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Born Louise Rose Havoc on January 8, 1911, in Seattle, WA, Gypsy Rose Lee was an American icon known for her career as a burlesque performer, actress, and author. Despite having no formal art training, Lee became an influential figure in the art world, with her works showcased alongside those of prominent artists like Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Marc Chagall.
Growing up, Lee received little education; her sister was a child actress, and the family traveled the vaudeville circuit. She eventually attended a boarding school in New Canaan, CT, and enrolled in a theater school near Minneapolis in 1924. Lee was hired by Minsky's Republic Theater on 42nd Street in New York at the age of 20. By January 1932, she joined the Ziegfeld production to become an actress, a shift from her earlier burlesque work.
During World War II, Lee performed in New York City, including the 1939 World's Fair at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Through George Davis, she met several influential figures, including Benjamin Britten, painter Pavel Tchelitchew, poet W.H. Auden, and novelist Carson McCullers. Lee attended parties at Ernst and Guggenheim's home, where she socialized with artists like Marcel Duchamp and composers such as Virgil Thompson and John Cage.
In a career that spanned a wide range of artistic mediums, Lee starred in everything from Hollywood movies to Broadway productions to strip-tease acts. Offstage, Lee had several relationships, including marriages to Edwin Bruns, Arnold (Bob) Mizzy, William Alexander Kirkland, and Julio De Diego, as well as notable affairs with Rags Ragland, Mike Todd, and Otto Preminger.
As a collector, Gypsy Rose Lee acquired works by prominent artists like Marc Chagall and Georgia O'Keeffe. Her plate collection was exhibited by the Berkshire Museum and the Museum of the City of New York. She also bought drawings from tattoo artists Charles Wagner and John Bonzles. Her own work, known today only as “Self-Portrait” (1942), was featured in the Exhibition by 31 Women. Gypsy Rose Lee's artistic accomplishments, coupled with her influential social circle and unique career path, made her a prominent figure in the art world and beyond.
Gypsy Rose Lee passed away on April 26, 1970, in Los Angeles, CA. Survived by her son, Erik Lee Preminger, her legacy lives on through the Gypsy Rose Lee Archives at the New York Public Library Performing Arts Library, and her unique life story continues to captivate generations.