With all the research I was able to do for my book, MAMA ROSE’S TURN: THE TRUE STORY OF AMERICA’S MOST NOTORIOUS STAGE MOTHER which recounted the true story of the mom who inspired the Broadway musical GYPSY, there’s still some mysteries that remain.
The mother in question was, of course, Rose Thompson Hovick. She had two daughters, Rose Louise, later called Gypsy Rose Lee, and Ellen June, known later as June Havoc. Stories about the mother abound. Most, I found, are inaccurate to the point of being laughable, fashioned more to fit the steamroller of a character that playwright Arthur Laurents created for the musical. It’s a fantastic musical, and it’s as well-written as they come, but Laurents himself was the first to admit that his “Rose” was “75% fictionalized.”
I don’t wonder about the rumors concerning the mother because the amount of research put so many of them to rest. No, I wonder about her daughter, June.
When I began researching this famous family I found that, one after another after still another, June’s stories and reports about Mama didn’t add up. I used official documents, newspaper reports, interviews with relatives, documentaries and other sources. June wasn’t where she said she was in a story from 1924, as confirmed by a newspaper report and the death certificate of the relative whose bedside she claimed to have attended – while she was actually performing on the other side of the country. Lie. She wasn’t where she said she was in a story from 1928, as confirmed by the census. Another lie. Her tale of her mother pulling a gun on her husband in a police station in Kansas? It didn’t happen at all the way June said it did. It was a monumental distortion. The story of who her grandfather had been with when he had a car accident that later killed him? Completely refuted by a newspaper article, and perhaps the sickest lie of all.
And there was more. Much more. The more I fact-checked June, the worse the picture of her looked, and I hadn’t set out to do that to her at all. Authors fact-check to get additional information to what’s already there, but with this mess, it wasn’t working out that way. June’s info, including that in her two published biographies, didn’t add anything to what was already out there and known about her and her family. It just flew off the rails.
On the other hand, it’s rare to hear anybody who knew the woman personally ever say anything bad against her. She was well-liked. She loved animals. She bought a charming little village of buildings, which I’ve visited, in Connecticut, called Cannondale, where she hosted yearly “Blessings of the Animals” services for people to bring their pets. She was, apparently, a nice woman.
Her friends were quite loyal to her. One particularly recalcitrant one even went so far as to try to get me in trouble with my publisher for revealing that so many of June’s stories were naught but a pack of lies, but that didn’t work. I had irrefutable documentation. June’s friend didn’t.
One of my theories was that June’s writings might have been the creation of ghost writers who weren’t there because the number of errors in her books are astonishing. Are we really expected to believe, for one, that she had no idea which of her aunts was younger and which was older than her mother? That couldn’t have been June’s take on her own relatives, but it would fit with a ghost writer’s assumptions. And that’s just one of the minor slip-ups.
Even so, when things don’t add up, they’re a lot more fascinating than when they do. I wonder if we’ll ever know who the real June Havoc was.