Back in the 1940s, burlesque was considered a shabby, second-rate, and mildly sleazy form of entertainment. Then Lili St. Cyr took the stage.
"Lili," writes Leslie Zemeckis in her new biography Goddess of Love Incarnate, "revolutionized stripping and redefined what a stripper could be. Lili's audience held their breaths, mesmerized by her queenly carriage. . . . Lili didn't just strip. She acted in silent 'pantomimes,' creating stories that sought a clever way to incorporate losing her clothes."
In short, St. Cyr made stripping classy. She often began her act wearing a mink coat and a Dior gown. She was the best-known burlesque performer of the 50s and 60s, and also the most highly paid. Her career was long and eventful, and complicated by six husbands, numerous lovers, and several trials for public indecency before it faded out in the early 70s.
Zemeckis, the author of Behind the Burly-Q: The Story of Burlesque in America and director of the companion documentary, traces St. Cyr from her humble beginnings in Minnesota, where she was known as Marie Van Schaack, to her final years as a recluse in Hollywood. She claims this is the definitive book on St. Cyr; if you want to challenge this notion in person, you'll have the opportunity to at this reading.
By Leslie Zemeckis (Counterpoint), available Wed 9/23. Reading Wed 9/23, 7 PM, Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln, 773-293-2665, bookcellarinc.com. free.