Friday, December 31, 2010

Karen Abbott on Gypsy Rose Lee, America's Greatest Burlesque Star

In her new book, “”American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee”(Random House, $26), the journalist Karen Abbott has written a thrilling history of America’s last and best burlesque star, whose career went from the Jazz Age, through the Depression and into the prosperity of postwar America.

Born in 1911, Louise Hovick was an awkward vaudeville kiddie performer, overshadowed by her talented sister June and her stage-mother-from-hell Mama Rose, who may have murdered two people. At 18, faced with destitution, Louise remade herself into Gypsy Rose Lee, star of Broadway burlesque. Gypsy became one of America’s most famous celebrities, a public figure that no one really knew, consorting with mobsters and politicians. In a meticulously researched book, Abbott takes readers on a wild ride through the middle American roadhouses to Broadway and Beverly Hills, digging through the complicated, dark and triumphant life of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Abbott, 37, is the author of the acclaimed “Sin in the Second City,” a book about Chicago’s most notorious brothel. Abbott spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley in a cafe in New York City.

Q. Gypsy Rose Lee made up big chunks of her life story. How did you separate fact from fiction?

A. You go through all the material. I tried to tell the story as truthfully as I could. If something was not clear or there were several versions of the story, I backed it up in the end notes. Sometimes little bits of truth were found between stories. Gypsy kept these meticulous scrapbooks of her career and there were many letters between her and Mama Rose.

Q. Gypsy’s career goes from vaudeville to the rise of burlesque in the late 1930s, and she ends up with a talk show in the 1960s. How did you tell her story?

A. Gypsy’s story is a microcosm of the 20th century. Her life unfolds through these events, including the Depression. I structured the book as a striptease. You drop stuff here, you tease, then pull away. I literally had scraps of paper all over the floor, trying to arrange things. I really liked that Gypsy’s life dovetailed with all these important events.

Q. In the musical “Gypsy,” we see a young Louise being pushed into becoming the great stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Is that an accurate account?

A. In the musical, we see her as a fluke, with her mother pushing her out on stage. In my research, I see her as smarter and more calculating. She was always jealous of her sister June. When she opened her mouth for the first time onstage, she was Gypsy Rose Lee. Here was this force of nature, this steely woman who suffered from ulcers. June said that Gypsy’s body reacted because her soul protested. Gypsy had a hard time reconciling everything that she had to do as Gypsy with what she had been.

Q. After three years of research and writing, how did you view Mama Rose?

Q. At the end of the day, how do you see Gypsy Rose Lee?

A. She was not an inherently likable character, but I did like her. Sometimes she was awful, sometimes I was intimidated by her. It shifted every page. Her story was the quintessential rags-to-riches story, but it was Cinderella as shot by the director Tim Burton.

Gary Shteyngart on the Fall of America

In an America in the not-too-distant future, the country is under a de facto dictatorship, is coasting into civil war and may be bought by the Chinese and Norwegians. While cities burn, elderly men are obsessed with eternal youth and everyone’s health and credit scores can be accessed at all times. Welcome to the brilliantly comic dystopian nightmare of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel “Super Sad True Love Story”(Random House, $26), where the youth of America shop as the tanks roll down their streets.

The protagonist of the novel is Lenny Abramov, a neurotic man on the cusp of 40, obsessed with the gorgeous and depressed Eunice, a young Korean-American woman. Lenny works for a life-extending company that targets High Net Worth Individuals. Full of ominous corporations tied to armies-for-hire and an incompetent Joe Lieberman-esque defense secretary prosecuting a ruinous war in Venezuela, Shteyngart’s novel is a satirical masterpiece which makes the reader shudder, how close are we really to the edge of the abyss?

Shteyngart, 38, is the author of the bestsellers “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and Absurdistan,” and met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a cafe in Manhattan.

Q. What are your dystopian influences on the new book?

A. I think of it more like Orwell’s “1984” than Huxley’s “A Brave New World.” The reason people are taking this book to heart is that it is set here, not in some country I made up. The Walmarts are burning. I already felt like I was living in a dystopian world. When you are an immigrant like I am, you are already living in a cute little dystopian world of your own making.

Q. The whole world is obsessed with their apparats, a handheld device that offers Facebook-like information taken to an extreme, disseminating people’s health data, credit ratings and sexually transmitted diseases. What interested you in this rankings obsession?

A. Now it’s numbers, numbers all the time. We live at the razor’s edge with credit. You read stuff about my looks online and people parse my problems, or publish how much my old apartment sold for. Everything is ranked. Are we so far from the idea that you walk into a bar and are immediately ranked the 23rd ugliest man in the bar? If your girlfriend is the third-hottest in the bar, that will raise your rankings.

Q. How did Lenny evolve for you?

A. I decided to take away a lot of the bells and whistles of my earlier characters. I wanted to make him recognizable to people and a lot of that involved stripping away his ethnicity. Being Russian is just one of his burdens. Lenny’s problems are much deeper. He’s 39 and he’s coming to terms with mortality, as well as the fact that he’s unattractive and that his life won’t be getting much better than it is now.

Q. Why are you and Lenny obsessed with Korean women, like his girlfriend Eunice?

A. One reason I am so interested in Koreans as characters is that it is a small, concentrated country. It is not 300 million Russians. Like the espresso I am drinking now, which is strong and pure, the tragedy of the Koreans is strong and pure. Eunice has been living under the weight of everything that happened to her parents. Eunice also grew up in Southern California, so she’s tragic and spoiled at the same time. Her shopping leavens the tragedy, especially the fact that her father is abusive to her.

Q. In your novel, America is under a dictatorship. Why?

A. The point I was trying to make is that society has been corroded. There is information overload, but a dearth of real information. Everything is just a tweet: “They are killing people in Central Park! Oh, I need to buy new clothes.” (Dictatorship) is the next step--we’ve already surrendered our privacy online and elsewhere.