Gypsy Rose Lee

Created by Gypsy Rose Lee
Pseudonym of Rose Louise Hovick
(1914-1970)

“She’s descended from a long line her mother listened to.”

The most famous stripper/detective/detective novelist of all has to be GYPSY ROSE LEE. Yep, Gypsy Rose Lee, “America’s most famous take-it-off artist,” wrote a mystery novel, The G-String Murders (1941). in which she herself (who else?) played detective.

Or, at least, she claimed to have written it.

It was pretty widely assumed for decades that Craig Rice, the creator of sleuthin’, drinkin’ attorney John J. Malone, actually wrote the book, although some (including her son) assert that there is more than sufficient written evidence in the form of manuscripts and Lee’s own correspondence to prove she mostly wrote it herself, albeit under the guidance of Rice and others. Others aren’t so sure, and as recently as 2018 it was being published under Rice’s name.

Regardless of who wrote it, though, the public seemed to have enjoyed this rollicking (and slightly naughty) tale  of a stripper who decides to go all Sherlock when some whack job starts strangling her fellow strippers with — what else? — a G-string.

The G-String Murders certainly must have ruffled a few feathers back in the day, with its behind-the-scenes look at an already “risqué” world, with its rather daring references to backstage toilets, makeup tables, pasties and other paraphernalia  of the trade, and a surprisingly vivid and unsettling visit to a women’s holding cell down, when several of the strippers are arrested and manhandled by the cops.

It’s also a pretty good mystery, with more than a few unexpected twists, but at its heart it’s a zippy, slang-laden, screwball affair, full of oddball scenes (the first body is found on the backstage toilet) and eccentric characters, particularly the strippers, who include a “Communist”, a man-hungry vamp and a bubble-headed rookie who keeps forgetting how much clothing she’s supposed to remove onstage.

Naturally, a sequel soon followed, Mother Finds a Body (also allegedly ghost-penned by Rice), and a movie adaptation of the first book under the title Lady of Burlesque, starring a singin’, dancin’ Barbara Stanwyck, although in the film her character’s name was changed to Dixie Daisy. Amazingly, given her hunger for self-promotion, Gypsy didn’t play herself.

Still, Lady of Burlesque did well, even garnering an Oscar nomination in 1944 for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. Maybe it was Stanwyck singing that rousing little musical ditty “Take It Off the E-String, Put It On the G-String” that got the Academy all ga-ga.

Lee was, of course, one of the most famous strippers of all time, right up there with Lili St. Cyr., and was once proclaimed herself to be “the most publicized women in the world.” She certainly knew how to get press, anyway. She started out as a child, performing with her sister June in a small time act called “Dainty June and Her Newsboy Songsters” and worked her way up to her own act, “Rose Louise and Her Hollywood Blondes” (her real name was Louise Hovic).

Eventually she was spotted by H.K. Minsky, who featured her in his infamous New York club. She parlayed that into an uptown gig as a Ziegfeld girl in “Hot Cha,” and from there to theatre, appeared in twelve films and eventually her own television show, The Gypsy Rose Lee Show in 1958. Besides the two mystery novels, her 1957 autobiography, Gypsy, detailing her rise to fame, was a bestseller that inspired a Broadway hit and was filmed in 1962 with Rosalind Russell as Rose Hovick and Natalie Wood as Gypsy, and remade as a 1993 TV movie with Bette Midler as “Mama Rose” and Cynthia Gibbs as Gypsy.

FROM THE DUSTJACKET

  • “Here is the living portrait of burlesque with assorted deaths thrown in. Here, in The G-String Murders, is a new, brisk literary style, written in her native mascara language by Gypsy Rose Lee — in person. As a writer she is a new original on the American scene — the first important brunette since Gentlement Preferred Blondes. She did not write this book once. “I wrote it three times,” Gypsy says, “with a Thesaurus.”

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING

  • The G-String Murders must have been one of the earliest examples of the “celebrity mystery,” where a well-known person not known for their writing then “writes” a mystery. Cookbooks and memoirs are one thing, but when it comes to mysteries, there’s usually a lot of speculation about who actually wrote the book, and truth be told, they’re often ghostwritten. Within a few years The G-String Murders was followed by actor George Sanders’ Crime on My Hands and Stranger at Home (ghosted respectively by Craig Rice and Leigh Brackett), and the trend has continued ever since, with mysteries purportedly written by George KennedySteve Allen, Margaret Truman (whose books continued appearing long after she was dead) and Krysten Ritter.

UNDER OATH

  • “a lurid, witty, and highly competent detective story . . . that builds up to a hair-raising climax”
    — Time Magazine on The G-String Murders
  • “Legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee penned one work of fiction (if you don’t count her autobiography), a mystery entitled The G-String Murders, the book that would be adapted to the screen with the misleading moniker Lady of Burlesque. The result is a snappy little mystery with yet another spunky performance by Barbara Stanwyck…
    Stanwyck stars as burlesque queen Dixie Daisy, who is a cut above the usual gum-twanging, smart-talking showgirl we’ve come to know and love: she has an edge of sophistication (the attribute that made Gypsy Rose Lee a star), and a great deal of smarts. When one of the other girls is murdered, strangled with her own g-string, and a hard-headed police sergeant makes all the wrong moves so typical to police in 40s mysteries, Dixie takes it upon herself to investigate.
    Mystery takes a back seat to brash babes and snappy dialogue, with enough humor to satisfy fans of the genre and enough girl-fights to feed the libidos of a roomful of heterosexual males. And while Stanwyck looks a bit uncomfortable in her musical numbers, she does a creditable job in them none-the-less.”
    — Fred Hunter on on Classics on DVD

NOVELS

  • The G-String Murders (1941); aka “The Strip-Tease Murders” and “Lady of Burlesque”) | Kindle it!
  • Mother Finds a Body (1942) | Kindle it!

FILMS

  • LADY OF BURLESQUE | Buy this DVD | Buy this video
    (1943, United Artists)
    91 minutes
    Black & white
    Based on the novel written by Gypsy Rose Lee
    Screenplay by James Gunn
    Directed by William A. Wellman
    Original music by Harry Akst, Sammy Cahn and Arthur Lange
    Produced by Hunt Stromberg
    Starring Barbara Stanwyck as DIXIE DAISY
    Also starring Michael O’Shea, J. Edward Bromberg, Charles Dingle, Iris Adrian, Charles Dingle, Frank Conroy, Gloria Dickson, Marion Martin, Iris Adrian, Victoria Faust, Pinky Lee, Gerald Mohr
    Stanwyck looked like she was having a ball making this, singing and dancing up a storm, in costumes designed by Edith Head.

ALSO OF INTEREST

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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