Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Interview with Karen Abbott about AMERICAN ROSE

AMERICAN ROSE by Karen Abbott is the tragic story of Gypsy Rose Lee, and is handled with grace and balance while providing a peek behind the curtain of an era when vaudeville was our only television, and when bankers actually jumped out of windows without golden government parachutes. An intimate and revelatory history of how a psychopathic parent can affect her children, it is narrated with skill by the very listenable actress Bernadette Dunne on audio. This well researched book is both a slice of life and a snapshot of Americana, and should not be missed. (Her latest book is LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY.)
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Tower Review)  How did you become interested in Chicago history, and vaudeville?
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Karen Abbott)  I became interested in Chicago history due to a old bit of family lore. My great-grandmother's sister immigrated to the United States in 1905. She lived in Pittsburgh but at some point ventured to Chicago, and then was never heard from again.  I was always intrigued by this story, and began going through old Chicago Tribune archives from 1905. I didn't expect to find out what happened to my ancestor, but I was interested in what was going on in the city at the time, and as it turned out, girls were disappearing with alarming frequency. Then I came upon a story about department store heir Marshall Field Jr., who was rumored to have been shot in the Everleigh Club, which was the world's most famous and luxurious brothel. After I read more about its proprietors, the aristocratic Everleigh sisters, I forgot all about my missing relative and became consumed with learning more about these enigmatic women.  I know that sounds awful, but it's true!  That was the genesis for my first book, Sin in the Second City. As for vaudeville, my grandmother always told me stories about growing up during the Great Depression, and she once relayed a tale of a cousin who claims to have seen Gypsy Rose Lee perform in 1935. The cousin claimed that Gypsy took a full fifteen minutes to peel off a single glove, and that she was "so damned good at it" that he gladly would've given her fifteen more. So that got me thinking: who was Gypsy Rose Lee? Who could possibly take the simple act of peeling off a glove and make it so riveting that someone would be compelled to watch for a full half hour? Gypsy was a very private, relentlessly self-inventing character, and I became determined to figure her out. 
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Q)  What is the most tragic thing and the most interesting thing you discovered in researching this story?
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A)  The family dynamic between Gypsy, her sister June, and their mother was both the most tragic and interesting part of my research. I spent hours at Lincoln Center, which houses Gypsy's archives, looking through the correspondence between Rose, Gypsy, and June, and the letters reflected a constant whiplash back-and-forth of emotion between the three of them. Rose would blackmail Gypsy about her early days in burlesque and threaten to reveal her “true nature” to the press, and in the very next letter beg for forgiveness and tell Gypsy how much she loved her. Gypsy knew about all of Rose’s secrets, as well—including where the literal bodies were buried.  It was a codependent relationship that neither one could relinquish. There’s a line in the book that sums up their relationship: “It is a swooning, funhouse version of love, love concerned with appearances rather than intent, love both deprived and depraved, love that has to glimpse its distorted reflection in the mirror in order to exist at all.” As for Gypsy and June, I believe there was friendship and love there, but it was incredibly fragile. When I interviewed June, she told me that she was “no sister” to Gypsy; she was nothing but a “knot in her life.” She lived with that hurt until the day she died. 
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Q)  What are you working on now?
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A)  I'm currently working on a book about female Civil War spies. I'm still in the early stages of my research, but they're fascinating.


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