Erik Lee Preminger can still vividly remember the moment when he found out, at age 17, that actor Alexander Kirkland, who was married to his mother before his birth, was not his biological father.
“Like almost any 17-year-old I suppose, I wanted a car,” the now-74-year-old recalled to Fox News. “But… my mother wouldn’t get it for me. So I went to the man whose name was on my birth certificate, who I understood was my father, although I already heard some rumors. I asked him for money to buy a car. I was seeing a therapist at the time ... and the next time I saw my therapist he said Mr. Kirkland wanted me to know that he was not my father and he couldn’t give me a car. So that got the ball rolling.”
Preminger’s life from the beginning was far from ordinary. His mother was world-famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, whose life inspired the Broadway musical “Gypsy” and the 1962 film carrying the same title starring Natalie Wood. Decades later, in 1984, he would publish the memoir “Gypsy and Me” about growing up with the star (the book was republished in 2004 with the title “My G-String Mother”).
On Wednesday, April 10th, Preminger is presenting “At Home and on the Road with Gypsy Rose Lee” at the Hollywood Heritage Museum, which highlights his personal home movies featuring his late mother. Burlesque star Dita Von Teese, who has named Lee as one of her inspirations, will be in attendance to participate in an interview with Preminger. The event will also kick off the 2019 Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Film Festival, which opens in Hollywood the following day.
While Lee wasn’t afraid to bare nearly all on stage, she initially refused to reveal the identity of Preminger’s father.
“When I finally confronted my mother with this and asked her who my father was, she said she wasn’t going to tell me,” chuckled Preminger. “‘None of your business’ is the way she put it.”
Growing up, Preminger always knew his mother was different from others. In fact, up until he was about 17 in 1961, he never really left her side.
“When I was 6 months old, my mother put me next to her on the front seat of the car and drove to Cleveland where she was playing an engagement,” said Preminger. “I was with her constantly until I was 13. And then whenever she worked in the summers until I was 17, I was by her side.”
“When did I realize she was different? Probably around five, but it wasn’t the kind of realization you would expect,” continued Preminger. “Whatever kids do on a daily basis, that’s normal. If that means being backstage and helping your mom change from one scene to the next, well, that’s normal too!”
Preminger described Lee as a doting mother who always took him on tour. And while he was exposed to the racy world of nightclubs before turning double digits, he also witnessed what made his mother a sought-after stage star.
“What made her different really from the beginning of her career in burlesque was that she had these comedic routines that she would recite as she was taking off her clothes,” said Preminger. “... So at the end of the act, she still had on her outer dress and her blouse, which covered her breasts... So you never really saw her. There would be a brief flash at the end where she pulled the dress away and go behind the curtain. But that was the finale.”
“I never try to stir up the animal in them,” Lee once said about her fans, as reported by The New York Times. “Did you ever, hold a piece of candy or a toy in front of a baby — just out of his reach. Notice how he laughs. That’s your strip audience… Bare flesh bores men.”
Preminger said that as a teen, he was determined to learn who his real father was. And after Lee extracted a promise from her son that he would never contact him, Preminger learned that his father was Hollywood filmmaker Otto Preminger.
“I was raised in nightclubs,” said Preminger. “I hardly went to the movies…. I had never seen one of my father’s pictures. I barely knew the name.”
According to Preminger, Otto knew Lee had given birth to his child in 1944. By 1948, Lee was married to her third husband, Julio De Diego, a Spanish artist who “banished” Otto from the household.
“He didn’t like Otto coming around,” said Preminger. “And although Otto had offered to help support me, my mother refused. She really wanted to be the one who raised me. She wasn’t one for dividing authority… And as for why she kept [the paternity] a secret, given her profession, given the era, it would have been a horrible scandal.”
People magazine reported that while serving in Germany in 1967, Preminger received a call from Otto, who was in France promoting one of his films. Preminger said that by then, Otto had written to him, with his mother’s permission. They soon found themselves meeting in Paris for the first time.
“I arrived at this boutique hotel and I’ve got this raincoat that is absolutely the rattiest thing you could ever see,” said Preminger. “I asked for my room, but was told, ‘No, no, no. Mr. Preminger has been coming down every five minutes wondering where you were. You must go right up to his room.' I walk into this suite that looks like something out of the sun king… There he is, a very imposing figure pacing back and forth, with his wife.
“… After a couple of minutes, she suggested we take a walk — we being Otto and me. Otto loved to walk. We’re getting ready to go out and she says, ‘You need your coat.’ I said, ‘I don’t need my coat.’ Because I was embarrassed by it. Otto says, ‘If my son doesn’t need a coat, I don’t need a coat.’ I cannot say that without getting emotional…. We spent the next three hours walking around Paris at night with the lights, the beauty — just everything — talking about the past and future. It really was like a fairytale.”
As for Lee, Preminger remained close with his mother, a figure who happily tantalized her audience, but also possessed a more private side few saw.
“My mother lived a very proper life,” he said. “She never had boyfriends around. I don’t think she had a relationship aside from her third husband during my entire life. It wasn’t the way she operated. She was kind of prudish. When my girlfriend moved in with me, she was terribly upset.”
In the ‘30s Lee attempted a career in Hollywood using her less glamorous real name Louise Hovick. However, Preminger insisted his mother truly shined when she was on stage.
“She was not an actress,” he explained. “She was a personality. She had this energy and vitality — it entranced people… She talked to the audience like they were all her best friends and they loved her back.”
Lee retired from burlesque at age 42, way before her death in 1970 at age 59 from cancer. People magazine reported that Preminger shared “she decided that she was too old to take her clothes off in front of strangers anymore." Still, Lee kept busy throughout the rest of her life, spending her final years in California, where she hosted a talk show from 1965 until 1967. She also went to Vietnam to entertain the troops and was celebrated as a writer.
People magazine added that in 1970, Otto legally adopted his son. For four years, Preminger worked for his father and learned that his infamous reputation of “Otto the Terrible” was the real deal.
“My father was an extraordinarily warm, generous, loving father,” he said. “[But] he was possibly the worst, bossiest, bullying, demanding person you can imagine. Two sides of the same coin. … He just didn’t have any patience. Whenever anybody made a mistake, grab on because you were going to hit a hurricane.”
Otto passed away in 1986 at age 80. Preminger said that toward the end of his life, his father had dementia and eventually “drifted away.”
Today, Preminger is in the process of writing about the relationship he shared with his father. And when it comes to his own life, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I am the luckiest person I know,” he said. “I’ve had a life that’s been blessed from birth. It’s still blessed… I just feel so lucky at every stage. Not that there weren’t some difficult moments looking back. God knows they were…. But if I would have been born into any other family, I certainly wouldn’t have had the life I lived.”