When in his 20s, Erik Preminger used to visit his mother, retired world-famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee in Los Angeles. He often found her gardening “with a rag around her head, a bikini top and two aprons—one in front to hold the tools and the other in back, as she said, ‘to keep the cops away.’ ” His mother always had a sense of humor about how she covered and uncovered her body. Onstage she had reeled off jokes as she molted to music. Now, in a memoir, Gypsy and Me (Little, Brown), coming out next month, Erik, her only child, looks back with his own brand of humor mixed with dashes of pathos.
Gypsy, who had started at 15, quit ecdysiasty in 1956 at the age of 42, “when she decided,” he says, “that she was too old to take her clothes off in front of strangers anymore.” The next year she published her own stage story, which became the hugely successful musical and movie Gypsy. Erik’s tale takes up from there.
Now 39, he says that he didn’t know until he was 17 that he was not the son of actor Alexander Kirkland, to whom Gypsy had been married before Erik was born (she had divorced Kirkland during the pregnancy). Kirkland leaked the news, but neither knew who the real father was—though Erik guessed it to be the flamboyant producer Mike Todd, with whom his mother had had an affair in the early 1940s. When Erik demanded that Gypsy name his father, she refused. “She really felt,” he says now, “that who she had had an affair with 18 years ago shouldn’t concern me.”
Eventually she admitted that it was director Otto Preminger by whom she had conceived because, says Erik, Otto “had traits she wanted to see inherited.” But she made Erik promise not to contact Preminger.
Erik reminisces that in the early years, Gypsy was “a doting mother,” who always took him along on tour. He writes with affection of her almost fanatical love for a succession of pets. Once she boarded a plane with some newborn pups stuffed into her bra. She was confronted by a stewardess, who said, “I think you’re smuggling an animal on board in your brassiere.” Gypsy replied, “Darling, don’t be ridiculous. Take care of the other passengers and let me worry about what’s in my bra.”
He also remembers, with some bitterness, Gypsy’s ways with a dollar. She drove a Rolls and spent lavishly for costumes and on antiques for her luxurious 26-room Manhattan mansion on East 63rd Street. But on tour she and Erik usually lived in a trailer or cooked on a hot plate in a hotel room rather than pay for room service. At the Broadway opening of Gypsy, Erik, then 14, was his mother’s date and wore his first tuxedo. “She got it from Leonard Sillman, the producer, who was my size but 50 pounds heavier—and it was 20 years old.”
Erik’s resentments over Gypsy’s double standard with money turned into trouble. “I used to steal enormous sums from her—and always got caught,” Erik says. “I thought that if money was that important to her, then I was jealous of it and would take it.”
The older Erik grew, the more rebellious he became. He would take the Rolls “and get arrested for driving without a license,” he says. “At 14 or 15, my girlfriend would come over and we’d take mother’s booze. I had an affair at 16. She wasn’t pleased—she disapproved on a moral basis and also thought the girl was after her money.”
By then Gypsy had started a new career lecturing and showing films about her life. A year later she moved to Beverly Hills—without Erik, who refused to budge from New York. In 1962, after less than a year at Columbia University and some time hanging out in Greenwich Village, he joined the Army.
While serving in Germany in 1967, he got a call from Preminger, who was in France. The director had heard that Erik knew the story of their relationship, and the two had an emotional meeting in Paris. That year, Erik got out of the Army, joined his father as a story editor in New York and married Barbara Van Natten, an airline flight attendant.
Gypsy had gone on to become a TV talk show host. By now Erik had matured enough to appreciate her again. “She was a true-life Auntie Mame,” he says, “only better.” Then in 1969, Gypsy discovered she had lung cancer. “If I’d known how short a time she had to live, I’d have moved out there,” he says. “I was back and forth most weekends, all thanks to Otto. He’d use any pretext to send me: a script to be delivered, an interview with an actor.”
Just before his mother died in 1970 at age 56, she summoned Erik and, he relates, “asked me to lie down on the bed beside her. She asked me how my relationship with Otto was.” Assured of their affection for one another, she said, “I always knew he was a good and generous man.”
In her will Gypsy left Erik her entire estate—which by then came to just over half a million dollars. He spent it on “good living, bad investments and a divorce settlement.” Preminger legally adopted Erik in 1971. Erik left his father’s film company to work briefly for director Elaine May. Subsequently, he moved to San Francisco with his second wife, Brigid Guinan, a former airline sales rep and restaurant manager, and began research on the book. It took him six years to finish, and the result has been picked as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate.
“It’s not a Mommie Dearest,” he claims. “My editor says it’s an affectionate look at a very difficult person. Some of it’s funny—and you cry in it too, because life isn’t always funny.”