Lili St. Cyr

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Lili St. Cyr
Lili St-Cyr.jpg
Born Willis Marie Van Schaack
June 3, 1918 (1918-06-03)
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Died January 29, 1999 (1999-01-30) (age 80)
Los Angeles, California
Spouse(s) Richard Hubert (?–?)
Cordy Milne (1936–?)
Paul Valentine (1946–50)
Armando Orsini (1950––53)
Ted Jordan (1955–59)
Joseph Albert Zomar (1959–64)

Lili St. Cyr (June 3, 1918 – January 29, 1999), was a prominent American burlesque stripteaser.[1][2][3][4]

Early years[edit]

Lili St. Cyr was born Willis Marie Van Schaack in Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 3, 1918.[1][5][6] Her maternal half-sister, Rosemary Minsky (née Van Schaack; born 1924),[1][3] was also a burlesque stripteaser; Minsky appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2004.[7] The sisters, and Barbara Moffett, were raised by their grandparents, the Klarquists.[6]

Having taken ballet lessons throughout her youth, she began to dance professionally as a chorus line girl in Hollywood. Unlike other women who have stroke-of-luck stories about being plucked from the chorus line and selected for a feature role, St. Cyr had to beg her manager at the club to let her do a solo act. From her self-choreographed act she eventually landed a bit part at a club called the Music Box in San Francisco, with an act called the Duncan Sisters.[8] It was here that she found a dancer's salary was only a small fraction of what the featured star's salary was. The difference was that the featured star was nude.

From the 1940s and most of the 1950s, St. Cyr with Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio were the most recognized acts in striptease.[9] St. Cyr's stage name is a patronymic of the French aristocracy, which she first used when booked as a nude performer in Las Vegas.[6] Although more obscure toward the end of her life, her name popped-up regularly in 1950s tabloids: stories of her many husbands, brawls over her, and her attempted suicides.

St. Cyr was married six times. Her best-known husbands were the motorcycle speedway rider Cordy Milne, musical-comedy actor and former ballet dancer Paul Valentine, restaurateur Armando Orsini, and actor Ted Jordan.[10]

Career[edit]

St. Cyr started her professional career as a chorus line dancer at the Florentine Gardens, in Hollywood.[8] Two years later, her stripping debut was at the Music Box, in an Ivan Fehnova production. The producer had not even seen her perform—her striking looks were what won him over. The act was a disaster. Instead of firing her, Fehnova reconsidered and put together a new act. At the end of the dance, a stagehand would pull a fishing rod attached to St. Cyr's G-string. It would fly into the balcony and the lights would go dim. This famous act was known as "The Flying G", and such creative shows would be St. Cyr's trademark.[9] Over the ensuing years and in a variety of different venues, many of St. Cyr's acts were memorable, with names like "The Wolf Woman", "Afternoon of a Faun", "The Ballet Dancer", "In a Persian Harem", "The Chinese Virgin",[8] as well as "Suicide" (where she tried to woo a straying lover by revealing her body), and "Jungle Goddess" (in which she appeared to make love to a parrot).[6]

Montreal[edit]

Lili St. Cyr received the title of the most famous woman in Montreal throughout the late 1940s into the 1950s.[11] However, Quebec's Catholic clergy condemned her act, declaring that whenever she dances "the theater is made to stink with the foul odor of sexual frenzy."[12] The clergy's outcry was echoed by the Public Morality Committee. St. Cyr was arrested and charged with behavior that was "immoral, obscene and indecent." She was acquitted but the public authorities eventually closed down the Gayety Theatre where she performed.[12] In the 1980s, St. Cyr wrote a French autobiography, "Ma Vie de Stripteaseuse." In the book, she declared her appreciation for the Gayety Theatre and her love for the city of Montreal.[13]

Hollywood: nightclubs, films and photographs[edit]

While performing at Ciro's in Hollywood (billed as the "Anatomic Bomb"), St. Cyr was taken to court by a customer who considered her act lewd and lascivious.[9] In court, St. Cyr insisted to the jury that her act was refined and elegant. As St. Cyr pointed out, what she did was slip off her dress, try on a hat, slip off her brassiere (there was another underneath), slip into a négligée. Then, undressing discreetly behind her maid, she stepped into a bubble bath, splashed around, and emerged, more or less dressed. After her appearance as a witness, as a newspaper account of the time put it, "The defense rested, as did everyone else."[6] St. Cyr was acquitted.

While St. Cyr starred in several movies, an acting career never really materialized. In 1955, with the help of Howard Hughes, St. Cyr landed her first acting job in a major motion picture in the Son of Sinbad. The film, described by one critic as "a voyeur's delight",[6] has St. Cyr as a principal member of a Baghdad harem populated with dozens of nubile starlets. The film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.[6] St. Cyr also had a role in the movie version of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead in 1958.[14] In this film, St. Cyr plays 'Jersey Lili', a stripper in a Honolulu night-club and girlfriend of a soldier who boasts to his pals that he has her picture painted inside his groundsheet. Regrettably, heavy edits of St. Cyr's night-club routine by censors result in some choppy editing in an otherwise finely crafted film. But St. Cyr's movie career was short lived, and typically she settled for playing a secondary role as a stripper, or playing herself. Her dancing is featured prominently in two Irving Klaw films, Varietease and Teaserama.

St. Cyr was also known for her pin-up photography, especially for photos taken by Bruno Bernard, known professionally as "Bernard of Hollywood", a premier glamor photographer of Hollywood's Golden Era. Bernard said that she was his favorite model and referred to her as his muse.[15]

Retirement[edit]

St. Cyr retired from the stage in the 1970s, whereupon she began a lingerie business in which she would retain an interest until her death. Similar to Frederick's of Hollywood, the "Undie World of Lili St. Cyr" designs offered costuming for strippers, and excitement for ordinary women. Her catalogs featured photos or drawings of her modeling each article, lavishly detailed descriptions, and hand-selected fabrics. Her marketing for "Scantie-Panties" advertised them as "perfect for street wear, stage or photography."[2][4][6] Her later years were "quiet—just her and some cats in a modest Hollywood apartment."[16]

Death[edit]

St. Cyr died in Los Angeles, California on January 29, 1999, aged 80; under her birth name, "Willis Marie VanSchaack".[1][4] She never had any children, but told Mike Wallace in an October 5, 1957 interview that had she wanted children she would have adopted.[17]

Legacy[edit]

Following her death, and a renewed interest in burlesque, especially in Bettie Page, legions of new fans began rediscovering some of the dancers in Irving Klaw's photos and movies. During this time, A&E devoted a special to burlesque in 2001 which included a piece on St. Cyr.[18]

Influences and cultural references[edit]

St. Cyr is famously referenced in two different songs that were both stage and movie musicals. In the song "Zip" from the 1940 musical Pal Joey by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the singer (reporter/would-be stripper Melba Snyder) rhetorically asks at the climax of the song "Who the hell is Lili St. Cyr?" [I.e., what has she got that I don't have?]. Meanwhile, in the 1975 musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the final line of the song "Don't Dream It" (sung by the character Janet Weiss, as played by Susan Sarandon) is "God bless Lili St. Cyr!"

In 1981, actress Cassandra Peterson became famous for her character Elvira, who achieved her trademark cleavage wearing a Lili St. Cyr deep plunge bra.

In 1989, one of St. Cyr's husbands, Ted Jordan, wrote a biography of Marilyn Monroe entitled Norma Jean: My Secret Life with Marilyn Monroe (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1989), in which Jordan claims that St. Cyr and Monroe had a lesbian affair.[9] The claim is widely disparaged by Monroe biographers. Liza Dawson, editor for William Morrow, publisher of the Jordan book, makes a more credible claim in an interview with Newsday in 1989. Dawson stated that "Marilyn very much patterned herself on Lili St. Cyr—her way of dressing, of talking, her whole persona. Norma Jean was a mousy, brown-haired girl with a high squeaky voice, and it was from Lili St. Cyr that she learned how to become a sex goddess."[6]

The song, "Lily Sincere" on the 2009 Kristeen Young album, Music for Strippers, Hookers, and the Odd On-Looker is an homage to Lili St. Cyr.

In 2010, Elvis Costello's title track of his album National Ransom mentions "And Millicent St. Cyr" in its introduction. See liner notes for full lyrics.

Filmography[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d "Lili St. Cyr, 80, Burlesque Star Famous for Her Bubble Baths". The New York Times. February 6, 1999. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "Lili St. Cyr, the tall, blond beauty who left almost nothing to the imagination when she stepped dripping wet out of her signature onstage bubble bath, died on Jan. 29 at her apartment in Hollywood. She was 80. In a field that began when a Syrian beauty who called herself Little Egypt danced her way into legend at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Miss St. Cyr was a master of elegant invention. Her well-choreographed acts included portrayals of famous seductresses, few of whom could hold a candle to Miss St. Cyr. ... For all that, her six husbands included a waiter, a dancer, a sometime actor and the restaurateur Armando Orsini, who got his start with financing from Miss St. Cyr. ... She is survived by a sister, Rosemary Minsky of Los Angeles." 
  2. ^ a b Barovick, Harriet; Gray, Tam; Lofaro, Lina; Levy, Daniel; Spitz, David; Tartakovsky, Flora; Taylor, Chris (February 15, 1999). "Died.". Time. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "Lili St. Cyr, 80, B-movie actress and stripper of the '40s and '50s, famous for her onstage bubble baths; in Los Angeles. Long before the advent of Victoria's Secret, St. Cyr ran a mail-order lingerie company featuring, among other items, "scanti-panties."" 
  3. ^ a b "Lili St. Cyr; Captivating Striptease Artist of '40s and '50s". Los Angeles Times. February 4, 1999. "Lili St. Cyr, the striptease artist of the 1940s and '50s who mesmerized audiences with her onstage bubble baths and then moved to Hollywood to star in B movies and sell mail-order lingerie, has died. She was 80. St. Cyr, a sexy blond vamp who served as a role model for Marilyn Monroe, died Friday in her Los Angeles home, said her sister, Rosemary Minsky. Born Willis Marie Van Schaack in Minneapolis, St. Cyr studied ballet and worked as a chorus girl before making her breakthrough in vaudeville as an ecdysiast. Her exotic stage name and fame ranked with those of Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm and Gypsy Rose Lee." 
  4. ^ a b c "Lili St. Cyr". Associated Press. February 5, 1999. "Lili St. Cyr, a striptease performer of the 1940s and 1950s whose act included onstage bubble baths, has died at age 80. Ms. St. Cyr died Friday at her home, said her sister, Rosemary Minsky. No cause of death was given. Born Willis Marie Van Schaack in Minneapolis, Ms. St. Cyr studied ballet and worked as a chorus girl before making her breakthrough in vaudeville as a striptease artist. She performed at burlesque houses from Montreal to Boston, Seattle and Hollywood." 
  5. ^ Social Security Death Index; Willis Marie VanSchaack; born June 3, 1918; 553-28-1817
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Obituary: Lili St Cyr". The Independent. February 8, 1999. Archived from the original on 2007-12-10. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "Lili St Cyr was actually Willis Marie Van Schaack, born in Minneapolis in 1918. She adopted a patronymic of the French aristocracy when first booked as a nude performer in Las Vegas, having studied ballet and worked as a chorus girl. She established her reputation as an ecdysiast with a long tenure at the Gaiety burlesque house in Montreal. As the Montreal Gazette was to recall in 1996 when the theatre re-opened, "That midwinter night in 1944 was the beginning of Lili St. Cyr's seven-year reign as Montreal's most famous woman, the city femme fatale, a person whose name invoked sophistication, mystery, sin and - for many males - instant arousal." Among the innovations she brought to her act was a variation in precedence, emerging on stage in minimal attire then putting her clothes on. She also played various characters in order, she said, to present herself in "interesting roles"." 
  7. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yGDNDYgqDg Rosemary Minsky on Ellen, 2004
  8. ^ a b c "Lili St. Cyr". Club Pinup. Retrieved 2007-08-26. [dead link]
  9. ^ a b c d Lili St. Cyr - Biography. Internet Movie Database.
  10. ^ "Married". Time. March 7, 1955. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "Lili St. Cyr (real name: Marie van Schaack), 36, blonde stripteaser; and Ted Jordan, 28, Hollywood and Broadway bit actor (The Caine Mutiny Court Martial); she for the fifth time, he for the third; in Las Vegas, Nevada." 
  11. ^ Sex and the city
  12. ^ a b Important Dates in Burlesque History
  13. ^ http://web.archive.org/web/20081220160050/http://www.vivavavoom.com/girls/lili/bio.html
  14. ^ "Decoded". Time. November 3, 1958. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "The Naked and the Dead, in which Stripper Lili St. Cyr gets about halfway through her act before the cops raid the joint." 
  15. ^ Java's Bachelor Pad: Lili St. Cyr
  16. ^ http://www.pulpinternational.com/pulp/entry/Assorted-photos-of-Lili-St.-Cyr.html
  17. ^ http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/cyr_lili_t.html
  18. ^ It's Burlesque (2001) (TV)

External links[edit]