Quickie with the inimitable Jo “Boobs” Weldon
Jo “Boobs” Weldon is the founder of the New York School of Burlesque, the author of The Burlesque Handbook, and an all-around fascinating lady… we’ve been talking about doing a reciprocal Q&A for months (probably since the last time I got around to updating this blog). Mine can be found here.
And here is Jo’s:
Q: You were a stripper before you made it big in burlesque. What was that transition like? How would you describe the distinction between the two?
A: There wasn’t a huge transition for me! I had been performing at shows and at the Rocky Horror preshow before I ever started working in strip clubs, and kept doing it while I worked in them. I was a feature dancer on the strip joint circuit in the 1990s and was doing some very elaborate shows there. I actually did my first ostrich feather fan dance on stage at the Cheetah III in Atlanta in 1993. However, when I moved to New York I eased out of strip joints and into fetish work and through performing in fetish clubs found the New York burlesque scene.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your activism on the behalf of sex workers, especially your lobbying efforts at the United Nations?
I started out as an anti-censorship activist in high school when some books were banned from our library (notably, Rabelais). Later I became interested in the application of the First Amendment to adult entertainment and became involved in lobbying for strip joints on that basis. I moved to New York to live with my friend Judith Bradford, who got me to apply to speak at conferences, and I became acquainted with other people who felt, as I did, that both the government’s patriarchal view of the sex industry as harmful, and the interpretation of the sex industry via MacKinnon and Dworkin, were not the right bases for the development of legislative approaches to the problems around sex work. I also became involved with working on the language describing the definition of sex work at Beijing+5 (http://www.post-gazette.com/newslinks/beijingplusfive.asp).
Q: What made you decide to open the New York School of Burlesque, and why do you think you’ve enjoyed such success? What is it about burlesque that makes “ordinary” (read: non-performing) women respond to it?
I was asked to teach because I had a website called G-Strings Forever! that I started about ten years ago. This was originally a site based on strip joint strippers, but it expanded to show the burlesque scene. There was no such thing as Flickr at the time, and I was posting tons of photos I’d taken at shows and events, including photos from Tease-O-Rama and Exotic World. I posted links to articles about burlesque and wrote about the performers and shows. I also reviewed books and movies about burlesque, and some of my academic work was posted there. I guess people saw the site and thought of me as an instructor or something! The school developed over time as I wanted other people to teach with me. Some of them I had to really nag! Burlesque is kind of an outlaw, punk rock, outsider thing, and a lot of people didn’t want to see it codified and made academic. But I knew that if we didn’t do it, someone would. Plus, it’s as much fun to teach as it is to perform.
I’ve been successful because I’m passionate about burlesque. I’ve had no financing, no administrative help until I brought in Weirdee Girl a couple of years ago, and no space of my own–it’s been HARD. I had to just really love it–and I do!
I think non-performing women like it because they see themselves and each other doing it and enjoy that the techniques we teach really work. They can see that they’re doing it immediately, in a way that’s satisfying to experience, even if they’re not doing it at the level they’d be doing it if they studied to perform. They can see that they can amuse and titillate and delight each other, and they can see in the mirror that they look confident and glamorous and fierce. They just love it, and I love watching it happen!
Q: You’re a writer, as well. Do you enjoy writing as much as you do performing? Can you talk about your next book?
I love writing! Since the book came out I’ve been touring and promoting and haven’t yet had time to do proper work on my next project, which is a fictional story based on my experiences as a groupie in Los Angeles in the 1990s. I wrote a version of it several years ago, but I found a new way to present it that seems to me to be much more fun.
Q: In the movie and musical versions of Gypsy, the burlesque performers have a bit of an antagonistic relationship with one another. Is there any truth to that portrayal? Did you find more camaraderie in stripping or in burlesque?
There are always a few nutters, and each region tends to have its factions, but essentially, the burlesque community members all love to get into a hot tub together and flirt. In strip joints it depends on the type of club–in some they’re very friendly, and in some they’re very competitive. I’ve written a lot about this as well–what it’s like to be friends in a situation in which you’re essentially in competition for the means of survival. It’s pretty intense. But there can be a lot of camaraderie there. In burlesque I think we get more out of collaborating than the workers do in strip joints, so we tend to bond more.
Q: Some of your acts are very intricate and elaborate, both in concept and in execution; it’s amazing to watch you pull it off (no cheesy pun intended). Have you ever had a performance where everything went wrong?
Ha! To me it feels like everything goes wrong more often than not! I suppose having to have been cut out of a corset while singing was my least favorite moment. Most of us have a costume catastrophe every now and then. But losing a pastie is kind of fun.
Q: What’s next for burlesque? Does it continue to evolve as an artform?
I think burlesque has gotten big enough that many of the artists who began fifteen years ago have room to reexamine their roots. I also think that there is now room for many different styles, and there are a lot of different kinds of shows, from ones that basically serve a social function for a small number of performers and their friends and fans, to the huge festivals. I think burlesque is now better understood as an element of contemporary culture and performance. It will definitely evolve, though it may go by other names. I have been a fan of burlesque since before I knew what it was called, when I was a little kid and saw images of those fierce dancers of the 30s-60s, and I’ll still be a fan of burlesque as it’s being reinvented for new generations of performers and audiences.
One night at a speakeasy…
Arnold Rothstein—premiere bootlegger, mastermind behind the rigged 1919 World Series, inspiration for The Great Gatsby’s Meyer Wolfsheim—is easily the most creepily fascinating gangster on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (largely due to Michael Stuhlbarg’s note-perfect performance; he can intimate a murder threat through the slightest quiver of an eyebrow). And while the show has made two of Rothstein’s goons, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, regular characters, it’s neglected to mention one of his earliest bootlegging partners: Irving Wexler, a poor kid from the slums of the Lower East Side, so skilled at filching wallets from pockets it was as if they were covered with wax; hence the nickname “Waxey.” He picked “Gordon” as a surname.
Waxey met Arnold Rothstein in the days before Prohibition, working in the garment district as a labor enforcer. After the Volstead Act became effective in January 1920, Waxey asked Rothstein if he would finance a plan to smuggle whiskey into the states. Rothstein agreed, and Waxey became part of his circle, eventually working alongside Luciano and Lansky. Rothstein quickly became the master of New York City’s illegal liquor trade—the largest operation in the country, with an estimated 32,000 speakeasies—and he taught his protégés everything: the connections to the purchasing rings in Canada, England, and the West Indies; the number of speedboats they had at their disposal for smuggling purposes; the locations of every one of their storage warehouses. At the height of Rothstein’s operation, eighty percent of the liquor distilled in Canada found its way to the United States, and the Bahamas’ exportation of whiskey increased 425 fold. Patrons of both the city’s exclusive clubs and Bowery dives unwittingly drank alcohol laced with antifreeze, ether, or Jamaica ginger extract—the latter of which, when adulterated with a plasticizer, caused a paralytic condition known as “jake leg.” Everyone thought of the “jake leg blues” as an affliction among poor Southerners, but New York City had its share of victims, roaming Harlem and the Bowery in their trademark, dismal march, knees lifted high and feet slapping the pavement, toe heel, toe heel, the heel forever incapable of landing first.
Determined to take over a number of breweries in New Jersey, Waxey began warring with the Irish gang that controlled them, murdering them one by one. The breweries were technically legal since they manufactured “near beer”; their authentic stuff was produced and transported to bottling and barreling facilities via an intricate, elaborate system of underground pipes. During one raid, federal authorities discovered a 6,000-foot beer pipeline running through the Yonkers sewer system. In New York, Waxey’s web of contacts set up neighborhood cordial shops with “importer” or “broker” plates nailed to the door, a clear signal that they were “in the know.” To pick up business, these clever proprietors also slipped flyers under windshields and under apartment doors, offered free samples and home delivery, took telephone orders, and urged customers to “ask for anything you may not find” on the menu. For the weekend warriors, steamship lines operating out of New York introduced cruises with no destination at all but the “freedom of the seas.”
In 1931, when Waxey met Gypsy Rose Lee in a Manhattan speakeasy, he was 43 years old and married, with three children. He kept his family in a ten-room, four-bath apartment at 590 West End Avenue (paying $6,000 per year in rent at a time the average annual salary was $1,850) and decorated with the help of professionals, including a woodsmith who custom-built a $2,200 bookcase. Five servants catered to their every whim. His children attended private schools, took daily horseback riding lessons in Central Park, and spent summers at their house in Bradley Beach, NJ. He owned three cars, bought $10 pairs of underwear by the dozen, and stocked his closets with $225 suits tailor-made for him by the same haberdasher who outfitted Al Capone. In 1930, Waxey made nearly $1.5 million and paid the United States government just $10.76 in taxes.
Gypsy was just 20 years old at the time and worried obsessively about money—“Everything’s going out,” her mother, Rose, warned her daily, “and nothing’s coming in.” She had just scored her first big break in burlesque, working as a headliner for Minsky’s Republic on Broadway, but the days of starving on the old vaudeville circuit, eating dog food just to stay alive, were still fresh in her mind. This basement club, along a dingy stretch of Eighth Avenue, was the first speakeasy she’d ever seen. Waxey Gordon took a seat at a nearby table, joined by four bodyguards wearing green fedoras slouched down, shadowing their faces. She knew Waxey was rich and powerful and, most of all, an opportunity, and for once she bided her time, waiting for opportunity to approach her instead of rushing to seize it first.
Gypsy watched Waxey Gordon watching her, his eyes fixed with purpose as he summoned a waiter and whispered in his ear. He watched as the waiter approached her table, hoisting four bottles of champagne high in the air, and as he set them down, saying, crisply, “Compliments of Mr. W.” Waxey watched Gypsy sip the champagne and noted the realization pass across her face; accepting his gift was as much an invitation as a courtesy, an implicit agreement that he would open doors she’d be obliged to step through, locking them tight behind her, no matter what she might find on the other side.
“Thank you for the champagne,” she told Waxey when he strode over to her table, the bodyguards lined up like ducklings behind him.
He nodded and said, “You can’t tell when you’ll run into me again,” although she did, indirectly, on the phone the following morning.
The ringing awakened her and Mother, who strained to listen to the voice on the other line. “No names,” the voice barked at Gypsy. “I’m calling for the friend you met last night.” Mr. Gordon, the voice said, wanted her to visit a certain dentist at 49th and Broadway. She had an appointment the following morning to get her teeth straightened.
The dial tone droned in her ear.
“I never heard of such a thing,” Rose said indignantly, and they skipped the appointment.
That night, as Gypsy primped in her dressing room at the Republic, her costar, Georgia Sothern, tapped her shoulder.
“Gyps,” she whispered, “Waxey’s very hurt that you didn’t see his dentist. He’s got you another appointment for the same time tomorrow. You’d better go. Waxey’s all right… it don’t pay to turn up your nose at him.”
Gypsy remembered Georgia’s warning when the strange man called again, after the show. This time Rose took the call. “I don’t understand this,” she said, “but I don’t like it. My daughter isn’t going to any dentist we never heard of and can’t afford to pay…”
The voice urged them not to worry about paying, since the doctor owed the “boss” plenty. And if the boss wanted Gypsy Rose Lee to get her teeth straightened, she would do it—if she knew what was good for her.
The new caps were beautiful, Gypsy thought, and looked like real teeth—no matter that she could no longer eat corn on the cob, or that they felt like pins lodged deep into her gums. Waxey Gordon was another member of her new world, and she was still learning its language, cracking its code. When Waxey told her to keep her new teeth “brushed good,” she did, meticulously and obsessively. When he invited her to perform at a benefit for the inmates of Comstock Prison, at which Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld was expected to be a guest, she signed on right away (although her appearance was cancelled when wardens worried she might corrupt prisoners’ morals). When Waxey told her he wanted to give her a dining room set for her new home, she could not have been more thankful for the gesture. When Waxey wanted her to appear on his arm or in his bed she obliged, learning to take more than she gave without anyone sensing the difference.
“She was very involved in the underworld,” Gypsy’s sister, June Havoc, told me. “She was one of their pets, just like Sinatra… it guaranteed things, the kind of things she wanted.”
June happened to be in New York the night Waxey Gordon’s stolen furniture was scheduled for delivery. She arrived at Gypsy’s house in Rego Park and found her mother wrapped in a bathrobe, popcorn in hand, watching a “blue” movie, a quaint old term for soft-core porn. Gypsy was upstairs primping, brushing her new teeth. At 4 a.m., the doorbell rang, and a team of burly men lugged in a long, oak-carved wooden table and 30 ornate matching chairs, the grandest dining set any of them had ever seen. Waxey Gordon followed, well-groomed and smartly dressed, and his very presence crowded the room and stole all its air. His eyes turned toward the stairs, waiting, and Gypsy descended, pointing her toes and accentuating each step, an entrance meant for Waxey Gordon alone.
“I’m sorry I took so long,” she told Waxey, and then directed his men to the dining room.
Rose turned to Waxey, looking at him through lowered eyes. She smiled and spoke softly: “Well, son,” she said, “I am the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Waxey said.
She pointed a finger at June. “And this is my baby. She used to be somebody, too.”
When Waxey left Gypsy said goodbye, calling him “Mr. Gordon” and shaking his hand. He called her “kid.” Rose sighed and said, “Class. Class. No pretense, just honesty himself. In this world of stinkers, just give me a straightforward, true-blue gangster every time.”
Two years after they met, Waxey Gordon was arrested on charges of tax evasion. He sent Gypsy a letter, asking if she’d do her old friend a favor and come visit him at Northeastern penitentiary—it would so impress his fellow inmates. She agreed, but how she dreaded the slow walk to his table in the visiting room, the amplified whistles inside those thin tight walls, the leers that clawed at her back. It was a runway leading to a place out of her control, with no reward at the end. After two visits, she decided she would never go back. “It made me uncomfortable,” the stripteaser said, “being on display that way.”
Some intriguing/bizarre/fun facts about Gypsy Rose Lee
My grandmother used to tell me stories about growing up during the Great Depression, and she once relayed a tale about a cousin who saw Gypsy Rose Lee perform around 1935. “She took a full fifteen minutes to peel off a single glove,” the cousin said, “and she was so damn good at it I would’ve gladly given her fifteen more.”
So this story got my thinking: who was Gypsy Rose Lee? I spent three years researching the answer, research that included connecting with her late sister, the actress June Havoc—I was the last person to interview her—and I discovered that Gypsy, by design, was nearly impossible to know. But the following list is a good place to start:
Gypsy was born, 100 years ago this January, with a caul over her face, which she took to mean she had a gift for seeing the future. When she was a kid on the vaudeville circuit, she spent her downtime telling fortunes and reading tea leaves. One day she had a vision about a boy in the act—she saw a terrible car accident in which he was decapitated. This vision came true just a few weeks later, and she never read tea leaves again.
She began working in her sister’s vaudeville act when she was just four years old. Vaudeville was like the reality TV of the 1920s, featuring authentic talent like Harry Houdini and Fannie Brice, but also some strange and occasionally disturbing characters as well. One of my favorites was a man named The Amazing Regurgitator. For his grand finale, he had his assistant set up a small metal castle onstage while he drank a gallon of water followed by a pint of kerosene. To the accompaniment of a drum roll, The Amazing Regurgitator ejected the kerosene in a six-foot arc and ignited the tiny castle in flames. As the flames grew he then ejected the gallon of water and extinguished the fire.
Gypsy and June’s act was called “Dainty June and Her Newsboy Songsters.” June was the star, and Gypsy (called “Louise” as a kid) was a newsboy. One of their numbers featured a dancing cow. Gypsy said June always made her work the back end of the cow, but June disputed this claim. June told me: “Gypsy couldn’t dance that well.”
In order to become a legend, Gypsy had to survive her mother, the infamous “Mama Rose,” who turned Gypsy and her sister against each other, fed them on one dollar per day while she carried at least $30,000 in a bag tied around her waist, seduced men and women in equal numbers, threatened to blackmail Gypsy for every dark and secret thing she’d done before making it big, and literally killed—more than once—to get her daughters onstage. (For the record, Rose Hovick was never called “Mama Rose”—not in real life, and not in Gypsy the musical. For a brief time she called herself “Madame Rose.”)
Gypsy was, according to June Havoc, “very involved in the underworld.” June said she was one of their pets, just like Sinatra, and that she “had no shame.” Gypsy’s mother never taught her to brush her teeth and refused to take her to the dentist. It was a gangster, a top bootlegger named Waxey Gordon, who finally took care of Gypsy’s teeth, and Waxey expected plenty of favors from Gypsy in return.
Gypsy the person had a conflicted, tortured relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee the creation. For all of Gypsy’s mental fortitude and steely nerve, she was physically weak and oddly susceptible to illness. “The body reacted,” June said, “because the soul protested.” Taking just one aspirin could upset her stomach, and she suffered from severe ulcers that made her vomit blood. She adored her creation because it gave her the things she’d always wanted—fame, money, security—but she loathed its limitations, either real or perceived. She lived in an exquisite trap she herself had set.
Gypsy was desperate to be taken seriously as a writer and intellectual. She wrote essays for The New Yorker, a play that was produced on Broadway, two novels, and a memoir. While living at an artists’ colony in Brooklyn, working on her first novel, Gypsy was rumored to have had a fling with writer Carson McCullers. Each night Gypsy would feed Carson homemade apple strudel and then they’d snuggle in Gypsy’s bed. She also became good friends with William Saroyan, even though she was jealous of his talent. “If I have night lunch with a smarty pants like Saroyan,” Gypsy once confessed, “I want to spit on my whole damned manuscript.”
If Lady Gaga and Dorothy Parker had a secret love child, it would’ve been Gypsy Rose Lee. The woman knew how to make a dramatic entrance. On opening nights at the Met she would arrive in a long black limousine and step out wearing a full-length cape made entirely of orchids. She cultivated this image as a grand dame, but backstage, in her dressing room at Minsky’s Republic, she invited her burlesque friends to come watch her perform some very naughty tricks with her pet monkey.
She always had a witty quip for any occasion. When she was arrested during a raid at Minsky’s Republic, she protested, “But officer, I wasn’t naked—I was covered by a blue spotlight!” When The G-String Murders was released, she told her publicist, “I’ll do my striptease in Macy’s to sell a book. If you would prefer something a little more dignified, make it a Wannamaker’s window.” When she appeared on Johnny Carson’s show in the 1960s, the comedian announced, “Gypsy Rose Lee says she is going to take her clothes off.” To which Gypsy replied, “Why, Johnny, you know I’d never end a sentence with a preposition!”
There were no limits to her frugality. She was a true child of the Depression and itemized everything, on a daily basis, from cab rides to tips at the hair salon. When Edward R. Murrow came to interview her in her Upper East Side mansion, she accidentally dropped a hammer on her new marble floor—and then billed CBS for the damage.
During World War II, Gypsy was immensely popular with soldiers. In 1943, she embarked on a tour and performed at forty army and navy posts throughout the country. Soldiers named a stripped-down model of the Curtis P 40L Fighter A/C the Gypsy Rose Lee. By the end of the war, ten regiments had named her their “sweetheart.” During the Vietnam War, she entertained troops in Southeast Asia. By this time she was in her fifties, and jokingly said she was “sort of like a sexy grandmother.”
She was brilliant, wholly original, and ballsy as hell, but also maddening, tyrannical, and impossible. Gypsy’s third husband, the artist Julio de Diego, wrote a poem for Gypsy that concluded with these lines: “Strangled her to shut off her torrent of verbal abuse.”
While other headliners stripped off every stitch of clothing (and, in some cases, their dignity as well), Gypsy backed up against the velvet curtain, standing tall and regal and unobtainable; the audience always begged for more and was secretly pleased when she refused. She was adored by factory workers, politicians, soldiers, Eleanor Roosevelt, gangsters, New York’s literary elite and everyone in between.
When Gypsy was diagnosed with lung cancer and began radiation, she looked around at the other patients and told her son, “You know, when I look at all these people I can’t bring myself to berate God for giving me such a horrible disease. I’ve had three wonderful lives, and these poor sons-a-bitches haven’t even lived once.”