Dancing for herself
Author Leslie Zemeckis throws a burlesque party to celebrate Lili St. Cyr, the enigmatic queen of early American striptease
By Stephanie Case
Under the spotlight at a West Hollywood nightclub, Lili St. Cyr took a bath.
Wearing a diamond necklace, a swipe of red lipstick and not much else, she kicked her legs, splashing, as pink bubbles effervesced from a glass tub.
St. Cyr, one of the original queens of American striptease, became an icon for baring herself on stage. But she never bared her soul.
“She was very much shrouded in mystery,” says writer Leslie Zemeckis, who was intrigued by St. Cyr’s question-mark persona. “She was so hugely famous, so why don’t we know about her?”
Out of that curiosity came “Goddess of Love Incarnate,” Zemeckis’ new biography of St. Cyr, which she’ll sign at a luxe soiree next Tuesday at the historic Culver Hotel. The night promises a rousing 1940s band, vintage cocktails, contemporary burlesque performances and a closer look at the beauty behind the bathtub.
Zemeckis (who’s married to filmmaker Robert Zemeckis but maintains a robust creative identity of her own) was doing research for her own one-woman show — “kind of a saucy, Gypsy Rose Lee thing with some dancing boys,” she tells me — when she fell in love with burlesque and St. Cyr’s untold story.
For five years, Zemeckis tracked down the late starlet’s family and fans, phoned her ex-lover, and flipped through her scrapbooks. She retraced the footsteps of Lili’s life across continents: from her teenage home in East L.A. to the clubs of New York’s “Stripty-Second Street” to a honeymoon spot on the isle of Capri.
What she found was a woman of dazzling contradictions.
On stage, St. Cyr was confident, in command. She invited the audience to spy on private bedroom moments doused with glamour: slipping off Cinderella gowns and opera-length gloves, slinking into a freshly drawn bath, plucking earrings from an antique jewelry box. Each movement emanated with poise and certainty. While the audience watched —rapt, like voyeurs — she rarely glanced back. She was not seeking their approval.
It was “as though she was dancing to and for herself,” Zemeckis writes.
Off stage, St. Cyr was shy and neurotically private. Stage fright gave her ulcers.
“She feared everything,” Zemeckis says: crowded rooms, intimacy, committed relationships. She flitted between Hollywood hunks — Orson Welles, Artie Shaw, Yul Brynner — and half a dozen husbands, hoping each might “fill the emptiness inside.” She could unveil herself in a performance, but love was a different story.
As Zemeckis pieced together the jigsaw of St. Cyr’s life, she faced a question: Did anyone know the real Lili?
“The people who knew her knew a side of her,” she explains. “Her sister would see one side; her husband would see another side.” For her friends: a third side. “She didn’t reveal her whole personality to anybody.”
There was a fourth side, too: the media’s perception.
Newspapers slung dirty labels at her work: immoral, obscene.
Al Capp drew the “Li’l Abner” comic strip villain “Wolf Gal,” a ravenous blonde and literal man-eater, after meeting St. Cyr.
Enraged priests and a public morality committee went after her act. The stigma associated with stripping was inescapable.
Through this, St. Cyr bit her tongue.
“She wasn’t a fighter. She wasn’t a debater. She wasn’t going to stand up for herself,” Zemeckis says. “And yet she very much thought [burlesque] was concerted art.”
Today, her art form is undeniable. Dancers across Los Angeles embrace burlesque with unabashed passion.
“I love the freedom that it allows me,” says April Showers, the reigning Miss Hollywood Burlesque. “I can do whatever I choose to do on that stage.”
April will perform at Tuesday’s party to celebrate “Goddess of Love Incarnate” alongside fellow stripteuse Maxi Millions.
“I can’t see anything that would be more revolutionary,” says Maxi, “than a woman or man on stage, taking charge of their own story and sexual agency, presenting themselves in a way in which they choose to be seen.”
April and Maxi — like Lili — seem to dance to and for themselves.
The “Boobs, Books and Burlesque” party happens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 8, at the Culver Hotel, 9400 Culver Blvd, Culver City. Signed copies of “Goddess of Love Incarnate” will be available for purchase. The event is also a breast cancer treatment fundraiser for the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. Visit lesliezemeckis.com for more information.