American Rose at the Fair

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Karen Abbott

In late spring 1940, across a stretch of former wasteland in Flushing Meadows, Queens, 250,000 people pay 50 cents each to forget and to dream. In the last decade they lost jobs and homes and now they face bleaker losses in the years to come: fathers and sons and husbands, a fragile faith that the worst has passed, and the hope that America will never again be called to save the world. Not one inch of the Fair’s 1,216 acres betrays its inglorious past as a dump. Instead, beyond the gates, a “World of Tomorrow” beckons, offering flamboyant distractions and bewitching sleight of hand, a glimpse of fantasy without the promise it will ever come to pass.
They have never seen anything like the Trylon, its gaunt steel ribs stretching 700 feet high, carrying bodies skyward on the largest escalator in the world. They chase salty scoops of Romanian caviar with swigs of aged Italian Barolo. At the Aquacade exhibition they watch comely “aquabelles” perform intricate, synchronized routines. At night, when fireworks begin, they fall silent watching the colors crisscross overhead.
They marvel at an array of new inventions: the fax machine, nylon stockings, a 12-foot-long electric shaver.
But this World of Tomorrow can’t obscure the dangers of the world of today, despite the Fair committees' efforts. The new official slogan, “Peace and Freedom,” is absurdly incongruous with the hourly war bulletins that blare over the public address system.
On May 20, thousands of visitors — a crowd larger than the turnout for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie combined — find temporary solace at the Hall of Music, where they wait to see Gypsy Rose Lee in her World’s Fair debut. She wears an expression both impish and imperious, a baited half-smile that summons them closer yet suggests they’ll never arrive.

An audience in the Fair's Amusement Area gets excited for a show.

The curtain yields and here she is, dressed in an outfit that evokes gaslights and horse cars — a welcome glimpse of nostalgia, on the eve of World War II. The ruffles under her voluminous gown swish with each step, hands folded primly at her waist, eyes batting beneath the shadow of her hat. Her "inside-out strip," as she calls it, is inverted in both deed and word: she first sheds the layers closest to her skin, all the while explaining the aristocratic origins one must possess to become a stripteaser.
Peeling off white, elbow-length gloves, she cranes her languorous neck and speaks as if the words were a poem:
Have you the faintest idea of the private life of a stripteaser?
My dear, it’s New York’s second largest industry.
Now a stripteaser’s education requires years of concentration
And for the sake of illustration, take a look at me.
I began at the age of three…

The crowd roars; she knows to wait for it. Just a hint of a smile, and then she continues:
… learning ballet at the Royal Imperial School in Moscow.
And how I suffered and suffered for my Art.
Then, of course, Sweet Briar, oh those dear college days.
And after four years of Sociology
Zoology, Biology, and Anthropology —

She ticks each subject off on her fingers.
My education was complete
And I was ready to make my professional debut for the Minskys on 14th Street.

The laughter rises and falls but never quite dies.
Now the things that go on in a stripteaser’s mind
Would give you no end of surprise,
But if you are psychologically inclined,
There is more to see than meets the eye.

Gypsy sports a polka dot shirt and hat for publicity photos.

She swans across the stage and offers her hat to the bandleader. Strolling back to the center, she pulls at the shoulder of her gown to reveal a strip of collarbone.
For example — when I lower my gown a fraction
And expose a patch of shoulder
I am not interested in your reaction
Or in the bareness of that shoulder.
I am thinking of some paintings
By Van Gogh or by Cezanne
Or the charm I had in reading
Lady Windermere’s Fan
And when I lower the other side, and expose my other shoulder
Do you think I take the slightest pride in the whiteness of that shoulder?

She shakes her head, marveling at such a silly thought.
I am thinking of my country house
And the jolly fun in shooting grouse.

On to the pins now, dropping one at a time into the orchestra pit, the drummer tapping a cowbell as each one falls. Her blouse sways open just enough to expose her breasts, each covered by a black lace bow. She glances down and notices one of the bows is askew. “Oh dear!” she exclaims, and adjusts it. The music picks up tempo.
And the frantic music changes, then off to my cue
But I only think of all the things I really ought to do.
Wire Leslie Howard, Cable Noel Coward
Go to Bergdorf’s for my fitting, buy the yarn for my mother’s knitting
Put preserves up by the jar, and make arrangements for my church bazaar.
But there is the music, and that’s my cue
There is only one thing left for me to do, so I do it.

Gypsy Rose Lee brushes off one of the box offices in preparation for the 1940 season opening day.

Gypsy Rose Lee brushes off one of the box offices in preparation for the 1940 season opening day.

She lifts her skirts and holds the pose, a blooming flower of ruffles and lace, her long, lovely legs the stem.
And when I raise my skirts with slyness and dexterity
I am mentally computing just how much I’ll give to charity,

She leans and rolls down her stockings to the sweet, sliding notes of a violin, her hand imitating the dramatic flourishes of a conductor.
Though my thighs I have revealed, and just a bit of me remains concealed
I am thinking of the life of Duse
Or the third chapter of
The Last Puritan.
None of these men are obscene
They leave me apathetic, I prefer the more Aesthetic,
Things like dramas by Racine …
Gone With the Wind.
She removes her garter belt and drapes it around the neck of a man in the front row. “Oh darling, you look so sweet,” she coos, and turns him around for all to admire.
Next she unhooks her petticoats, whirls them in a circle, and sends them soaring into the crowd. Suddenly, she’s shy again, realizing just how far she’s gone.
And when I display my charms in all their dazzling splendor
And prove to you, conclusively, I am of the female gender
I am really thinking of Elsie de Wolff, and the bric-a-brac I saw
And that lovely letter I received from George Bernard Shaw
I have a town house on the East River because it’s so fashionable
To look at Welfare Island, coal barges, and garbage scows.
I have a Chinchilla, a Newport Villa…

She unfastens her skirt next and dangles it in front of her, a matador teasing with her cape.
And then … I take the last thing off!

Louise Hovick, or Gypsy Rose Lee, poses in white satin pajamas.

Louise Hovick, or Gypsy Rose Lee, poses in white satin pajamas.

The crowd screams a chorus of “No!” and laughs with her. The skirt drops and she tucks herself into the velvet curtain, holding it far enough to one side to show her G-string, lacy and black and adorned with a tiny pink bow, one last illusion for those who know to look. Her voice is a lullaby now, lolling and low, until the final punch line.
And stand here, shyly, with nothing on at all
Clutching an old velvet drop, and looking demurely at every man
Do you believe for a moment that I am thinking of sex?
Well, I certainly am!

She heeds their whistles and calls and reappears just once, giving what she has to, keeping all she can.

The statuesque Gypsy Rose Lee in an evening gown.

Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City and is at work on her next book, a true story of the Civil War told through the perspectives of four women who risked everything for their cause. Visit her online at: www.KarenAbbott.net.

 

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