Friday, August 26, 2005

The Writing Career of Gypsy Rose Lee

Despite my appreciation of crime fiction, burlesque, and strong minded women, I hadn’t heard of Gypsy Rose Lee’s The G-String Murders until my recent read of February House. My interest thus piqued, I put a copy of The G-String Murders on hold at the library, and posted a query on Dorothy-L to see what I could learn in the meantime about Gypsy Rose Lee’s career as a mystery writer.

I was soon told that the book is well worth reading, particularly for the way it brings the backstage world of burlesque to life, but that Gypsy’s authorship of the book has long been questioned. Jeffrey Marks, whose expertise on women crime writers of the 1940’s is considerable, summarized the controversy for me as follows: “There's been a lot of discussion about whether or not Gypsy wrote her own mysteries. Her family says that she did. The literary set believes that a magazine editor did. And many in the mystery field believe that Craig Rice wrote them. I'm not convinced, but they make a solid argument for it.”

It seems to me that in February House Sherill Tippins puts this controversy to rest. Her version of the writing of the book goes as follows. George Davis, fiction editor extraordinaire at Harper’s Bazaar, encouraged Gypsy to write the book and initially he lined up a ghostwriter for her. The ghostwriter was to be Dorothy Wheelock, then a secretary at the magazine, who had already written two mysteries of her own. But Gypsy wasn’t happy with the arrangement. She rejected Wheelock’s efforts because she didn’t feel that Wheelock had properly captured the details of burlesque life. Ultimately, Gypsy decided that she could tell the story better herself. This is when Davis invited her to join the ménage of writers living in the Middaugh Street house in Brooklyn. Working closely with George Davis, she completed the first two chapters of The G-String Murders before moving to Chicago to resume her burlesque career. But she continued to work on the book, often in stolen moments backstage, and to send installments to Davis for comments, until the novel was completed. So, the magazine editor to whom some attribute authorship is likely either Wheelock or Davis. But Wheelock's work didn’t make it into the final version. And while Davis was certainly deeply involved in the creation of the book, he served as midwife rather than as author. (I got the impression that it would have been less work for Davis to write the book himself than to wring it out of Gypsy, but the latter was the course that he took.)

As for Craig Rice, she is only mentioned in passing in February House as someone that Gypsy befriended in Chicago. If I’ve got the timeline right, this means that The G-String Murders was well underway before the two women met. And if Rice took over the writing at that point, why would Gypsy have continued to send drafts to Davis for comment? Given that he had initially suggested a ghostwriter, there would have been no reason to keep up a charade for him if she had ultimately chosen to go that route.

After I'd read Tippins' account, I didn’t have any doubt that Gypsy had penned The G-String Murders herself. Several reviewers have praised Tippins’ meticulous research in February House, noting that she has unearthed copious details of a little-known juncture in the lives of some otherwise very well known writers. I admit that I didn’t pore over the footnotes. But the detailed depiction of Gypsy’s writing process certainly rang true for me.

I’m off to read The G-String Murders for myself, and also to dig up a copy of Jeffrey Marks’ biography of Craig Rice to learn more about the friendship between her and Gypsy Rose Lee.


dfb said...

hi - read the g string muders years ago and remember think it wasn't so hot - let us know what you think - last year i found Diana Atkinson's novel Highways and Dancehalls while not a mystery it was a interesteing read about sorta comtempory life as a stripper

and it was a good read


Kate S. said...

I will definitely report in when I've read The G-String Murders. I've gotten sidetracked by a few other books that are due back at the library sooner though. It's sad really, the way I default to library due dates to decided what to read when rather than following my own whims... Thanks for the Atkinson recommendation. I'll put that one on my list.

Judy said...

I am looking for the book "The House on Middaugh Street", I have seen it in the past on line and in the computer at Chapters but now that I want to purchase it I cannot find it anywhere. Do you know where I might find it?