Review: Mama Rose’s Turn

Dear Constant Reader,

I’m winnowing down my to-be-reviewed pile! Here’s a book about a controversial figure in burlesque, who was responsible for launching one of the great careers.

Mama Rose’s Turn: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Mother by Carolyn Quinn, 2013

Rose Thompson Hovick, the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc, has been portrayed as an amusing eccentric (Gypsy Rose Lee), a brash, overbearing stage mother (Gypsy: A Musical Fable), an abusive narcissist (June Havoc), and even a remorseless murderer (Karen Abbott). Most sources agree that she was beautiful, petite, charming, manipulative, and needy. But who was she really? This book attempts to answer that

The story begins with Rose’s paternal great-grandparents arriving in the midwest from Germany. The generations before Rose was born were full of independent women. Her maternal grandmother ran businesses after her husband (and both her young sons) died. Rose’s mother had a talent for millinery and would frequently leave her daughters (her only son also died young) to head north and sell her fancy hats in the Yukon. This probably shaped Rose’s unconventional views of how to raise her children.

Rose married Jack Hovick when she was a pregnant teenager. That baby, Rose Louise, would grow up to be Gypsy Rose Lee. The painful delivery of a very large infant in a half-finished house in the middle of winter put Rose off the idea of more children. When she found herself pregnant again, she tried various ways to make herself miscarry, but her second daughter, Ellen June, was tenacious, although very small at birth. It was the unwanted daughter who proved to have incredible talent and Rose pushed for a performance career for the dancing prodigy, despite that June was barely a toddler. She filed for divorce and created a vaudeville act around her girls.

I’m not going to rehash the careers of Baby/Dainty June and Rose Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee. You can read Early Havoc and Gypsy for that, which is what the author of this book appears to have done. She also cites newspaper articles or  letters from the GRL Collection at the NY Public Library or emails from someone’s descendant, but mostly she relies on those books, especially for this part of Rose’s life

After Gypsy hit it big in burlesque, and later June on Broadway, they supported their mother (as well as her mother and sister in Seattle), but it was never enough for Rose — she wanted more money and more attention. When Gypsy set her mother up in a 10-room apartment, Rose opened a speakeasy where lesbians could safely socialize and buy overpriced bathtub gin and spaghetti. Later she moved to Gypsy’s country estate and turned it into a sort of resort. Scandal erupted when a young woman was killed with a rifle there. It’s still unclear if it was suicide or murder, although Quinn is firmly in the suicide camp. 

After that, the rift between mother and daughters grew larger, although they continued to support her financially, if not emotionally. Despite the money from her daughters, she was constantly coming up with business ventures — raising chickens, running a children’s summer camp, planning a restaurant with her sister, and more. For the rest of her life Rose tried to be a part of her daughters’ lives, often by threatening them, demanding more money, trying to disrupt their careers, and even suing them for lack of support. Gypsy would have periods of closeness with her mother and then Rose would do something that would alienate her again. 

Near the end of her life, suffering from cancer, she found a surrogate family with the local plumber.  He and his wife helped care for her and their daughter called her “Aunt Rose”. Despite being ill and frail, Rose took pleasure in being able to create a lovely Christmas celebration for the girl, like she did on the road with her vaudeville children.

In death, Rose took revenge on her daughters by leaving her entire estate to her sister, including the house Gypsy had paid for. Gypsy countered by publishing the memoir she never would have released while her mother was still alive. 

The author makes her biases clear from the prologue. She was captivated by the character of Rose in the musical Gypsy, as the ball-busting stage mother. She dislikes June Havoc and repeatedly dismisses June’s version of events. Despite using June’s two books as source material, she considers June an unreliable narrator and frequently calls her a liar. She calls a few other people liars as well, when their recollections don’t match up with her narrative.

Quinn glosses over Rose’s outrageous actions, like thefts, scams, threats, and sabotaging other performers’ acts, as “games” and “stunts”. Neither girl had a valid birth certificate or even knew exactly how old they were, but that was just part of Rose’s cleverness in marketing and evading child labour laws. There’s always an excuse for her behavior — she was emotionally distraught, hormonal, drinking too much, etc. — and that her daughters should have been more sympathetic and loving. After all, they had been the center of her life for years, why shouldn’t she be the same to them?

Keeping that bias in mind, it is still the only biography of Rose Thompson Hovick out there (that I know of). It looks not only at Rose, but her family, back a couple of generations, and how their lives may have shaped her view of the world. Rose was a complicated woman and more than just her brassy alter-ego, belting out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”.

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