Gypsy Rose Lee, or Rose Hovick as she was originally named, was the product of a driven stage mother. Rose was born in 1911 and her sister June followed a year later. After the girls’ parents were divorced, the two youngsters were made to perform on the vaudeville stage to support the small family.
Rose and June’s mother is said to have had a variety of forged birth certificates for the girls to circumnavigate any laws that might be in place as they toured regarding child employment regulations.
This lasted until June was fifteen. The girls’ double act was broken up when June ran off with a fellow dancer. Rose’s skill weren’t enough to support herself and her mother in a solo dancing act – the result was that she went into burlesque, this being a somewhat more saucy and risqué section of the theatrical world.
She soon became known as a stripper – but one with a difference. She did not merely remove her clothing, she was also known for the comedy aspect of her patter during her act. It was evident that her intelligence had intended her for more than mere stripping. Unfortunately, her background hadn’t.
But like so many young hopefuls of the day she found herself in Hollywood. She made five films but wasn’t critically acclaimed.
Gypsy Rose Lee and Otto Preminger
Rose had a torrid, but unsuccessful, affair with impresario Mike Todd. (Who later married Elizabeth Taylor).Todd was fine with the affair but wanted to take it no further so Rose started dating another man, named Bill Kirkland. He too had recently had an unsuccessful love affair. Rose issued Todd with an ultimatum – if he didn’t leave his wife and marry her, she would marry Bill Kirkland. Duly, Rose became Bill’s wife, but it didn’t last and the papers were filed for divorce.
Gypsy decided she wanted a child
Flings and affairs weren’t giving Rose the fulfillment that she needed. Calmly and deliberately, she decided that she wanted a child without the inconvenience of a husband. In searching for a suitable father, she came across Otto Preminger, the illustrious theatre and film producer.
Preminger was married but Rose embarked upon a short affair with him specifically, it is said, to conceive his child. The conception had been carefully timed though. Her divorce from Bill Kirkland was not yet final and Rose wanted her baby to be considered legitimate.
Bill Kirkland agreed to play the game. He decided to lie and claim that the baby was his own. This protected Rose’s reputation but it became rather suspicious when the now-divorced Bill married on the same day that Rose’s son was born. However, it was just seen as him being ‘heartless’ at the birth of ‘his son’ by his ex-wife.
Rose named her son Erik and she eventually informed Otto Preminger of the truth and that the child was his. Preminger wanted to provide financially but Rose didn’t want this. She made him promise that she would not interfere with the boy’s upbringing and would keep the fact of his paternity completely secret. Reluctantly, he agreed.
Erik discovers his real father
Erik grew up believing, as did everyone, that his father was Bill Kirkland. By the time Erik was sixteen, he was independently living in an apartment in Rose’s house. When she refused to help him with a car purchase, Erik turned to his ‘father’.
Bill had since divorced and married again and decided, on advice, to let Erik know that he wasn’t his biological father. Erik was stunned and had a heated discussion with Rose. He knew about his mother’s previous affair with Mike Todd and assumed that it had been Mike who was his father.
Rose at first refused to tell Erik the identity of his father. After heated words, she relented. But she had one condition – she wanted Eric to promise that he would make no attempt to get in touch with his biological father. At this, Erik was stunned:
Mike Todd had died in an air crash two years previously
Rose was forced to let Erik know who his father was but held him to the promise that he wouldn’t contact him. Erik did tell his supposed half-sister (Bill Kirkland’s daughter) though. By one of those long friends-of-friends chains of circumstance, Preminger became aware of this. He begged Rose to let him contact his son. Eventually Rose relented, on the condition that the relationship wasn’t made publicly known and in 1963, Preminger finally met his son.
Rose died of cancer 1970.
When Erik left the army, he had by now developed a close relationship with his father and went to work for him. In 1971, he recalls:
“We got into the habit of keeping it secret and one day we were walking down the street when someone greeted Otto and said ‘This must be your son’. After that, we just said ‘what are we doing?’
Otto officially adopted Erik the following year.
This is just one story from Gypsy Rose Lee’s fascinating life, taken from the book you see above. You’ll find the book on Amazon here
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