I've talked before about my interest in the burlesque stars of yesteryear, including the gorgeous Sherry Britton. Lili St. Cyr was one of the glittering stars of burlesque in the 1940s and 50s; although her name fell into obscurity (see Rocky Horror call and response of "God bless Lili St. Cyr!" "Who the fuck is Lili St. Cyr?"), after the passing of Bettie Page, she was one of the treasure trove of dancers who were rediscovered by the public.
Born Willis Van Schaack in 1918, St. Cyr started out as a ballet dancer and chorus girl. She had to beg her stage manager for a chance to do her own solo routines, which she choreographed herself, but her work paid off. When she realized how much more money she could make as a featured nude act, she made the leap from dancer to burlesque and striptease.
Lili St. Cyr had a number of signature acts with names like The Jungle Goddess (which I believe the above photo is from) and The Wolf Woman, but her signature move was The Flying G. A fishing rod would be attached to her g-string, and at the end of the act, one good yank would send it flying to the balcony as the lights went dim.
Although the Catholic Church was, to put it mildly, not a fan of her act, St. Cyr was a huge star in Montreal in the 1940s, and even released a French language autobiography in the 1980s.
She was also the featured act at Ciro's, a popular celebrity hangout on The Strip in West Hollywood. Her famous bathtub act (which really does sound quite subdued by modern standards) got her brought up on charges of lewd and lascivious behavior, although she was quickly acquitted.
Lili St. Cyr was described by Ciro's owner Herman Hover as having an icy dignity, reminiscent of Grace Kelly. St. Cyr's former husband (one of six) Ted Jordan claimed that she had an affair with Marilyn Monroe; while the claim is unsubstantiated and seems unlikely, his publisher made the more plausible claim that Marilyn did pattern herself after St. Cyr, with her blonde curls and oozing sensuality.
In the 1950s, she featured in several movies, including two from Irving Klaw, who is most famous for his work with Bettie Page. The films often ran afoul of censors, however, and her scenes would be chopped and heavily edited.
There's not a lot of information about her personal life. It doesn't seem to have been very happy, unfortunately; she had six husbands and no children, and in her later years turned to drugs. Although she was once highly paid for the times, she ended up relying on friends and photograph sales for support. She died in 1999.
One of the things that I really admire about the burlesque stars of the first half of the 20th century, and earlier, is the way they beat the system by using it. St. Cyr famously asked "What's the point of being beautiful if you can't profit from it?" While it might seem strange to consider women who took their clothes off for money feminist icons, that's really the way that I see them. I can only admire someone who takes whatever gifts they have and uses them to their fullest extent to make their way in the world.