Actress and writer June Havoc, whose childhood in vaudeville as Baby June was immortalized in the musical “Gypsy,” has died in Connecticut at age 97, her publicist said Monday.
Havoc, the younger sister of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, died Sunday of natural causes at her home in Stamford.
While she never reached the fame of her sister, Havoc had a varied, successful theater career.
With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, “Gypsy” is considered one of the best musicals ever written. The original 1959 production starred Ethel Merman; it also became a 1962 movie starring Rosalind Russell, with Natalie Wood as the grown-up Gypsy.
It focuses on the archetypal stage mother, Mama Rose, who ferociously pushes her daughter “Baby June” into vaudeville stardom at age 6 while her older sister struggles to compete.
The play was based on a memoir of the older daughter, Louise, who grew up to be Gypsy Rose Lee.
“It meant so much to (Gypsy), her precious illusion; it made her into an ingenue at last,” Havoc remarked bitterly in 1998. “And I loved my sister, but I loathed her life.”
She defended Mama Rose: “Mother was very prim, and she was tiny and lovely with big blue eyes. … She was endearing and alluring beyond belief. If she had drive and ambition, what’s wrong with that?”
Havoc was born June Hovick on Nov. 8, 1912, in Seattle. June was cute and outgoing, and at 18 months she was dancing in vaudeville and appearing in movie comedy shorts.
“I earned $1,500 a week when I was 6, and I knew exactly how I got the laughs and applause,” she said in 1978.
Mama Rose kept June in vaudeville until she was far beyond her baby cuteness. Frustrated and weary of constant travel, June escaped at 13 by marrying a boy in the act. She gave birth to a daughter, April Hyde Kent, and later divorced, marrying twice more.
By the early 1930s, vaudeville was dead and she had entered the “awkward stage” between child actress and ingenue. She competed in seven dance marathons, a Depression spectacle in which couples danced around the clock until they collapsed; the last pair standing won a cash prize.
In 1963, Havoc wrote and directed a Broadway play about her experience, “Marathon ’33,” garnering a Tony nomination as best director. Julie Harris, starring as a young vaudevillian named June, also picked up a Tony nomination. Havoc later wrote three other plays and two memoirs.
By 1936, she had evolved into a statuesque blond beauty, and she began appearing in Broadway plays and musicals. She appeared in more than a dozen productions on Broadway. Her last Broadway appearance was in the early 1980s, one of the many replacements as the evil Miss Hannigan in “Annie.”
She played feature roles in 26 films.