Book Review: Readings

Author Kelly DiNardo recounts the fascinating life of 'the queen of striptease'


Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique

by Kelly DiNardo
Back Stage Books, 272 pp., $24.95

The most popular burlesque star throughout the Forties and Fifties, Lili St. Cyr influenced Marilyn Monroe, performed with Dean Martin, and danced well into her 50s. Author Kelly DiNardo recounts the fascinating life of "the queen of striptease" in the well-researched and superbly written Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique.

Beginning with the introduction by Rachel Shteir, writer of the excellent burlesque history, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, Gilded Lili explores the truth behind the legend while establishing St. Cyr within a proper sociological-historical context. DiNardo immediately humanizes St. Cyr, born Marie Van Schaack, by exploring the stripteaser's childhood in a broken home. Raised by her grandmother, Van Schaack barely knew her father and spent much of her life estranged from her mother. DiNardo deftly follows Van Schaack from her modest Minneapolis roots to her transformation into the world-famous Lili St. Cyr, the first lady of burlesque. St. Cyr married six times and spent the last 35 years of her life with Donald Markick, whom she never married. She died at 81 in January 1999 after spending years as a reclusive heroin addict.

DiNardo wows with her extensive research. She personally interviewed many key figures, including several of St. Cyr's ex-husbands and ex-lovers, as well as their current spouses. Quotes from other entertainers who shared the stage with St. Cyr usher forth from the pages. DiNardo spoke with fans, journalists, psychologists, and even met with St. Cyr's heroin dealer. DiNardo weaves these conversations with bits from other sources, such as St. Cyr's two memoirs, celebrity bios, pop-culture studies, and newspaper accounts.

It is in the lengthy epilogue that DiNardo stumbles. While the current stripper-chic and neo-burlesque trends certainly deserve a place within this biography, they feel like a digression after the story's climatic finish and would have been better placed within the context of St. Cyr's life.

DiNardo successfully reintroduces a largely forgotten star, recounting her unbelievable life. For burlesque fans and aficionados of cultural history, Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique returns Lili St. Cyr, warts and all, to her rightful place on the center stage.

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