Burlesque in New York: The writing of Gypsy Rose Lee
By Noralee Frankel
In celebration of the anniversary of the first burlesque show in New York City on 12 September 1866, I reread a fun murder mystery, The G-String Murders, by Gypsy Rose Lee. “Finding dead bodies scattered all over a burlesque theater isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to forget. Not quickly, anyway,” begins the story.
The editors at Simon & Schuster liked the setting in a burlesque theater and appreciated Gypsy’s natural style, with its unpretentious and casual tone. Her knowledge of burlesque enabled her to intrigue readers, who were as interested in life within a burlesque theater as in the mystery. Providing vivid local color, the novel describes comedic sketches, strip routines, costumes, and the happenings backstage. In a typical scene in the book, Gypsy muses about her strip act: “The theater had been full of men, slouched down in their seats. Their cigarettes glowed in the dark and a spotlight pierced through the smoke, following me as I walked back and forth.” Describing her band with precision, she wrote, “Musicians in their shirt sleeves, with racing forms in their pockets, played Sophisticated Lady while I flicked my pins in the tuba and dropped my garter belt into the pit.”
Gypsy worked as hard on her writing as her stripping, and The G-String Murders became a best seller. “People think that just because you’re a stripper you don’t have much else except a body. They don’t credit you with intelligence,” Gypsy later complained. “Maybe that’s why I write.”
The G-String Murders briefly describes Gypsy’s career as a burlesque queen at a fictitious theater, based on those owned by the Minsky family, in New York City. In the book someone strangles a stripper, La Verne, with her G-string. The police turn up an abundance of suspects, including Louie, La Verne’s gangster boyfriend; Gypsy; and Gypsy’s boyfriend, Biff Brannigan, a comic working in the club. After someone tries to frame Biff by placing the lethal G-string in his pocket, he aids the police in solving the crime. He’s also concerned that the police suspect Gypsy and he wants to clear her by finding the actual murderer. After deducing the identity of the murderer, Biff proves his theory by suggesting that Gypsy act as bait and remains in the theater alone to tempt the murderer to strike again.
More than just a page-turner, Gypsy’s novel stresses the camaraderie among the women. Sharing a dressing room, they throw parties with everyone contributing to buy drinks and food. The women joke, drink together, and confide in each other. The women also sympathize with each other over man problems and working conditions. Gypsy describes the strippers’ dressing room with a complete lack of sentimentality. The cheap theater owner is indifferent to the disgusting condition of the stripper’s dressing room toilet. To help the women, the burlesque comics pool their meager resources to buy the strippers a new toilet.
Gypsy expressed her conviction in the importance of organized labor through a character in The G-String Murders: Jannine, one of the strippers recently elected secretary to the president of the Burlesque Artists’ Association. When the strippers receive a new toilet, the candy seller suggested having a non-union plumber install it to save money. She refuses, forbidding any non-union member to enter the women’s dressing room. She snapped, “Plumbers got a union. We got a union. When we don’t protect each other that’s the end of the unions.” She reminded the other strippers of conditions before they joined a union, when they performed close to a dozen shows without additional compensation.
In the novel, Gypsy provided Jannine with another opportunity to talk about solidarity among burlesque performers and the unequal class structure in the United States. In a tirade against the police over the treatment of the strippers during the murder investigation, Jannine raged that the performers, both the strippers and comedians, might squabble but they were loyal and do not inform on each other. When a police sergeant tried to interrupt her, she retorted: “It’s the social system of the upper classes that gives you guys the right to browbeat the workers!”
Gypsy peddled the G-String Murders in the same clever ways that she publicized herself. In a prepublication letter to her publishers, she offered to “do my specialty in Macy’s window to sell a book. If you prefer something a little more dignified, I’ll make it Wanamaker’s window.” In an interview, she joked that if people did not know her in bookstores, she would remove an earring and ask, “Now, do you recognize me?”
As an added bonus, Gypsy put a lot of herself into this book, so the reader learns quite a bit about her burlesque work life, her sense of humor, her political beliefs, and sense of independence. Spending time with this mystery is a perfect way to celebrate a New York City burlesque anniversary.
Noralee Frankel is author of Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee. She recently co-edited the U.S. History in Global Perspective for National History Day. Dr. Frankel is a historical consultant and can be reached through LinkedIn or Facebook.