Books: For the Publicity

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THE G-STRING MURDERS—Gypsy Rose Lee—Simon & Schusfer ($2).

When H. L. Mencken called Stripteaser Gypsy Rose Lee an ecdysiast* ten years ago, Gypsy (whose finale at the time consisted in dropping her garter belt in the tuba) called Mencken an intellectual snob, accused him bitterly of reading books. Now Gypsy has committed the final act of intellectual snobbery, written a book herself. It is a lurid, witty and highly competent detective story.

Gypsy has long dropped easy references to Huxley, Spinoza, "the ancients." "I've got 5,000 books up at my place in the country," she told the press once, "and I've read a great many of them. . . . Proust is a regular drug." Gypsy first crashed Manhattan intellectual circles by discreet fellow-traveling when that was fashionable. She made speeches for trade unions and took off her clothes for the Spanish Republic. More recently she has taken them off for France, Britain and the aluminum drive. Her publicity on these occasions has not been free of a smirk. Now the smirk is on the other cheek.

Gypsy wrote every word of The G-String Murders herself, between shows. Nobody else could have. Two bitchy strip queens are murdered with their own G-strings in a Manhattan burlesque house. The cast: chorines, strippers, comedians, gangsters, impresarios, doorman. The scenes include a drunken backstage brawl to celebrate the installation of new blue plumbing in the ladies' room, and a touching moment in jail, after a raid, when one strippeuse douses her bra in the cold sink water as the only available substitute for the ice with which she usually firms her breasts.

Ecdysiast Lee's Minsky background, rich show-business vocabulary and stage-door gags make her book almost a social document. She has the good sense to leave Spinoza and Proust out of it. The real Gypsy has no need of Proust — or of ghosts.

This is attested by her hilarious correspondence with her publishers, printed as an adjunct to the book. Lee on agents: "In the four years they've handled me they haven't gotten me so much as an Elks' smoker. NOT ONE DATE! I don't want to know from agents." On men: "I like my men on the monster side. A snarling mouth, evil eye, broken nose . . . thick ears. ... A nervous tic excites me and if with all these things he wore green suits—BANK NIGHT!" On her career: "I've been held over for another week. Broke all records, they tell me. (As if I didn't case the house myself.)"

The G-String Murders builds up to a hair-raising climax in which Gypsy herself is almost killed. The murky conclusion, in which the loose ends are matted rather than unraveled, shows the beginner's hand. But Agatha Christie herself could not have contrived the tag line of the book. After it is all solved, a haunting little G-string peddler remarks, "You know, me bein' in the G-string business. I was afraid the cops'd think I done it for the publicity."

*From a Greek root, meaning one who sheds.