Obituary: Lili St Cyr

A STRIPTEASE performer noted for her on-stage bubble baths, Lili St Cyr was allegedly a role model for the young Marilyn Monroe.

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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star