See that magnificently messy pile of books and documents that’s taken over my living room sofa? I call that “The Leaning Tower of Rose Hovick.” It’s all of the research documents that I compiled for my book, MAMA ROSE’S TURN: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Mother. The blue loose-leaf notebook that’s under the photo of Rose with Gypsy Rose Lee, her second husband and his mother, is 576 pages long and it’s a printout of all of the notes I took (and then some) at the Performing Arts Library in New York City, which houses the Gypsy Rose Lee Archive. It weighs 12 and a half pounds. My father, who is retired from the National Guard, said that makes it about as heavy as a rifle. Ah, no wonder I had a such hard time picking it up!It was during the course of researching Rose that a very strange and rather disturbing trend became evident. Fact-checking is the hallmark of research, and I am an inveterate fact-checker. I’m told I’m damned good at it, too. Gypsy Rose Lee often embellished her stories of her childhood with her sister and mother, the stage mother of my book, but the basic facts of her tales checked out when I went digging for more information. But her sister! Oh, where do I begin, folks? Her sister, child Vaudeville star “Baby June Hovick,” later known as the actress June Havoc, embellished her stories as well, but in as melodramatic and lurid a direction as possible, and those, I learned, were almost all entirely false.
Case in point: June claimed to be four years old and subjected to witnessing a bedside vigil as her Aunt Mina died of an overdose of multi-colored pills.
Mina died in Venice, California when June was nine. The child was performing in Corning, New York, when it happened. Unless she had perfected the art of metaphysical bilocation, there is no way she was at that bedside. Her aunt didn’t die of an overdose of multi-colored pills, either. This went down in 1923. Multi-colored pills were not invented yet.
Another case in point: June said that her grandfather died in a car accident with his mistress beside him, and that the she died too. I’m afraid not, ladies and gentlemen. He did die following a car accident, but one in which he was seated beside his ex-wife. Grandma, by the way, was not killed, but lived.
The list goes on from there.
And on even further.
The deeper I dug, the more bizarre it became. Why would anyone lie about how family members died? There’s no two ways around it: that’s creepy. She told four tales, total, about family member’s deaths that did not go down the way she described them. I can say that definitively because I have the death certificates or articles about the actual situations in that pile of stuff that’s sitting on my sofa. She made up additional types of stories as well, and I have the evidence about those, too. Most of what I found out made it into my book.
But why? What could have prompted June to do something like this? She was a respected actress, not as well known as her famous sister, but she had an excellent career in her own right, and it lasted right up until her death in her late 90’s. Yet so many of her tales turned out to be inaccurate that it reached a point where I became astounded whenever I could confirm that June had told the truth. That was rare. I wondered if she had used a ghost writer to create the stories told in the books. That would have accounted for the discrepancies. It didn’t account for why she would sign off on them.
Naturally, since she was a public figure, some of her fans are unhappy to learn that her stories were false. So was I, but so many of them had seemed implausible on the surface, and simply didn’t survive close scrutiny when I double-checked them. A friend said yesterday that those June fans who are having a tough time processing the information that I uncovered are jarred by it for a simple reason: they believed June’s accounts for years, “and now they realize they’ve been had.”
But hey: I know the feeling.
The mystery of what motivated June Havoc to put such stories before the public intrigues me. It remains to be solved. But then, you know me. When I get intrigued, I go looking for more information, and Meine Damen und Herren, Mesdames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen: I’m on this!