Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Burlesque Star Gypsy Rose Lee Boosts WWII Book Drive

1941 publicity photo for Gypsy Rose Lee’s first novel, The G-String Murders.
(I scanned this from an old magazine tear-out I found on eBay) 

I thought I’d try browsing through Google Books to find period publications mentioning the Victory Book Campaign (1942–43). The books and journals that appeared in the results are all very dry scholarly pieces, so on page two I was surprised to see Gypsy: The Art of the Tease. It turns out burlesque and film star Gypsy Rose Lee used her celebrity to help put books in the hands of GIs.

In January 1942 and again in January 1943 the Victory Book Campaign officially kicked off its call for donations with a series of opening ceremonies at the New York Public Library. Over several days celebrities appeared on the library steps to bring attention to that year’s book drive. Notables included singer/actress Kitty Carlisle, author Lewis Gannett, film star Katherine Hepburn, Mayor of New York Fiorello LaGuardia, comedian Chico Marx, singer Kay Thompson (future author of the Eloise series), and “strip-tease artist” Gypsy Rose Lee.

Very early in the war Gypsy was active in promoting patriotism and supporting the troops. In magazine articles she praised American servicemen and even offered to send an autographed pin-up portrait to any GI who asked for one. She encouraged women to take jobs in the war industry and participated in a benefit to raise money for an organization that provided child care. Gypsy performed at dozens of USO shows in a 1943 tour that visited forty Army and Navy posts across the country. The expenses for these shows were all paid from her own pocket. She toured military hospitals, sold War Bonds, and made appearances for the Red Cross and various other fund-raisers. Naturally, she was a huge hit with the boys in uniform.

Dust jacket for The G-String Murders (1941).
The Victory Book Campaign organizers must have been extra pleased to have Gypsy appear at their January 22nd rally. Her past career as a stripper commanded a lot of attention, but she was also successful author. She was there to encourage Americans to donate books to the armed forces, while she herself contributed autographed copies of her own novel. Gypsy had written a mystery novel The G-String Murders published by Simon & Schuster in 1941, and second book was released later in 1942.

That day Gypsy was joined by big band drummer & composer Gene Krupa and distinguished author Clifton Fadiman. When speaking to the huge crowd Gypsy showed off her sense of humor. She grabbed the script meant for Fadiman and began to read, “All my life has been spent in the world of books.” This got a big laugh (because, you know... strippers aren’t supposed to read). This sounds like a planned comedy bit to me, but some newspapers assumed it was a genuine mistake. Missouri’s St. Joseph Gazette reported that when Gypsy “saw the size of the crowd she became panicky and wanted to read from a prepared script. There was no opportunity to write anything, so she grabbed the first script she saw, which happened to be Clifton Fadiman’s.” Years later a magazine interviewed her, asking about that day. She quipped, “How would you like to stand up there before such a mob, with all your clothes on?”

Title page for the 1942 edition
of Mother Finds a Body.
The New York Public Library’s 1942 rally wasn't the only time Gypsy supported the Victory Book Campaign. In 1943 she joined several other famous women authors in a PR event. Ilka Chase, Frances Lockridge, Alice-Leone Moats, and Katharine Cornell met on February 11th to publicly donate copies of their books. A representative from the New York Committee of the VBC was there at Saks Fifth Avenue to receive their ceremonial donations. Joining her were three military men representing the Army Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines. The New York Times wrote, “All three looked hopefully at the book titles they gathered in the haul. Their pleasure was loudly expressed at the contribution brought in by Miss Gypsy Rose Lee—twenty copies apiece of her books The G-String Murders and Mother Finds a Body.” The article ended with a notice that collection bins would be left in the store’s vestibule for the duration of the book drive.
University of Chicago graduates with the famous striptease artist and author Gypsy Rose Lee, and her book "the G-String Murders." Found on the University of Chicago Library site.

There were claims that Gypsy’s novels had actually been ghost written by her editor. Later biographers such as Noralee Frankel have been able to find enough written evidence (letters, manuscripts, etc) to show that Gypsy did indeed write the books herself.


Frankel, Noralee. Stripping Gypsy: The Real Life of Gypsy Rose. Oxford University Press. 2009.

“Book Appeal Continues: Midday Rally at Library for Army Attracts 3,000 persons” in The New York Times, January 22, 1942.

“Women Authors Aid in Book Drive: Group of Them Takes Scores of Copies of latest Volumes to Collection Center.” in The New York Times, February 12, 1943.

“Literary Note” in the St. Joseph Gazette, March 30, 1942. Missouri, vol 98, no 30.

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