“Finding dead bodies scattered all over a burlesque theater isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to forget. Not quickly, anyway. ”
Gypsy Rose Lee never expected to make her Broadway debut bumping and grinding in a burlesque joint for forty dollars a week. It could be worse, though. The Old Opera House still retains some of its threadbare glamour, and the boss always bails the girls out right away whenever there’s a raid.
But it’s a funny thing about that raid. There are rumors that it was an inside job, that someone at the theater tipped off the cops. Either way, Gypsy can’t forget the feeling of fingers closing around her throat in the dark that night as she ran from police. When one of the strippers is found dead, strangled by her own g-string, the shabby but familiar atmosphere of the Old Opera House takes on a menacing air. Love triangles, blackmail, and long-hidden secrets are all laid bare. The show must go on, but, unless Gypsy can find the killer, so will the murders.
You know this isn’t Agatha Christie when the book opens with a group of strippers taking up a collection to buy a new ladies’ toilet. The G-String Murders is a wonderfully cynical, madcap comic mystery that provides a peek behind the scenes of a vanished world of burlesque. Gypsy Rose Lee was famous as an “intellectual stripper,” though there has always been speculation that her two mystery novels were ghostwritten. There’s no doubt, however, that Lee provided the inside information that makes this book such a treat. Gypsy’s deadpan take on the sometimes seedy, sometimes surreal, and sometimes terribly dull lifestyle of a burlesque artist in pre-World War II Manhattan is unique in the annals of mystery fiction. It is an inside job, and that’s what makes it so much fun.
The charm of the book is that it’s a workplace comedy that just happens to take place in a very unusual industry—basically The Office in a g-string. The characters may be strippers, showgirls, and baggy-pants comedians, but they still spend their time squabbling over shared workspace, organizing office parties, and worrying that a new hire is getting special privileges.
Gypsy even has a budding workplace romance with comedian Biff Brannigan. “If Biff had been in any other business and I had been anything but a strip teaser, we would be going steady, or he might have been my beau. In burlesque, romances seem to be different; we eat night lunch together.” But the endless war between Lolita La Verne and Dolly Baxter, who are both in love with the same worthless actor, provides daily evidence of how messy a relationship with a coworker can become. In such a jaded atmosphere, love doesn’t stand a chance.
To make matters worse, the Princess Nirvena comes out of nowhere to snatch the best spots on the bill. Her Royal Highness looks awfully familiar to Gypsy. “Didn’t I know you in Toledo?” she asks.
She stared at me as though I were some biped prehistoric marine mammal.
“I haff nevair been in—how you say—Too Ledo. Always I haff danced for royalty. Then the revolution and poof! It is gone. Now the Princess Nirvena throws pearls to swine.” That was her exit line. Before we could answer she was gone. Nothing but a heavy scent of perfume to remind us that she had ever been there.
The other strippers are outraged when the Princess flouts house rules requiring that net pants be worn beneath their g-strings. Her near-total nudity is an impossible act to follow. With this new offense coming right on the heels of the raid, the atmosphere in the theater becomes mutinous. What is meant to be a joyous celebration of the new toilet ends with the discovery of a corpse.
None of this is the least bit titillating, nor is it meant to be. Stripping is nothing more than a day’s work for Gypsy and her colleagues. Their impresario, H. I. Moss, genuinely believes that the Old Opera House offers “clean entertainment for the whole family,” rivalling the Ziegfeld Follies or Eugene O’Neill. Though most of his performers would not go that far, they do take a professional pride in their work that bears no relationship to its actual quality. Gypsy is quite candid in her assessments of her colleagues’ routines.
For all her big talk, Jannine was quite small. When the Columbia was the theater in New York, she was featured as ‘The Darling of the Runways.’ When you consider that the fire department made us take out the runways several years ago and that the Columbia had been torn down for over ten, it made Jannine a little old for the type of work she did. That week, for instance, she was doing “Won’t Someone Please Adopt Me and My Baby?” She wore a short baby dress and carried a huge rag doll! When she stripped the dress, the audience got a flash of diapers pinned on with an oversized safety pin. If they were insistent enough she’d strip the diapers, too, but it took a lot of coaxing. The last few years she’d been finishing with the diapers on.
All the real drama is happening backstage, however. The Old Opera House is a world of its own, a marvelous setting for old-dark-house shenanigans. The run-down building is full of nooks and crannies, including trap doors, hidden staircases, and a water pipe that runs between dressing rooms for convenient eavesdropping.
It’s not surprising that the performers prefer to stick together inside the theater, despite their bickering, given how the outside world judges them. The raid is a shocking experience for Gypsy, who is manhandled by a policewoman and humiliated by a female judge.
When she got to the charge blank I saw her write “Prost …”
“What are you putting down?” I heard myself shout.
“I’m booking you for prostitution, and don’t speak until you’re asked to.”
“Speak?” I screamed. “I’ll tear this jail down, I’ll …”
“Well, then,” she said coldly, “what are you in for?”
“I’m an actress. A strip teaser.”
“What’s the difference?” said the matron and finished, “… itution.”
This ugly experience is a stark reminder of the prejudices the performers face outside the walls of the Old Opera House, making it all the more cruel that a killer is about to rob them of this safe haven. Given the strippers’ contentious relationship to law enforcement, it’s only natural for Gypsy to investigate the murder on her own. She can’t trust anyone—not even Biff.
For a while, the murders seem like an afterthought, with the main focus being on backstage atmosphere and relationships between the suspects. The mystery takes a long time to get going, but once it does, it goes all out, with false solutions, fake-outs, and even a few locked rooms (though these are not exploited as much as they could have been, and The G-String Murders cannot be considered a true locked-room mystery). Lee is always keen to undermine cliches. Gypsy faints after discovering a dead body, in the fashion of a true heroine, only to be greeted with disdain when she awakes. “Nice thing, a big horse like you fainting.”
The G-String Murders provides a full bill of entertainment: hilarious comedy, gruesome murders, and a devious mystery plot. What makes it so memorable, however, is the detailed and matter-of-fact look at a way of life that no longer exists. Some of the indignities of life on the lowest rungs of show business could drive a person to murder, but Gypsy and her colleagues can’t imagine living any other way.
Can these really be reclaimed as feminist texts? You decide – this guy in his 40s found the book highly diverting and it certainly made for a bracing and welcome alternative to traditional backstage mysteries!
The G-String Murders is available as a paperback or ebook from the Feminist Press. There are also many used copies available.
The film adaptation, Lady of Burlesque, captures much of the spirit of the book (despite some inevitable censorship), and Barbara Stanwyck gives a pitch-perfect performance as Gypsy. The film is in the public domain and widely available.