Unmentionable Icons: Lili St. Cyr
In the first in this series we met Mary Phelps Jacob, the woman credited with being the inventor of the modern brassiere. While she liberated women from compulsory corsets, women were still dressed in long skirts and high necklines.
Then, in the 30's, the world finally saw way more of the female form than at any other time, when a number of women - actresses, pin up models and burlesque dancers - exposed their beauty and curves to the mainstream.
Beautiful women who removed much or all of their clothing on the stage, with the emphasis on the 'tease' part of striptease, are what now commonly refer to as being burlesque dancers. Originally burlesque was not the combination of dance and striptease that it is now. Burlesque was a bawdy, comic sketch often parodying current events or stories from history. It wasn’t until much later, that it evolved into the art form that it is now.
One of the women who bacame very famous in this way, was Lili St. Cyr. Born Marie Frances van Schaack in June of 1918, she was a tall, slender and very striking woman from Minnesota who became a dancer in a chorus line in LA. Unfortunately for Lili, she found that this wasn’t the lucrative career she had hoped for, however she did discover that one way to earn significantly more money, and to gain fame (or notoriety) was to take off her clothes. This may not seem like such a big deal today, but at the time, this was fraught with the risk of indecency charges which could have serious consequences.
She was offered a job in a club in Montreal, where she developed various routines and worked for several years, becoming very well known in the city where she 'provided titillation for sophisticated tastes. Whereas burlesque was rough and lusty, unbridled and raw, Lili St. Cyr was glamorous and sensual, refined and elegant. She presented imagined romance and the intoxicating suggestion of sex, all while pirouetting along the subtle line of desire and lust, good taste and vulgarity' (DiNardo).
Although she had many admirers, not everyone appreciated her performances and in 1947 she was charged with indecency and charged $350 for appearing nude in a club in LA. This would not be her only brush with the law for indecency or similar charges – her mugshot below was taken when she was charged with lewd behaviour for a performance at the same LA club as before. She got a $50 fine this time, but the club owner did not fare so well. He was sentenced to thirty-nine days in jail.
Yet despite this, Lili worked in some of North America’s most renowned clubs and her fans included Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Regan. She transitioned from the stage to the big screen but never achieved the success that she dreamed of and was often type-cast as a stripper.
She gave her last performance in Las Vegas in 1970 at the age of 53. This is what I see as one of her most incredible achievements – to be dancing in a burlesque show at 53, an age where in this day most women are already passed over as being too old, Lili St. Cyr still showed style, grace and artistry.
By the 70’s the focus was more on strip than tease, and Lili’s fame faded very quickly. Strippers, female nudity and more blatant sexuality was available everywhere and the artistry of Lili, and other women like her, faded into the background.
Lili’s fame had financed a wild life, but now she disappeared into obscurity, establishing a mail order lingerie store called The Undie world of Lili St. Cyr which provided women across the US with seductive underwear with provocative names like Scantie Panties. She ultimately sold the business and became a recluse, living in poverty with an alleged heroin addiction, until her death in 1999.
With the resurgence of interest in burlesque and the celebration of the female form in all it’s shapes and sizes, interest in women like Lili has resurfaced; and instead of being seen as a scandalous woman of low morals, we see a woman who had the independence of spirit and confidence to pave the way for the physical freedom of women in future generations.