Ask anyone today under the age of, say, 40, “Who was Gypsy Rose Lee?” and chances are pretty good that the reaction will be utter bewilderment. “Gypsy Rose who?”
Largely forgotten today, Gypsy Rose Lee (born Ellen June Hovick in Seattle in 1911), was — and remains — a force in American popular culture not because she acted in films (although she did act in films) or because she wrote successful mystery novels (although she did write successful mystery novels). The reason Gypsy Rose Lee’s influence endures can be attributed to two central elements of her remarkable, all-American life story: first, her 1957 memoir, Gypsy, which formed the basis for what more than a few critics laud as the greatest of all American musicals, the 1959 Styne-Sondheim-Laurents masterpiece, Gypsy: A Musical Fable; and second, her career in burlesque, when she became the most famous — and perhaps the most singularly likable — stripper in the world.
On the anniversary of her death at the too-young age of 59, LIFE celebrates the young entertainer’s life with a selection of photos from Memphis in 1949.