Noralee Frankel is the Assistant Director, Women, Minorities, and Teaching at the American Historical Association. Her new book, Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, is the biography of a woman who was constantly torn about her choices as a beautiful and intelligent woman immersed in the burlesque world. In the original post below Frankel looks at Gypsy’s patriotism.
Gypsy’s greatest triumph as an entertainer was not her performance at Minsky’s, at the World’s Fair, or even on Broadway; but her tours of military bases beginning during World War II. In December 1943, she hitched up her trailer to her car and drove from New York to places like Fort Bragg, North Carolina, haggling with gas rationers along the way.
Gypsy encouraged soldiers’ participation in her act, even though their contribution brought more rehearsals and a less polished show. One Friday night, Gypsy performed for Army Air Force pilots in training at Gunther Field, Alabama. Her number “Gimme a Little Kiss” depended on at least three volunteers. Another number, “I Don’t Get It,” included Gypsy and the Gunther Field Rockettes. With Gypsy supplying the costumes, soldiers dressed as strippers. The program indicated that Gypsy’s performance with the enlisted men was the first time the post had staged their own show. At Bergstrom Field in Austin, Texas, the male chorus line wore costumes with heart motifs and GI mops for wigs. Gypsy donated one of her outfits to a soldier who impersonated her amazingly well in a show entitled “This Is the Army.”
Gypsy also liked to parody gender roles in these skits and acted as the sexual predator against a poor, helpless enlisted man. In the scene, Gypsy took a soldier out on a date and then she would try to convince the soldier to let her come into his home. The soldier demurred, remarking on the lateness of the hour. When Gypsy tried to kiss him, he exclaimed, “Certainly not! I’m not that kind of boy!” He insisted, “I’d hate myself in the morning.” Gypsy responded that she loved him “like a sister.” The soldier retorted, “My sister never looked at me like that.” A military police officer misreading the situation once assumed the soldier had been bothering Gypsy. He ordered the soldier to move along.
In 1951, Gypsy wanted to perform for troops stationed in Germany while she was touring Europe, but the army refused, probably because she was blacklisted from TV and radio for her political views a year earlier. By the mid-1960’s, Gypsy was back in good graces and off she went to entertain soldiers, as she had 25 years earlier, only this time in Vietnam.
In her fifties, she no longer performed, but still thought of herself as a “sexy grandmother.”