The Story Behind the Twirling Tassels: 7 Life Lessons from Lottie the Body
They called her the Gypsy Rose Lee of Detroit, yet exotic dancer Lottie the Body was world famous. Performing during the heydays of burlesque in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, she traveled the globe and became a sort of clandestine celebrity. Some people may not have wanted to admit they knew who she was, her being so risqué and all, but they knew. Ask any eighty-five-year-old man if he ever heard of her. If he says “no,” he’s probably lyin’.
Lottie died at age 89 in 2020. She always said that today’s strippers have it all wrong with their “look-at-what-I’ve-got-that-you-can-have” attitude. She insisted it should be “look at what I’ve got that you can’t have,” saying that’s what made it striptease.
“Be a lady. Be classy. Be naughty but never nasty. That’s what made me famous.”
Indeed. Old photos reveal a drop-dead gorgeous African American performer with class galore. It was a combination of looks, talent, and personality that made Lottie a decades-long success on stage. Her costumes were elaborate until she’d peel down to one that was conservative by today’s standards, more than many women wear to the beach these days. She’d start in an elegant gown, take it off to something akin to a sparkly mid-century bathing suit, and maybe, if she felt like it, strip off her top to reveal sequined pasties. The epitome of the act was when she’d twirl the tassels on her pasties, leaving her audience breathless with delight. She was a fabulous dancer and was very athletic, which added to the energy of her show. Audiences – men and women – came to the clubs where she performed to be entertained with a class act, and Lottie did not disappoint.
But there was another thing that made Lottie a truly classy lady: She was a genuinely nice person. I first met her at the Golden Horseshoe “house of burlesque” in Harbor Springs, Michigan, in 1971. I was a lowly twenty-one-year-old college kid waitress, and she was the famous forty-year-old star of the show. I watched the same people – wealthy summer residents, yachters, servicemen, locals, music lovers – come back night after night. Sometimes she’d shimmy her fringed costume, dance like a devilish angel, and merely drop a shoulder strap before exiting the stage.
Oh yeah, they came back. They wanted to see those twirling tassels they’d heard about.
Lottie wasn’t like some of the other performers. She was friendly and chatty with the staff. Even me. She quickly figured out that I was in way over my head in that type of environment – I had to work and that was the only job I could find – and took me under her protective wing. I learned a lot that summer.
She’d worked alongside all kinds of famous people: Sammy Davis, Jr.; B.B. King; Aretha Franklin; T-Bone Walker; Della Reese; Louie Armstrong; the Four Tops; Fats Waller; Sarah Vaughn; Redd Foxx; Cab Calloway; Jackie Wilson; Dinah Washington; and so many more she couldn’t recall all of them. She served as emcee at early Harlem Globetrotters games and was married to Goose Tatum, one of the early players. Before Cuba became a Communist country, she met Fidel Castro and thought him a “sweet little man.” The Philippines’ first lady Imelda Marcos took her shoe shopping. She met civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois while she performed at the historic recreation community for black people, Idlewild, Michigan. She was best friends with Christine Jorgenson, the first famous transgender American entertainer. Lottie performed all over the U.S., with Alaska being one of her favorite states; throughout the Caribbean; in the Pacific; around Europe; and in northern Africa. All of this and she would help me, a clueless college kid, clean tables at the end of my shift so we could go out to breakfast.
I felt humbled, honored, and happy that such a star would care about somebody like me and treat me as if I were her own daughter. Eventually, she told me to call her Mama Lottie, the nickname she used with her loved ones, and she called me her Baby Boo.
My Mama Lottie, former exotic dancer Lottie the Body, the 2017 Living Legend of the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, was so much more than a body. She embodied the heart and soul of a real woman. We could all, women and men alike, use more Lottie in us. In fact, a lot of Lottie.
So what did I learn from Lottie, the woman who was a second mama to me and a beautiful body to much of the world?
- First of all, not to be ashamed of my body. Although hers was perfection, Lottie always celebrated everybody just the way they were. There was no “I’m the drop-dead gorgeous diva for you to admire;” rather, it was “We’ve all got bodies, so let’s appreciate them.” Everybody felt comfortable around her.
- Secondly, I learned that not all strippers are divas, desperate, or depraved. A few were, but most were not. Certainly not Lottie. I never saw her so much as flirt with a customer. She was a professional who was friendly toward everyone. It seemed as if she was conducting her own kind of civil rights movement that invited everyone to come into her world. Gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, abilities, education level, financial status – none of that mattered. What mattered was spending good time together.
- Thirdly, Lottie taught me that dance is an expression of life. She reveled in getting everyone up off their bums to dance. Our favorite night was Thursday, maid and butler night, when the African Americans who worked for wealthy white people at their summer estates in that resort town had the night off. The place was electric! Nobody sat. She’d pull people up on stage; she’d encourage the audience to dance around their dinner tables; she’d jump off the stage and dance in the middle of the crowd. And those were the best tip nights for me, because as maids and butlers they knew the value of hard work. I was usually one of only a few white people in the room on those nights, yet I felt totally included and respected. It was magical, the most fun I’d ever had. And, yes, I eventually overcame my insecurity and shyness and occasionally got up on stage to dance.
- My fourth Lottie lesson was that women should live their lives as they please, not as society or their mother or schooling or a man or the media tells them they should. Well aware there were people who shunned her because of her race as well as her chosen profession – she endured some horrendously bigoted situations in all those years – she focused instead on those who accepted her. She’d experienced many more marvelous times and more good people than frightening times with ignorant cusses, as we called them. We often talked about how more women could benefit from knowing how to find and focus on the good people in this world.
- My fifth lesson from Lottie was that if two people love each other their sex life should be robust. She was married and adored her husband. She didn’t reveal any juicy bedroom secrets to a kid like me, even after many years of friendship, but there was no doubt she enjoyed connubial bliss. Occasionally, she reminded me to do the same, saying a couple’s spat or disagreement should never get in the way of that. And she did have some spicy stories to tell about her younger single days, some very sexy and some quite hilarious. Let’s just say she was not shy.
- The sixth lesson is more general. Enjoy living. Work hard. Laugh a lot. Treasure your friends and family. Eat what you want. Invite new people into your life. Don’t pass up s’mores over a campfire on the beach in the middle of the night. Tell ghost stories. Believe in ghosts and God. And most, of all, treat yourself with respect.
- The final, seventh lesson came in 2019 when I went to Detroit to visit with her after not seeing her in person for several years. We talked on the phone weekly and wrote letters back and forth because she loved letter-writing, but she didn’t travel anymore and I hadn’t been up there in quite a while. Although at age 88 she’d had some health problems, I discovered the same beautiful woman with sparkly brown eyes, velvety skin, and an exuberant personality that I had known for almost half a century. I saw that goodness doesn’t age and kindness never dies.
She once wrote, “Lottie the Body may have brought me fame, but Lottie the Woman has always cared most about one thing: sharing whatever gifts I have to make people happy…. I pray that you may have the same kind of love and happiness that I enjoy. I send my love and God’s blessings to you all.”
In her honor, let’s get up and do a little dance today. And every day after. Let’s celebrate life the way Lottie did – with joy and, most of all, with love.
Postscript: Lottie inspired me to use her stories to write a fictional trilogy, The Burly-Q Girls. It was such an honor to do so. The first book, The Burly-Q Girls: the 6, is now available on Amazon. The others will come out in the spring, The Burly-Q Girls: 6 Dicks, and next autumn, The Burly-Q Girls: 6’ Under, 2022. You can get your copies on Amazon in Kindle, paperback, or large print.
If you want to look her up, simply search for Lottie the Body and you’ll find her. There has never been another like her.
Thanks to MyNorth for including Secrets of the Asylum in books to read
Secrets of the Island
Mackinac Island is one of my favorite places on earth. I’ve worked in 13 countries and traveled to a couple dozen more, many spectacular; but, still, that speck in Lake Huron in Michigan, U.S.A., remains one of my favorite places to visit. A native Michigander, I’ve been going there since I was a kid.
The only way to get there is by ferry. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island, except emergency vehicles. Therefore, if you want to get around you walk, ride a bike, ride a horse, or hire a carriage. It’s like stepping back a hundred and fifty years in time.
The small Victorian-era village is charming as all get-out. American flags dot the landscape. There are many Queen Anne, Gothic, Revival, Shingle, and other styles of “cottages,” which range in size from small to huge. Quaint inns, B&Bs, churches, and shops abound. The Grand Hotel, with the longest veranda in the country, is king of the hill. With its panoramic views of Lakes Huron and Michigan, it attracts visitors from around the globe.
The popular 1980 timeslip movie Somewhere in Time, starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve, was filmed at the Grand and still has a large following. If you’re a fan of the movie like I am, every time you step into that hotel you’ll be struck by the emotional story of two lovers from different centuries.
The history of the island is fascinating, as well. Native Americans were there first, of course, with evidence of semi-nomadic people as early as 1000 B.C. Anishnaabek tribes inhabited the area when French fur traders arrived in the 1600s. French missionaries followed, trying to save the souls of the native peoples and the rowdy fur traders. An assortment of scallywags showed up, too. In 1761, after the French and Indian War, the British took over Fort Michilimackinac, which the French had built on the mainland. In 1779 the British and civilians moved the fort to the island. After winning the Revolutionary War, the United States took over the island and the fort in 1796. But in 1812 the British captured the fort.
Rumor has it most of the American soldiers escaped to the mainland, with wives and children left behind at the fort. A few years later, 1815, when the American soldiers finally were able to take back the fort, not all the wives were happy. One or two liked the Brits better than their American husbands.
What all of the means is that the fort was orginally French, then British, then American, then Brithish, then American again. Whew. Think of how that impacted the native peoples.
Finally, that part of North America officially belonged to the U.S.A. and the rest is history. The fort still stands, with reenactments throughout the summer. Well, not of the unhappy wives, but of the soldiers.
It’s an 8.2-mile journey around the island, an easy bike ride, as it’s mostly flat along the shoreline. You can also ride through the hilly inland part of the island if you’re fit for a hefty trek. There are caves, cemeteries, rock formations, and other things to see along the way. It’s tradition to build a cairn out of rocks on the shorline, so make sure you leave yours behind. A cairn is stacked rocks that tell the world you were there. Weather knocks them down, so you have to come back to build anew.
A cairn is on the cover of my new romantic suspense novel, Secrets of the Island. You guessed it: the story takes place on Mackinac Island. I’m thrilled to have finally written a book about this fascinating place. It’s 1943 and a Red Cross nurse sequesters herself in her grandfather’s cottage to escape the ravages of what she experienced in the war. However, one family secret after another emerges to remind her that she’s not the only one with secrets to bear.
Here’s my invitation to you: go to Mackinac Island. Visit the Island Bookstore and get Secrets of the Island. Find a nice seat on a porch facing the lake and have a refreshment at hand as you read. If you can’t go in person, let the book take you away as you slip back in time.
This story will make you wonder: what secrets are buried in your family tree?
Secrets: Points to Ponder
While creating the trailer for Secrets of the Asylum, I kept rolling over in my mind the comments and questions regarding the book that folks have posed on Facebook and Twitter. So here are some points to ponder, first notes to answer some of your questions about how I came up with this story and then some questions from me to get you thinking about your own reactions to the book.
These questions are great for your own private musings or for public discussion, such as a coffee klatsch or book club. I’ve also included the resources I used to research time and place, in case you’d like to investigate more on your own.
I’d love to read your comments here.
Elizabeth lived in my head for two years before I knew the setting for her story. She’d sink into my thoughts during yoga, while walking my dog, and as I nodded off to sleep at night. Then I toured the former Northern Michigan Asylum and immediately knew that was where she belonged.
I also recognized there were undoubtedly many secrets like hers buried within the walls of that stalwart institution that had harbored the “insane” for almost a century.
When I visited my Aunt Hope, who resided in Cottage 23 after it had become an assisted living facility, I knew that her room, with its spectacular tall ceiling and long windows affording a view of the lush yard, would be Elizabeth’s room during that earlier era.
As soon as I decided it would be Elizabeth’s twenty-one-year-old daughter who would seek out the truth about her mother’s situation and that the year would be 1921, I knew this would be the first book of a trilogy. The second book takes place in 1942 and the third in 1963. Yes, each time a daughter turns twenty-one another romantic suspense tale will be revealed.
Now I’m bursting to tell those stories, Secrets of the Island and Secrets of Summer. So stay tuned. This family’s generations of dark deceptions will come to light one-by-one in 2018 and 2019.
Questions for You:
- What did you think of Elizabeth in the beginning of the book? Did you admire or abhor her bohemian behavior? Why?
- What would you have liked most and least about living in 1921?
- Do you believe in psychics like Abby? Have you visited one? If you have, what’s the most profound reading you’ve ever had?
- Are you aware of how the mentally ill are treated today, now that “asylums” are gone? What would you suggest to improve treatment?
- What do you think should happen in the next book, in 1942 when Meg’s daughter turns twenty-one?
This certainly isn’t an inclusive list, as I did a boat-load of research for this book. However, these are the books and documents I found to be most helpful. Naturally, I used many online sources are well, readily available if you search.
- Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane: A History of the Traverse City State Hospital, by William A. Decker
- Traverse City State Hospital (Images of America), by Chris Decker
- Angels in the Architecture: A Photographic Elegy to an American Asylum (Great Lakes Book Series), by Heidi Johnson and Nancy Tomes
- Beauty is Therapy: Memories of the Traverse City State Hospital, by Kristin M. Hains and Earle E. Steele
- Report of the Board of Trustees of the Northern Michigan Asylum at Traverse City, June 30, 1908
- The Traverse City State Hospital Training School for Nurses, by Virginia M. LeClaire
- Traverse City, Michigan: A Historical Perspective, 1850-2013, by Richard Fidler
- Michigan Railroads & Railroad Companies, by Graydon M. Meints
- Justus S. Stearnes: Michigan Pine King and Kentucky Coal Baron, 1845-1933 (Great Lakes Book Series), by Michael W. Nagle
- Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition, by John J. Binder
- American Family of the 1920s: Paper Dolls in Full Color, by Tom Tierney
- I readily confess I spent too much time looking at 1920s fashion. It was wonderful!
Digging Up Asylum Secrets
Writing a book is always more work than I anticipate. I think this is true of many, if not most, writers: I’m struck with a spectacular idea for a story, which is great fun, and then have to sit down and do the actual work. Some writing days are a high of creativity; others are the pits. Most of my days of working on my latest romantic suspense novel, Secrets of the Asylum, were a joy, but others were a depressing drag.
What was depressing? Research – a critical part to writing a good book – that revealed some of the practices in the past regarding committing people to asylums. One of my three main characters is in a “loony bin” in 1921, so data collection was necessary, seeing that I was not in such a facility at that time. Some of that information I was already privy to from former research on the one-time asylum in Milledgeville, GA. Then I took a tour of the former Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane, later the Traverse City State Hospital, and walking through the hallways and bedrooms and tunnels of that huge structure that housed 2,000 people I could feel their sorrows as well as the relief of some to be sheltered away from traditional society. Learning that women were often committed by their husbands just to get them out of the way so that the husbands would be free to run around was maddening. There was even a menopause cottage, the assumption being that a woman couldn’t handle herself during that time of life. And people who were sick, especially if they had consumption (tuberculosis), went there, which wasn’t necessarily the best place for treatment of such a disease.
There were some, however, who wanted to be committed, and that was fascinating to discover. It was reported in asylum records that some women committed themselves to get away from working a farm, husbands, and children. Old lumberjacks who could no longer wield an ax holed away there. Criminals with mental problems were sometimes sent there instead of prison. A woman going through menopause might in fact want to get away from it all. People with mental impairments and disabilities were there. A homeless orphan child and a single mother with kids might need food and shelter. Many used it as home until the end of their lives.
There were even those recorded as being there for “religious fervor” and “sexual misbehavior.” It was an interesting mix, to be sure.
Weaving reality into my fictional story took a lot of thought. It isn’t something that can just be thrown together. This I tell you in case you are a writer or are thinking of being a writer. If you have fairy tale ideas about the glamour of writing, I suggest you find yourself a cozy asylum. A good story takes creativity, dreaming, and imagination, to be sure, but mostly it takes good old-fashioned seat time. You need to sit down and do the work, on enjoyable days and on depressing days. Those books that are living in your head don’t write themselves.
Breaking the Damned Rules
Every serious writer knows the endless rules to writing a good book. But I’ve always wondered: Who makes up all these rules and why do we slovenly follow them? A lot of them are boring. That’s why I relished writing The House on Haven Island, my first romantic suspense novel, a murder mystery. Rather, an attempted murder. See, I already broke a rule. The murder never actually comes off.
Anyway, because I knew I would publish this myself on Kindle and would not, therefore, be beholdin’ to an editor or publisher, I did anything I damn well pleased. What fun!
Here are some of the rules that were so happily broken:
- Every chapter should be about the same length, traditionally 20-25 pages. Phooey. I told a story until it was done, and that was the end of the chapter. No benign filler. Some chapters are twenty pages and some are three. So sue me.
- Don’t end a sentence in a preposition. I did so whenever I wanted to. So there. After all, that’s how we talk. That rule doesn’t make sense anyway. It’s based on Latin rules of grammar and English is a Germanic language. I’m pretty sure my German ancestors don’t care what we use a preposition for.
- Ladies don’t swear. Ha! The truth is, and women know this, females are capable of swearing like sailors on steroids. We just don’t do it in public as often as men. My main character, Lila, is alone on an island with no memory. Do you really think she wouldn’t cuss up a storm? “Oh, my gosh! I’m in such doll-garn trouble. Golly gee whiz, what am I going to do?” Not a chance. Note the title of this blog to solidify my point.
- One pre-reader said Lila talks to the chimpanzees, at first the only other living beings on the island, too much. I consulted with my trusty advisers, my dogs LuLu and Lucky, and my cat Lucy. “Do I talk to animals too much?” I asked. They all agreed: “Of course not!” My conversations with them directed the ones in the book. By the way, I also talk to plants and trees.
- Women don’t seduce men; the man always seduces the woman. If you believe that, you need to get a grip on reality. My protagonist Lila seduces the man of her desire. Believe me, he doesn’t complain.
- People meet and fall in love but don’t consummate their relationship until near the end of the book. That’s no fun. It was a lot more interesting to have the sexy scenes start early on and carry on throughout the book. This book is hot!
- A book has to be traditionally published to be legitimate. Nope. This is a great read.
Because The House on Haven Island isn’t conventional, I know it isn’t for everybody. I also know I have a lot of unconventional readers and friends who will love it. I know I do. I hope you do, too. Join Lila as she gets lost in a seductive tropical world of mystery and love. Get lost in your own dreamy world along the way.