Lili St. Cyr was beloved by legions of fans—the question is whether she loved herself.
Today was the day, back in 1999, that the world was deprived of Lili St. Cyr, when she died of heart failure at the age of 80. Her life at the end was quiet—just her and some cats in a modest Hollywood apartment—but during the 1950s she burned up burlesque houses from coast to coast as the most famous, beautiful, and artful exotic dancer in America.
She was born in Minneapolis, but her family moved to Pasadena when she was young. Like many girls from her background, she wanted to be a ballet dancer, and her family paid for lessons. When she was eighteen she accompanied her sixteen-year-old sister on a dance interview, and the agency also took a liking to her. Her first job was at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens, where she was a chorus girl. But the low pay made her determined to headline, even it meant taking off her clothes. Her nude debut was two years later at The Music Box. Supposedly, her act didn’t go well, but the producer stuck with her because he could see quite clearly what everyone else saw as well—she was one of the loveliest girls who ever set foot on his stage.
It wasn’t until after adopting the pseudonym Lili St. Cyr over her unusual birth name that her career began to blossom. She scored a job in Montreal at the Gaiety Burlesque House, and worked there for seven years, eventually earning $1500 a week. It was during that time that shedeveloped some of her trademark techniques, including working with a cockatiel, and having her g-string snatched off by a fishing line that was invisible to the audience. Burlesque crowds were usually raucous, but St. Cyr, with her sheer grace and insistence upon infusing balletic movements into her routines, more often awed audiences into silence.
By the end of World War II, St. Cyr was famous enough to travel North America as a headliner. After several years of that she moved back to Hollywood in 1951 to take a headlining gig at Ciro’s. By now she was more than simply Lili St. Cyr—she was The Anatomic Bomb. One of her standard Canadian routines was to perform in a transparent bathtub filled with bubbles. The act didn’t go over quite as well in the U.S., and St. Cyr was hauled into court on obscenity charges. But the arrest was an opportunity, and she used the publicity to further burnish her fame. By the time the jury acquitted her after only 80 minutes of deliberation, all of America knew Lili St. Cyr.
At the height of her fame in the mid-1950s, St. Cyr was reportedly earning more than $100,000 a year. With the fame came famous suitors such as Howard Hughes and Vic Damone, but she seems to have married only for love, if one is to judge by the fact that none of her six husbands werecelebrities. With the fame also came the moral watchdogs, those desperate to stop consenting adults from doing what they wished with their own time, and the arrests followed. She was making enough money to afford top legal representation, and she chose the best—Jerry Giesler, who we discussed last June.
Beginning with 1952’s Love Moods, she began to appear in motion pictures, and scored parts in a total of ten, including 1962’s The Naked and the Dead. If that film—which was based upon a Pulitzer Prize-winning Normal Mailer novel—had been a success, St. Cyr might have shifted careers. She had long ago grown tired of burlesque, discussing her desire for a career change as far back as 1957, during a painfully clunky interview with Mike Wallace. But the film was middling, and her performance failed to impress, so she stuck with stripping—the only thing she knew.
In 1959 she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The trigger was an argument with her boyfriend at the time, but the suicide attempt wasn’t a surprise, considering her many failed marriages and deep ambivalence about her profession. Her personal life had been something of a shambles for years. There were whispers she’d had several abortions, was addicted to pills and dabbling in heroin. The double-edged nature of fame was made abundantly clear when she landed on the front cover of Confidential. Inside were unflattering photos, including a police mugshot.
As much as the public loved St. Cyr, it was her enemies that seemed to control the direction of her life. Her legal troubles continued, and another marriage went by the wayside. But St. Cyr was nothing if not persistent. By the time she finally retired from burlesque after thirty years, she hadachieved a longstanding goal of establishing herself in another industry by opening a mail order lingerie business similar to Frederick’s of Hollywood. It was called The Undie World of Lili St. Cyr, and her garments were geared toward a male clientele—the idea being that prodding men to give lingerie as gifts was more profitable than trying to appeal to women. St. Cyr was right, and her business became wildly successful, hawking its wares in colorful catalogues that remain collectibles even today. After St. Cyr sold controlling interest in the business, she drifted into a quiet twilight, but, like former nudie queen Bettie Page, experienced a revival during the 1990s. But unlike Page, St. Cyr didn’t appear at conventions and signings—she stayed in her little apartment with her cats.
Most of the sites we visited looking for information on St. Cyr discuss those years of seclusion as if they were an anomaly. But in that 1957 Mike Wallace interview, she confessed that she hated having people look at her. Wallace seemed baffled by this, and for some reason didn’t seem to make the connection that $100,000 a year will go a long way toward helping someone battle stage fright. The idea that she might actually beshy instead took him into a line of questioning during which he flat-out said: “You don’t like yourself very much, do you?” And St. Cyr replied, “No, I don’t.” Asked why, she says, “Perhaps because of what I do.” So it seems clear that St. Cyr was always destined to spend her last years avoiding the limelight. And while it’s safe to say the world certainly missed her, it’s equally safe to say that she probably never missed the world.