The events of Gypsy Rose Lee’s life are fantastic in the most literal sense of the word: they seem to be part of a fantasy. Because she wrote them in a memoir, they are supposed to be entirely true. But with a little additional outside reading, conflicting accounts mar Gypsy’s credibility. Of course, any firsthand account is going to be subjective. But can a memoir be true without being factually accurate?
Rachel Shteir tears some of Gypsy’s assertions to shreds—or, rather, pokes holes in them from a sadly skeptical point of view. A fantastic example of this their accounts of Gypsy’s striptease number, “Lonely Little Eve.” Gypsy recounts carefully enticing men in the house to take bites of her apple, and impulsively tossing the core to a man in a box, who leaned out too far and fell into the orchestra pit. He emerged unhurt to applause. Shteir asserts that this man was a plant. This is, of course, far more likely than Gypsy’s tale of impulse and show-lady-ship. The difference brings Gypsy’s goals clearly into focus: she writes for show, and telling a good story. Gypsy’s version is exactly what the audience would have seen. Perhaps an audience member would have concluded that the falling man was a plant, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.
Shteir doesn’t use this as an example of how Gypsy was a sham artist, though. She says that Gypsy “teased and then revealed that her teasing was just a sham” (181). Shteir actually gives more credit to Gypsy’s intellect, whereas Gypsy paints herself simply as a magnetic, irresistible stage presence. Gypsy’s story is simply mystical, while Shteir’s is logical and much more likely.
Gypsy’s memoirs are full of other stories that are much more unlikely. More fascinating than the unlikely ones, though, are the accounts of her other family members, particularly her mother. Gypsy writes of her own childhood with innocence that belies her actual feelings of the period. Most pointedly, she does not judge her mother. Mama Rose pushes her children brutally and drives a relentless publicity machine, but when writing of her childhood, Gypsy has little to say that isn’t good about her mother. Her little sister is blatantly favored, and the girls are trucked around the country living in hotels with meals cooked over Sterno cans. But Gypsy allows the readers to judge on their own.
Overall, Gypsy’s memoirs can be critiqued for inaccuracy, but I think that’s foolish. To do so is missing the point. Throughout her childhood, Mama Rose bent the truth for the sake of the show and publicity. Gypsy retained that when she grew up. And even with her memoirs, which may be rife with factual inaccuracies, Gypsy’s falsehoods are told for the sake of the show. And even though every word might not be what happened, I believe that they are true to her and her experiences. And ultimately, the objective truth matters so much less than the subjective truth. That’s what makes a good story. That’s what gives us humanity. And that is what makes Gyspy Rose Lee a legend.