Location: West End Avenue, New York, New York, USA
Rose's Lesbian Boarding House is one of those absolutely random finds--you're looking for one thing, but you get distracted by something else, and on it goes.
Those of you who are into American musical theater probably remember Gypsy, which was based on the 1957 memoir of "striptease artist" Gypsy Rose Lee. The book (and subsequent musical and movie) introduced us to Rose Hovick, who has become immortalized as the ultimate stage mother.
Yet Rose did something rather interesting in later life, which was running a lesbian boarding house (and possibly a lesbian farm as well, depending on the source).
This boarding house is mentioned in a number of sources related to Gypsy Rose Lee, but unfortunately, all of them are brief, rather cryptic, and somewhat contradictory.
From Jewish Currents:
Gypsy’s mother, Rose Hovick, ran a lesbian boarding house in New York and shot and killed one of her lovers when she made a pass at Gypsy.
Madam Rose died in 1954. Her last words threatened her daughter Louise, promising to drag her daughter into death with her. In later years, Rose had run a lesbian boarding house and farm. One of her guests was shot at a party, and the verdict was suicide, but Lee’s son, Erik Preminger, is quoted in a Vanity Fair article saying that the victim was Rose’s lover, and that Rose killed her in front of many witnesses after she made a pass at Gypsy.
From Hub Pages:
According to her sister Belle, she blackmailed, or begged her daughters for money and gifts, often showing up to visit dressed in ragged clothing and claiming to be poor. In the meantime she was running a Lesbian boarding house, and Gypsy had rented her a farm.
In one of his biographies of the family he grew up in grandson Erik Lee Preminger alleges that Rose actually shot and killed a guest for making a pass at Gypsy, also alleging the person shot was Rose's lover. Obviously, with the internet and research, again, more than one story. In some accounts it is a boarding house guest, in others the guest is decidedly a male and a guest at a party.
Sometimes, it is claimed that daughter Louise (Gypsy) rented the boarding house. From Wikipedia:
Later on in her life, her daughter Gypsy Rose Lee rented both a farm in Highland Mills, New York and a lesbian boardinghouse in a ten-room apartment on the seedy West End Avenue in Manhattan. At some point, one of the guests made a pass at the visiting Gypsy (according to Erik Preminger, her son by director Otto Preminger), who was said to be Mother Rose's own lover, and in a jealous rage Mother Rose shot the lover/guest dead. This incident was publicly explained as a suicide.
One of the fullest description seems to be from Matt & Andrej Koymasky:
Rose (or Mama Rose, as she is best known), who was Jewish and lesbian, had married John Hovick, a newspaperman, at the age of fifteen, and was the classic example of a smothering stage mother who insistently pushed her two daughters into stardom: stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and actress June Havoc; Gypsy's story about lives of the three women became the a 1959 hit musical, Gypsy: A Musical Fable.
Rose was no longer bothering with men. She had, as Havoc would write, 'turned toward her own sex,' at first running a lesbian boardinghouse in a 10-room apartment Gypsy rented for her on West End Avenue, and then running a sort of lesbian farm in her country house in Highland Hills. At a party in that house, Rose pulled another gun, this time on one of the girls. She killed her. Because Gypsy was a star, it was covered up. "There were a lot of people there when it happened". says Erik Preminger [Gypsy's son], who had heard the same story from three people. "The girl was Rose's lover and she made a pass at my mother."Gypsy Rose Lee, her daughter, born around 1910 and died from cancer in 1970. The only living Hovick was June Havoc (nee Hovick), her other daughter, who was born in around 1915.
Boz Hadleigh in Broadway Babylon throws a brothel into the mix:
In the Broadway version [of the musical], after Louise blossoms into a relatively demure stripper and strikes out on her own, it's suggested that Mama (never referred to as "Mama Rose") could open an acting school for kids, to keep occupied. In reality, Rose Hovick wound up running a lesbian boarding house and brothel. This was revealed in June Havoc's second autobiography, More Havoc, published in 1980, by which time The Topic could finally be broached (her first book, Early Havoc, in 1959, was a sisterly attempt to grab back some of the limelight from Gypsy, whose memoirs had angered June less than the resultant hit musical).
June's mother had informed her, "Sex is dirty because men are dirty." As for her lesbian tenants, Rose warned, "Don't you dare feel superior to those girls. At least they have the good sense to know they can't get pregnant with spit!"
But just to add to the confusion, Carolyn Quinn in Mama Rose's Turn, The True Story of America's Most Notorious Stage Mother, isn't convinced there ever was a lesbian boarding house:
Then there was the story that Rose, who had rented out rooms, probably for less than a year, in her Manhattan apartment to ladies who quite possibly had been lesbians, had run a "lesbian boarding house." No one who knew of Rose's love for the almighty buck could have ever bought into the idea that Rose would have turned away paying customers based on their sexual orientation. Paying customers of every orientation made Rose's heart sing.
Quinn also doubts that Rose ever shot and killed any woman lover in said boarding house.