Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

She's Not There: Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique

Gilded Lili: Lili St Cyr and the Striptease Mystique by Kelly DiNardo

As I sit here, writing and half-watching the Oscars, I'm struck by the irony that the subject of this book herself never bought into the mystique of the silver screen. Lili St. Cyr only did movies when the money was good and the work was easy; otherwise, she'd rather be dancing at Ciro's. And although she turned the heads of Humphrey Bogart and Anthony Quinn, she never aspired to appear alongside them onscreen.

Alongside the poetry-reading Gypsy Rose Lee and fan-dancing Sally Rand, Lili St. Cyr was one of the last queens of burlesque, dancing in theatres across North America from 1940 until 1970. Her stripteases tended to tell stories, often plucked from mythology, literature, and even religion -- Salome, Cleopatra, and once, even The Picture of Dorian Gray served as inspiration for her acts.

In an increasingly youth-besotted culture, it's amazing to realize that St. Cyr's career didn't really take off until she was in her mid-30s, and that she really hit her stride, headlining in Los Angeles, Montreal, and Las Vegas, in her 40s, finally hanging up her G-string for good at the age of 53.

Despite a compelling subject, DiNardo's Gilded Lily never quite compels, hampered by dry writing and padded with a rather shallow analysis of 40s and 50s American society. However, the book's biggest problem is that DiNardo never taps into Lili as a person, much less an interesting one.

In the book's epilogue, DiNardo writes, "Lili was neither Madonna nor whore, neither saint nor sinner, neither exploited pinup nor scheming gold-digger. She was neither mentally shallow, nor intellectually subversive, neither socially unimportant, nor dangerously vital." DiNardo says who Lili St. Cyr was not, but never manages to capture who she was. Perhaps in life, St. Cyr was one of those elusive shapeshifters, unknowable by even her friends and lovers; however, what we see of her here is a benign, flat arrangement of names, places, and dates -- more an itinerary than a life.

Still, the book provides detailed information about relatively unmined territory, particularly in its descriptions of early days on the Vegas strip, nightlife in Montreal, and the shticks and calling card performances of famous stripteasers. Although it falls short, Gilded Lili will be indispensable to aficionados of burlesque history.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find video of Lili's most famous performance, wherein she took a bubble bath onstage. But along those same lines, here's another, billed as "spectacular, erotic, and slightly shocking," a slightly NSFW promo for Lili's Bedroom Fantasies.

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