Burlesque being what it is, there aren’t many dancers who came up through its ranks during the classical era who broke through to mainstream fame. Lili St. Cyr was one of the few who did. I first truly became aware of her from watching Irving Klaw’s old burlesque films from the mid 1950s. But she also had some minor parts in several Hollywood films, was on the cover of magazines and was interviewed on television, wound up in Tin Pan Alley song lyrics, and was well known to all the show biz royalty of her day. While she did perform in New York sometimes, her main bases of operation were Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Montreal — people are apt to know her better in all three of those cities than in New York. So it has been a welcome experience learning more about her, for she was absolutely at the top of her field in the 1940s and 1950s (Gypsy Rose Lee had already moved on from burlesque by those years).
Leslie Zemeckis has written a rip-roaring new biography about this burlesque icon. And while it is expected subject matter from the woman responsible for Behind the Burly Q and Bound by Flesh, there are ways in which it feels like the author has struck out into new territory. Those documentary projects had an academic aspect. And while Zemeckis scored some excellent interviews for the new biography (including St. Cyr’s close relatives, ex-husbands, etc) there are ways in which Goddess of Love Incarnate feels novelistic…like the paperback bodice rippers and Hollywood tell-all books my working class mother use to devour (she would have loved this book). Zemeckis uses the omniscient narrator technique, imagining us privy to Lili’s thoughts and private conversations (but with footnotes so we know she didn’t just pluck these out of the air. They have their basis in truth).
But there is no word for it but juicy. I lost count of the men in her life a few pages after she began adulthood. Her lovers included Orson Welles, Yul Brynner, Victor Mature and several other famous gents. She married and divorced a half dozen times. None of her relationships lasted more than about three years. A workaholic, she seemed to give the men in her life something less than second place as a priority. They were around for comfort and company, but ultimately they were replaceable conveniences, no different from the maid who helped her change into her costume. This reflects the shifting nature of her childhood background, which contains some bombshells I won’t spoil for you by revealing here. Two of her sisters were also in burlesque; one of them married Harold Minsky. She and another sister were discovered by nightclub impresario Nils Granlund. (That’s always one of the questions, right? “How did you get into burlesque?” A common answer turns out to be: be beautiful, and some guy will spot you…and ask you to be in burlesque). And burlesque dancers — there’s lots in here about how she developed her classic routines.
And…as a major thread running through the whole book, the sad end we all know is coming: old age, the loss of her looks, poverty, obscurity, and drug addiction.
Speaking of addiction, I plowed straight through this baby like the show biz junkie I am. (I know that was an insensitive transition. I’m sorry, Lili). And I’m probably not the first person to suggest this — the story would make an excellent movie. Buy it now! You know you want to!