“Madonna’s stylist used to shop at her lingerie store; Dita von Teese performs an onstage bath routine in homage to her; she inspired Marilyn Monroe,” author Kelly DiNardo says of the subject of her new biography, Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique. Still, you’ve probably never heard of St. Cyr, a darling of 20th-century burlesque. DiNardo intends to change that.
“People don’t know who she is today, but.…[s]he very much inspired our culture in interesting ways,” says DiNardo, a 31-year-old Logan Circle resident. The book follows St. Cyr (nee Marie Frances Van Schaack) as she turned from a Minnesota-bred chorus-line dancer to Hollywood’s “queen of burlesque” and, finally, to a reclusive heroin addict with six divorces under her belt by the time she died of heart failure in 1999.
DiNardo, who moved to the D.C. area after graduating from Cornell University nine years ago, has written on burlesque culture and history for the Washington Post, Glamour, and her blog, the Candy Pitch (thecandypitch.blogspot.com). She spent four years focusing on St. Cyr’s story, which required a trip to Hollywood, where she sat in a car for hours in an ultimately futile stakeout of one of St. Cyr’s ex-husbands and met with her subject’s former drug dealer. (“An absolutely charming man,” says DiNardo. “He was very helpful and extremely open.”) In time, she learned the inside story of the “notoriously shy” star who, DiNardo says, “became obsessed with the fantasy glamour world.”
The pinup’s trip from obscurity to fame and back again is a familiar story in the fickle world of celebrity, but for DiNardo, St. Cyr also offers an intriguing tale of American sexuality in the 20th century. “Lili started performing in the 1940s and kept performing until the 1970s, which is a very long time for a burlesque dancer,” DiNardo says. “But while she danced, the world changed around her.”
Indeed, when St. Cyr first rose to fame in the ’50s, her relatively demure “reverse striptease” routine—in which she’d strip, sink into a bubble bath, and towel off, all while staying within the boundaries of the blue laws of the time—was peeped at by the likes of such high-powered men as Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan, and Howard Hughes. “Lili described herself as a feminist in the ’50s, before that term was entirely mainstream,” says DiNardo. But St. Cyr’s tamer dancing style was soon replaced by more revealing fare. “As the ’60s and ’70s progressed, sexuality and nudity became a lot less risqué.…Once you could have nudity in Broadway plays like Hair, it became less titillating, and to have it at a burlesque club started to seem passé. Burlesque melded into striptease, and then stripping as we know it today. But by then, the ‘tease’ had been taken out of the ‘strip.’”
As burlesque crumbled, so did an aging St. Cyr, who turned to heroin when she faded from the limelight. By the time she died in her Los Angeles home in 1999, DiNardo says, she was a near-total recluse who wouldn’t see anybody but her live-in boyfriend. “She didn’t want anyone to know her as an old woman,” says DiNardo. “She thought her only asset was her beauty.”