Actress and writer June Havoc, whose childhood in vaudeville as Baby June was immortalized in the musical “Gypsy,” died of natural causes Sunday in Stamford, Conn. She was 97.
Havoc never reached the fame of her older sister, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, but she had a varied, successful theater career that stretched from 1918 into the next century.
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. 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. Havoc made no effort to obstruct the show, though she detested it.
“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.Her mother, who had an unhappy marriage, plotted an escape. Her second daughter, 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,” Havoc 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. Another marriage to advertising man Donald S. Gibbs ended in divorce. She was married to radio and TV director William Spier from 1947 until his death in 1973.
The early 1930s were a grim period for Havoc, the spelling she adopted from her birth name. 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 for direction. Julie Harris, starring as a young vaudevillian named June, also picked up a Tony nomination.
Havoc wrote three other plays and two memoirs, “Early Havoc” (1959) and “More Havoc” (1980).
By 1936, she had evolved into a statuesque blond beauty, and she began appearing in Broadway plays and musicals. In 1940, Havoc portrayed the conniving Gladys Bumps in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Pal Joey” and her performance brought Hollywood offers.
She played feature roles in 26 films including “My Sister Eileen,” “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “Red Hot and Blue” and “Chicago Deadline.” (Her sister also appeared in some films in the 1930s billed as Louise Hovick.)
But Havoc’s major work was on the stage. She appeared in more than a dozen productions on Broadway, including Cole Porter’s “Mexican Hayride” (1944) and “Sadie Thompson” (also 1944), a musical based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story. Her last Broadway appearance was in the early 1980s, one of the many replacements as the evil Miss Hannigan in “Annie.”
In her later years, Havoc helped restore Cannon Crossing, a historic Connecticut village near her home.