Book Reviews

Bosse, Katharina. New Burlesque.
If this book were larger, it would be a coffee table book, but the slim paperback format doesn't really qualify. Ms. Bosse's photographs of neo-burlesque performers are bold and colorful. These are not performance shots in low light or smoky boudoir portraits. The dancers are proudly posed outside in the sunlight in front of mostly urban backdrops. I recognize some taken in New Orleans and the desert, probably outside the former home of Exotic World. The few indoor shots tend to show the performer in a more domestic setting, but still in costume and character. It's a veritable who's who of the pioneers of the burlesque revival. There's only a short essay in the back which discusses burlesque, the revival, and the photographer. It would have been nice to have little text to accompany each photograph.

Bruce, Honey. Honey: The Life and Loves of Lenny's Shady Lady.
I first read this book as a teenager when I was obsessed with Lenny Bruce and didn't know the first thing about burlesque. Reading it again from the perspective of a performer historian was a new experience.

Honey Bruce (aka Harriet Jolliff aka Hot Honey Harlow) began her performance career as a teenager when she was hired as The Blue Bird, a topless showgirl in Miami. She lasted all of one night, hustling drinks and being groped by patrons. After a stint in prison and an unhappy, but brief, marriage, she began stripping in the girl show of a traveling carnival and worked her way to a featured dancer in night clubs. There's a great section about how she learned to command the stage from a flamboyant female impersonator. And of course that visit to an all-night diner where she met the not-yet-legendary comedian Lenny Bruce and became his shiksa goddess.

A lot of the book is a cautionary tale about drugs. Not long after meeting Lenny, they both start using heavily. Honey is in and out of jail, loses custody of her daughter, and watches her marriage and career crumble. Even a trip to Europe with her little girl turns into a never-ending quest for a fix, in which she is robbed, assaulted, and kicked out of hotel after hotel. It's interesting to contrast her story with her portrayal in the movie Lenny. I suspect the truth is somewhere between.

Not surprising for a book published by Playboy Press and subtitled The life and loves of Lenny's shady lady, there's a lot of sex, written in a soft core style, but it doesn't distract from the details of her life, and her good and bad decisions, presented unapologetically.

Cary, David. A Bit of Burlesque: A Brief History of Its Times Stars.
This is a tiny book, only about 60 pages and I suppose that for one who knows nothing about burlesque it might be useful as an introduction. Half of the book is a history of burlesque from the usual speculations about ancient roots to the present day strip clubs, although there is no mention of the burlesque revival. The rest of the book are brief profiles of the big names from the 20's to the 50's and some thumbnail information on costumes, comedy, and slang, but not much more than padding really.

If you've already read any of the other burlesque history books out there, I'd give this one a pass. Besides, it has some minor factual errors (like calling the actress who played Blaze Starr in Blaze Lucy, instead of Lolita, Davidovich) and that sort of sloppy editing makes me crazy.

DiNardo, Kelly. Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique
Lili St. Cyr was know for her elegant, elaborate stage show and her cool, remote beauty and this biography attempts to go behind the facade and decrypt the enigma of Lili. Ms. DiNardo has created a meticulously researched book. Besides utilizing numerous print resources, she also conducted many interviews with those who still remembered the dazzling dancer. She interweaves the life story of Lili St. Cyr with a look at the culture of the times and how they shaped her subject and vice versa. Occasionally the book feels padded, such as a mention that the teenaged Marie van Schaak liked to read Vogue digresses into a paragraph about the fashion magazine, or stretched, like when she interviewed an ex-husband's landlord for details on his life long post-Lili.

It's a thorough history of Lili St. Cyr, from how her grandparents and parents shaped her early life, through the height of her fame, to her death in self-imposed exile. Despite all the detail and facts, I didn't feel like one really knows or understands Lili and that she remains as cool and remote as her stage persona.

Dubberley, Emily and Fixter, Alyson. Ultimate Burlesque.
Most anthologies are hit-and-miss and this collection of 30 erotic burlesque stories is no exception. Some of the stories, while sexy, have very little to do with burlesque and some of the ones with a firmer grounding in burlesque are not so erotic. Fortunately there are more hits than misses and several stories are quite strong. And sale of the book supports the charity Burlesque Against Breast Cancer, so you can feel virtuous about buying smut.

Glasscock, Jessica. Striptease: From Gaslight To Spotlight.
Striptease: From Gaslight To Spotlight, not to be confused with Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show or Strip Tease , is a history of the display of the female form from the 19th century roots to the decline of burlesque. Glasscock does not focus solely on burlesque; nearly half the book is on other forms of tease and display, such as tableaux vivants, skirt dancing, and bathing shows. An entire chapter discusses the orientalist craze and its influence on both girl shows and modern dancers. I was a little disappointed that she perpetuated the myth that Little Egypt performed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair), but it's a pretty common belief. (I think I'll have to review Looking for Little Egypt later). After the heyday of burlesque, she discusses pin-ups and Playboy and includes an epilogue on the modern burlesque revival.

One of the strengths of this book is its wealth of illustrations. Nearly every page has a photograph or print with descriptive captions. There are plenty of pictures of the legends of burlesque: Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm, and Sally Rand are all well represented, but there are also lesser known or unknown and unnamed performers. There's a lot of inspiration here for costumes.

It's one of the staples of my library, especially when I'm looking more for inspiration than for information. It's a fun book just to leaf through and look at the pretty pictures, but the text is too good to be ignored.

iMinds. Burlesque: Pop Culture
Do not bother with this little ebook. It merely regurgitates what others have said better. There are no new insights, no interesting information. Save your 99 cents.

Miller, Neil. Banned in Boston.
Banned in Boston. Anyone who is a fan of burlesque knows that phrase. But who did the banning? Professor Miller presents the history of the New England Watch and Ward Society, founded as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, was a volunteer organization dedicated to keeping Boston, the Athens of America, clean and moral. Essentially vigilantes, the Society used quasi-legal methods to expose and punish crime, such as gambling, drug use, and prostitution. Sometimes they worked with local police and sometimes they set up their own raids and stings. But what the Society is really synonymous with censorship.

Any book, play, or motion picture that did not meet with the Watch and Ward's approval could be banned. At the height of the Society's power, there was a gentleman's agreement between them and the booksellers. Banned books would quietly be taken off the shelves and the bookstore owners would not be prosecuted for selling obscene material. Eventually the banned label was used as a selling point in the rest of the country.

There's one chapter in the book on burlesque and the Watch Ward. Of note is the system of communicating to the performers that a censor was in the house. When under scrutiny, the performers would go ahead with the Boston version, a cleaned up act, which applied to dancers and comics alike.

It's worth reading to understand the atmosphere in Boston during the Golden Age of burlesque, but the burlesque specific chapter is relatively short. Much of the book is concerned with censorship of books and legitimate theatre. I found it interesting that a play banned in Boston was produced with great success in liberal Quincy! Oh, how times have changed.

Minsky, Morton and Machlin, Milt. Minsky's Burlesque.
This is one of my favorite burlesque memoirs. It's funny, warm, and entertaining while giving a ton of information about the most famous and notorious family in burlesque. Minsky was synonymous with burlesque in New York and did that cause the brothers no end of trouble! The Minskys faced problems from cops, licensing boards, investors, fickle performers, and even other family members. Mr. Minsky is never bitter as he outlines their woes, merely nostalgic for a great business that came to an untimely end.

The book is chock full of anecdotes about some of the most famous stripers and comedians of all time. Just wait until you read about Georgia Sothern's entanglement with Errol Flynn! There's only a short tantalizing mention of the Minskys' business in Boston, alas. Every chapter starts with a short comedy bit, which makes it worth a look for that alone. As a bonus there's several pages of illustrations, a glossary of burlesque lingo, a couple of comedy sketches, and a candy butcher's shpiel.

Poston, Dick. Burlesque Humor Revisited.
This isn't a book about burlesque humor; it's a play involving burlesque humor. Subtitled A History-like Comedy Run-down from the World of Burlesque Condensed into Twelve Classic Sketches, there is a thin frame surrounding the aforementioned sketches, which the author created from a collection of 156 comedic bits. The premise is that the Straight Man is attempting to give a lecture of the history of burlesque comedy, but he keeps getting interrupted by the other performers who would rather do the comedy bits instead of merely talk about them. In between sketches, the author places notes about the history of burlesque, which appear to be the lecture that the Straight Man keeps failing to give.

Unlike most historic burlesque sketches, which could involve a whole passel of comics, these have been distilled down to just a straight man, a comic, and a talking lady, making is much more accessible to smaller troupes. Also, the entire play is done on a bare stage with just a couple of chairs standing in for various set pieces. There is a minimum of props.

Some of the most classic of sketches are presented here, such as Watt Street, Crazy House, Niagara Falls, and the immortal Who's on First. If you're interested in the comedy, skip the framing device and just get to the funny business.

Rothe, Len. The Queens of Burlesque: Vintage Photographs of the 1940s and 1950s.
Charming collection of full-page black white publicity photos of burlesque performers. Some are quite famous, like Lili St. Cyr and Ann Corio, and some have faded into obscurity. It's a great resource for costumes, poses, hair, and makeup inspirations. Photographs are presented in alphabetical order by dancer's last name.

Rothe, Len. The Bare Truth: Stars of Burlesque From the '40s and '50s.
A follow-up to The Queens of Burlesque, this book presents more photos of burlesque performers with little to no overlap with the first book. This time there are short text pieces about burlesque scattered throughout.

Shteir, Rachel. Gypsy: The Art of the Tease.
The author of Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show follows up with a work focusing on the most famous burlesque performer. Shteir's thesis appears to be that Gypsy was such a success because she promised a lot, but revealed so little: of her body, her life, and her true self. She was called a stripper who didn't strip (or sing or dance) and that made her so compelling. Essentially self-made, Gypsy teased her audiences on-stage and off with facts and fictions about herself, blurring them together. She put forth a front of educated sophistication while mocking the same.

The book is extremely well researched, but as a narrative is flat, reading more like a dissertation than a biography. I felt there was little information that were not already revealed in Gypsy: Memoirs of America's Most Celebrated Stripper or Gypsy and Me: At Home and on the Road With Gypsy Rose Lee , which are much livelier and more entertaining reads. The Art of the Tease would be more at home in the college classroom.

Sothern, Georgia. Georgia: My Life in Burlesque.
Like some other performers of note, Georgia Sothern began in vaudeville and turned to burlesque out of desperation. Stranded far from home when the dance troupe with which she was touring collapsed, she joined a burlesque house when no one else was hiring. Terrified, she danced wildly, ripping off her costume and swinging it about, trying not to think about what she was doing.

Her fast style of stripping had never been seen before and she was an instant success, catching the eye of Billy Minsky, who brought her to New York. Little did the famed impresario know, the Dynamic Redhead was only thirteen years old when she signed his contract. She managed to pack plenty of excitement into her young life -- whirlwind romances, trouble with mobsters, a shy but doting millionaire, and on-stage disasters. A few incidents stand out: Her tumultuous relationship with Errol Flynn, her debut in a Billy Rose production -- painted green!, Georgia trying to fulfill two contracts without the producers finding out.

The memoir runs from her last days in vaudeville through to opening night of Star and Garter on Broadway. Unlike some burlesque autobiographies, it's very smooth and readable (perhaps suggesting a ghostwriter). Some of the material seemed familiar, and I realized those passages had been used in Minsky's Burlesque , almost word for word, although this isn't one of the books listed in that bibliography. There's some great information about acts and costumes as well as general backstage goings on. It's frequently funny, but the humor is tempered with events no teenager should have lived through.

Stencell, A. W. Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of Bump and Grind.
As long as there have been carnivals, there have been girl shows and this history covers the early days through the decline. The many photographs illustrate all aspects of the carnival: girls in action and backstage, advertisements, posters, show fronts, and more. In the back there's a glossary for some of the carney terms used throughout book, like single-O, blow off and bally.

Some of the biggest names in burlesque worked carnival girl shows: Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, and Lili St. Cyr, to name a few. Many of the shows were big production revues with relatively elaborate sets and lavish costumes. But there was a lot of grit behind the glitz. There were plenty of cooch shows where the girls worked nude and allowed the patrons to grope them... and more. And this went on for 10, 12, 14 shows a day.

The book spotlights some of the great names in the carnival biz, some of whom are well known to burlesque fans and some who are more obscure. There's a fabulous section all about Tirza the Wine Bath Girl and the evolution of her act, with photos. And there's a mention of that girl who set her tits on fire. Sound like anyone you know? Besides girls, the book also covers talkers, candy butchers, show families, and general carnival life.