Thursday, July 9, 2009

Noralee Frankel's "Stripping Gypsy"

Noralee Frankel is the Assistant Director, Women, Minorities, and Teaching at the American Historical Association. Her books include Freedom's Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi and Break Those Chains at Last: African Americans, 1860-1880.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, and reported the following:
For those who do not remember the plot of the musical, Gypsy, let me recap. Born in Seattle in 1911 Louise Hovick, as she was known, toured vaudeville with her driven stage mother and her younger sister. When her sister ran off to marry and with vaudeville dying, Louise performed in burlesque theaters. In 1931, Louise, now Gypsy Rose Lee, worked Minksy’s burlesque theaters, where she became one of the very few women to talk as she undressed on stage. Later she was known as the intellectual stripper.

My page 99 (below) refers to her reputation as a sophisticated stripper. The book deals primarily with her life as an adult. Her love affairs, movie career, writings, and her political activism leading to her being blacklisted in 1950 are major topics.

The article from Hobbies described her collections in a manner to make the magazine’s appeal more erotic. It published one of the sexiest articles ever written about Gypsy. A photograph of Gypsy admiring a piece of glassware showed a great deal of her long, slender legs. Such an approach sold magazines--and Gypsy.

When the interview referred to on page 99 was published, Gypsy had purchased a mansion on 63rd Street New York City that showed off her possessions. Her collecting sprang from her insecurity about what constituted home. Possessions helped block out her childhood deprivations. She also hoped her writing, two mystery novels and a play, (years later, she would write her famous memoirs), her collages shown at Peggy Guggenheim’s Century of the Art gallery, and collections would bring her the respectability she craved.

Page 99, Stripping Gypsy:

photograph of Gypsy admiring a piece of glassware showed a great deal of her long, slender legs. Such an approach sold magazines—and Gypsy. The Hobbies author wrote, “Stroking the silky texture of her figure, my hand was following the exquisite curve lines. I was entranced with admiration of her, I was thrilled by the most perfect thing in the world—the divine female form.” He finished, “It was a Satin glass vase with a repousse figure of Venus. It was not Gypsy Rose Lee at all.”

The author did, of course, write about her collections. Eager to talk about her belongings rather than discuss stripping or burlesque, Gypsy proudly showed him her possessions. She owned a few treasured pieces of expensive Meissen porcelain. Her glass collection consisted of Mary Gregory—at least she believed it did. Discovering her first piece of Gregory glass in a secondhand store, Gypsy paid twenty-five cents for it. Since Mary Gregory is very rare, Gypsy’s pieces may have been good fakes, but they were beautiful nonetheless. She loved the characteristic blues of Royal Copenhagen china. She collected and restored frames, matchboxes, and even a small house made from shells. She also bought numerous objects adorned with cherubs, including lamps and vases. With their chubby bodies, cherubs appeared both innocent and sensual.

Remarking that as a child she had few dolls and little time to play, Gypsy described her paper doll collection wistfully. She liked to decorate objects such as tables and trays with paper dolls she purchased. Gypsy even confessed that she enjoyed dressing and undressing the dolls. She preferred “children, but I do have some lovely ladies. Some are partially dressed as actresses ... ballet dancers, I should imagine. Their legs and arms are flexible and they have real hair. Needless to say, they are my favorites.”

Gypsy acquired drawings by the tattoo artists Charles Wagner and John Bonzles, an early practitioner, proudly displaying them on velvet matting in a gold shadow box. The writer for Hobbies wittily observed that while Gypsy was “probably the only one in the country who prefers to see tattoos on paper, she can also appreciate a well-painted arm or chest.”

The Berkshire Museum located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the Museum of the City of New York displayed Gypsy’s plate collection in special exhibitions. She owned rare plates painted by Charles Dana Gibson, who originated the “Gibson Girl” in pen-and-ink drawings of the epitome of the modern independent white woman at the turn of the twentieth century. From one set of twenty-one plates, Gypsy lacked only three. The series was called Life and Friends of a
Read more about Stripping Gypsy at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue