Memoir’s Cousin

So that I can use this memoir-sharing day to talk about a biography, I’m insisting that biography is a cousin to memoir. After all, they are both non-fiction and try to examine a real life.

Where they differ is that a) biography shows the whole of someone’s life–from birth or before to death or the age the person is at the point of book publication, whereas memoir focuses on a certain aspect of someone’s life, such as coming-of-age, and b) biography is written by someone other than the protagonist, and memoir is written by the protagonist herself.

But I have an even better reason for sticking a biography in here today instead of a memoir.  I’ll tell you my reason in a sec.

The biography I recently finished is Mama Rose’s Turn: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Mother by Carolyn Quinn, who blogs at Splendiferous Everything.  You’ve heard of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque star? June Havoc, the movie star? “Mama Rose,” as she’s known in pop culture, is the mother of those two celebrities. She herself is the inspiration for the starring role in the musical Gypsy. 

Mama Rose's Turn


Even if the title of the musical doesn’t ring a bell for you, there is no doubt you’ve heard the songs before. They are classics of the American songbook.  Mama Rose herself has been played by Ethel Merman, Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Rosalind Russell, and Bernadette Peters. Whew. I am on a mission to collect every version of “Some People” I can, as it’s one of my favorite songs.

Bette and Angela are two of my favorite versions:

And then there is Liza!!!!

Anyway, the other reason I feel that this book belongs in memoir country is that part of the research Quinn used to write this book is based on the memoirs of Rose’s two daughters.  That’s right–both Gypsy and June wrote their own memoirs! And I haven’t read them yet . . . .  But I can’t wait!

Quinn believes that Gypsy wrote her own memoir.  Additionally, she wrote two novels, a play, and shorter memoir pieces for The New Yorker. 

June, on the other hand, probably had a ghost writer for her two memoirs.

Early Havoc

More Havoc

Are you wondering if you should read Quinn’s biography of Mama Rose?  Yes, definitely! What a CHARACTER (Rose, not Quinn)!!! And if you’ve seen the musical on stage or screen, you don’t know HALF the story! Actually you don’t know a lot of the story because, as Quinn points out, the full name of the musical is Gypsy: A Musical Fable. It’s only loosely based on the true story.  I won’t give away all the fascinating facts I learned about the lives of these three women, but I will tell you that I was amazed to discover that Baby June/Dainty June (June Havoc as a kid) was a super talented dancer and performing star in Vaudeville when she was young.

Recently, Carol Balawyder, on her blog, listed the three types of biographies as mentioned by Michael Holroyd:

  1. the biographer who writes about the very famous – film stars, murderers and royal family
  2. the ambitious professor who writes historical and political  biographies
  3. the literary or artistic biographer.

This book is squarely in the #1 category. The protagonist is a notorious celebrity. You’ll have to read the book to see if she deserves the notoriety bestowed on her.

Go. Read. Enjoy.


Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

30 responses to “Memoir’s Cousin

  1. Such a great job excavating the history of Gypsy Rose and the spinoffs. I love how you framed this piece via the linkage of biography and memoir. Your memoir series is remarkable. So much reading!

    • Luanne

      Renee, Rose was such a fascinating person, as were her daughters (esp. Gypsy), and it’s amazing to me that nobody before Quinn bothered to do what she’s done here–do the research and present Rose’s story in biography form. There have been so many misunderstandings of the woman and her life. For instance, a lot of people believe that Rose was Jewish. Not at all. German and Scottish/English ancestry. And the father of her girls was Norwegian ancestry. (And, for the record, Ethel Merman who first played her in the musical wasn’t Jewish either). The above misconceptions, btw, are not from Quinn’s book so much as from what I’ve heard in the past and from an online search I did. Thanks for reading and wonderful seeing you yesterday!

  2. So much info here. A fine job! I love the history of such characters.

    • Luanne

      Oh me too! The actual story of their lives is so much more interesting than a fantasy version, although I admit I love the version with music and dance ;).

  3. Wow, I had no idea Mama Rose was portrayed by so many actresses. I believe I’ve only seen Bette Midler.
    So many books…so little time! Great post, Luanne!

  4. Thank you so much for writing about my book! I had the most wonderful time researching Rose, who turned out to be even more fascinating than the character Arthur Laurents created, loosely based on her, for GYPSY. I got so many surprises while researching her!

    • Luanne

      Carolyn, yes, your book was full of surprises for me, too. What I mention here about June’s talent might seem like a “duh,” but the way the musical presents her (as you discuss in your book) makes her look like a bit of a joke, not like the uber talented young lady she was! The whole boarding house angle was so different from what I’ve heard . . . But I don’t want to give away any secrets. People need to read the book for themselves. I am fascinated by the writing skills of the daughters. That Gypsy was able to become the writer she was seems almost impossible, given her background. What you say about June’s writing skills certainly makes more sense. FABULOUS story you created, Carolyn!

  5. Reblogged this on Splendiferous Everything and commented:
    Here is a review of my book on Writer Site – by the fabulous Luanne Castle – ENJOY!

  6. To add to the mix…. The term “memoirs” (plural) can be defined as “an autobiography.” And one’s “memoirs” are not necessarily a collection of literary memoirs under one cover.

    Re: the three books you mentioned, yes they would be fun to read in sequence to get three authors’ views on some of the same matters. I was thinking, while in a bookstore the other day, that a book is something like a “mind dump.” Of course, there is a lot of work involved in shaping pose and a book — but there the book is, so small (usually) and containing so much from a mind (or minds). It’s amazing.

    • Luanne

      WJ, yes, memoirs. That is a term that I grew up with/on, in the days when famous people wrote their “memoirs,” and you got their autobiography. More cousins to memoir.
      Re the mind dump: so true. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. It’s rather like looking at a diamond and thinking of all that went into making that diamond. The picture becomes so much larger than that one diamond, but it’s all compressed right there in that one little beauty.

      • I love the diamond metaphor and have usually thought of it in connection with poetry. However, a “dump” sounds more like a first draft and a chiseled “diamond” more like a final draft. Thus, books = mind diamonds. But how about this definition of “dump”: “A copying of stored data to a different location, performed typically as a protection against loss.” This pertains to computers, etc…..but it could also pertain to transferring data from minds to books. The whole idea of loss…if you don’t render memories, ideas, etc. somehow outside the mind, they will be lost. Working with old people, I see their writings as a bulwark against obliteration.

  7. Ooh been looking for something new to read – gonna check these out!

  8. I have heard several of the ones who sang these songs- on records! I have also seen “Gypsy” once on stage. I think it would be hard to say the actress who belted out that song. It was an outdoor amphitheater with summer stock players. (Music Go Round) But loved the music and also, the story line! You have really gone overboard, beyond the expected amount of examples, Luanne! You deserve a medal for this great and memorable post. I am filled with Gypsy Rose Lee and sweet memories. I think that reading both daughters’ memoirs will be quite a treat! I wish I had more time to read! Smiles, Robin

    • Luanne

      I have CDs of a few, but I would like a CD of the others, and I don’t think they exist! I’ve never heard of that summer stock theatre. I love summer stock–so exciting for everyone concerned. But outdoor venues are tough! Thanks for your sweet comments, Robin!

  9. Lisa Ercolano

    As you know, I am a big fan of the musical fable, “Gypsy,” and have read everything I can lay my hands on about Gypsy Rose Lee. But until now, I haven’t been able to find anything definitive written about the woman known as America’s most notorious stage mom. Can’t wait to read Quinn’s book!

  10. Luanne, thank you for drawing a thread between biography and memoir. I do enjoy biographies and appreciate that you may review some. Your blog has truly given me a new respect for memoir. Way back in my grad school days when English departments started teaching whole classes on memoir, some of us (yes, I will include myself) had a bit of disdain for the memoir, treating it like the poor cousin or red-headed stepchild of biography (which we of course glorified). Most recently though, after reading Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights and Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality, I’ve become fascinated by memoir. Of course, Didion and Hitchens are/were accomplished authors but they both wrote about events that anyone/everyone might/will experience: the loss of a spouse, a daughter; mortality itself. Hitchens’s book was particularly heartrending and chilling, given that he had (in my opinion) a rather belligerent public personality.
    You are expanding my understanding and appreciation of memoir. You are also making my Wish List for books terribly lengthy as well 🙂

    • Luanne

      Marie, very very interesting comment. I am thinking back to my time at the university. I had a friend (grad student and then freeway flyer like me) who was very into memoir. She used to talka lot about it, but I didn’t pay enough attention. Not at all. For me, biography was a very difficult genre, but not literature. It was something else. Maybe part of history, I guess. It’s only more recently that I realize this is all literature and that there are connections between all these genres. I am still torn whether I think it’s good to have genres or not. I do think it helps people to know what genre they are reading when they start a good. It helps reading, really. But I don’t like articifial boundaries ;).
      I have read The Year of Magical Thinking, but not Blue Nights or the Hitchens book. Putting them on my list!! I hope I’m not causing anxiety by increasing the “Wish List for books” for readers!!

      • I agree with your thoughts on genre. Sometimes they seem to only serve to box writers in and readers miss out on something they might otherwise enjoy. No anxieties about my growing wish list (and my actual stack of books). I’d rather have too many books than not enough 🙂

  11. Luanne, with all your research and writing about memoirs you are close to getting an Honorary Degree in Memoir Writing. You will be the WordPress Memoir Expert. 🙂

  12. Pingback: A Wonderful Meeting | Writer Site

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