Obituary: Lili St Cyr
Monday 08 February 1999
Blonde and buxom, she became a favourite of Howard Hughes, acted in several films and ran a mail-order business in lingerie. She was also immortalised in a Rodgers and Hart song when, in their show Pal Joey, they wrote a speciality number for a reporter who recounts an interview with the most famous stripper of all, Gypsy Rose Lee, in which Lee, noted for her intellectual pretensions, told of her thoughts while unzipping her garments ("Zip . . . I was reading Schopenhauer last night - Zip . . . and I think that Schopenhauer was right"), concluding the song with the couplet, "Zip . . . my artistic taste is classic and dear - Zip . . . who the hell's Lili St Cyr?"
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". In her act Suicide she tried to woo a straying lover by revealing her body, and in Jungle Goddess she appeared to make love to a parrot. She also imitated famous women, including Carmen and Scheherazade.
While appearing at Ciro's in Hollywood, billed as the "Anatomic Bomb", she was taken to court by a customer who considered her act "lewd". Explaining to the jury that her act was refined and elegant, St Cyr proceeded to demonstrate. What she did, she pointed out, was to slip off her dress, try on a hat, slip off her brassiere (there was another underneath), slip into a negligee and, in the interests of cultural exchange, execute a few turns of Russian ballet. Then, discreetly undressing behind her maid, she stepped into a bubble bath, splashed around a little, then emerged, more or less dressed. As a newspaper account of the time put it, "The defence rested, as did everyone else." St Cyr was acquitted.
In 1955 Howard Hughes cast her in the RKO film Son of Sinbad, described by one critic as "a voyeur's delight" in which St Cyr had a co-starring role as a principal member of a Baghdad harem populated with over a hundred nubile starlets. The film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
She also had roles in The Miami Story (1954) and I, Mobster (1958), but her best role was in Raoul Walsh's The Naked and the Dead (1958), another RKO production, in which St Cyr was Jersey Lili, stripper in a Honolulu night-club and girlfriend of a farmboy soldier (L.Q. Jones) who proudly boasts to his buddies that he has her picture painted inside his groundsheet. Alas, heavy cutting of St Cyr's night-club routine by censors caused some choppy editing in an otherwise finely crafted film.
Ted Jordan, who managed St Cyr's career in the Fifties and became the fifth of several husbands, revealed in his book Norma Jean: my secret life with Marilyn Monroe (1989) that Monroe mimicked St Cyr. Liza Dawson, editor for William Morrow, who published the book, told Newsday in 1989, "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."
St Cyr continued to do her act until well into her fifties, after which she ran a lingerie mail- order firm in Los Angeles, marketing "Scanti-Panties" advertised as "perfect for street wear, stage or photography".
"She was an extraordinarily glamorous woman with a very, very beautiful body," recalled the music critic of the Montreal Herald. "She had this wonderful haughtiness. After she'd taken a few things off, she'd half cover herself with the curtain and say, `That's it, boys. You're not gettin' any more from me.' " St Cyr herself said, "If one has morals, they can't be taken away by me or anyone else."
Willis Marie Van Schaack (Lili St Cyr), striptease artist: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 3 June 1918; married; died Los Angeles 29 January 1999.
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