Lili St. Cyr, the striptease artist of the 1940s and '50s who mesmerized audiences with her onstage bubble baths and then moved to Hollywood to star in B movies and sell mail-order lingerie, has died. She was 80.
St. Cyr, a sexy blond vamp who served as a role model for Marilyn Monroe, died Friday in her Los Angeles home, said her sister, Rosemary Minsky.
Born Willis Marie Van Schaack in Minneapolis, St. Cyr studied ballet and worked as a chorus girl before making her breakthrough in vaudeville as an ecdysiast. Her exotic stage name and fame ranked with those of Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm and Gypsy Rose Lee.
Brian Macdonald, the director and choreographer of "Gypsy," the Broadway hit musical about Lee, befriended St. Cyr in the early 1950s. She was dazzling Montreal at the Gaiety burlesque house, and he was a music critic for the Montreal Herald.
"She was an extraordinarily glamorous woman with a very, very beautiful body," Macdonald said in 1993. "And she had this wonderful haughtiness. After she'd taken a few things off, she'd half cover herself with the curtain and say, 'That's it, boys. You're not gettin' any more from me.' "
When the Gaiety was reopened in 1996, the Montreal Gazette recalled St. Cyr's opening performance in her geisha mode: "This midwinter night in 1944 was the beginning of Lili St. Cyr's seven-year reign as Montreal's most famous woman, the city's femme fatale, a person whose name invoked sophistication, mystery, sin and--for many males--instant arousal."
St. Cyr also created her seductive imitations of about 25 famous women--including Carmen and Scheherazade--at the Old Howard Theater in Boston and in burlesque houses in Seattle. When she stripped at Ciro's in Hollywood, she was arrested and tried for indecent exposure--and acquitted, thanks to the talents of show business lawyer Jerry Geisler.
The stripper said she played various characters to present herself in interesting roles, and created acts like "Suicide," in which she tried to woo a straying lover by revealing her body, and "Jungle Goddess," in which she appeared to make love to a parrot.
St. Cyr also worked briefly in films, most notably in 1958 in the classic World War II motion picture "The Naked and the Dead," based on the Norman Mailer novel.
Her less memorable films included "The Miami Story" in 1954 with Barry Sullivan, "Son of Sinbad" in 1955 with Dale Robertson and Vincent Price, and "I, Mobster" with Steve Cochran in 1958.
One of St. Cyr's many husbands was sometime actor Ted Jordan, who managed her career in the 1950s and wrote the 1989 book "Norma Jean: My Secret Life With Marilyn Monroe."
It was Jordan who said the brunet Monroe turned herself into a sexy blond by mimicking St. Cyr.
Liza Dawson, editor for William Morrow, which published Jordan's book, told Newsday in 1989: "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."
Long before Victoria's Secret came along, St. Cyr operated a mail order firm out of Los Angeles, selling such items as "scanti-panties" and "exotic hip-length opera hose."