Lili St. Cyr

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Lili St. Cyr
Lili St-Cyr.jpg
Lili St. Cyr in Montreal, circa 1946
Marie Frances Van Schaack

(1918-06-03)June 3, 1918
DiedJanuary 29, 1999(1999-01-29) (aged 80)
Other names"Anatomic Bomb"
Occupation(s)Stripper, burlesque star, model, actress
Years active1937–1965
Spouse(s)Richard Hubert (?–?)
Cordy Milne (1936–?)
Paul Valentine (1946–50)
Armando Orsini (1950–53)
Ted Jordan (1955–59)
Joseph Albert Zomar (1959–64)
Modeling information
Height5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)
Hair colorBlonde

Marie Frances Van Schaack (June 3, 1918 – January 29, 1999), known professionally as Lili St. Cyr, was a prominent American burlesque dancer and stripper.[1][2][3][4]

Early years[edit]

St. Cyr was born Willis Marie Van Schaack in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 3, 1918.[5][6][7] Her maternal half-sister Rosemary Minsky (married to Harold Minsky née Van Schaack; born 1924)[3][5] was also a burlesque dancer and stripper under the stage name Dardy Orlando, appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2004.[8] The sisters, and Barbara Moffett, were raised by their grandparents, the Klarquists.[7]

Having taken ballet lessons throughout her youth, she began to dance professionally as a chorus line member at the Florentine Gardens in Hollywood.[9] St. Cyr had to beg her manager at a 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 the Duncan Sisters.[9] It was here that she found a dancer's salary was only a small fraction of the featured star's salary: the difference was that the featured star was nude.

Burlesque career[edit]

In the 1940s and most of the 1950s, St. Cyr, Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio were the most recognized acts in striptease.[10] 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.[7]

St. Cyr's reputation in the burlesque and stripping world was that of a quality and high-class performer, unlike others such as Rosa La Rose, who flashed her pubic hair.[11] Two years after she started her career as a chorus line dancer, her stripping debut was at the Music Box, in an Ivan Fehnova production. The producer had not even seen her perform—her striking looks won him over. The act was a disaster, but instead of firing her, Fehnova put together a new act. At the end of the dance, a stagehand pulled a fishing line attached to St. Cyr's G-string, which flew into the balcony as the lights went dim. This act was known as The Flying G, and such creative shows became St. Cyr's trademark.[10]

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",[9] 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).[7] Props were integral to many of the women's acts. Lili was known not only for her bathtub, but elaborate sets of vanities, mirrors, and hat racks. She variously performed as Cinderella, a matador, Salome, a bride, a suicide, Cleopatra and Dorina Grey.[11]


St. Cyr's work from 1944 to 1951 at Montreal's Gayety Theatre led author and filmmaker William Weintraub to later describe her as "Montreal's most famous woman, the city's femme fatale...".[12] 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."[13] 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.[13]

In 1982, St. Cyr wrote a French autobiography, Ma Vie de Stripteaseuse. (Éditions Quebecor). In the book, she declared her appreciation for the Gayety Theatre and her love for the city of Montreal.[14]

Hollywood: nightclubs, films and photographs[edit]

While performing in 1947 at Ciro's nightclub in Hollywood (billed as the "Anatomic Bomb"), St. Cyr was arrested by police and taken to court by a customer who considered her act lewd and lascivious.[citation needed] Represented by the infamous Hollywood attorney Jerry Giesler[11] 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."[7] After just 80 minutes of deliberation by the jury, St. Cyr was acquitted.[11]

While St. Cyr starred in several movies, an acting career never really materialized. In 1953, 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",[7] 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.[7] St. Cyr also had a role in the movie version of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead in 1958.[15] 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. Heavy edits of St. Cyr's night-club routine by censors result in some choppy editing in an otherwise finely crafted film. 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.[16]


St. Cyr depleted the wealth she accumulated during her heyday. While interviewing her for his 1957 program, Mike Wallace stated she earned over $100,000 annually.[17] Many women like her were not supported by their husbands or family.[11] St. Cyr retired from the stage in the 1970s, and began a lingerie business that she retained an interest in 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][7] Her later years were "quiet—just her and some cats in a modest Hollywood apartment."[18]

Personal life[edit]

Although more obscure toward the end of her life, her name came 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.[19]


St. Cyr died in Los Angeles, California, on January 29, 1999, aged 80.[4][5] She never had children, but told Mike Wallace in an October 5, 1957, interview that had she wanted them she would have adopted.[17]

Legacy and cultural references[edit]

Following her death and a renewed interest in burlesque, especially in Bettie Page, legions of new fans rediscovered some of the dancers in Irving Klaw's photos and movies. In 2001, A&E produced a special on burlesque that included a segment on St. Cyr.[20]

St. Cyr is referenced in two 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?"[7] [i.e., what has she got that I don't have?]. In the 1975 musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the final line of the song "Don't Dream It, Be It" (sung by the character Janet Weiss, as played by Susan Sarandon) is "God bless Lili St. Cyr!"[21]

In 1981, actress Cassandra Peterson became famous for her character Elvira, who achieved her trademark cleavage wearing a Lili St. Cyr deep plunge bra.[22]

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 claimed that St. Cyr and Monroe had an affair. The claim is both widely disparaged by Monroe's biographers and widely upheld by St. Cyr's. Liza Dawson, editor for William Morrow, publisher of the Jordan book, makes a related 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."[7]



  1. ^ Zemeckis, Leslie (2015). Goddess of Love Incarnate (first ed.). California: Counterpoint Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-1-61902-656-8.
  2. ^ a b Barovick, Harriet; Gray, Tam; Lofaro, Lina; Levy, Daniel; Spitz, David; Tartakovsky, Flora; Taylor, Chris (February 15, 1999). "Milestones: DIED. LILI ST. CYR". Time. Archived from the original on September 30, 2007. Retrieved August 16, 2016. 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. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c Lili St. Cyr, Associated Press, February 5, 1999, 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. ....
  5. ^ a b c Robert McG. Thomas Jr. (February 6, 1999). "Lili St. Cyr, 80, Burlesque Star Famous for Her Bubble Baths". The New York Times. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  6. ^ Social Security Death Index; Willis Marie VanSchaack; born June 3, 1918; 553-28-1817.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Obituary: Lili St Cyr". The Independent. February 8, 1999. Archived from the original on December 10, 2007. Retrieved August 21, 2007. 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, she said, to present herself in interesting roles.
  8. ^ "- YouTube". Retrieved September 27, 2022.
  9. ^ a b c "Lili St. Cyr". Club Pinup. Archived from the original on August 25, 2007. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  10. ^ a b "Lili St. Cyr - Biography". IMDb. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  11. ^ a b c d e Zemeckis, Leslie (2013), Behind The Burly Q, Delaware: Skyhorse, ISBN 978-1-62087-691-6
  12. ^ Martin, James (September 22, 2005). "Sex and the city". McGill Reporter. Archived from the original on January 31, 2016.
  13. ^ a b "Important Dates in Burlesque History". Archived from the original on August 20, 2007.
  14. ^ "Bio of Lili St. Cyr". Archived from the original on December 20, 2008. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  15. ^ "Decoded". Time. November 3, 1958. Archived from the original on December 10, 2007. Retrieved August 16, 2016. The Naked and the Dead, in which Stripper Lili St. Cyr gets about halfway through her act before the cops raid the joint.
  16. ^ "Java's Bachelor Pad: Lili St. Cyr". Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  17. ^ a b "Lili St. Cyr: The Mike Wallace Interview". Retrieved January 3, 2016.
  18. ^ "Assorted photos of Lili St. Cyr". Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  19. ^ "Married". Time. March 7, 1955. Archived from the original on December 10, 2007. Retrieved August 16, 2016. 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.
  20. ^ "It's Burlesque (TV Movie 2001)". IMDb. January 3, 2016. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  21. ^ Goode, Hella (1 June 2010). "Lili St. Cyr". Pin Curl Magazine. Retrieved 1 June 2018.
  22. ^ Zemeckis (2015), p. 357.

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