Friday, February 5, 2016


All about the best dressed undressed woman in the world
By Don Stradley

About their sister burlesque performer, most of the ladies in the biz remembered Lili St. Cyr as aloof, maybe shy, stand-offish, but also as a one-of-a-kind entertainer, someone who conquered Montreal and made that city her own, and then brought stripping to Las Vegas, back when it was still a wild west town. She should’ve been a movie star, if she hadn’t been so hell bent on controlling her own destiny, and though she claimed it was because she couldn’t remember lines, it was really because she felt no director in Hollywood understood her quite like she understood herself. Yet, the very self-absorption that made St. Cyr the highest paid peeler in the world also landed her in a dreadful old age, living as a destitute drug addict in a houseful of cats, watching The Flintstones while she was nodding out on heroin, while the last of her hairy chested Romeos shuffled around the house, bent in half by his own pain and addiction.

       She probably didn’t have the energy to fight her way out of her misery, exhausted from decades of being the most famous disrober of ‘em all, not to mention her six marriages, each of them tumultuous and draining, and her endless affairs, for if ever there was a woman who exemplified the old Rogers and Hart song “Falling in Love with Love,” it was this towering girl from Minnesota. As depicted in Leslie Zemeckis’ Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteuse Lili St.Cyr, a well-researched but slow moving trudge through St. Cyr’s 80 years on the planet, St. Cyr was a groundbreaker as a performer, a nondescript showgirl who reinvented herself and turned the business of strip teasing on its ear, but wasn’t quite as interesting as the men around her. The names of her beaus include Jack Dempsey, Orson Welles, and Victor Mature, plus hockey goons, second tier gangsters, and fringe Hollywood players. St. Cyr provided a kind of empty vortex around which any number of brilliantined mugs could flutter.

       Like the great ones in all professions, from Hulk Hogan to Bette Davis, she went on long after she should've quit. The stage gave her something she couldn't get anywhere else - whether it was a sense of identity or, more likely, a bankroll - so she kept her aging face in the dark while her still flexible body did the journeyman's work. Like her childhood hero, Greta Garbo, Lili maintained a mysterious demeanor, not even sitting poolside in a swimsuit. If you wanted to see her flesh, you had to pay. It wasn’t a bad gig, really, taking bubble baths onstage for leering men, even though death and violence was all around. The book is loaded with suicides and murders, gobs of mental illness, desperate dancers hurling themselves from high windows, and enough family secrets to keep a reader slightly confused throughout. And the bits, where St. Cyr would dress like Salomé or the “Chinese Virgin,” must’ve been scandalous in the 1950s, enough to get her busted several times for indecency, and to incite one of her critics to declare "the theater is made to stink with the foul odor of sexual frenzy." Still, there’s nothing in Zemeckis’ descriptions to make one want to track them down on an old Irving Klaw reel, or sit through RKO's Son of Sinbad, where Lili irritated the censors with her belly-dancing. One is more intrigued by Lili the toothless smack addict, her once beautiful feet crippled by arthritis, checking her fan mail for "gifts," nettling her admirers for stamp money.

       When Al Capp saw Lili in her prime, he immediately created a new character for his Lil’ Abner comic strip: Wolf Gal. Based on some of the photos in Zemeckis’ book, there was something faintly lupine about Lili in her arched brow and pointy nose; Capp was onto something. But wolves travel in packs, and Lili was a loner. This is usually the case for people who make a living through fantasy. As Zemeckis makes clear, St. Cyr created a balloon of make-believe for herself to float in. When it burst, she plummeted to earth. Zemeckis finds this tragic, but I'm not sure. Though she was certainly an innovator,  there’s very little about St. Cyr to make anyone not bewitched by the legends of burlesque to think she was anything more than just another stripper.

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