She’s not a stripper. She’s an ecdysiast.
The lady in the fantastic hat (and precious little else) is Gypsy Rose Lee. She was a vaudeville performer, burlesque dancer, and her mother’s second favorite child (of two). Gypsy put the tease in striptease with an act so unique, so elegant and refined that American journalist H.L. Mencken made up a word to describe it. He called her an ecdysiast, which essentially means “one who molts,” because of her slow, one-feather-at-a-time way of taking off her clothes.
In addition to her career as a stripper – no, wait – as an ecdysiast, she was also an actress, a playwright and a novelist. (I believe the phrase you’re looking for is renaissance woman.)
By now you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with me or my book. That’s a valid question. Here’s what: Gypsy Rose Lee once owned a house in a small town in the lower Hudson Valley region of New York state, which also happens to be my home town. It’s on a main road but it’s set back so far that you can’t see the house when you drive by. All you can see is the sign that spells out the name of Gypsy’s house: Witchwood Manor.
It’s just an ordinary sign, nothing remarkable about it, except that name. It’s so evocative. So mysterious. I remember being a little kid, driving by on the way to the grocery store with my mom, and wondering what it meant. Were there witches in the woods there? Magic? Was there a girl, maybe one like me, who lived there? Was she good or bad or maybe both?
Witchwood Manor has been sitting in my imagination, just waiting for me to figure out the story I wanted to tell about it for a long time. When I started writing Tab Bennett and the Inbetween, I took the name for Pop’s house without a second thought. Then I filled the house with magic and elves instead of witches and added the girl (only she’s a woman now) who would have to figure out if she was good or bad or both before the story could end.
I like to think Gypsy would be OK with that. At least I hope she would. I have a sense that she was exactly the kind of artist I’d like to be: bold, multi-faceted, visionary, and confident enough to take her clothes off in a room full of people and be able to make intelligent conversation while doing so. She’s kind of become my idol and I’d like for her to like what I’ve done with the place.
I’m telling you all this because I want the Witchwood Manor sign. Badly. I’ve wanted it for years. In high school I had a friend who offered to steal it for me. I declined. Last week someone offered to paint a copy for me. I thanked her, but that’s not exactly what I want either. I want that one from out on the road. The only question is, how do I get it – without resorting to petty larceny?
I’m going to work on that.
In the meantime, do any of you know (or are you) the actor Victor Garber? To the best of my knowledge, he’s the current owner of the real Witchwood Manor so I’d imagine he’s the man I need to see.