Gypsy Rose Lee was born in Seattle, Washington on January 8, 1911; however, she always gave January 9 as her date of birth. She was known as Louise to her family. Her sister, actress June Havoc, was born in 1912. Their mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, forged various birth certificates for each of her daughters—older when needed to evade varying state child labour laws, and younger for reduced or free train fares. The girls were unsure until later in life what their years of birth were.
Their mother had married Norwegian-American John Olaf Hovick, a newspaper advertising salesman and a reporter at The Seattle Times. They married on May 28, 1910 in Seattle, Washington. They divorced on August 20, 1915. Rose Thompson married her second husband, Judson Brennerman, a traveling salesman, on May 26, 1916 at a Unitarian church in Seattle, with the Rev J.D.A. Powers officiating.
After Hovick and Brennerman divorced, June supported the family by appearing in vaudeville, being billed "Tiniest Toe Dancer in the World" when she was only 2½. Rose and June went to Hollywood for two years where June appeared in short films directed by Hal Roach. Louise was left behind while June and her mother were on the road. She had an elementary education, unlike June who was taught to read by stage-hands. Much to her mother's displeasure, June eloped with Bobby Reed, a dancer in their act, in December 1928, and went on to pursue a brief career in marathon dancing, a more profitable vocation than tap dancing.
Louise's singing and dancing talents were insufficient to sustain the act without June. Eventually, it became apparent that Louise could make money in burlesque, which earned her legendary status as an elegant and witty striptease artist. Initially, her act was propelled forward when a shoulder strap on one of her gowns gave way, causing her dress to fall to her feet despite her efforts to cover herself; encouraged by the audience's response, she went on to make the trick the focus of her performance.
Her innovations were an almost casual stripping style compared to the herky-jerky styles of most burlesque strippers (she emphasized the "tease" in "striptease"), and she brought a sharp sense of humor into her act as well. She became as famous for her onstage wit as for her stripping style, and—changing her stage name to Gypsy Rose Lee—she became one of the biggest stars of Minsky's Burlesque, where she performed for four years. She was frequently arrested in raids on the Minsky brothers' shows. During the Great Depression, Lee spoke at various union meetings in support of New York laborers. According to activist Harry Fisher, her talks were among those that attracted the largest audiences.
In 1937 and 1938, billed as Louise Hovick, she made five films in Hollywood. But her acting was generally panned, so she returned to New York City where she had an affair with film producer Michael Todd and co-produced and appeared in his 1942 musical revue, Star and Garter.
Lee viewed herself as a "high-class" stripper, and she approved of H. L. Mencken's term "ecdysiast", which he coined as a more "dignified" way of referring to the profession. Her style of intellectual recitation while stripping was spoofed in the number "Zip!" in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey, a musical in which Havoc had appeared on Broadway, opposite Gene Kelly. Lee performed an abbreviated version of her act (intellectual recitation and all) in the 1943 film Stage Door Canteen. Her routine starts at about 1 hour 29 minutes into the film and lasts about six minutes.
In 1941, Lee authored a mystery thriller called The G-String Murders, which was made into the sanitized 1943 film, Lady of Burlesque starring Barbara Stanwyck. While some assert this was in fact ghost-written by Craig Rice, there are those who claim that there is more than sufficient written evidence in the form of manuscripts and Lee's own correspondence to prove that she wrote a large part of the novel herself under the guidance of Rice and others, including her editor George Davis, a friend and mentor. Lee's second murder mystery, Mother Finds a Body, was published in 1942.
In Hollywood, she married Arnold "Bob" Mizzy on August 25, 1937, at the insistence of the film studio. In 1942, she married William Alexander Kirkland; they divorced in 1944. While married to Kirkland, she gave birth on December 11, 1944, to a son fathered by Otto Preminger. Her son was named Erik Lee, but has since been known successively as Erik Kirkland, Erik de Diego, and Erik Lee Preminger. Gypsy married a third time in 1948, to Julio de Diego, but that union also ended in divorce.
In 1940 she purchased a townhouse on East 63rd St in Manhattan with a private courtyard, 26 rooms and seven baths. Mother Rose continued to demand money from Lee and Havoc. Lee rented a 10-room apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan for Rose, who opened a boardinghouse for women there. On one occasion in the 1930s, Rose shot and killed a woman who was either a guest at the boardinghouse or a guest on the farm in Highland Mills in Orange County, New York that Rose owned. A historical website for lesbians cites varying reports of which place was the scene of the crime. According to Gypsy's son, Erik Lee Preminger, who is the author of several books, the murder victim was Mother Rose's female lover, who had allegedly made a pass at Gypsy. The violent incident was investigated and reportedly explained away as a suicide. Mother Rose was not prosecuted. She died in 1954 of colon cancer.
After the death of their mother, the sisters now felt free to write about her without risking a lawsuit. Gypsy's memoirs, titled Gypsy, were published in 1957 and were taken as inspirational material for the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable. Havoc did not like the way she was portrayed in the piece, but she was eventually persuaded (and paid) not to oppose it for her sister's sake. The play and the subsequent movie deal assured Gypsy a steady income. The sisters became estranged for a period of time but reconciled. June, in turn, wrote Early Havoc and More Havoc, to relate her version of the story. Gypsy Rose Lee went on to host a morning San Francisco KGO-TV television talk show, Gypsy. The walls of her Los Angeles home were adorned with pictures by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Dorothea Tanning, all reportedly gifted to her by the artists themselves.
Like many other Americans, and well-known artists such as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, Gypsy Rose Lee was a supporter of the Popular Front movement in the Spanish Civil War and raised money for charity to alleviate the suffering of Spanish children during the conflict. "She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain's Civil War. She also became a fixture at Communist United Front meetings, and was investigated by the House Committee on un-American activities."
Lee died of lung cancer in Los Angeles in 1970, aged 59. She is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.The song "Zip" from the musical "Pal Joey" (written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart) imagines the thoughts and musings that go through Gypsy Rose Lee's mind while she strips onstage as recounted by way of an interviewer who sings of their encounter with Miss Lee as being "the greatest achievement" they'd had. Elaine Stritch regularly performed this song (as the interviewer) for many years.
Punk band The Distillers wrote "Gypsy Rose Lee", a song for their debut album in 2000.
In 1973, Tony Orlando and Dawn recorded "(Say Has Anybody Seen My) Sweet Gypsy Rose?" by W. M. Irwin Levine & L. Russell Brown. (The song uses her name and profession, but relies on a fictitious prior life.)
In January 2012, Seattle Theater Writers (a group of arts critics for various publications) awarded the first Gypsy Rose Lee Awards, celebrating excellence in local theatre.
You Can't Have Everything (1937)
Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937)
Sally, Irene and Mary (1938)
Battle of Broadway (1938)
My Lucky Star (1938)
Stage Door Canteen (1943)
Belle of the Yukon (1944)
Babes in Bagdad (1952)
Screaming Mimi (1958)
Wind Across the Everglades (1958)
The Stripper (1963)
The Trouble with Angels (1966)
Around the World of Mike Todd (1968)
Think Fast (1949)
What's My Line? (1950 lost episode #4, Season 1)
The Gypsy Rose Lee Show (1958)
Fractured Flickers (1963 episode 3—interview)
Who Has Seen the Wind? (1965)
The Pruitts of Southampton (1966)
The Over-the-Hill Gang (1969)
The Hollywood Squares (1969)
The G-String Murders (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1941)
Mother Finds a Body (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942)
Gypsy: A Memoir (New York: Harper & Bros., 1957)
The Naked Genius (1943) (filmed and released as Doll Face in 1946)