Incomplete coverage of a burlesque star
Readers learn about Lili St. Cyr, but they don't learn everything.
By Jen A. Miller, Special to the Times
Published November 4, 2007
Lili St. Cyr was not a stripper in the modern sense of the word. She emphasized the tease in striptease, and the leggy platinum blond, who many believe was the inspiration to Marilyn Monroe, was never nude onstage. Artfully placed pasties and well-draped robes covered what today's strippers flaunt, and that was what made St. Cyr and other burlesque queens of her day, like Bettie Page, Tempest Storm and Gypsy Rose Lee, seem more classy than raunchy.
St. Cyr's life is outlined in Kelly DiNardo's Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique. What a life it was: St. Cyr grew up in Pasadena, Calif., as Marie Van Schaack. She thought her grandmother was her mother, and she never knew her father. At 19, she married motorcycle racer Cordy Milne, not for love but to get out of Pasadena and into what she thought was a more glamorous life. She found it, divorced Milne and began her life as St. Cyr.
She would become one of the queens of the supper club stage, performing for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan and Humphrey Bogart. She married six times and admitted to scores of affairs, lovers and abortions. She claimed to have no desire for family life, nor a Hollywood career (though she appeared in a few campy films, notably Son of Sinbad), and died nearly penniless. She is most remembered for her bathtub routine, in which she'd bathe onstage (in bra and G-string) while showing off her impossibly long legs - an act reinvented today by retro burlesque performer Dita Von Teese.
Unfortunately, DiNardo skirts what would seem to be important facets of St. Cyr's life, like her heroin addiction and rocky relationship with her sister, and instead writes at length about the social climates of the 1920s through '70s, almost dropping in St. Cyr's story where convenient. The effect makes Gilded Lili a flat portrait of a dynamic and, even today, influential performer.
Jen A. Miller, a frequent contributor, blogs about books at bookaweekwithjen.blogspot.com.
Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique
By Kelly DiNardo
Back Stage Books, 272 pages, $24.95