Christopher Hart reviews "Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show" by Rachel Shteir.
The Innocence of the Striptease
Rachel Shteir’s history of the striptease is also a celebration of a vanished art form. She obviously relishes her subject, and her relish is infectious. Not for her the dour puritanism of first-wave feminists, who would insist on taking pity on their poor, exploited sisters on stage. But nor, one senses, would she subscribe to the post-feminist notion that for a woman to sport artificial GG breasts is somehow liberating and, gulp, “ empowering”. Her account of the disappearance of erotic undressing before the onslaught of hardcore porn is a sad one; because, in its heyday, striptease was a lot of glamour and fun.
Was it ever exploitative? Well, it certainly wasn’t a prelude to prostitution, as some might glibly assume; and although she finds one tragic example of a stripper who was also a heroin addict and committed suicide, it is only one case among many happier stories: tragic, but not statistically significant. Most of the women made a great deal of money, and managed their careers with a fierce independence.
Even though Shteir is a fully fledged academic (associate professor of dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at DePaul University), her writing style is elegant, vivid and mercifully free of jargon. Not for her the kind of soporific bilge spouted by too many of her peers. Indeed, she quotes a little mockingly from a forerunner of such jargon-mongers, Roland Barthes, to show the path she will not be taking. Here is the great Gallic thinker in 1957, writing on the G-string: “This ultimate triangle, by its pure and geometric form, by its brilliant and hard material, brandishes sex like a pure sword and re-imagines the woman in a mineralogical universe, the precious stone being here the irrefutable theme of the total and unuseful object.” In 1955, the French actually founded an Académie du Striptease. Thank God for les Anglo-Saxons and their pragmatism.
Shteir dwells much more on the lives of actual striptease artists than on windy abstractions or academic arguments, and this is the book’s great strength. There is a wealth of marvellous biographical detail here, with the leading players lit up in the full glare of the garish footlights. Striptease stars such as Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Lili St Cyr, Dodo d’Homberg and Rita Cadillac — even the names are redolent of a past age, far from a world where hardcore porn is a click away. One stripper, Sherry Britton, fainted when she first revealed herself on stage, although it seems she soon got the hang of it, and was gaily balancing glasses of water on her breasts.
Such acts could earn the girls a lot of cash. $500 a week for a top stripper was the usual rate in the 1930s, and $1,000 not unheard of, at a time when, Shteir points out, the editor of Vanity Fair was earning $35 a week. The stripper Rose Zelle Rowland did even better by marrying her sugar daddy, the Belgian financier Baron d’Empain, who owned the Egyptian railway system, among other things.
A number of the women had time to develop their minds in between flaunting their bodies, more like geisha girls, or the hetaerae of ancient Greece, than modern-day porn stars. Ann Corio negotiated herself not only a grand a week plus 25% of the house take, but, when asked how she spent the time backstage between shows, said that she liked to read Spinoza and Omar Khayyam. Well paid, well read, cultured, and perhaps rather amused by the fascination that their own nakedness held for men, these were clearly no dim, exploited dollybirds.
My favourite stripper by far in this gallery of nudes must be the wonderful Gypsy Rose Lee, with her “regal persona”. The girl was Dorothy Parker in a G-string. Hard-nosed and sassy, she understood her craft precisely. “The naked skin to the naked eye is just so much epidermis,” she said. It’s what’s “hinted at rather than hollered about” that is erotic. Gypsy Rose could do an absurdly demure but tantalising routine that began with her on stage in a long polka dot skirt, like a virgin bride on her honeymoon night; or she could do an almost absent-minded routine in which she stripped right down while chatting casually to her audience about whatever came into her head, as a wife might talk to her husband in the bedroom. Perhaps that was its intimate appeal, though it could also be extremely funny. She would even teeter about on stage, rolling down her garters while explaining to her admirers why she simply couldn ’t strip to the music of Brahms.