Review published on July 4, 2018.
The G-String Murders is a classic pulp fiction novel. Like a lot of the best pulp, it has more truth and honesty about a marginalised lifestyle when compared to the contemporary fiction of the time, the novel was published in 1941. I think three things are relevant here: the war made murder mysteries with a humour about death more acceptable (in a strange way it was a relief from the real thing); also, serious fiction would never look at the lives of burlesque performers in this detail; and, finally, pulp got away with a frankness and even a use of language that just wasn’t conceivable in mainstream literature. Think of the lesbian pulp fiction of the fifties, practically the only place you could go for an honest view of the lives of a section of society, otherwise ignored in society.
The G-String Murders does not take itself too seriously, but it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly because of that. There are several things that make this novel both fascinating and original:
The G-String Murders is a kind of social history. Donna Moore (in the introduction) says the novel “gives us a glimpse into an alien and intimate world – a world of candy butchers, grouch bags, and pickle persuaders – where life is a struggle, and where the diamond in the rough might only be rhinestone, but it’s still worth fighting for.” The setting is a vaudeville theatre, the novel follows the story of the impresario (exploitative manager, with a soft side), the stage staff, the comedians (comedy and stripping went together apparently) and, of course most importantly, the strippers. This is an insight into an aspect of popular culture that had never been represented in such detail before. Clearly, Gypsy Rose Lee knew how to read the people around her and how to create a plausible portrait of them in her novel. Routines, attitudes and the struggles of daily life (money, boyfriends) all feature in this murder mystery. The characters are well drawn, from bitchy back stabbing and shenanigans to very human and vulnerable. It’s clear these are ordinary women and in Gypsy Rose Lee’s hands they are not being looked down on. Nor are there any rose-tinted spectacles, no veneer, no romance – no tart with a heart guff. In fact, several of the characters are actually based on real people: H.I. Moss is probably theatre manager Harold Minsky, Gee Gee Graham is Georgia Southern and Biff is Rags Ragland, all from the burlesque scene of the day.
The language feels real and dialogue matters in crime fiction. As I have said, there is an honesty here you did not get in mainstream fiction. One character refers to another as a whore (also saying the same about her mother), that language was often blanked in books of the time. The frankness is refreshing.
There is no doubt that Gypsy Rose Lee was smart enough to seek help in writing this novel, principally, Craig Rice the Chicago crime writer. This makes sense to me, although when the book was published reviewers questioned her level of involvement in the actual writing (some panned it, possibly due to prudish attitudes?). I think the dialogue and level of the detail clearly indicates it’s Gypsy’s own work, it’s an insider’s view. My guess is that the area she sought help with were plotting and pace. Pace is fine, it’s full of revealed clues, wrong turns and carefully positioned murders, with a good sense of how to foster anticipation in the reader. The plot is not so strong but it isn’t what matters, it isn’t entirely original, but if you take it as tongue in cheek, because it’s meant to be, it works fine. Gypsy says of one of the women: “Not that I object to a girl taking her sex life seriously but La Verne overdid it.” 1941 remember.
The insider humour stands out, many of the situations are actually quite depressing but Gypsy Rose Lee finds the fun in it, as people often do. When the “girls” are interviewed at the police station, as a group instead of individually, she creates a chaotic scene of over speaking and tears that is just pure comedy. But as you read the novel you never forget these are people who, just like anyone else, would rather be elsewhere – needs must.
The novel opens with Gypsy, the narrator, reflecting on the murders, she couldn’t be expected to see that the “ordinary hair pulling” could lead to murder. Theatre manager, H.I. Moss, a “little Napoleon”, sends a telegram inviting Gypsy to join the opening of his new show at the Old Opera, New York. She wanted to be an actress but $125/wk can’t be turned down (see her real wages later in this piece – Wow!). Like a lot of women she came to burlesque via “the starvation route”. The girls are badgering Moss for a decent toilet when she arrives. La Verne and Dolly really don’t get on, maybe that means something but… Gypsy is on stage when the police raid happens, she almost escapes and then gets caught in the vice-like grip of a female officer:
“I’ve been in a cyclone in Kansas, an earthquake in California, and once I was in an elevator that dropped four floors, but compared to her those things were kids stuff.”
and, then Gypsy on being knocked out:
“‘Only I do think the police could wait until I was conscious to take my fingerprints. There’s some law about that, I believe.’
The sergeant raised one shaggy eyebrow, ‘Oh, a legal mind, eh?”
(Classic sassy dialogue.)
A wagon takes them down town where they attend Night Court. The clerk registers the women as prostitutes. Gypsy points out she strips, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference. Eventually the charge is ‘performing an obscene play’. They get locked up in a cell, but an hour later they are out. Did Moss forget to pay his bribes on time? They get a slap up meal by way of apology. Moss says they are a family. The dynamic backstage is disrupted when Russian burlesque artist Princess Nirvena turns up. She wants the star’s dressing room (they don’t have one). The anticipation builds and then, when you hooked on the characters, La Verne is murdered, the first but not the last.
Reading the afterword by Rachel Shteir I was struck by two comments that combined make for an incredible statistic. Firstly, Gypsy Rose Lee was earning $2,000 a week as a burlesque artist in the mid 1930s. Secondly, she quotes John Richmond (journalist), who said, “Although it takes Gypsy Rose Lee only seven minutes to go through her celebrated striptease…” Assuming she stripped once, that is nearly $300 a night for seven minutes work (but maybe she went out several times? Just so we are clear, I’m not making a moral judgement by the way). Whatever, the staggering thing is when converted to modern values $2,000 equates to $36794.66 or an annual salary of $1.93M. Gypsy Rose Lee arrived in New York in 1931, a few years later she was famous enough to appear as the star in Ziegfeld’ Follies.
The foreword and afterword put the novel into context. The book was made into a film starring Barbara Stanwick, The Lady of Burlesque, 1943. Gypsy Rose Lee went on to write her autobiography, Gypsy, which became a very successful Musical/film. She continued to write novels and articles. Famously getting into a spat with H.L. Mencken about his lack of knowledge when talking about what she did for a living – stripping. Clearly a very intelligent woman, Richmond referred to her as the “Striptease intellectual”, he also noted “….she admits that it took her fully seven weeks to go through Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.” Have you read it?
Paul Burke 4/3
The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee
Saraband 9781910192504 pbk Mar 2017