Way back in the day, before stag dos, before Hooters and playboy, before Raymond’s Revue and Eurotrash, before your common garden pole dancing spot for boys on the razz, there were strippers. Sex has always been surfing on the crest of the social and technological waves, and when it comes to removing clothing, stripping is hardly a new thing.
The act of stripping goes back as far as history can see, from the auletrides in ancient Greece ( a class of female prostitutes that danced naked in an alluring fashion for men) through to Salome’s Dance of the 7 Veils for King Herod, and onward.
The term “striptease” wasn’t used in the modern sense until 1932, but there are actual records, rather than legends, of stripping going back at least 400 years, e.g. in Thomas Otway’s The Soldier’s Fortune, which refers to ” stripping whores”.
So stripping took off, and as social attitudes began to gradually loosen ( and by gradually I mean glacially), over the centuries that followed, the allure of naked ladies never really lost its charm. But of the many ladies who have shed their clothes for a living, one of the most famous remains Gypsy Rose Lee, an American twentieth century tease, who started life in vaudeville, with her sister June.
Born Ellen June Hovik in 1911, she was given the first of her name changes at an early age, when her mother changed her name to Rose Louise when her younger sister was born, who was given her name, Ellen. She was initially known from then on as Louise. The girls began appearing in vaudeville to support the family after their parents divorced, and in this, surprisingly, Louise remained in the background, overshadowed by the talents of the younger June.
When June eloped at the age of 15 in December 1928 with a dancer, much to their mother’s displeasure, Louise didn’t have the singing and dancing talent to continue the act alone, but it became obvious that she could make money in burlesque. One night a shoulder strap on one of her gowns gave way, causing her dress to fall to her feet despite her efforts to cover herself; encouraged by the audience response, she went on to make the trick the focus of her performance.
Her innovations were an almost casual strip style compared to her contemporaries (she emphasized the “tease” in “striptease”), and she brought a sharp sense of humor into her act as well.She became as famous for her onstage wit as for her strip style, and – changing her stage name to Gypsy Rose Lee – she became one of the biggest stars of Minsky’s Burlesque, where she performed for four years. She was frequently arrested in raids on the Minsky brothers’ shows.
Although she dallied briefly with Hollywood and made 5 films, her acting sadly didn’t cut the bill, so she returned to New York and appeared in the Star and Garter Musical revue, whilst having an affair with the producer.
During her life she married and divorced 3 times, and whilst working, both Gypsy and June received demands for money from their mother, who ended up running a boarding house, and allegedly shooting one of her guests, who was also a former lover. Their mother was never prosecuted, and after her death, free from the threat of a law suit, Gypsy wrote her memoirs, entitled Gypsy, which inspired the musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable.
In later life, Gypsy Rose Lee went on to host a morning San Francisco KGO-TV television talk show. She was a supporter of the Popular Front movement in the Spanish Civil War and raised money for charity to alleviate the suffering of Spanish children during the conflict. She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain’s Civil War. She also became a fixture at Communist United Front meetings, and was investigated by the House Committee on un-American activities. The walls of her Los Angeles home were adorned with pictures by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Dorothea Tanning, all of which were reportedly gifts to her by the artists themselves.
After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1969, which she said was a “gift” from her mother she died in 1970, and was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery, in California.
She earned a reputation and legendary status as a classy and witty striptease artist during her early years, and although it’s over 70 years since she first entered burlesque, she is still remembered as one of the greats, and a pioneer for daring ladies of the stage.