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CARPE LIBRUM: Gypsy Rose Lee takes on a thrilling burlesque world as an author

Gwenyfar Rohler delights in a 1941 copy of “The G-String Murders.”

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

220px-G-string_murdersThe G-String Murders
By Gypsy Rose Lee
Simon & Schuster, 1941
A few years ago I found myself in an obsessive rabbit hole. It was 3 a.m., and somehow I was trying to obtain an autopsy report for Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous burlesque artist. She’s the center of the stage musical, “Gypsy,” with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. It depicts the most celebrated stage mother, Rose, and her ignored older daughter, Louise, who becomes a star—just not the way anyone expected.

My research led to a fairly sustained curiosity about the mystery novels Ms. Lee wrote, beginning with “The G-String Murders.” Now, I know if I wait, eventually, any book I am looking for will come through the book store. Lo and behold, a few weeks ago a 1941 copy of “The G-String Murders” materialized at the bottom of a box of books I was unpacking.

Oh! Wondrous day!

Sure, I have a back log of books for review, and it is pretty much impossible to argue Gypsy Rose Lee has anything to do with North Carolina. However, her book has captured my imagination. More so, the journey it has had seems remarkably pertinent in this day and age.

So the basic premise is Gypsy Rose Lee has secured a featured performer spot at a burlesque theater in New York City. In one day, two crises occur: The women decide that the toilet in the ladies’ dressing room has outlasted any semblance of usable life, and begin taking up a collection and campaigning to get it replaced. The same night, the theater gets raided by police—and the performers don’t get tipped off ahead of time to clean up their acts (i.e. no strippers, no dirty jokes and innuendo, etc.). So the cops show up and the whole theater gets arrested.

Shortly after the bust, people start getting killed … by strangulation with a G-string. It is up to Gypsy and the cast of the theater to solve the mystery before the killer—who is clearly one of them—strikes again!

It’s a great set-up, with lots of twists and turns and red herrings. The only drawback for modern audiences is Lee assumes her audience has at least seen a burlesque show. The connotations of that era, even for the time, were less than savory. I remember my grandmother, who grew up in Chicago, telling me she went to a burlesque show once, but it was “OK” because her husband took her. In other words, had she been there by herself, she would have been perceived as not a lady.

Ahem.

The book has layers of innuendo and meaning, and frequently the addition of scantily clad women in its scenes. And I adore it. Absolutely adore it! I love mystery novels, and the world of the theater is endlessly fascinating. The writing is compelling, fast-paced, and each sentence is loaded with information. Lee draws character beautifully and swiftly, all through the lens of a first-person narrator: herself.

Like everything associated with Gypsy Rose Lee, her career as a mystery novelist is complicated. Several people claim authorship of the books, including Janet Flanner and Craig Rice.  Dorothy Wheelock, associate editor at Harper’s Bazaar, even went so far as to file a lawsuit, claiming she and Gypsy were going to collaborate jointly on a project, and she owned half of the book Gypsy published. The case was settled out of court, according to the New York Daily News.

Here’s the thing: Do I like “The G-String Murders” as a book? Absolutely. Does it add a little sizzle and pizzazz that Gypsy Rose Lee wrote it? Without question. But it is still an entertaining book, even if she had nothing to do with it.

Craig Rice was an extremely successful mystery writer in her own right. Flanner wrote for many distinguished publications, including The New Yorker. According to her obituary on 27east.com (of The Hamptons), she published two suspense novels, “Murder at Montauk” (1940) and “Dead Giveaway” (1942), in addition to her editorial work at Harper’s Bazaar.

My point is: All four women were accomplished in their fields. Whether any combination of writing and collaboration took place doesn’t really matter. I enjoy reading it, period.

Somehow though, it isn’t really surprising there would be a public effort to assign the achievement to someone other than a striptease artist. Surely, the theme she would be discounted for her intelligence or her talent is the dominant theme of Gypsy’s story.

Perhaps, now more than ever, we need to examine our own class-centered bias and ask ourselves why we want so badly to dismiss her. Because the character and the author of this book are both very intelligent and capable—and sure know how to put on a good show.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Erik Preminger

    February 13, 2019 at 1:43 am

    Thanks for your review of my mother’s book. Both her mysteries are available from Feminist Press. And I assure you, she wrote all the books (3) and articles for the New Yorker (2) and the Broadway play (Naked Genius) that flopped. As she used to say, “I write my own books, catch my own fish, and Erik is my son.”

  2. Erik Preminger

    February 13, 2019 at 1:45 am

    Oh, yes. Why the autopsy report?

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