Thursday, August 03, 2006

Miller And Gypsy Rose Lee

One of the most famous burlesque dancers of all time is Gypsy Rose Lee (1911 or 1914 -1970). On at least two occassions, Henry Miller had the opportunity to see her perform.

In 1935, Miller reported in his long letter to Alfred Perles--published as Aller Retour New York--that he had just seen Gypsy Rose Lee in New York:

"At the burlesk Sunday afternoon I heard Gypsy Rose Lee sing 'Give Me A Lay!' She had a Hawaiian lei in her hand and she was telling how it felt to get a good lay, how even mother would be grateful for a lay once in a while. She said she'd take a lay on the piano, or on the floor. An old-fashioned lay, too, if needs be. The funny part of it is the house was almost empty." [Aller, p. 3].

Miller then goes on to describe the activites of the men and the dancers in such a strip club, though mention of Ms Lee ends here. It's a shame that I can't find the lyrics to Give Me A Lay on the internet.

At the time that Miller had seen Gypsy early in 1935, she was 23 years old, although her actual birth date seems contested (half of the sources I found list 1911 and half 1914; the latter would mean she started stripping at age 17). Over the course of a few years, she made a name for herself in the striptease business. Her home base in New York was Minsky's Burlesque, where Miller likely saw her for his account in Aller Retour. Later that year, Gypsy Rose went out to Hollywood to take a crack at big time celebrity.

Several years later, in 1940, Henry encountered Gypsy Rose before his cross-America tour that was to become The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. In his Nightmare Notebook, in which he kept notes of his journey, he made a brief reference to Ms Lee:

"Gypsy Rose Lee (burlesque queen) saying to me at World's Fair, N.Y. on eve of trip: 'I could think of a lot better things to do than tour America.' Elle avait raison, la petite! Dont de meme, j'ai vu quelque chose. J'ai fait quelques decouvertes." [Nightmare Notebook, no page number].

The N.Y. World's Fair closed on October 27, 1940; Miller left for his road trip on October 20th [ref.] or October 24th [ref.]. He obviously decided to catch the fair in the final days; in particular, the Streets Of Paris show in which Gypsy Rose Lee was performing. Within a year of meeting Miller, Lee hired a writer to ghost-write a mystery novel under her name called The G-String Murders. I wonder if she ever offered the gig to Henry?

Read more about Henry's earliest burlesque experiences, in this posting.

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