Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Last of the Love Goddesses: The Zany Adventures of Liz Renay

My Face for the World to See (1971)
My First 2,000 Men (1992)

In most people, self-awareness is a good quality, but thankfully for us, and probably for her as well, Liz Renay never believed herself to be anything other than a fabulous glamour girl just on the verge of becoming the next big thing. Until her death in January 2007, Renay frolicked through life with happy-go-lucky aplomb, even after a series of setbacks -- treacherous husbands, bad boyfriends, gangsters, grand juries, jail time, a thwarted film career, and family dramas -- that would have sent most people spiraling into depression and self-doubt.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. For those who don't yet know Miss Liz, a little background, described far more colorfully in My Face for the World to See. Born Pearl Dobbins in Chandler, Arizona, our young heroine was raised by strict evangelical parents, but fell away from the church at an early age after her first visit to the local skating rink, which she's been told was "Satan's palace." Renay writes, "In one wave of nausea, my religious belief was swept away. Every value the church had taught me was crushed under the rolling wheels of those innocent skates.... This place was not evil or sinful or wrong. Common sense made that obvious."

Heady with freedom, Renay went a little wild, running around with soldiers stationed in the area, marrying two of them, and giving birth to two babies before the age of 18.

However, Renay's love affair with notoriety began in earnest in the 1950s when the newly single mother began dancing burlesque in New York City to pay the bills, and caught the eye of Tony "Cappy" Coppola, bodyguard for Murder Inc. head Albert Anastasia. After letting Cappy down easy, Liz hoped to break into the movies, and headed to Los Angeles where her gangster buddies arranged for Mickey Cohen to help her settle in. The two hit it off immediately, and Liz got off to a promising start, captivating no less a person than Cecil B. DeMille.

Unfortunately, Liz made the mistake of loaning Mickey Cohen some money, which landed her in front of 13 grand juries on both coasts and into the headlines of national newspapers as "Mickey Cohen's girlfriend." Eternally naive, she enjoyed the attention and photo ops, but got her testimony mixed up in front of one of those juries, and found herself pleading guilty to perjury. She was given probation, but wound up having to serve a three year sentence at Terminal Island after pleading guilty to an unrelated charge of disturbing the peace*.

Between the jail time, the mobster associations, and the fact that she was pushing 40 by this time, no major studio would touch Renay. Undaunted, she went back to dancing burlesque, painting, appearing in B-movies like The Thrill Killers and Blackenstein, and her favorite pastime, men.

My Face for the World to See was published in 1971, but germinated during Renay's prison term. In fact, the portions of the book devoted to this period are the high point, as we see Renay leading the prison's theatre and art classes, painting portraits for her fellow inmates, fighting off the attacks of the "Butch Broads," and getting locked in solitary over a fight for religious freedom behind bars (Renay does apologize for her harsh words against homosexuality in My First 2,000 Men).

Renay's second memoir is just as entertaining as its predecessor, but only if you skip the chapters where she's giving romantic advice and stick to the ones where she's telling tales about her lovers. Another reason I find myself utterly enchanted by Renay is that, although she certainly bedded a number of celebrities, and even devotes a chapter to them, she's no groupie and no star chaser. She writes about the men who treated her best, were most generous, most bizarre, most exciting, and a few who were just oddballs and perverts, and fame or lack thereof seems to play no part in how Renay feels about her conquests.

And how can you not love a book that begins, "There've been so many talented, charismatic men in my life, it's hard to know where to begin. I'll start with Burt Lancaster."

Though self-absorbed and unselfconscious, Liz Renay was a giddily irrepressible barrel of fun, and her memoirs are, too. Definitely worth a skim.
* Renay really got a bad deal on this count, and again, her naivete got her into trouble. She went to a hotel for what she believed to be a "photo shoot," and discovered that the photographer had ulterior motives. There was a ruckus which drew the police, and Renay was charged with disturbing the peace. Bobby Kennedy was under some pressure to get mobster convictions and harsh sentences, and though Renay's actual involvement with the mob didn't go beyond dating its membership, she got three highly undeserved years in the pokey.

I was reading these books around the time that the 40th anniversary of RFK's assassination was being commemorated, so it was rather a surprise to come across sentences like, "My greatest contempt was for hypocrites like Robert Kennedy," and "It sure is awful about poor Marilyn. I'm sure that jerk Robert Kennedy had something to do with this."

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