Review: Fierce

Dear Constant Reader,

One of the other assignments for The House of Knyle mentorship was to write an essay on Jo Weldon’s new book. Since I’d been intending to review it anyway, this was a good incentive to do it sooner rather than later. As with the essay on Sally Keith, I’ve tweaked the writing just a little here and there from the essay I submitted to Egypt.

Fierce: The History of Leopard Print by Jo Weldon (2018).

I remember my first leopard print. I was shopping for a sun hat and Scratch pointed out one with a lovely wide brim, painted with leopard spots. I said no, “I don’t think I’m a leopard print kind of girl.” He pointed out that I might be a leopard kind of girl, but I wouldn’t know unless I tried it. I’ve been wearing that hat ever since. And more leopard print followed. I’m got a wardrobe-full and still love this fierce pattern. I’ve been awaiting the publication of Jo Weldon’s book on the history of leopard print since she first started presenting her lectures on the subject.

Fierce: The History of Leopard Print is a look at fashion and society through the lens of leopard print. The viewpoint is a feminist one, a fine way of seeing a fashion choice generally considered the purview of women. As the title suggests, wearing leopard print is a bold decision that reflects the personality of the women wearing it.

The fashion for the fur of spotted cats starts in prehistory and for millennia represented power. As a human was draped in the skin of the cat, its fierceness of the cats was transferred to the wearer in a form of sympathetic magic. The book skims the appearance of leopard print in several centuries before reaching the focus of the book – the twentieth century. The next several chapters are a thematic look at each decade and the meaning of leopard print at the time.

I loved seeing how the attitude toward leopard print changed with the decades. I was particularly struck by contrast of the chapters “The Trophy Wife” and “The Bad Mother”. In a short span of time, leopard print signified polar opposites in woman – privileged and obedient versus seductive and rebellious. We see how leopard print moved up and down the fashion scale over the years, from powerful to tacky to campy to sexy to playful and back again. I particularly enjoyed the analysis of the meaning of “tacky” and how something once considered prestigious could fall to being dismissed by the elite.

Fierce is lavishly illustrated, as a fashion book needs to be. The photographs show leopard being worn by movie stars, supermodels, and ordinary women, and in advertisements, catalogs, and other photos. I know how hard it is to get the rights to images so I’m very impressed with all the gorgeous picturesshe was able to use. This book wants to be enjoyed in full color. The writing is excellent, but the impact would be lost without the images.

The history of this fashion is bookended with information about the big cats whose fur inspired this all. At the start the reader is introduced to the spotted cats and their markings, so you can tell if you’re wearing leopard print or if it’s actually jaguar. The book wraps up with some organizations that are helping big cats, if you want to get involved in preserving these beautiful creatures. Because of Jo I’ve been a supporter of Panthera for several years now.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in fashion history, in feminism, or in big cats. This enjoyable and informative read is a celebration of fierce creatures — female and feline alike.

M2These writings and other creative projects are supported by my Patrons. Thank you so much! To become a Patron, go to my Patreon page.

Published in: on 6 February 2019 at 3:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review: Feuding Fan Dancers

Dear Constant Reader,

I know it’s been a long time (a year!) since I gave you a new book review. Here’s one for a brand-new, hot-off-the-presses book.

Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl by Leslie Zemeckis (2018).

I’ve enjoyed Leslie’s previous books (Behind the Burly-Q and Goddess of Love Incarnate) and this one is just as good. Her writing is very accessible and she brings these long departed people to life. The history of burlesque, at best a niche art, could be so easily lost and I’m glad these engaging books are capturing precious bits of information and bringing them to a wider audience.

We all know Sally Rand as the most famous fan dancer of all time. But was she the first? Faith Bacon, a beautiful, but fragile showgirl, seems to have originated the feathered tease. Zemeckis follows the lives and careers of both women through triumph and catastrophe. In a simple summation one could say that Faith had a tragic life, overshadowed by the successful Sally, but there is more to the story.

Faith Bacon was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time and her daring suggestion that she use fans to cover her nude body should have cemented her place as a star on stage. Sadly, drug addiction, poor choices, and plain bad luck dragged her into obscurity and a short life. Sally Rand, less attractive but more vivacious, by determination and ambition, made the fan dance synonymous with her name.

You can see to the right a souvenir lamp from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair from our collection. It’s just labeled “The Fan Dancer”, but is always identified as Sally Rand, despite the fact that both women performed at that event. One could say Sally had the success story, as she had a long life, performed for most of it, and is remembered today, but she had her share of hardships. She was constantly performing because she was chronically running out of money.

Although the fan dance has become a staple on the burlesque stage, neither woman would have considered herself a burlesque performer. They didn’t strip, but used the fans to conceal and tease. Faith was a showgirl, performing for Ziegfeld and Carroll, while Sally, after struggling in Hollywood, found her place performing at World Fairs and Expositions.

Telling two stories in alternating chapters is a challenge for a writer and sometimes feels forced (I’m looking at you, Thunderstruck) but these two women did have lives that ran in parallel, met, intertwined, and ultimately diverged. Since more than century has passed since the birth of the feuding fan dancers there were fewer eyewitness accounts that in the author’s other two books, but she fleshed out the stories with many other sources. If you love the fan dance or burlesque history in general, this is a must read.

Just for fun, here I am with the author at her book event in Cambridge.

Leopard-print forever!

M2These writings and other creative projects are supported by my Patrons. Thank you so much! To become a Patron, go to my Patreon page.

Published in: on 5 December 2018 at 3:33 pm  Comments (1)  

Book Review: April Unwrapped

Dear Constant Reader,

Every once in a while I receive a request to review a book or film. I’m always happy to do so!

April Unwrapped: My Naked Dreams Revealed by April Brucker (2017)

April Bucker is an actress and comedienne, not a burlesque performer, but her book addresses being naked in public. Everyone has had that dream of being naked in a public place, whether it’s in the classroom, the boardroom, or on the subway. In April’s case, her nightmare was being naked on the stand-up stage. In reaction to that bad dream, she created April Unwrapped, in which she faces her fear by being naked in the pages of a book.

In the tradition of the pin-up calendar, April presents more than a dozen photos of herself, naked, each one themed for a month. She’s not actually naked, but coyly covered with an item or two, appropriate to the theme. The effect is more cute and a touch campy than it is provocative (although the creamy “bikini” of August was more revealing than most of the other months).

Each photo is accompanied by a short message, relating her dream to the reader. In May, where she holds a vase of yellow roses in front of her crotch and a single rose across her breasts, she writes “I dreamed you planted my May flowers. Au Revoir! April”. It reminded me of the old ads — “I dreamed I argued before the Supreme Court… in my Maidenform bra!” only without the bra.

As I said above, April is not a burlesque performer, so taking off her clothes for an audience isn’t a common occurrence for her. She’s also not a pin up model and she employs none of the glamourous artifice of that profession. She’s truly unwrapped, naked and exposed before our eyes. This is art created to confront a fear and make a statement, not to seduce or entice.

As a book, it’s a little thing and I think it might have worked a little better as a calendar. I would have like to have seen more of April’s creative concepts, untethered by the constraint of the monthly theme. It’s a charming collection, nonetheless, and is both amusing and brave.

If you, Dear Reader, have a book, film, product or anything else you’d like me to review, please drop me a line.

M2These writings and other creative projects are supported by my Patrons. Thank you so much! To become a Patron, go to my Patreon page.

Published in: on 2 November 2017 at 3:20 pm  Comments (2)  
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Review: Growing Up Naked

Dear Constant Reader,

Scratch got me a copy of Burlesque West: Showgirls, Sex, and Sin in Postwar Vancouver for the holidays, but that’s not the book I’m reviewing. I’ll get to it. Eventually. Early in the book, the author mentioned a book I’d never heard of, I was intrigued, and found a copy. And here it is.

Growing Up Naked: My Years in Bump and Grind by Lindalee Tracey (1997).

Lindalee Tracey began stripping, underaged, in an unspecified Canadian city in the 1970s, a transitional time for burlesque. She worked at Eden with angry, artistic Emma, Ruby who would spread, elegant Yvette who was once on a bill with Lili St. Cyr, and beautiful, bitter Sugar. She discovered the joy and power of dancing on the club stage. She also dealt with backstage jealousies, sleazy management, and a trial for lewdness. After being forced into a humiliating publicity stunt, she left Eden to tour in the U.S. There she discovered some unfortunate truths about Americans, in the industry there and in general.

She returned to Canada in time for the Olympics and found a home in Montreal at the SexOHrama. Some of her colleagues from Eden had also made the move, but their lives and fortunes had diverged from hers. After a while, she began drifting away from stripping to concentrate on her writing. Before she left the business entirely, she founded the Tits for Tots strip-a-thon, which raised both money for a local children’s hospital and the esteem of the participating strippers. Her final project before leaving stripping entirely was to be involved in a feminist documentary, which didn’t quite go as she’d hoped.

Her writing borders on poetic (not surprising, since she also wrote poetry). It’s all present tense, which gives it a sense of immediacy, but it has a misty quality of looking backwards as well. Unlike some other burlesque memoirs, she often looks inward and describes her feelings and emotional experiences, not just events and actions. Her story is interspersed with letters from some of her fans and her own poetry.

One of the aspects I found interesting was the changes in burlesque during the author’s career. When she started in burlesque, features (strippers) were still performing 20 minute sets. Early in her career the author muses on themes and songs for an act. Also, the features never mingled with the audience. It was go-go dancers who hustled drinks for tips. Periodically the go-gos would come on stage for a “paltry” three-song set. Then the go-gos were being brought on stage en masse for what became known as “the meat market”. The features were trying to compete with twenty girls at once (many of whom would “spread”) but also with porn movies being shown in the clubs. Once table dances were introduced, some strippers chose to step down in status to become a go-go for the increase in income via tips. You can see the evolution into the present day strip club.

It’s clear Lindalee loved stripping and what it had been when she started. She felt it made her more, bigger, stronger. She fought constantly against being diminished and demeaned by her employers, the audience, and others who wouldn’t see the power the performers had on stage. When she left, striptease had changed completely and she mourned the loss of what it had been.

Besides her published writings, Lindalee Tracey also made films. At some point, I’ll review her documentary The Anatomy of Burlesque.

I filmed myself reading a short passage from this book, but only my Patrons can see the video. The rest of you will have to content yourself with this photo.

M2These writings and other creative projects are supported by my 7 Patrons. Thank you so much! To become a Patron, go to my Patreon page.

Published in: on 12 July 2017 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: Always Something Doing

Dear Constant Reader,

Another book review from the archives! I originally wrote this review years ago on another platform. I should get back to my current books to review, but this was low-hanging fruit, so to speak.

Always Something Doing: Boston’s Infamous Scollay Square by David Kruh (1999).

Boston has a reputation (rightly so) for being full of Puritans and blue-noses. And, right in the heart of the city was a hotbed of low past-times and pursuits. Always Something Doing (the motto of the Old Howard) is a history of Scollay Square from its very beginnings to the 20th century. Although the square as a location existed before the American Revolution, it didn’t get its famous name until 1838. The Charlestown trolley line that stopped in front of the Scollay’s Building had been using that as the unofficial name of the area.

Although Scollay Square is remembered for seedy entertainment (think of it as the Times Square of Boston), it was a respectable and ritzy area until the mid-19th century when the Brahmans fled for the newly created Back Bay and the Square became more commercial and affordable for the majority of Bostonians, including the influx of Irish immigrants. Besides being a major shopping district, it was full of restaurants and entertainment, including the famed Howard Atheneum. Despite hosting the first American performance of Giselle and other highbrow performances, by the end of the Civil War the Old Howard was presenting more popular entertainment at lower ticket prices.

By the 1920’s Scollay Square was well known as a haven for burlesque. Many of the biggest names, including Ann Corio and Georgia Sothern, played the Old Howard and Sally Keith, tassel twirling queen, was a standard at the Crawford House. Boston had such a great history of burlesque and I’m proud to be a part of that now.

But there’s more than just burlesque to Scollay Square. The book is full of vintage photographs and anecdotes from those who remember the Square well. I was particularly amused by the poor sailor who woke up after a drunken night in the Square to discover a pink elephant tattooed on his butt. Boston has never had another haven for sailors since the Square was demolished.

Scollay Square fell pray to urban renewal when it and the entire West End of Boston were razed in the early 1960’s to make way for the new City Hall and other government buildings. This plan had the side effect of creating the much deplored Combat Zone.

It’s clear the author’s sympathies are with the long-gone lively, sleazy neighborhood of cheap eats, burlesque theatres, tattoo parlors, and photo studios, than with the stark, soulless Government Center that replaced it.


Published in: on 26 January 2017 at 2:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: Lady of Burlesque

Dear Constant Reader,

Lady of Burlesque: The Career of Gypsy Rose Lee by Robert Strom (2011).

This was a gift from one of my Adoring Fans who indulged me in something from my wish list.

I’ve already read a number of books* on Gypsy Rose Lee and wondered what new information I could possibly glean from this, but it wasn’t the expected biography. Mr. Strom presents a year-by year timeline of Gypsy’s career, from 1930 until her death in 1970. He cites his sources (a newspaper article, a contract, &c.) and frequently quotes entire articles. The book is peppered with photographs, some I’d not seen before. The book is rounded out with appendices, like a discography, productions of Gypsy, and more.

Not what I would call a gripping read, but a fine reference book.

M2 *American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose, Gypsy Rose Lee, Writing & Stripping, Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy and Me: At Home and on the Road With Gypsy Rose Lee, Mama Rose’s Turn: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Mother, Gypsy: The Art of the Tease, and of course, Gypsy: Memoirs of America’s Most Celebrated Stripper

Published in: on 12 January 2017 at 3:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review: Queen of Hearts

Dear Constant Reader,

The Queen of Hearts – The Life and Times of a Golden Age Burlesque Star by Sandy McQueen (2014).

Sandy McQueen was a burlesque performer in the 1960’s & ’70’s, what she calls the “Golden Age”, predominantly on the West Coast. She got her start in the Bay Area as a teenager. She tried to get a job as a cocktail waitress, since the trays were lighter and the tips were better than the drive-in where she had been working, but a club owner through she’d be better on stage.

In the very early ’60’s, she played both Alaska and Hawaii, and loved them both. Her first engagement in Alaska was Kodiak Island, which had just suffered a massive earthquake and tsunami. In fact, the town was under martial law and she couldn’t work for two weeks. Later, she went to Fairbanks which involved more than three solid days of driving though the wilds of Canada.

In Hawaii, she was asked to go on to Japan and the prospects sounded great — a 20-piece band and 3 shows a night. Then she was told by someone in the know that the musicians didn’t speak English and the shows were at 3 different theatres, each a 200 mile train ride apart. The Shinkansen high-speed rail did exist by then, but still. This reminds me of a story I was told by a Legend that she was offered work in Japan, which would also involve shows at several clubs over the course of a night (*sixteen* she said), but she would be transported on the back of a motor bike. Needless to say, Sandy turned down the offer.

I was particularly delighted that she ended her career in Boston’s Combat Zone. She worked at The 2 O’Clock Club on Washington St. from 1975 until it closed, when she moved to the Mouse Trapp [sic] and then The Piccadilly Club. Her descriptions of working in the Zone were worth the price of the book for me. You can see a little of what it was like in “…A Kind of Life.”: Conversations in the Combat Zone. I think some of the performers Ms. McQueen mentions are portrayed in the book.

Most of the section on Boston are sketches of the performers and club employees. She differentiates between “dancers” and “walkers”. Walkers did just that — walk up and down the stage and strip — and they were rarely features. Unlike some clubs, at The 2, performers didn’t have to mix if they didn’t want to. There were mixers who didn’t always perform, just hustled drinks. There a mention of “Heidi Jo” (Hedy Jo Star), who made wardrobe for most of the performers. Sandy writes that she still has a set of body jewelry, including a metal bra and g-string, made by Hedy Jo’s husband.

In 1979, Sandy McQueen retired from burlesque and moved to New Hampshire.

The most refreshing thing about this memoir is that Sandy looks back without rancor or bitterness. Occasionally, she regrets the way a relationship ended or that something was stolen from her, but for the most part, she doesn’t complain about what might have been or should have been. She treats the years as a grand adventure and her enthusiasm makes the memoir so fun to read.


Published in: on 7 December 2016 at 3:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book Review: Behind the Burly Q

Dear Constant Reader,

How about a book review? While at BurlyCon, I had my copy of this book signed by the author. It deserved to come out of the to-be-reviewed pile and back to its place of honor in the library.

Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America by Leslie Zemeckis (2013).

When Leslie Zemeckis interviewed former burlesque performers and their family members for her documentary “Behind the Burly Q”, there were too many stories to fit into her film (disclosure: I haven’t watched the documentary yet). Thus the book was born. And we’re so grateful it was. This history deserves to be preserved before we lose it for good.

The book is a series of essay on individual topics, not a strict chronological history of burlesque. Some chapters focus on one performer (“Texas Justice”) or on a type of performer (“The Tit Singer”) or some other aspect of burlesque (“The High Cost of Stripping”). The chapter “Interlude Before Evening” is a good prelude to Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteuse Lili St. Cyr.

It’s a nice bite-sized way to get some burlesque history, reading a chapter hear and there. The book is thick with quotes from those Leslie interviewed. It’s peppered with photos from the author’s collection, many of which came directly from the performers themselves.

Ms. Zemeckis has a clear affection and great respect for the art form and for those involved in it, which shines through strongly throughout the book. Highly recommended.

Now I need to see the documentary…


Published in: on 30 November 2016 at 3:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review: Tales of Tammi True

Dear Constant Reader,

  The Wild and Wayward Tales of Tammi True by Nancy Myers & David Hopkins (2015).

Nancy Powell (now Myers) danced under the name of Tammi True in the Dallas area in the 1960s. She got her start when she was hired by a band to go-go dance, but the club that booked them wanted a stripper instead. After her successful debut, she performed in many of the area clubs, like the Theater Lounge and the Skyliner Ballroom.

Her infamy came when she was called to testify before the Warren Commission because she had worked at Jack Ruby’s Carousel. Before the newspapers published her personal information, she had successfully been keeping her burlesque career a secret from her neighbors. Although she continued performing after that, she retired before the decade was over.

The book isn’t very long and about one-third is about her burlesque years. The writing came out of interviews with Ms. Myers for a magazine article and it shows. My biggest quibble with the book is that the authors can’t seem to decide how to present her story. It’s predominantly a verbatim transcription of Tammi’s reminiscences, but there are sections in Q/A format and some third-person passages. I also wish that the section of photographs had been captioned.

I didn’t find her story particularly wild or wayward (especially compared to some I’ve heard from Legends), but my perceptions are probably a bit skewed compared to someone with no grounding in burlesque history. That’s not to dismiss her story; everything we can learn first-hand about burlesque back in the day is valuable.


Published in: on 18 August 2016 at 4:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book Review: The Night They Raided Minsky’s

Dear Constant Reader,

I have a backlog of books to review and I’ve even started reviews for most of them, but I never seem to find the time to finish writing said reviews. It’s a failing. Of course, this is the newest book in the Manor collection…

The Night They Raided Minsky’s: a Fanciful Expedition to the Lost Atlantis of Show Business by Rowland Barber (1960).

It is an undisputed fact that a burlesque show at a Minsky’s theatre was raided in the 1920’s. The rest of the details chronicled in this novel are up for debate. Many of the characters are based on actual people, some more accurately than others.

Our story climaxes on April 20, 1925 with the police raid of the evening burlesque show at the Minsky’s National Winter Garden. The novel traces the stories of the principal players in the drama while counting down to the raid itself. We meet Louis Minsky, the hardworking patriarch who hates burlesque, and his showman son and world class troublemaker, Billy. Then there’s Mlle. Fifi from Paris, the former Betty Buzby of Philadelphia, whose father, who hates her love of dancing, has finally caught up with her. Plus, of course, all the family members, chorus girls, comedians, and hangers-on directly and indirectly involved with the show.

The story is fast-paced and heads inevitably toward the raid, like a pushcart rolling downhill. On the way there, the reader is given a tour of the Lower East Side of the day, complete with dialect. I particularly liked the scenes of overheard conversation at the theatre as the chorus girls gossip and the comedians rehearse in their respective dressing rooms. Post-raid, the story runs out of steam as the author crams the remaining history of Billy Minsky and his brothers into a meager few pages.

Quite entertaining and well captures the time and place, if not the reality, of the heyday of Minsky burlesque. Now I’ll have to watch the movie and see how it compares.


Published in: on 7 July 2016 at 2:56 pm  Leave a Comment