Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rachel Shteir's "Gypsy"

Rachel Shteir is Associate Professor in the BFA program in Criticism and Dramaturgy at the Theatre School at DePaul University, which she directed until 2005, and author of Striptease: the Untold History of the Girlie Show.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Gypsy: The Art of the Tease, and reported the following:
Maybe because I’m not a huge Ford Madox Ford fan, the idea that p. 99 “reveal[s] the quality of the whole” strikes me as a little Cliff-notey.

Still, page 99 does say I think something important about Gypsy and reveal one thing that appeals to me about her, makes her iconic, and deserving of inclusion in Yale’s series: This is her ability to reinvent herself.

Set in 1939, the story I tell here sets the stage by describing what from our post-modern Puritanism is an incomprehensible moment—a striptease vogue more or less endorsed by New York City officials at the 1939-40 World’s Fair. The craze was thought in general to be a way to distract Americans from the aftertaste of the Depression and the onset of World War Two. (Note to Obama: you have not had to bail out the sex industry yet.)

The main event on p. 99 is Gypsy's rejection of Salvador and Gala Dali's offer to star in what was essentially a surrealist porn funhouse in the fair's first season. A sort of high-brow, European idea of burlesque, the funhouse would include topless mermaids, Botticelli Venuses lounging on couches and other such attractions. It was sensational.

“The slogan the Dalis proposed to advertise Gypsy--come and see Gypsy Rose Lee at the bottom of the sea--would have drowned her in kitsch.”

That Gypsy rejected the Dalis at a moment when burlesque, the genre that had made her famous in the thirties, had vanished, shows her understanding of her own iconic-ness. Gypsy never wanted to be perceived as a caricature or a freak show or at any rate she wanted to be perceived as one in the way she wanted to, which always boiled down to playing at elitism while still being true to her déclassé roots. (Or at least so she always made it seem.)

Had Gypsy accepted the Dalis’ offer, it's hard to say where her career might have gone. Perhaps she would have continued being the darling of the elite. But I think she understood that the climate had changed and being the darling of the elite was no longer enough to maintain her stardom.

Gypsy proceeded to a summer stock tour of a hackneyed play about burlesque, to a visit to her literary friends at Yaddo, and ultimately to 7 Middagh Street, the Brooklyn house she shared with Auden and others. She began to write. In the second year of the fair, she agreed to star for Mike Todd, replacing Carmen Miranda in a much tamer spectacle--the Broadway revue and crowd-pleaser, Streets of Paris. In other words turning down the Dalis launched her in another direction.

Then, as always, her striptease was her best disguise.
Read an excerpt from Gypsy and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

Visit Rachel Shteir's website.

--Marshal Zeringue