“American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee” by Karen Abbot

by Hugh Gilmore

A few weeks ago we invited Local readers to send us a note mentioning some of the books they most enjoyed last year. We’re always hoping to give a little nod toward authors and books that might otherwise be neglected. Most end-of-year lists focus on “Most Important” or “Best of,” but we, in the Peninsular way, always opt for “most enjoyed.” Solipsism forever! we say.

First to ring in this time was Tom Tarantino of Chestnut Hill, who wrote: “Hi Hugh … My Most Enjoyed Book of 2102 was the FIRST TWO PAGES of “Prisoner of Dunes” by Isabelle Eberhardt. I call those pages “The Nomad Manifesto.” Here are two quotes:

“(1) ‘One right to which few intellectuals care to lay claim is the right to wander, the right to vagrancy. And yet life on the roads is liberty.’

“(2) ‘The committed tramp, seated at the roadside, contemplating the horizon’s welcoming breadth – is he not absolute master of lands, waters and even of heaven itself.  What landowner can rival him in power and riches?’

(HG: Isabelle Eberhardt was born in Switzerland in 1877 and died in a flash flood in the desert in1904. She wrote extensively, in French, for newspapers and periodicals. The English translation of “Prisoner of Dunes” did not appear until 2003. There is also a 1991 movie with Mathilda May and Peter O’Toole.)

Our next contributor, all the way from Mt. Airy, was Lynn Hoffman. Lynn is a poet, novelist and author of one of the best beer guides available (“Short Course in Beer”). He writes: “‘The Supper of the Lamb’ by Robert F. Capon is an early-modern example of gourmet literature. The author, a cranky and quirky Episcopal priest, has rolled his love of food and theological passion into a prophetic rant about soulless food and the death of awareness that it causes. The premise of the book seems two-fold – both indicated by the book’s title. First, the book does, in fact, teach how one can serve a leg of lamb for eight people over four meals. The book-length recipe is easy to follow and for many cooks, downright illuminating.

However, the second premise indicated by the title of the book, is an introduction to “The Supper of the Lamb” as it is recounted in the book of Revelation. His understanding of Sacrifice; his description of wine; and his discussion of the “Greater Heartburn” seems a little silly, but also kind of wistful. To a reader in 2012, Supper seems prophetic, with the wonderfully named Capon acting as the angry prophet against the fast-food complex. (HG: originally published in 1967, this book is now reprinted in the Modern Library food series.)

Local columnist, Janet Gilmore (not a blood relation), sent a charming e-mail that recommended an unusual biography. Here’s Janet: “My favorite book this year is “American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee” (2010) by Karen Abbott.

“In the American consciousness, Gypsy Rose Lee’s story has been melded with the Broadway show “Gypsy” — Baby June played by Lane Bradbury, Gypsy played by Sandra Church and their overbearing mother Mama Rose played by Ethel Merman.

“Mama Rose drags her children all over the country trying to make them  famous in vaudeville. Baby June was a precocious child – Louise was an untalented, overweight kid. The superb musical tells their story, but much of the hardship in the show is Broadway schmaltz.

“American Rose” tells the story more realistically, moving and seamlessly backward and forward in Gypsy’s life. Mama Rose did anything she had to do (including at least two murders) to get her kids where she wanted them. She was relentless and humorless. Baby June ran away at age sixteen.

“Louise (Gypsy Rose) got herself protected by Broadway mobsters, fell in love with Mike Todd, and remade herself as a sophisticated woman. She uncovered a spectacular figure by losing weight. She taught herself to drink whisky on the bathroom floor of her apartment. She found the nerve to strip in front of large audiences.

“There was a ‘lost year’ in Gypsy’s life which she would not talk about. Abbott guesses what might have happened. It wasn’t pretty, but Gypsy emerged after that as a star. As for Mama, she grew old and ill and became even more of a pain in the neck to her kids, until she died.

“I like biographies that tell the subject’s entire life story. This book didn’t leave Gypsy Rose Lee in triumph on a stage runway. It goes on to describe her final years in a wonderful, dark, sad, realistic way. Highly recommended.”

Also checking in this week, Jonathan Schmalzbach, of Huntington Valley, restaurateur, crossword-puzzle writer (for the N Y Times, yet!), educator and flaneur, writes: “Read your column last week about favorite read of 2012, particularly looking at older books.

“I just finished a special book called “Little Chapel on the River,” (2005) by Gwendolyn Bounds. Subtitled ‘a pub, a town and the search for what matters most,’ it’s the story of a Wall Street Journal author who lived directly across from the World Trade Center. In the dismal aftermath of 9/11, the author and her girlfriend not only need a place to stay, but also a haven to reconnect with what matters. After some searching, a friend suggests they visit a watering hole called Guinan’s in the historic town of Garrison New York. One beer turned into a lifetime love affair with the denizens of the bar, with a sense of place and community. It reinforces the value of spots like McNally’s or like Gilmore’s Book Shop (now unfortunately closed) as vital compasses of who we are and where we ought to be.”

Our final contributor for today is Carol Rauch, of Chestnut Hill, who writes: “I’ve had trouble finding good new reading lately, so I dove into my own bookcase and came up with two James Thurber books that have been entertaining me mightily. What a fine writer he was.

“The Books are: ‘The Thurber Album’ and ‘My World and Welcome To It.’ If you haven’t read Thurber in a while, now is the time. He’s a huge relief from today and as relevant as ever. His portraits of the people in Columbus Ohio provide impeccable portraits of ordinary, yet extraordinary, people. As are we all.”

HG: I can’t think of a grander note to finish on. Happy New Year.

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