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Mama Rose's Turn

The True Story of America's Most Notorious Stage Mother

Carolyn Quinn

Publication Year: 2013

Hers is the show business saga you think you already know--but you ain't seen nothin' yet. Rose Thompson Hovick, mother of June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee, went down in theatrical history as "The Stage Mother from Hell" after her immortalization on Broadway in Gypsy: A Musical Fable. Yet the musical was 75 percent fictionalized by playwright Arthur Laurents and condensed for the stage. Rose's full story is even more striking.

Born fearless on the North Dakota prairie in 1892, Rose Thompson had a kind father and a gallivanting mother who sold lacy finery to prostitutes. She became an unhappy teenage bride whose marriage yielded two entrancing daughters, Louise and June. When June was discovered to be a child prodigy in ballet, capable of dancing en pointe by the age of three, Rose, without benefit of any theatrical training, set out to create onstage opportunities for her magical baby girl--and succeeded.

Rose followed her own star and created two more in dramatic and colorful style: "Baby June" became a child headliner in vaudeville, and Louise grew up to be the well-known burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. The rest of Mama Rose's remarkable story included love affairs with both men and women, the operation of a "lesbian pick-up joint" where she sold homemade bathtub gin, wild attempts to extort money from Gypsy and June, two stints as a chicken farmer, and three allegations of cold-blooded murder--all of which was deemed unfit for the script of Gypsy. Here, at last, is the rollicking, wild saga that never made it to the stage.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Author’s Note

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pp. ix-xii

This book unofficially began on Broadway outside the Winter Garden Theater on the day after Christmas in 1974. I had just been lucky enough to see my very first Broadway show. It was as fabulous an introduction to the theater as any child interested in Broadway could ever have...

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Prologue: The All-American Original

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pp. 3-7

The creative team that had assembled, along with the opening night audience, at New York City’s Broadway Theater on the pleasant spring evening of May 21, 1959, had every reason to be nervous. The team was about to make theatrical history, but certainly didn’t know so yet—where...


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pp. 9-23

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Chapter 1: Resilience on the Prairie

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pp. 11-24

They were a family blessed with an inherently welcoming spirit. Their bright outlook was their main talent, and they would take it all the way to the bank in America. The family members that reached American shores first set a precedent that would influence Rose’s mother, Anna Egle...

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Chapter 2: Wild Prairie Rose

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pp. 25-31

The newborn Rose Elizabeth Thompson was given her first name in honor of Rose Egle, Anna’s beloved sister who recently had died from rheumatic fever. The name also honored Rosina Egle, Lorenze’s mother, who had been Rose Egle’s namesake—but perhaps by the time this new...

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Chapter 3: The Unvanquished Seattle Schoolgirl

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pp. 32-40

Grandmother Mary Louise Stein returned from Europe that October and stayed for a while back in Farmington, visiting all of her friends and family members and shrewdly checking on her building, which she was still renting out. She was the one who, unsubstantiated family legend would...


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pp. 41-55

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Chapter 4: Hovick v. Hovick

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pp. 43-55

Tall Olaf Johann Hovick went by the Americanized nickname Jack. He was born on August 6, 1886, in the town of Crookston, Minnesota, located on the opposite side of the state from Farmington, near the North Dakota border and close to Rose’s birthplace of Wahpeton. Both Jack and...

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Chapter 5: The Baby Stands on Her Toes

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pp. 56-70

Parents who enroll their children in specialized arts classes they wish they had taken themselves believe they are giving their offspring a gift. In 1914, Rose was only twenty-three years old. She was a young-minded twenty-three, still a bit too interested in theater and films, and she...

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Chapter 6: Madam Hovick: The Developer of Children

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pp. 71-87

It was October 1919 when the family returned to their home base once again. Back to Seattle, June “Hovig,” as she was erroneously listed in the program, was cast to play a boy, Little Billy, in a show called The Net at the Wilkes Theater. The plot centered on artists and a doctor at the Detention...

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Chapter 7: The Act Gets Curbed

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pp. 88-100

Back in Seattle, Charlie Thompson was having one of the most miserable months of his life during January 1923. First his eldest daughter, Mina, passed away far too early. Both Mina and Belle had been extremely sick with an illness that was almost certainly contagious, most likely a vicious...

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Chapter 8: Dainty Bolshevik

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pp. 101-113

Gordon had left a few times before, but he’d always previously come back. Not this time. After the latest and worst round of fights, Gordon was gone for good. Rose initially remained hopeful that he would return, an indication she had never meant the harsh words that led to his exit. The...

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Chapter 9: Half a Dozen Junes

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pp. 114-126

Rose and Louise were stranded in Kansas. Everyone else from the act was gone. Rose and Louise were reeling from the rapid-fire events of the last twenty-four hours, but before they could do anything, including think, they needed a driver. They couldn’t abandon their car in Kansas and...

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Chapter 10: Front and Center

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pp. 127-137

The experience of sleeping in the dressing room at the Club Bagdad sparked new money-saving ideas in Rose and Louise. Rose came to the conclusion that the Hollywood Blondes troupe, which was doing rather well again, could do even better, saving a lot of the money they were...

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Chapter 11: Bathtub Gin

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pp. 138-149

Those who remember Gypsy Rose Lee, or know about her from the legend depicted later in the musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable, pretty much know what happened next. She was a hit at Minsky’s, of course. But Louise didn’t stop there. Louise had become Gypsy Rose Lee, and she would never...

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Chapter 12: The Malevolent Cipher

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pp. 150-164

A family conference took place in 1935 in Gypsy Rose Lee’s Irving Place apartment bathroom. Gypsy soaked in the tub, getting ready for a party. Rose sat scrunched up on a little wicker stool. June was situated atop Gypsy’s fur-covered toilet seat lid. Rose announced that she wanted to...

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Chapter 13: Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hovick

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pp. 165-177

Twentieth Century-Fox believed that marrying Gypsy Rose Lee off to somebody—anybody, really—would enhance her image with the public. Making her over into a wholesome package was already an uphill battle, given the public’s inability to get over her past. Letting her remain single, in...

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Chapter 14: Hot Soup

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pp. 178-191

Nevertheless, Gypsy was worried about her mother. Rose was bringing a woman along to California with whom she had recently taken up romantically. During the 1930s it was always possible that Rose could be arrested for her romantic inclinations. Gypsy confided her concerns to her grandmother...

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Chapter 15: The Legal Debacle Follies

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pp. 192-205

If there was ever a daughter who did not deserve to have such an action brought against her, it was Gypsy Rose Lee. She had just handed Rose $3,900 toward her new house in the town of Valley Cottage. She also gave her mother a sizable allowance, supporting her in fine style, especially at a...

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Chapter 16: West Coast Whirlwind

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pp. 206-218

Rose had no idea that while she had been caught in the quagmire of a minor war over Patricia Donovan’s clothing, diary, and personal papers, out in Hollywood Gypsy had been seeing Otto Preminger, a cultured Austro-Hungarian movie director. He was the father of Gypsy’s unborn...

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Chapter 17: Bed Rest and Blackmail

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pp. 219-226

It was as if Belle had been let out of jail. She opened her little souvenir shop at picturesque Copalis Beach, Washington, and began making a go of it. She called the store Betty Thornton Souvenirs, since Betty was her preferred nickname. Only the immediate family still called her Belle....

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Chapter 18: One Last Laugh

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pp. 227-235

Rose wanted to reopen her Valley Cottage property as a children’s camp again, as unbelievable as that may seem. But Rose was Rose. Money was her thing, and reopening the camp would bring in additional income. Or at least, that’s what Rose led everyone to believe. It may have...


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pp. 237-251

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Chapter 19: Gypsy, A Musical Fable

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pp. 239-252

By 1957, the story of Rose, Louise, and June was on the New York Times bestseller list. Gypsy did not need to concern herself with her mother’s angst at being portrayed in print or on the stage any longer. And if, as June reported, Rose really had issued a deathbed curse on Gypsy, it didn’t...

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pp. 253-256

Descendants of the Thompson, Egle, and Herber families live all over the United States. Many of them strayed over the years from their original home bases in Luana, Iowa, or Farmington, Minnesota. Quite a few of the Thompsons now live in Oregon....

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pp. 257-260

This is going to sound astounding: I am thrilled to report that almost without exception, every person I contacted for assistance with Rose’s story came through with flying colors. Most even went beyond the call of duty. Thank you for not only assisting me with this book, but also for...


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pp. 261-306


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pp. 307-311

Image Plates

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pp. PS1-PS26

E-ISBN-13: 9781617038532
E-ISBN-10: 1621039838
Print-ISBN-13: 9781621039839

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Lee, Gypsy Rose, 1914-1970.
  • Entertainers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Hovick, Rose Thompson, 1892-1954.
  • Havoc, June.
  • Mothers of entertainers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Mothers and daughters -- United States.
  • Actors -- United States -- Biography
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