By Robert Simonson
28 Mar 2010
Driven by an ruthless stage mother, young Ellen Evangeline Hovick and her sister Louise—who would become legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee—were forced into Vaudeville at an early age. Ms. Havoc was billed as "Baby June," and later "Dainty June," and played the West Coast Pantages circuit, but she abandoned her mother's world when she eloped at 13 with fellow performer Bobby Reed. The two teenagers scraped by, by entering, and winning, dance marathons.
All this, and more, was told in Ms. Havoc's two autobiographies, "Early Havoc" (1959) and "More Havoc" (1980). But it was her sister's 1957 book, "Gypsy," that became part of America's permanent show-business tapestry when it was adapted by composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, librettist Arthur Laurents and director Jerome Robbins into the stage musical Gypsy. The show, considered one of the most hard-boiled backstage stories in theatre history—and one of the best constructed and most entertaining—debuted on Broadway in 1959. Though based on Gypsy Rose Lee's book, the central figure is not the stripper but her monstrous Rose, based on June and Louise's mother, Rose Thompson Hovick.
Despite her embittered upbringing, Ms. Havoc persevered in the trade into which she was born. She found her first Broadway part in Sigmund Romberg's Forbidden Melody in 1936, and would later star in Rodgers and Hart's classic Pal Joey, playing Gladys Bumps. Soon, she drew admiration as a serious actress. Other roles of the 1940s included Mexican Hayride, Sadie Thompson, The Ryan Girl and Dunnigan's Daughter. The next decade brought Affairs of State, The Infernal Machine, The Beaux Stratagem and The Warm Peninsula.
Her film career began in 1942 and was littered with mainly "B" material. A few credits stood out, however, including the comedy "My Sister Eileen" and "Gentleman's Agreement," in which she played a racist secretary.
In 1982, she made her final Broadway appearance, as one of the last Miss Hannigans in the long-running hit Annie. She also toured the country as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
June Havoc was born Nov. 8, 1913, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Her father, a reporter for a Seattle newspaper, and her mother divorced when she was very young. She was coached for the stage from the time she could walk, dancing with Anna Pavlova and appearing in silent films with Harold Lloyd. Blonde, blue-eyed and pretty, she danced and sang and high-kicked her way through four shows a day on the Keith Orpheum Circuit and earned $1,500 a week for her family at the peak of her popularity (a fortune during the Depression—and still not bad today). She would later refer to herself as "a has-been at age 13."
Though Gypsy went a long way toward making Ms. Havoc a famous, even mythical figure in her latter career, she was not happy with the way she was portrayed in her sister's autobiography, and the two were long estranged. They reconciled shortly before Gypsy Rose Lee's death in 1970.
"All I wanted was the truth to be told," she told the New York Times in 2003. "That the little kid went out and killed the people. That she was a gold mine and Louise wasn't there at all. I disappear. Nothing is ever mentioned about the fact that I went out and became somebody. No one understands the loss of professional dignity with which I grew up, the dignity which I have cherished and protected all these years."
Ms. Havoc was married three times. After Bobby Reed, she married Donald Gibbs. They divorced in 1942. She was married to William Spier from 1948 to 1973, his death. Reed fathered her only child, April Kent. Kent died in 1998.