Karen Abbott has a knack for ferreting out the raunchier stories of America’s twentieth century, first with her bestselling chronicle of the Everleigh Sisters and Chicago’s notorious Levee in “Sin in the Second City” and now with a biography of the enigmatic Gypsy Rose Lee, an intellectual burlesque artist who was, in her time, the most popular woman in America. Though Lee’s was a life lived in public—her memoir became the basis for the seminal Broadway musical, “Gypsy”—she was a master of the reveal, not only on stage but in life, where her infamous stage mother taught her early on to hold truth in very low regard. Abbott digs behind the legend, scoring interviews with Lee’s sister, the nonagenarian June Havoc, shortly before her death along with Lee’s son to augment the ample public record. She then weaves a compelling narrative that chronicles the rise of Lee set against the waning days of vaudeville and the thriving burlesque circuit, interwoven with tales from her peak of popularity to her days as a writer, actress and all-around public persona. For those who think the culture of celebrity is a particularly contemporary invention, Abbott proves otherwise in this captivating book. (Brian Hieggelke)
Karen Abbott will discuss “American Rose” at Indian Prairie Library in a midday talk and at Barrington Library on January 9, at Anderson’s Bookshop and at Lovell’s of Lake Forest on January 11, at Maxim’s on January 12, at the University Club of Chicago and at the Newberry Library on January 13 and at the Frankfort Public Library and the Book Cellar on January 14.