Thursday, March 20, 2014

The G-String Murders, Gypsy Rose Lee

When The G-String Murders (1941) hit the bookstore shelves, Gypsy Rose Lee, then only 28 years old, shined as the brightest start in burlesque. The book promised not only a titillating look backstage but also an exciting murder mystery.

As Sherrill Tippins explains in February House (2005), "Lee decided to "write a murder mystery set in the world of burlesque.... The murder weapon would be a chorus girl's G-string. She would call the book The G-String Murders. She was sure it would make a fortune and enhance her reputation as an "intellectual stripper" -- if she could only get it written."

Karen Abbott in American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, the Life and Time of Gypsy Rose Lee (2010) points out that in 1940 Lee moved into 7 Middagh Street in New York city "with some of the most important writers and artists of the time: Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Chester Kallman, and George Davis, the openly gay fiction editor of Harper's Bazaar and an old friend -- the only one who knew her before she became Gypsy Rose Lee."

Tippins says:
Lee read the stack of murder mysteries that [her editor Lee] Wright recommended, met with Craig Rice, a Chicago beat reporter and best-selling female mystery writer who soon became a close friend, and bought herself a new typewriter ("I thought the blue ribbon was sexy"). Then she got back to work.

The trouble was, Gypsy didn't know how to write a novel.... [She hired] Dorothy Wheelock to write a first draft. But Gypsy found that no matter how hard Dorothy worked, the material failed to satisfy her. It was obvious to the younger writer -- and finally clear to Gypsy as well -- that calling herself an author wasn't enough. She wanted to write the book as well.

George suggested that Gypsy begin by simply dictating some of her favorite stories to him. As she talked, he typed her words on [an] old typewriter....
After much discussion, they decided to approach the book like a jigsaw puzzle: first write down all of Gypsy's anecdotes, character descriptions, and entertaining burlesque details, then arrange them into a rough story line.

If the action threatened to slow down, Gypsy could always sprinkle a few professional terms into the dialogue, such as "pickle persuader," "grouch bag," and "gazeeka box."

[Gypsy believed] that any publicity was good publicity. So the creation of a "literary Gypsy" spurred her to finish her book more quickly, before the public grew tired of the idea.

Gypsy and George, no strangers to the publicity machine, had systematically amassed all the forces of book promotion to ensure its success. By winter, The G-String Murders had become the biggest-selling mystery since Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man.
Unfortunately, Lee's lack of familiarity with the genre makes for a pretty dull mystery with an overly complicated solution. The peek backstage, however, makes the book well worth reading.

Here's a long excerpt that I think shows off Lee's literary skill quite well. If this were a scene from, say, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust undergrads would be still be puzzling over the symbolism. A Chinese waiter gives Gypsy a ginseng root, and tells her that “it only grew under the gallows where men had died,” and that “if I ate it I’d live forever.”
The girls gathered around [Gee Gee] as she broke the seals. The first one was brittle and snapped off easily. The second she had to pry off with a nail file.

I suddenly wanted to get out of the room. My common sense told me that my fears about the box were stupid and childish, but I couldn’t help it. I was frightened. “What if there is one flower in it?” I thought. “One flower that would disappear like dust when the air hit it.” Then there would be a sickening sweet odor, bitter almonds maybe, and before we knew what happened, we would be dead.

She had removed the lead foil and held up a tin box for the curious girls to examine. The tin box was also sealed. Great chunks of brick-red wax were on either side.

I wanted to stop her, but already she had begun to lift the top. There was no flower, no needle dipped in poison, no bomb; just a cotton-lined box with two long, dried roots embedded in the fluff. The roots were tied at the top with a piece of cord.

It was by this cord that La Verne lifted the gift from the cotton. She held it for a second a watched it sway back and forth. “Look! It’s shaped like a man,” she said.

Alice shivered. “Ugh. It’th dithguthing. Put it back in the box.”

La Verne still stared at it, her green eyes wide and glistening. “Not so much like a man,” she whispered. “More like the skeleton of one.” With a cautious finger she touched the bleached, bonelike root. The pupils of her eyes dilated. She pushed the root and set it in motion again. Her heavy breathing was the only sound in the room.
Two daggers out of four.

1 comment:

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