Saturday, May 30, 2009
GILDED LILI: LILI ST. CYR AND THE STRIPTEASE MYSTIQUE
In late Seventies Los Angeles, Santa Monica Boulevard was notorious. It was a trashy, miles-long strip of liquor stores, lurid Atomic Age signage, pothole-pocked asphalt and aging $5.00 whores. Santa Monica made the Sunset Strip look like a posh resort, piercing the sun-bleached slums of Hollywood like a low-rent Route 66: everybody went to Santa Monica Boulevard to get their kicks. It was home to dozens of seedy porn emporiums like The Pussycat Theater and Institute Of Oral Love. Shirtless rent boys in white jeans and feathered Sun In-streaked hair lurked at bus stops; leather daddies in full regalia frequented The Pleasure Chest. At night, punks flocked to The Starwood, a massive barn of a nightclub on the corner of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. Owned by the notorious Eddie Nash (he was involved in the infamous “Wonderland Murders”) The Starwood was hands-down the best club in LA. I spent a good deal of my delinquent teen days and nights hitch-hiking up and down Santa Monica. One of my favorite things to do was to visit The Undie World of Lili St. Cyr, which was directly across the street from the Starwood.
I was familiar with Lili St. Cyr from the vintage men’s magazines I’d buy at garage sales back in those days for, like, a quarter. I didn’t know much about her except that she was a famous burlesque vixen and pin-up. The inside of her store looked like a frou-frou powder blue boudoir, with astel-toned shag rugs and tiny golden vanity stools. Cases of sequined, tassel-dripping pasties, G-strings and crotchless panties were on display, and the sales women with false eyelashes and champagne bouffant do’s would humor me as I tried on lacy brassieres, never buying one…but not because I didn’t want to- I just couldn’t afford them. I was really there to try to catch a glimpse of Lili, but alas, that never happened. And I somehow never bothered to find out too much about her, even when I joined the Velvet Hammer, the troupe that kicked off the Neo Burlesque movement in the mid-90’s. In fact, the only thing I really knew about Lili St. Cyr was that she was gorgeous and a burlesque vixen… until I read Kelly DiNardo’s excellent biography.
But whether you’re interested in striptease and it’s current revival or not, this book is worth reading. Not only does DiNardo paint an intimate portrait of the famous burlesque queen, she manages to include a highly descriptive time-line so that the reader can really have a true feel for what was going on in the world in the middle of the last century. DiNardo’s writing is facile and juicy without being sensational, and reflects a huge amount of research. Bringing to life a fascinating sub-genre of a bygone era, the book explores a time in which “The Golden Age Of Striptease” -the 1940’s through the early 1960’s- not only titillated audiences, but also inadvertently set the scene for the Sexual Revolution and the birth of the Feminist movement. At a time when most American women were still fettered by their own apron strings, these showgirls not only supported themselves, but also in many cases, their husbands and entire extended families. Many of them became internationally known and iconic, though ironically, none of the female performers achieved the lasting fame that the men of burlesque- such as Abbot Costello, Burt Lahr and Jackie Gleason- did.
As with many famous-or infamous, as the case may be- women, Lili St. Cyr lived life on her own terms. And what a life it was! Born Marie Van Schaack, St. Cyr was already married, divorced and working as a chorine (Alongside a young Yvonne DeCarlo, a burlesque star who later played "The Munsters" Lilly Munster!) at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens, before she was out of her teens. Morphing into the quintessential platinum-tressed bombshell, Lili’s knockout physical attributes, and raw carnality couched in “can’t-touch-this” elegance left the rest of the Burley peelers in the dust. Sources quoted in the book believe that Marilyn Monroe was directly influenced by St. Cyr’s performances studied them intently to hone her own screen persona - and others insist the two sirens actually had a torrid affair!
Lili’s famous dance numbers were not merely the average bump’n’grind, but actually raised the bar on the typical grindhouse fare, featuring lavish costumes and sets. Her routines were heavily influenced by myths, historical figures like Salome and Cleopatra, as well as classic literature. Her on-stage “Bubble Bath” became legendary. The press from that act alone garnered her Tinsel Town fans such as Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan, and Betty Grable, and some of her famous lovers included Anthony Quinn, Orson Welles and Yul Brynner. She also dated Howard Hughes, who not only wined and dined her but cast her in his feature “Son of Sinbad”, which lead to a role in Norman Mailer’s “The Naked And The Dead”.
Eschewing a movie career, St. Cyr took frequent, long-standing bookings in major cities like Los Angeles, New York and Montreal, which was then the freewheeling Sin Capital of North America, soon to be usurped by Las Vegas. DiNardo’s delicious descriptions of the nascent days of Vegas- the martini-soaked pioneering spirit, stage spectaculars and mob activity, not to mention the Atomic bomb tests that became bona fide tourist attractions- are alone are worth the price of the book.
For a woman whose artistry and iconic beauty so greatly impacted American culture, Lili’s life was also constantly chaotic, and ultimately tragic. She racked up six husbands, ten abortions, and four arrests for obscenity. She struggled with addictions, and reportedly attempted suicide a number of times. After her retirement, she became a recluse. Ultimately, she discovered heroin, and it became her sole companion towards the end of her life. I was utterly shocked when I discovered that a long-time rock ‘n’roll scenester acquaintance of mine was her drug dealer!
Quite obviously a labor of love on the author’s part ( in addition to writing for many mainstream papers, DiNardo is also the brains behind the popular neo-burlesque blog “The Candy Pitch”) this work is not only a snazzy literary debut and interesting piece of showbiz history, but also a fascinating page-turner, perfect for a summer read. Even if one has never cared for burlesque, the book is so intriguing and well written that any reader ought to devour it as voraciously as the post-War audiences received Lili herself.
GILDED LILI: LILI ST. CYR AND THE STRIPTEASE MYSTIQUE
By Kelly DiNardo (Backstage Books $24.95) Available at www.kellydinardo.com or www.amazon.com