Lily St. Cyr

In the Rocky Horror Show musical during the “Floor Show” segment there’s a line Janet sings: “God Bless Lily St. Cyr”. I was curious what the reference was about, so here’s info about Lily St. Cyr. (In the show it is spelled Lily St. Cyre, other incorrect spellings include Lilly Saint Sear, Lilly Saint Cear and Lily St. Seer). Cyr is pronounced like “seer”.

Lili St. Cyr (June 3, 1917 or 1918 – January 29, 1999), was a prominent American burlesque stripper.

Birth name Willis Marie Van Schaack
Born June 3, 1917
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Died January 29, 1999
Los Angeles, California
Spouse Ted Jordan

Early years

She was born as Willis Marie Van Schaack in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1917 or 1918. She had a sister, Rosemary Van Schaack Minsky. Her grandparents, the Klarquists, reared her and her two show business sisters, Dardy Orlando and Barbara Moffett.

Having taken ballet lessons throughout her youth, she began to dance professionally as a chorus line girl in Hollywood. Unlike other women who have stroke-of-luck stories about being plucked from the chorus line and selected for a feature role, St. Cyr had to beg her manager at the club to let her do a solo act. From her self-choreographed act she eventually landed a bit part at a club called the Music Box in San Francisco, with an act called the Duncan Sisters. It was here that she came to a revelation: A dancer’s salary was only a small fraction of what the featured star’s salary was. The difference? The featured star was nude.

From the 1940s and most of the 1950s, St. Cyr with Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio were the recognized acts in striptease. St. Cyr’s stage name is a patronymic of the French aristocracy, which she first used when booked as a nude performer in Las Vegas. Though she is rather obscure today, her name popped up regularly in 1950s tabloids: stories of her many husbands, brawls over her, and her attempted suicides.

St. Cyr was married six times. Her best-known husbands were the musical-comedy actor Paul Valentine, restaurateur Armando Orsini, and actor Ted Jordan in 1955.

Career

St. Cyr’s professional career started as a chorus line dancer at the Florentine Gardens, in Hollywood. Over the ensuing years and in a variety of different venues, many of St. Cyr’s acts were memorable, with names like “The Wolf Woman”, “Afternoon of a Faun”, “The Ballet Dancer”, “In a Persian Harem”, “The Chinese Virgin”, However, Quebec’s Catholic clergy condemned her act, declaring that whenever she dances “the theater is made to stink with the foul odor of sexual frenzy.” The clergy’s outcry was echoed by the Public Morality Committee. St. Cyr was arrested and charged with behavior that was “immoral, obscene and indecent.” She was acquitted but the public authorities eventually closed down the Gayety Theatre where she performed. In the 1980s, St. Cyr wrote a French autobiography, “Ma Vie De Stripteaseuse.” In the book, she declared her appreciation for the Gayety Theatre and her love for the city of Montreal.

While performing at Ciro’s in Hollywood, (billed as the “Anatomic Bomb”), St. Cyr was taken to court by a customer who considered her act lewd and lascivious. In court, St. Cyr insisted to the jury that her act was refined and elegant. As St. Cyr pointed out, what she did was slip off her dress, try on a hat, slip off her brassiere (there was another underneath), slip into a negligee. Then, undressing discreetly behind her maid, she stepped into a bubble bath, splashed around, and emerged, more or less dressed. After her appearance as a witness, as a newspaper account of the time put it, “The defense rested, as did everyone else.” St. Cyr was acquitted.

While St. Cyr starred in several movies, an acting career never really materialized. In 1955, with the help of Howard Hughes, St. Cyr landed her first acting job in a major motion picture in the Son of Sinbad. The film, described by one critic as “a voyeur’s delight”, has St. Cyr as a principal member of a Baghdad harem populated with dozens of nubile starlets. The film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. St. Cyr also had a role in the movie version of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead in 1958. In this film, St. Cyr plays ‘Jersey Lili’, a stripper in a Honolulu night-club and girlfriend of a soldier who boasts to his pals that he has her picture painted inside his groundsheet. Regrettably, heavy edits of St. Cyr’s night-club routine by censors result in some choppy editing in an otherwise finely crafted film. But St. Cyr’s movie career was short lived, and typically she settled for playing a secondary role as a stripper, or playing herself. Her dancing is featured prominently in two Irving Klaw films, “Varietease” and “Teaserama.”

St. Cyr was also known for her pin-up photography, especially for photos taken by Bruno Bernard, known professionally as ‘Bernard of Hollywood’, a premier glamor photographer of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Bernard said that Cyr was his favorite model and referred to her as his muse.

Retirement

When St. Cyr retired from the stage she began a lingerie business in which she would retain an interest until her death. Similar to Frederick’s of Hollywood, the “Undie World of Lili St. Cyr” designs offered costuming for strippers, and excitement for ordinary women. Her catalogs featured photos or drawings of her modeling each article, lavishly detailed descriptions, and hand-selected fabrics. Her marketing for “Scanti-Panties” advertised them as “perfect for street wear, stage or photography.” St. Cyr spent her final years in obscurity and in seclusion, tending to her cats.

Death

She died in 1999 under her maiden name “Willis Marie VanSchaack” in Los Angeles.

Legacy

After St. Cyr’s death, with a renewed interest in burlesque, and especially in Bettie Page, legions of new fans began rediscovering some of the dancers in Irving Klaw’s photos and movies. During this time A&E devoted a special to burlesque in 2001 which included a piece on St. Cyr.

Influences and cultural references

In 1989, one of St. Cyr’s husbands, Ted Jordan, wrote a biography of Marilyn Monroe entitled “Norma Jean: My Secret Life With Marilyn Monroe”, in which Jordan claims that St. Cyr and Monroe had a lesbian affair. The claim is widely disparaged by Monroe biographers. The publisher of Jordan’s book, Liza Dawson, editor for William Morrow and Company, makes a more credible claim in an interview with Newsday in 1989, stating that “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.” Lili St. Cyr is mentioned in the musical “The Rocky Horror Show”. The final line of the song “Don’t Dream It”, (sung by the character Janet Weiss, as played in the film version by Susan Sarandon) is “God bless Lili St. Cyr!”

Filmography

* Love Moods (1952)
* Bedroom Fantasy (1953)
* Striporama (1953)
* Varietease (1954)
* Teaserama (1955)
* Son of Sinbad (1955)
* Buxom Beautease (1956)
* The Naked and the Dead (1958)
* I, Mobster (1958)
* Runaway Girl (1962)

One comment

  • Thank you for the research on this remarkable woman. I find it credible that Norma Jean may have well learned from St Cyr as a professional role model. A rare combination of elegance and raw sexuality without being banal..

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