June 3, 1918 – January 29, 1999
by Mark Langlois
Striptease artiste and entrepreneur Lili St. Cyr is probably best known today from pop culture references in musicals (The song “Zip” from Pal Joey ends with the line “Who the Hell’s Lili St. Cyr?” and The Rocky Horror Show‘s “God Bless Lili St. Cyr” ends the song “Don’t Dream It, Be It”), and of course from her mail-order lingerie line which transfixed young lads for decades, The Undie World of Lily St. Cyr.
Lili St. Cyr (born Willis Marie Van Schaack in Minneapolis) moved to Pasadena, California when she was age 7. She and her sisters were raised by grandparents and Lili dropped out of school in 9th grade. She became a chorus girl dancer at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardensby age 22. The head waiter was her first husband.
By 1944, she was the toast of Montreal with a seven-year reign at the Gaiety Burlesque House. She approached her striptease career with the innovation of appearing on stage in minimal attire and then putting clothes on. She also performed as characters and acted out sexy scenarios (in her “Jungle Goddess” segment she appeared to make love to a parrot).
Lili St. Cyr became one of biggest headliners in burlesque, traveling coast to coast. In 1946, with the help of millionaire interior decorator, Tom Douglas, she created a bubble bath striptease featuring a transparent glass tub that would become her trademark.
In 1950, Lili’s sister, Rosemary “Dardy” (also a striptease artist), married Harold Minsky, son of the famous New York burlesque impresario Billy Minsky. That year, Lili married husband # 4, New York restaurateur Armando Orsini.
Lili got her big break in Hollywood on October 18, 1951 at Ciro’s when – billed as the “Anatomic Bomb” – her bubble-bath performance was deemed indecent and she was arrested for the lewd and lascivious act.
Lili served up her brand of glamour for the press at the Beverly Hills Court trial, and she was acquitted on December 11th when the jury ruled in her favor after deliberating for just one hour and 18 minutes.
By the mid-1950s she was reportedly earning $200,000 a year, and courted by the likes of Nicky Hilton, Orson Welles, Vic Damone and Howard Hughes who offered her a 7-year contract at his RKO Films. Ted Jordan (nephew of singer Ted “Is Everybody Happy?” Lewis), became Lili’s fifth husband and manager during her film career. Lili appeared in a harem scene in Son of Sinbad (1955) that was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. She also had roles in The Miami Story (1954) and I, Mobster and The Naked and the Dead (1958). When her film career ended, Lili was back in her clear bathtub performing in Las Vegas.
In 1965, she published her autobiography “And Men My Fuel” in which she declared to despise children and confessing to seven abortions.
After a tiresome Montreal indecency arrest in 1967 (the city was cleaning up for the World’s Fair, Expo ’67) Lili was ready to hang up her G-string.
Lili gave a remarkable interview with Mike Wallace in 1951 where she was very forthright saying that she had no particular interest in politics or formal religion or any “obligation to contribute any more babies” in an already “over-populated” world. She also admitted to Wallace that despite her frequent husbands, she needed to make a living but wished she had other training to be in a “legitimate business”. She also spoke openly of her belief in UFOs and life on Venus (“They must be more civilized that we are.”).
Lili did eventually find another legitimate business – her highly successful mail-order (thanks James) lingerie line selling “scanty- panties” and “hip-length opera hose” to dancers, models and housewives looking to spice up their marriage.
In the 1970s, she sold her LA-based lingerie business to a local shop but retained interest in it until her death. She spent her final years in seclusion, suffering from osteoporosis and caring for her cats.
After 6 husbands, a 30-year career in striptease, and a reported heroin addiction in her later years, Lili St. Cyr died from heart failure at age 80 in her Hollywood apartment on January 29, 1999.
She no doubt had to kick her way through an ocean of nosey out of work actresses that live in the building, to get to her front door.
She was cremated, and her ashes were given to her sister, Rosemary Minsky of Los Angeles.
Wanna see her mailbox?
Trivia: Lily believed in flying saucers. Thanks to Findadeath friend, Connie, now we know.