And it made her famous. '
Lee was good-looking and theatrically accomplished, if not exactly likeable. She had soon made plenty of money, but the act was, literally, only skin-deep. Noralee Frankel is very good at digging out the hitherto largely unnoticed parts of Gypsy Rose Lee. For example, she was an avid and eclectic reader. And always wanting, at least in her twenties and thirties, to throw off the sex-object image. She wrote two moderately successful thrillers, one of which, The G-String Murders, was made into a film by United Artists.
She also had two stabs at straight Hollywood acting, once in the 1930s without much critical acclaim and again more successfully in the 1950s, once she'd convinced the McCarthyites that her having supported Spanish loyalists against Franco in the 1930s and entertained at the New York Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions did not make her a communist. Frankel's account of the witch hunt to which Lee and hundreds of others were subjected is well-researched and chilling.
Three short marriages and a son, deliberately conceived in a brief relationship with Otto Preminger, punctuated Lee's career. Her autobiography became a very successful musical, Gypsy, which glosses rather blandly over some of the less palatable features of her life.
In the final years before lung cancer felled her in 1970, Lee, always a talker and very funny, presented a TV talk show. Along the way she had acquired many intellectual friends who, presumably, took her seriously. My favourite image from this entire biography is of Lee in 1940 playing charades with Benjamin Britten and WH Auden in a writers' house in New York. She knew Leonard Bernstein, too. She collected art, had a passion for antique furniture and a whole series of spacious houses in which to indulge it. And she was an enthusiastic pet owner, too – all a reaction to a childhood with few possessions.
Stripping Gyspy cuts incisively to the chase and spares us all those details (beloved of too many biographers) of what the subject ate for breakfast from birth. Frankel has Lee already stripping on page 14. Notwithstanding the mildly irritating habit of having a long word where a short one would be better ("He possessed a passion for antiques"/ "... led her to try many endeavours" – why not "had" and "things" respectively?) it's quite a page turner.