Gilded Lili: Lili St Cyr and the Striptease Mystique
Author: Kelly DiNardo
Back Stage Books
Before Dita, Madonna, and Marilyn, there was Lili. More famous than pinup and bondage model Bettie Page in her day, Lili St. Cyr made stripping more glamorous than Hollywood ever could. Like a trained starlet, she easily transformed into Salome or Cleopatra on stage. Her statuesque figure enticed Dean Martin, Anthony Quinn, and Ronald Reagan. However, Lili’s legacy seemed long forgotten, until now. Kelly DiNardo’s Gilded Lili: Lili St Cyr and the Striptease Mystique is the only book other than St. Cyr’s 1982 autobiography Ma Vie De Stripteaseuse that chronicles the life of the most beautiful, yet tragic burlesque performer.
Before St. Cyr was the queen of striptease, she was the unknown Marie Van Shaak, born on June 3, 1917 in Minneapolis. According to DiNardo, Shaak, who was raised by her grandparents, had a tumultuous childhood that she rarely spoke of, adding to the mysterious allure she was so famous for. However, DiNardo illustrates Shaack as a desperate 19-year-old yearning to escape from her husband for fame. “He wanted to live calmly and peacefully in a little house with lots of kids. I wanted a dramatic life…with black limos that would transport me to new adventures,” she reveals. Instead of pursuing an acting career in Hollywood like her idol Greta Garbo, the young divorcee used her ballerina training to become Lili St. Cyr, a sensual dancer of the night where in each performance she wore only what the law required. Her golden blonde curls, highly arched eyebrows, and ruby red lips, made her the leading lady of many acts based on women “who were torn by passion and sexual desire.”
Sex is what made St. Cyr a famed burlesque performer, willing to fight societal values to show that teasing to please was power, not a crime. Sadly, after a lingerie line and a brief stint in films, St. Cyr retired from the stage. DiNardo victoriously speaks with many people from St. Cyr’s life, including her drug dealer who maintained her secret heroin addiction. “Kash saw Lili once or twice a week for several years,” she explains. “He would bring her heroin or clean syringes…as the decade progressed she became so reclusive that even take-out delivery men were pre-paid and instructed to leave her food outside the door. ” On January 29, 1999, 81-year-old St. Cyr, who divorced six times and spent her final years suffering from osteoporosis, died of heart failure.
Fortunately, the renewed interest in burlesque found in theatres and fashion has only proven that St. Cyr still reigns supreme as one of the founding women of tease. Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique is rich with secrets and beautifully woven historical research that tells the story of burlesque’s rise and resurrection from one of its glamorous pioneers.