Liz Renay, 80; model turned actress gained notoriety for dating L.A. mobster

Times Staff Writer

As a fledgling actress fresh from New York, small-time nightclub performer Liz Renay felt she was on her way in Hollywood after director Cecil B. De Mille spotted her in the Paramount commissary.

“He said I was the most exciting face he had seen in 20 years,” Renay said in a 1999 interview with the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. “He was going to star me in a big extravaganza called ‘Esther,’ from the book of Esther in the Bible. Agents were clamoring to sign me.... This was my big hope. I was going to be a big star for Paramount.”

The De Mille picture never panned out. The next time the legendary director saw the statuesque, red-haired Renay, she was being hustled out of the dining room of the Plaza Hotel in New York by federal agents for questioning in a grand jury investigation into the finances of her boyfriend, Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen.


Such was the life of Renay, who died of cardiopulmonary arrest and gastric bleeding in a Las Vegas hospital Jan. 22 at 80.

Hers was a life that included stints as a high-fashion model, nightclub performer and writer -- and, more famously, a mobster’s girlfriend, convicted felon and stripper.

The voluptuous Renay made headlines in 1974 when she was arrested for indecent exposure after streaking down Hollywood Boulevard as a publicity stunt for her “This Is Burlesque” show at the nearby Ivar Theater. The jury acquitted her.

“Lewd -- that’s the one thing she wasn’t,” said one juror who asked for an autographed picture of Renay, in the nude, for his 15-year-old son.

Renay also gained something of a cult following after playing the role of sexpot Muffy St. Jacques in director John Waters’ 1977 crime comedy “Desperate Living.”

But she received her greatest notoriety in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, a time when she was known in the media as “the underworld’s new darling” and “a friend of East and West Coast racketeers.”

Columnist Walter Winchell, noticing the gold flecks in her hazel-green eyes, dubbed her “the girl with the polka-dot eyes.”

Renay, who met Cohen through a mutual mob friend in New York after arriving in Hollywood in 1957, testified more than a dozen times before grand juries in Los Angeles and New York.

She enjoyed the notoriety -- at least at first.

In 1959, she was indicted on five counts of perjury. And in 1961 she began serving 27 months at Terminal Island federal prison in Los Angeles.

“I have paid a dear price for the mistake I made, and I hope the public will be forgiving,” she told reporters who met her at the prison gate when she was released. “I wanted to protect Mickey. I felt I owed him that. I couldn’t deliberately hurt someone who had been nice to me.”

At the time, Cohen was serving a 15-year sentence for income tax evasion.

“It sure knocked the hell out of my career when I went to Terminal Island,” Renay told the Phoenix New Times in 1998. “I would have been a big star had I not gone to prison.”

Fantasies of fame were something she always held dear.

She was born Pearl Elizabeth Dobbins in the small town of Chandler, Ariz., in 1926. The family of seven was so poor, she later recalled, that when she visited a friend’s home for the first time she thought their bathtub was a boat.

As chronicled in a 1972 story in The Times, her father was a heavy drinker and her mother was deeply religious. As she grew up, her grandmother, a onetime beauty contest winner, encouraged her dreams of becoming famous.

Beginning at 13, she ran away from home repeatedly. With a figure that was, according to the account in The Times, already “formidable,” she became an underage cocktail waitress.

At 15 during World War II, she had a two-week marriage with a soldier that produced a daughter. Five of her seven marriages ended in divorce, and she was widowed twice.

When a Hollywood movie company came to Phoenix in 1950 and advertised for hundreds of extras for a lynch-mob scene, Renay signed up.

The striking young woman caught the attention of a Life magazine photographer and writer. Instead of focusing on the film’s stars -- Frank Lovejoy and Adele Jergens -- they did a five-page photo essay on “the young movie hopeful” titled “Pearl’s Big Moment.”

Renay later moved to New York, where she became a high-fashion model and appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine. She later sang and danced in a small nightclub.

After her 1963 release from prison, where she taught an oil painting class and wrote, directed and choreographed a show called “Terminal Island Follies,” she appeared in several low-budget films, including “The Thrill Killers” and “Lady Godiva Rides.”

When a Times reporter caught up with her in 1972, she was working in a Sunset Boulevard strip joint.

She didn’t need to work. She was married to her sixth husband, millionaire entrepreneur Tom Freeman, who did not want her to take the strip joint job. But who was he to argue? “She’s an exhibitionist,” he told The Times. At the time, Renay had recently published her best-selling autobiography, “My Face for the World to See.”

During the 1970s, she toured in a mother-daughter strip act with her daughter Brenda, who died in 1982. Among her survivors are a son, John McLain.

Renay, whose last film role was in “Mark of the Astro-Zombies” in 2002, wrote cookbooks and a 1982 self-improvement book, “Staying Young.” Renay, who boasted of affairs with some top stars, also wrote a second memoir that was published in 1992, “My First 2,000 Men.”

“It wasn’t really anywhere near 2,000 men,” she admitted in the 1998 Phoenix New Times interview, in which she said her publisher had encouraged her to exaggerate the number from what she figured was “probably more like 600.”

“I led a wild life, but 2,000?” she said with a laugh, “C'mon, that’s too many, even for me!”