Gilded Lili

Review by Willard Manus

The name of Lili St. Cyr won't mean anything to most young people today, but those who were around in the post WW II years will undoubtedly remember who she was. Along with Marilyn Monroe, Lili was a famous sex symbol, a platinum blonde with a curvaceous body who drew huge crowds at strip clubs, night clubs and burlesque houses around the USA and Canada (especially Montreal, her favorite city). Lili also appeared in movies, was interviewed on radio and TV, wrote articles and books (with the help of a ghostwriter), married six times and dallied with the likes of Orson Welles, Vic Damone and Anthony Quinn. She also made headlines innumerable times by being arrested and charged with "violating public decency" and by speaking out frankly about sex. "I've heard philosophers say the three most ingredients of life are health, sex and money," she told one reporter. "The order in which we regard them tells the kind of person we are. I always put sex first."

Lili St. Cyr's life (she was born Marie Van Shaack in Port Edwards, Wisconsin) is retold in GILDED LILI--AND THE STRIPTEASE MYSTIQUE, a new biography by Kelly DiNardo published by Backstage Books. It's not the first biography of the famous stripper--she turns up in many books about the golden age of vaudeville and burlesque--but it's by far the most comprehensive and compelling. DiNardo, a veteran freelance writer, tracked down numerous people who knew and worked with Lili and got them to dish about her. DiNardo also did copious research which she has managed to assemble into a clearly written, easy-to-read book. She's a G-string historian of the first order.

Lili was a Queen of Sex, a performer who was still drawing crowds and making big money when she was fifty. Her titillating appeal (no pun intended) was meticulously thought out and choreographed. "It wasn't like the old American striptease style, with the throwing and flinging of gloves and bras in the air," said one of her musicians. "She created this vixen aura, an 'I'm going home with you tonight' situation. When she danced, you thought she was dancing for you. It was personal. It was subtle and it had more meaning. She was such a statuesqe woman. You couldn't imagine her going to the bathroom. It's impossible. She was a goddess." With numbers like "Bird of Love" (danced with a live bird that undressed her) and "Bubble Bath," Lili came across as "glamorous and sensual, refined and elegant." The sex was there but it was largely hinted it. Not only men loved to watch her, but women too, thanks to her panache, her puckish sense of humor. She empowered women to feel good about themselves and their bodies. She sold sex, but in a refreshingly open and frank way: "As far as sex is concerned, no matter how popular baseball may be, it will never be our national game, no matter what the baseball writers tell you."

Lili danced for three decades and then slid, slowly but inexorably, into a sad, tragic, drug-addled life. "She was riddled with flaws, plagued by bouts of insecurity, and filled with self-destructive passions," DiNardo sums up. "Ultimately she bought into the myth that seniors could not be seductresses, that beauty remained integral to success, happiness and power. And her finale lacked the happily-ever-after outcome of her fairytale inspiration, Cinderella.

"These flaws and doubts led Lili to isolate herself completely in the hope that she would be remembered for the beautiful, ahead-of-her time siren that she was. Instead she was forgotten. As she grew older, she turned down interviews, refused fan requests, and rebuffed friends' attempts to visit. After more than twenty-five years of seclusion, her name dimmed from the marquee in the public's mind. Now, if she is remembered at all, it is most often as an answer to a trivia question--she is the woman Susan Sarandon's character Janet blessed in the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show."