MAMA ROSE: Gypsy Rose Lee’s Indomitable Stage Mother

Passport Photo of Rose Hovick and daughters

About four years ago I first heard what, to me, was amazing news: that Gypsy Rose Lee‘s personal papers were archived at a local library.

The story of Gypsy‘s mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, had intrigued me for years.  It wasn’t so much what I already knew about her: that during the Jazz Age she had packed up her troubles, plus her two children, Rose Louise and Ellen June, took them on the road, and allowed them to shine on the stages of American vaudeville.  The world thinks they already know the entire story about Rose Hovick because of her depiction in the Broadway musical Gypsy.

But the musical was fictionalized.  The information that had already been made available to the public through books was contradictory.  I had a gut feeling there was a whole lot more to this woman’s story than the world already knew.  Intriguingly, there were also rumors about Rose having committed a murder.  If a mother putting her children in show business circa 1922 wasn’t already fascinating enough, murder was now added into the mix.  I had wanted to know more about Rose since I first read one of her daughter’s books when I was a teen.  I also adored a good true crime story.  I wondered what secrets that archive might just reveal…or conceal.

I tried to see the archive on the very day that I first heard about it.  Right after work I ran over to the library where it was housed, but access to that collection was closed for the day.  I was advised to return on a Saturday.  Naturally I went back then, thinking I would look at Gypsy and Rose’s letters for about an hour, then go to a movie I wanted to see that was playing across the street from the library.

Well, I never got to the movie.  I almost never got out of the library, either.  I went over there for an hour and stayed for five.  It wasn’t easy, though.  That library had more rules than a classroom run by a ruler-wielding nun.  My favorite nutty rule was that those of us using the “special collections” couldn’t take notes in notebooks because they were afraid we’d steal the letters, slip them off the premises by hiding them within the notebook pages, and sell them on eBay.  All notebooks were banned and had to be checked at a desk.  Did I mention that I’m a “no-b.s” kind of a gal?  Well, I am.  I was ready to throw a tomato at the librarian the minute I heard that everybody using the archives was automatically considered a potential letter thief, but I stayed.  Some of the rest of their rules were even more ludicrous than that one, but I couldn’t leave.

The story that was emerging in the letters wasn’t anything like any previously released material on Rose Hovick and her two children, who grew up to be entertainers Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc.  The musical based on their lives is phenomenal – but it isn’t accurate.  The real story went in an entirely different direction.  Additional information from official sources, newspapers, and Rose’s wonderful friends and family members, rounded her story out.

My book on Rose is finished now, and believe me there are too many new stories about her to recount them all here.  I’ll give you this one, which is one of my favorites and comes complete with a photo illustration.  Above are passport photographs that Rose, June and Louise posed for in 1925 – for a trip they had no intention of ever taking.  Rose wanted to move June, who was about 12 years old, beyond the reach of the child labor laws that prohibited her from working onstage, so she falsified the child’s age on the passport application.  Rose told the authorities that the vaudeville troupe was about to leave on a European tour.  They were, she claimed, already booked in London.

They weren’t.  But the tall tale about the fake London booking helped to get the application processed quickly.  Fast processing precluded an intricate checking of the facts on the form.  This was good, because Rose had made most of them up.

People who were not vaudevillians in the early part of the twentieth century might well think that this is astonishing.  But during vaudeville, altering data so that children could get around the child labor restrictions was more like a tradition that everyone practiced but nobody talked about, a state of affairs that called to mind the saying, “Who did it but won’t admit it?”

Rose Hovick.  That’s who.

She didn’t stop there, either!  Stay tuned.  There will be more to come in this blog about “Mama Rose.”

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