Had Gypsy Rose Lee shimmied her way to a ripe old age, she would of turned one hundred years old this past January 8.
It wasn’t an easy road for the preeminent first lady of Burlesque to get herself to the top of the heap when she landed top billing at Minskys’ Republic Theatre in 1931. The Minsky brothers ran a string of theatres of what would be considered by some as the poor man’s version of the Ziegfeld Folies. These were New York’s first in a string of ‘variety’ theatres that the Minksys excelled at; part vaudeville, part striptease, with a good dose of Paris’s Le Moulin Rouge thrown in by instituting the runway leading out from the stage into the seated crowd - a first for American theatres.
It was a big part of live entertainment’s growing pains following the quick demise of vaudeville and the rising competition of the talking picture. A trip to Minskys always guaranteed at least a shimmer of exposed skin and lowbrow laughs, keeping patrons queued up on the sidewalk on any given night.
Gypsy Rose Lee, born Rose Louise Hovick, knew vaudeville well, having endured hard scrabble years on the circuit with her domineering stage mother and playing second banana to her seemingly more talented curly haired younger sibling Ellen, who later changed her name to June Havoc.
At the age of thirteen, June, who was the star of their act, had had enough and ran away with a boy, leaving her mother and older sister to fend for themselves. Gypsy reinvented herself as a means to take center stage as she wasn’t really the typical beauty of her time, or the kind theatre owners looked for in a headliner. Constantly fighting with her weight, she towered at five feet – nine inches and had a pair of small breasts and an unassuming caboose. She had legs though - long and elegant in stride, and through strict dieting her teenage body morphed into womanhood. It was during this metamorphosis that she officially renamed herself Gypsy Rose Lee as a proclamation of her rebirth.
And there was something about her.
Billy Minsky noticed it when he spotted her act across the Hudson River at the Empire Theatre in Newark in 1931, where her run was starting to garner enough media attention for Minsky to raise an inquisitive eyebrow. She handled the crowds well with a coy yet domineering attitude on stage mixed with a razor sharp sense of humor. Something about her crackled, and with a little bit of grooming from Minsky, she would eventually conquer the Empire City.
Gypsy Rose Lee’s act swooned a depression-era New York and her star rose quickly within the first year of working for the Minskys. She charmed the likes of Mayor Jimmy Walker and noted columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell among many others including the literary set. It was a combination of smarts and just enough tease to keep audiences clamoring for more and she understood the power she held under the spotlight.
Prohibition was still in play and with popularity came numerous invitations to clandestine parties and passwords into the peepholes of speakeasies around town. It was on such an outing to a private party on Eight Avenue that Gypsy, with her mother in tow no less, made the acquaintance of Irving Wexler, better know in underworld circles as Waxey Gordon.
Irving Wexler’s upbringing was a far cry from the one Gypsy Rose Lee had, though both knew struggle. Lee spent much of her childhood years on the road with her mother and sister in a long string of motels, and when finances were so low they even resorted to staying in tents.
Waxey Gordon came from a wretchedly poor Polish-Jewish family on the Lower East Side and endured the tough tenement life. He earned the nickname of Waxey from some who said he was able to remove a victim's wallet 'as though it was dipped in wax', while others claimed as a kid would stick wax to the end of sticks to poke through subway grills to collect the loose amounts of dimes and nickels. Its also claimed it was as well a play on his last name
His police record started relatively early with the first arrest in 1905. He spent time as a strong-arm man for Benjamin ‘Dopey Benny’ Fein who led one of the last pre-WWI Jewish gangs of considerable strength in numbers. The Dopey Benny gang specialized in labor disputes and strike breaking during a particularly intense wave of labor unrest in New York’s manufacturing sector, especially in the garment industry.
Waxey came up through the ranks and had a considerable amount of talent for schlamming despite his unassuming size, making him an asset on the frontlines. He spent some time at the Elmira Reformatory as a result of his wilder younger and delinquent days and eventually his crooked path led to a two year term in Sing Sing, which kept him behind walls until 1916.
Upon his release he spent the next few years drifting and hired himself out as a labor goon and whatever else would come along that didn’t involve an honest moment of work. He had lost a benefactor with the leadership demise of Dopey Benny, whose place of prominence on the street had vanished and Jewish gangs had become fractured and fragmented. New rivals like Nathan ‘Kid Dropper’ Kaplan and Jacob ‘Little Augie’ Orgen’ were vying for power and control for much of the East Side with no consideration for, or want, of ethnic alliance.
1920 and Prohibition changed everything for many including Waxey. It enabled Gordon to take himself off the street and behind a desk realizing how profitable smuggling whiskey in from Canada and the United Kingdom could be. He set up a Central Park bench meeting with Arnold Rothstein to layout his plan and asked for a $175,000 start up loan. By the time Gordon eyed Gypsy Rose Lee across the room in the smoky haze of the Eight Avenue speakeasy he had banked nearly two million dollars and owned a ten-room apartment on the Upper West Side.
Gordon sent over four bottles of champagne to Gypsy’s table. The lucrative years were evident on his physique - the once trim labor slugger now had put on considerable weight due to complacency and financial comfort as he slightly waddled over to introduce himself. Whispers at her table explained that he was a big shot gangster but Gypsy thought the now middle-aged Waxey looked more like an unassuming banker than a feared underworld figure whose jacket buttons were at the breaking point over a considerable paunch. Flanked by bodyguards Gordon exchanged pleasantries briefly and offered them anything they wanted “ on the house” before tipping his hat in a departing gesture of gangster grace. Gypsy flashed a thankful smile, and Gordon seemingly winced on the inside as he turned on his heel.
Gypsy Rose Lee, despite her numerous psychical attributes, unfortunately had a set of sadly crooked front teeth. As Gordon made his exit he was rumored to have commented to those close by that she was “ a great looking broad but those chompers have gotta go”. And he made good on his word.
The next morning her phone rang and a Gordon underling who never identified himself explained that her ‘friend’ from last night had set up on appointment for her at the dental office of Dr. Sam Krauss at 1605 Broadway for 10:30 AM and that she should get over there. As a confused Gypsy Rose heard the phone click dead on the other end she couldn’t quite understand what had just happened and never showed up for the appointment.
Another mysterious but now irate phone call followed her performance that evening, demanding to know why she never showed up for the dental appointment. A bewildered Lee let her mother finally interject and saying they couldn’t afford the dental work, nor did they even know the dentist. Reassurance came from the other end of the phone line that the fee was not to be worried about and “ if the boss wants you to get your teeth fixed you get your teeth fixed if you know what’s good for ya…”.
How much of that conversation rings true is perhaps debatable as it reeks somewhat of scriptwriter scribe; but under Waxey Gordon’s insistence Gypsy Rose Lee did spend close to two weeks of return dental visits before the procedure was over. It ended up that Dr. Sam Krauss had grown up with Gordon on the Lower East Side, and his childhood friend whom he still called Irving, had paid to put him through dental school in order to make a better life for himself as Gordon’s bootlegging empire grew.
And so began the web Waxey Gordon had woven to lure in Gypsy Rose Lee and use her to his compliance and at times, human accessory, during their short years together.
She had felt compelled that she owed him by accepting his first gift of dental repair and though the murky new world she had now entered had probably left her somewhat uneasy at first, she understandably was unwilling to take a stand due to the fringe element of lawlessness.
But she was also strong, fiercely independent, and intelligent, and quickly adapted to these new surroundings and learned to use her position as an appendage within the underworld to her advantage. Gypsy was whip smart even if she felt intimidated, and read through much of the underworld façade of materialism and ego that pervaded these fedora cladded roosters.
Her fees from Minksy’s Republic had steadily risen, allowing her to buy a home in the Rego Park section of Queens. Gordon sent over an elaborate dining set as a housewarming gift. In turn, he requested her by his side at certain events as a ruse to impress his gangster compatriots - the towering jewel of burlesque and gangland’s ugly duckling. He would bed her when he felt the need and Gypsy was able to become emotionally disinvested, allowing Gordon and at times others from his circle to have their way as long as there was a possible benefit of career or social advancement as a reward.
One of those rewards were Gordon’s Broadway connections that eventually landed her a top spot in a Ziegfeld production called Laid In Mexico, though the title was eventually changed to Hot Cha! at Gypsy’s insistence. Gypsy had quit Minksys in lieu of the chance to work with Ziegfeld.
Florenz Ziegfeld had fallen on hard times, and as his health was failing by this period he resorted to borrowing money from Gordon and other gangsters in order to mount his next show. The show closed after only twelve weeks as a big fat flop.
She scoured Broadway for weeks, and in the interim lost her home in Rego Park and in her scuttle went back to work for the Minksys at a lower rate. Strapped for cash she was close to asking Waxey for a loan but the timing wasn’t on her side. Gordon’s illegal enterprises had caught up with him.
He had been on the federal radar all through the ‘20’s but lack of evidence eluded a formal indictment over and over. By the early 1930s, the sentencing of Al Capone had marked a new way of capturing gangsters with accountants rather than G-Men. New York’s Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey along with the FBI placed him on a most wanted list as Prohibition was on the road to repeal in 1933. Easily convicted of income tax evasion due to huge holdings in a variety of trucking firms, buildings and processing plants with no proper paperwork to back up his assets, he was fined $80,000 and sentenced to ten years in jail.
Even behind bars Waxey requested Gypsy Rose Lee’s company and had her come up to visit him (and impress his fellow inmates) at Northeastern Penitentiary before he was to be transferred to Leavenworth in Kansas.
Gypsy complied one last time with Gordon, knowing that she had no use for him after this visit. Enduring catcalls and whistles from inmates on all sides, she vowed to herself that this was to be the last time the two were to share the same room.
While Gypsy Rose Lee’s life had its fair share of ups and downs she did manage to build an impressive legacy and passed away from cancer in 1970.
For Irving Wexler however, ten years of rehabilitation seemed to have done him no good.
During World War II, he was caught selling 10,000 pounds of sugar to an illegal distillery during a time of rationing, and he served another year. By 1950, the narcotics bureau had built a hefty file on him and sentenced him to twenty-five years to life for heroin trafficking.
On June 24, 1952, while sitting in a doctor's office at Alcatraz, Waxey Gordon suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Select bibliography for Gypsy Rose Lee:
Gypsy - Memoirs of America's most celebrated stripper
by Gypsy Rose Lee
A Nation Laid Bare - The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
by Karen Abbott
Random House 2010