On October 18, 1951, Lili stood on the stage of Ciro’s nightclub on the Sunset Strip dressed in a glimmering, softly draped cream evening gown. She gazed at her appearance in what was made to look like a bedroom mirror and shook her blonde curls in disapproval. Slowly she pulled each finger out of elbow-length gloves and deliberately peeled off each glove. She slipped the side zipper down to her narrow waist, let it skim across the contours of her hips, and gingerly stepped out of the dress, revealing a silky, creamy-skinned back and the long legs of a dancer.
Caressing her legs, Lili deliberately slid on one thigh-high, black silk stocking, then the other. With the help of a maid, she carefully stepped into a lacy, black, strapless dress. Gracefully, she glided toward the mirror, studied her reflection, and again shook her head in disapproval. Slipping out of the second gown, she wrapped a filmy, almost transparent robe around her body and cinched it tightly around her waist.
Relaxing on a chaise on the side of the stage, she stared at the photo of a dark-haired boyfriend while her maid reached up Lili’s long legs so as to slide off each of her stockings and then her panties. While Lili lounged on the elongated seat, languorously tracing imaginary lines over her neck, breasts, hips, and legs, the maid began a bubble bath.
As bubbles floated above the tub, Lili leisurely rose from the chaise, untied the soft, thin robe, let it fall off her shoulders, drift down her back, and hug her body as it slipped to the ground. Still dripping with rhinestones, she sank into the tub, showing just hints of her curves through the soapy water. Reaching for a washcloth, Lili lathered and massaged each arm, then dropped back further into the tub, jackknifing a leg up through the bubbles, and pulling her knees to her chin. She gave the audience a sly coquettish smile, then lowered her eyes.
Water droplets and bubbles clung to Lili’s body as she rose tantalizingly from the tub to step behind the monogrammed towel held by her maid. Drying off, she allowed glimpses of her smooth skin, then slipped into a slinky, white beaded dress. She twirled and turned in front of the mirror and then, pleased with her reflection, sashayed off stage. The nightclub crowd erupted in cheers, claps, and whistles as the curtain closed on the dance Lili called “Interlude Before Evening.”
Lili had been doing variations of this routine for years before nightclub owner Herman Hover caught her show during a trip to New York. Hover, a portly man who had worked for impresario Earl Carroll, began running Ciro’s, the club Variety hailed as “the swankiest club in glitterland,” in the early forties. In his unpublished memoir, he immodestly described it as a “posh palace where money was spent with abandon; where the tables that customers occupied opening night was said to determine their social status for the entire year; . . . where a poorly aimed, alcoholic-inspired punch assumed the headline stature of a heavyweight championship . . . ; [and] where autograph addicts formed a phalanx around the entrance.”1
Hover understood what made a nightclub sexy: “longing, envy, lust, and glamour were the staples of a club you never wanted to leave.” In search of a new act, he decided to add a striptease routine. “The girl I was looking for need not have been . . . pure . . . but I definitely did not want anyone looking like a doorway hooker,” he explained in his memoir.3 In one of New York’s Fifty-second Street clubs Hover found what he was looking for in Lili St. Cyr. “Her main claim to fame was the voluptuous beauty of her figure,” he wrote.4 “She was, to put it politely, the personification of sex.” Hover was particularly struck by her “cold dignity,” which reminded him of Grace Kelly. She seemed to “dare anyone to lay a hand on her.” And so Hover hired Lili to inspire longing, envy, lust, and glamour at Ciro’s.
Returning to Los Angeles, Herman hired Lili’s long-time friend and interior designer Tom Douglas to build her a seven-thousand-dollar set, which included a solid silver bathtub that had reportedly been used by the Empress Josephine of France. Lili first slipped into the tub at Ciro’s in the spring of 1951. “I’m always nervous [on] opening nights,” she told one reporter later. “But I was a little more jittery at Ciro’s because so much more was expected of me.”
Lili’s onstage splash more than met expectations. The hugely successful opening night drew celebrities like singer Dean Martin and future president Ronald Reagan. “Everyone was plenty excited by the show,” Hover recalled. “Chalk it up to the exquisite taste of the production, the costuming, and the extra stage I had built for Lili. The whole idea was daring, and most important, it had caught on.” In fact, Lili St. Cyr was the club’s second biggest draw to date after Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
To win a copy of Kelly DiNardo’s Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique, let us know what you think makes Lili St. Cyr a burlesque legend. Put your answer in the comments here or tweet to @burlesquehall and use the hashtag #BHoFLili. A winner will be selected randomly from all entries received by October 10.
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Photos from BHoF’s Collection
Valerie says:October 3, 2013 at 7:56 am
Lili is legend because she made even her mug shot fierce.
Freya West says:October 3, 2013 at 1:58 pm
Lili is a legend because she had the looks, the brains, and most importantly, the presence, to have a lasting impact on sex in society.
Thomas Dyer says:October 7, 2013 at 7:33 am
She was the epitome of everything we lost as a culture when burlesque was murdered by television and a “stripper” became any woman willing to take off her clothes, sway back and forth across a chrome-played pole, and spread her legs for “the money shot.” Miss St. Cyr was mysterious sexuality–(would she? will she?)–and wore her glamor like a crown.
“God bless Lili St. Cyr!”
Antoine Levandier says:January 5, 2014 at 6:49 am
Lili has high cheekbones and a perfect body, obvious intelligence, which makes her the opposite of the MM dumb blonde type. Intelligent men seek an intelligent woman, she has all the class and style that men would want. Just reviewing old burlesque dancers, Lili stands heads and shoulders above the rest. Just a shame there aren’t more videos of her around. She was what Bogart would have called a real dame or a true broad. They don’t make women like this any more, look at Angelina Jolie with her collagen lips and stupid tattoos. Lilli didn’t need any of that, she was naturally beautiful.
Richard Brandt says:May 25, 2014 at 4:23 pm
Say what you like, I say it’s those eyes.