June Havoc: Actress whose childhood partly inspired the musical 'Gypsy'

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June Havoc had a long and varied career in show business, from being a child star in vaudeville to becoming a notable actress on stage, screen and television, but she will be best remembered for her years as "Baby June", the juvenile headliner who figures prominently in the musical theatre masterwork, Gypsy, which was adapted from the memoirs of Havoc's sister, the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Havoc initially objected to the show, as her character virtually disappears half-way through when June runs away from her domineering stage mother, marrying one of the boys from the act. "Nothing is ever mentioned about the fact that I went out and became somebody." However, in one of the later scenes, after Louise (Gypsy) has become queen of the striptease, her mother Rose reminds her that she once wanted to be an actress, and Louise replies, "My sister's the actress, mother."

The daughter of a Norwegian-American newspaper advertising agent and a ferociously stage-struck mother, she was born Ellen Evangeline Hovick in Vancouver, probably in 1912 – Havoc was unsure because her mother lied so often to maintain the illusion that June was a perennial juvenile. She played small roles in silent short films from the age of two, and after her parents divorced her mother formed a vaudeville act starring Havoc as "Baby June" with a supporting cast of juveniles including her less talented sister, Rose Louise (known as "Louise"). By the time she was five "Baby June" was a headliner. "My fathers were stagehands," she later said. "They taught me everything. They even taught me it was naughty to wear lipstick at 12".

In her early teens, stifled by her mother's ambition, she eloped with one of the boys in the act, Bobby Reed, with whom she formed a double act. Though the marriage was brief the couple remained friendly and when they could no longer get work due to the Depression and the demise of vaudeville, they supported themselves by entering contests for "marathon dancing", a craze in which couples had to dance for days non-stop in order to be given free food.

Havoc's affair with a married man, one of the marathon promoters, Jamie Smythe, produced her only child, the actress April Kent, who died in 1998. Havoc started entertaining at summer resorts and acting with regional repertory groups, and made her Broadway debut with a small role in Sigmund Romberg's operetta Forbidden Melody (1936), adapting her surname to Havoc. Though the show flopped Havoc won praise, Variety commenting, "June Havoc nearly stopped the show in an eccentric dance number."

Her first important stage role was as Gladys Bumps, the earthy chorus girl in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey (1940). Her role was initially small but expanded during rehearsals as her talent was recognised, and she was given two songs, "That Terrific Rainbow" and "Plant You Now, Dig You Later", plus some lively repartee with the star, Gene Kelly. The role led to a screen contract, and she made her screen debut in the "B" movie Four Jacks and a Jill (1941). She was top-billed in Sing Your Worries Away (1942), with Bert Lahr and Buddy Ebsen, but it was another lacklustre, low-budget affair.

Havoc had better material as a lady of questionable virtue in an adaptation of the Broadway hit My Sister Eileen (1942), and partnering Jack Oakie as half of a vaudeville team in one of Alice Faye's finest vehicles, Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943). Her most distinguished work, though, was in the theatre. She won great acclaim as a female bullfighter opposite comedian Bobby Clark in Mike Todd's opulent production, Mexican Hayride (1944), with songs by Cole Porter, making the most of one of Porter's "catalogue" songs, "There Must Be Someone for Me."

"That was my happiest opening-night memory," she said. "When I stopped the show with that song, there was no encore written, which I explained to the audience – but then I had to repeat the entire number." Havoc won the Donaldson Award (precursor of the Tony). She then starred in the title role of Sadie Thompson (1944), a musical version of the play Rain. The libretto was dull and the score disappointing, though Havoc was praised for bringing dynamism to her solos "Life's a Funny Present" and "The Love I Long For".

She had her first non-musical role in a florid melodrama The Ryan Girl (1945) but its run was brief, as was that of Dunnigan's Daughter (1945), directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan also directed Havoc in one of her most memorable screen roles, the racist secretary in his expose of anti-semitism, Gentleman's Agreement (1947). Havoc (playing a Jew), tells reporter Gregory Peck of her unease that the company has placed an advertisement for employees stating that religion is immaterial: "Let them get just one wrong one in here and it will come out of us. It's no fun being the fall guy for the kikey ones."

She then played a calculating vamp opposite George Raft in Intrigue (1947), teamed with Oakie to repeat their earlier portrayal of vaudeville performers, this time supporting Betty Grable, in When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948), and starred as a gangster's widow reformed by a spell in prison in The Story of Molly X (1949). She was sympathetic as a golf widow in Follow the Sun (1951), based on the life of Ben Hogan, and starred with a singing James Mason in A Lady Possessed (1952), as Mason's lover who thinks she is controlled by his dead wife's spirit.

Her early television appearances included Anna Christie with Richard Burton and an anthology series, Cakes and Ale. She returned to Broadway to take over from Celeste Holm in the comedy Affairs of State (1951), then toured in Private Lives (1952) and several other plays. Gypsy, with book by Arthur Laurents and songs by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, opened in 1959, and though Havoc was not initially happy with her portrayal, she agreed not to oppose the production for her sister's sake. "Baby" June (later "Dainty June") is depicted sympathetically, and audiences sympathise when, during a duet with her sister, she dreams of the day "I'll get all those hair-ribbons out of my hair, and once and for all I'll get Mama out too".

"Mother was very prim, and she was tiny and lovely, with big blue eyes," Havoc said. "She was endearing and alluring beyond belief. If she had drive and ambition, what's wrong with that?' In 1963 Havoc wrote an autobiographical play, Marathon '33, in which Julie Harris played the heroine. It was not a success, though Havoc won a Tony nomination for her direction.

Havoc wrote two autobiographies, Early Havoc (1959) and More Havoc (1980). In her final Broadway appearance in 1982 she played Miss Hannigan, the alcoholic governess, in Annie, though she later toured as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Her sister died in 1970. In later years Havoc spent much of her time on the restoration of Cannon Crossing, an historic Connecticut village near her home.

Tom Vallance

Ellen Evangeline Hovick (June Havoc), actress: born Vancouver, Canada 8 November 1912; married 1929 Bobby Reed (marriage dissolved), 1935 Donald Gibbs (divorced 1942), 1947 William Spiers (died 1973); one daughter; died Stamford, Connecticut 28 March 2010.