A self-made woman, ‘Texas’ Guinan created a mythology around herself, much like Mae West or The Great Ziegfeld. It’s hard to tell how much of her autobiographical storytelling is based in truth; as Tex said herself, “Exaggerate the world!” What is definitely true is that Texas Guinan was a character, a cowgirl, a silent film actress, a syndicated newspaper columnist, ‘Queen of the Nightclubs’ during Prohibition, and a natural-born hustler.
Tex was born in Waco, Texas in 1884, and given the name Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan. Raised with the social grace of the Victorians, she still turned out to be a tomboy and a troublemaker at her Catholic school. Tex was a full-blooded Irish and a force to be reckoned with; it seems that she most always did exactly as she pleased, and what pleased her most was adventure. She told tales of joining the circus as a young girl and, being an excellent trick rider, they may have been true. Her skills as a horsewoman certainly served her well in tinsel town.
After spending some time as a socialite in Denver and two years married in Chicago, Guinan took off for New York City to make a career for herself. Her big personality and quick wit made her a vaudeville star in no time. Then, during WWI, she toured France, entertaining the troops, after which she relocated to Los Angeles to make a name for herself in the movies. Eschewing the traditional female dichotomy of roles (damsel in distress or femme fatale) she brought her own boisterous character onto the big screen, and made two-reel westerns where she was a heroine and rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl, but also a romantic.
After years of a successful film career, and less successful production company, Tex tired of the cinema life and returned to the lights of Broadway. With Prohibition now monitoring the city’s night life, it didn’t take Tex long to find a new niche. What began as merely outings for her and her showbiz friends, evolved into a hostessing position, and before long, she had a partnership with a bootlegger in her own nightclub. In fact, she played a big part in the development of the modern nightclub. With a $6 cover charge and $1.50 drinks (in the 1920, mind you), it’s no wonder Tex coined her infamous phrase, “Hello Suckers!” Although Tex herself was never a drinker, she could spot a good business opportunity, and put Prohibition to work lining her pockets. A brassy blonde with a big heart and a big mouth, the customers warmed up to her easily, and she was quick to learn every patron’s name. She said, “A nightclub hostess – if she is successful – should make people forget they have homes. This proves the old theory that an indiscretion a day will keep depression away.” Tex’s easy banter even turned police raids into just another dog and pony show. The frequent raids and closing of clubs also spurred her to produce a Broadway show, Padlocks of 1927.
But she couldn’t’ keep the cops at bay forever – in 1928 she was jailed as part of the biggest nightclub raid in New York history, and was charged with being a public nuisance. However, a couple of the arresting officers had been frequenting the club, on the taxpayers’ dime (doing undercover work, of course) and the charges against Tex were dropped. Soon after, she filmed Queen of the Nightclubs, cementing her status as a Prohibition legend. She later stated, “I have been credited with much and charged with plenty…Whenever they have a new law they try it out on me.”
Although she passed away in 1933, just one month before the repeal of Prohibition, she was known to say, “They will have to padlock my coffin if they expect to keep me in it.”
The Silver Slipper and the Infamous Evelyn West and Blaze Starr
The only icon that says Las Vegas more than a slot machine is a showgirl. From can-can to canned music, Vegas seems to have always welcomed scantily clad women on its stages. Some of the biggest busts in burlesque were popular touring sensations at the Silver Slipper in the mid-century. One of the largest casinos on the Strip in its heyday, some favorites at this saloon were Tempest Storm, Evelyn West, and Blaze Starr.
Although there was little protest to the stripteasers’ Vegas presentations, both Blaze Starr and Evelyn West found themselves under the scrutiny of the law when performing elsewhere. In Philadelphia Blaze Starr’s performance was brought up on an obscenity charge for her aggressively sexual panther crawl and Evelyn West was reportedly hauled to the big house at least a half dozen times in St. Louis.
Billed as “The Hottest Blaze in Burlesque,” Blaze Starr was born in 1932, hit the road at the age of 15, leaving her Virginia home behind, and was performing burlesque in Baltimore by 16. With her phenomenal figure and flaming red hair, Blaze quickly made a name for herself. This hot-blooded mama can aptly be described as fierce, her acts known for their energy and daring. Her most famous stage prop was the burning couch, a device that was both hot and humorous. As Blaze graced the divan with her derriere and began to disrobe, the couch would start to smoke and seemingly set itself on fire! The only person this act didn’t make her popular with was probably the fire marshall. What really got her into trouble, though, was another little stunt involving a live panther. The panther joined her onstage and helped her out of her clothes while searching for hidden snacks. But problems didn’t arise from a protest by PETA or an act of animal violence. No, the trouble all started when the panther passed away…and Blaze decicded to keep the routine, imitating the panther herself. Although audiences were ready for her raw re-enaction of the panther’s prowl, police were not. Perhaps they feared that Blaze would incite a sexual riot, so they arrested her for obscenity. Just as a later accusation in New Orleans would be, the charges were thrown out.
Miss Starr is perhaps best known these days for her love affair with “the ungovernable governor,” Earl K. Long of Louisiana and the movie, Blaze, based off of her autobiography. Previously pictured as the lead in 1962’s Blaze Starr Goes Nudist, Blaze may not have been an actual nudist, but Miss Evelyn West spent some time as a part of The American Sunbathing Assocation. She advocated the health and happiness that nudism could bring to a person and was even a bridesmaid in a nude wedding once.
Known as “The Hubba-Hubba Girl,” Evelyn West was born in 1921 and has been credited with making burlesque ‘bust-conscious.’ She was so proud of her own pair that she had them insured for 50 big ones through the prestigious Lloyd’s of London. She even attempted to legally change her name to Evelyn “$50,000 Treasure Chest” West.
Beginning in sideshow, Evelyn’s career really took off after World War II when she began performing a striptease at San Francisco’s President’s Club. She appeared in the film A Night at the Follies in 1947, where she quipped, “I know you’re looking at my shoes,” and was an extra in a couple of earlier films, but burlesque was where she really made it big. Despite her many run-ins with the St. Louis police department, Deputy Police Chief James Hacket gave her the compliment of calling her “the Babe Ruth of burlesque.” Her most notorious prop, a dummy called Esky, modeled after Esquire magazine’s mascot, caused some to take offense. They claimed that her act “excited men to lewd and vicious thoughts,” but as per usual, the judge in this case was hesitant to navigate the grey area between art and misconduct, and the charges were dropped. Although she was taken in for indecent exposure several times, her bondsman, Bob Block, has stated that she was never held over night.
Miss West had no problem stirring up a little trouble, and publicity, wherever she went. Evelyn was known to make disparaging comments about rival celebrities, even throwing a tomato at one, and threatening to sue others. According to one source, her pin-up photos were banned by the US postal service for lewdness and a pricing scale that correlated directly to Miss West’s state of undress.
From starring at the Stardust and Silver Slipper to authoring articles such as “How I Feel about Sex” and “Are Strippers Immoral,” the buxom beauty definitely made her mark on burlesque. Evelyn eventually retired to anonymity, though, and passed on in 2004. Blaze Starr, however, continues to create art, selling her jewelry online at www.blazestarrsgems.com. She also still enjoys playing the Cajun fiddle and the slot machines!
by: Femme Vivre LaRouge
Her greatest crime was her ambition; her foolish pride proved to be both her virtue and vice. Mata Hari lived in an era when the world would be forever changed by ‘the war to end all wars.’ Parisians had been riding high on a wave of gaiety in the emerging modern age, intoxicated by opium and orientalism, the spider woman and the Salome craze, and the fervor of unbound flesh that came along with it. But it was not to last; The Great War brought everyone back down to earth with startling disillusionment. Unfortunately, Mata Hari was unwilling to let go of her dreams of grandeur and did not accept the sobriety of a new age, thus landing herself, inextricably, in a situation which was much direr than she ever realized. The year 1917 found her not only arrested, but condemned to death by firing squad for crimes she most likely never committed.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, born in 1876, was always a proud and spirited girl who wished to bring attention to herself. After a tumultuous marriage to the stormy Rudolph MacLeod, which caused her a good deal of humbling heartache, she hightailed it for Paris. Due to the despicable circumstances of her marriage, she had little choice but to leave her daughter behind and was never allowed to see the girl again, though she did try. Even the letter written to her child on the day of Margaretha’s execution remained sealed in her dossier, which was not scheduled to be opened for 100 years.
Margaretha made a bold move for a penniless woman when she arrived in Paris and checked in to one of the most expensive hotels in town. She cleverly used what she had picked up while living with her military husband in Java and Sumatra to cloak herself in exoticism, creating a new identity as the Javanese temple dancer Mata Hari. Belle Epoque Paris was more than willing to believe this charade and her love of men and military uniforms quickly made her not only a sensational performer, but an extremely successful courtesan, as well. Meaning ‘eye of dawn,’ Mata Hari performed her stripteases in the homes of the wealthy, famous, and powerful all across Europe. Depending upon her venue and audience, she would sometimes wear a nude bodysuit and sometimes nothing at all; however, she never removed her trademark bejeweled breast plate, not even for her lovers. The truth is that she was displeased with her small breasts and large areolas, but she often claimed that it was because her violent husband had bitten off both of her nipples in a fit of rage.
Enjoying fully the freedoms of her existence as a fallen woman, Mata Hari took on lovers from all walks of life. She claimed that in her ‘sacred dances,’ “I offer everything and finally myself to the god – which is symbolized by the slow loosening of my loincloth, the last piece of clothing I have on, and stand there…entirely naked.” Surprisingly, she was never arrested for a lewd performance, only on trumped up espionage charges. Initially, those who were suspicious of Mata Hari were merely offended by her insistence on continuing to represent herself ostentatiously in the midst of war and fearful of her influence with men of power and position. Times were changing for women and the pendulum of patriarchy had swung back to once again condemn women who dared to live too largely, rather than admire them.
Sadly, Mata Hari was oblivious. She seems to have lived in a dreamworld, perhaps convincing herself of the character history she had been selling the public for years. Having no idea that the French and British were already keeping tabs on her, she was first approached by a German officer to pass along any useful information she might happen to pick up. In need of money, she accepted the offer, without really intending to do anything but go on about her own business of self-promotion, as if it was nothing more serious than deceiving one of her many lovers. Her worst mistake, though, was to fall in love, for the first time ever. The young man, a Russian officer, was wounded in the war and, in desperation, Mata Hari also agreed to spy for France in order to earn enough money to end her career as a courtesan and marry her lover.
Mata Hari’s grand scheme was anything but subtle; she set out at once to seduce an old lover, the crowned prince of Germany! After that matters only became further convoluted when she was mistaken for an actual German spy, Clara Bendix. Mata Hari was interrogated at Scotland Yard until she spilled the story of her agreement to spy for the French officer, Georges Ladoux. British Intelligence, however, had been alerted by Ladoux himself, over a year previous, to keep an eye on Mata Hari! Naturally, this made him look rather foolish and only furthered his distrust and distaste for Mata Hari, and he set out to bring about her ultimate demise. Caught in the crossfire of wartimes, Mata Hari was made a sacrifice. Her arrest and execution was touted by both Britain and France as a great success in the war effort, and by Germany as a great example of the folly of the Allies. Her trial was anything but fair and the evidence given against her was circumstantial at best, yet she maintained her poise and dignity to the bitter end.
Living out the last months of her life in a filthy cell, Mata Hari’s letters went undelivered and her pleas unheard. Her trial was a closed, fly by night procedure, with no press coverage permitted, and those who could have testified in her defense were not allowed to do so. Destitute, imprisoned, and abandoned by her slew of admirers, she wrote, “I will defend myself and if I must fall it will be with a smile of profound contempt.” Mata Hari held her head high and, when faced with a firing squad comprised of twelve soldiers, she refused the blindfold, choosing instead to look her executioners in the eye. She did not flinch until hit by eleven bullets, as one of the men had fainted. Whether it was just for good measure or just one final insult, an additional bullet was put in her head; no one claimed her body, and she has no grave. Mata Hari may have come to an untimely and unjust end, but she lives in infamy, immortalized as the most famous spy seductress of all time.
Burlesque Arrests: Jack Ruby & Tony Midnite
by: Femme Vivre LaRouge
I present to you two very different figures from the history of burlesque: Jack Ruby and Tony Midnite. While Midnite made his mark as a performer, costumer, and LGBT activist, Ruby went down in history not for the clubs he owned, but for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.
Born in Chicago in 1911, Jack Ruby relocated to Dallas in 1947, to take over management of the Singapore Club, which his sister owned. Ruby later changed the dancehall’s name to the Silver Spur Club and additionally purchased the Bob Wills Ranch House to operate as a western-style nightclub. Neither of these clubs survived, but his next venture, the Vegas, did. The Vegas club offered beer and wine, a limited food menu, a live band, and the occasional striptease act. After a failed attempt at operating a private club on Commerce, he changed its name to the Carousel Club and abandoned the membership system (which enabled club members to purchase liquor) for a public nightclub format with four stripteasers, an emcee, and a band on the payroll. While some employees got along just fine with Jack Ruby and even spoke fondly of him and his generosity, he was known to have violent outbursts of temper. He reportedly sapped one employee, beat a musician with brass knuckles, and pinned another to the wall then kicked him in the groin. He also supposedly gave a handyman a sound beating and threatened to toss a cigarette girl downstairs when confronted about wages. Somehow in the end, though, the charges were always dropped.
Ruby’s money management was sketchy at best and some performers claim he withheld payment from them; he used his car trunk for his banking, always paid cash, and took out several loans, but never from a financial institution. His operations were suspended multiple times by the Texas Liquor Control Board, for being an agent of moral turpitude, producing obscene shows, allowing a drunkard on the premises, alcoholic beverage consumption past club hours, and bounced checks. He was also arrested for permitting dancing after hours (twice), selling liquor after hours, disturbing the peace, allegedly carrying a concealed weapon, assault, and ignoring traffic summonses for a total of 20 tickets. Most of these charges, including an additional one by the Bureau of Narcotics, were dropped, or resulted in a small fine. His final arrest, however, in 1963, saw him sentenced to death for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald point blank in the stomach. However, Jack Ruby died of cancer while awaiting the appeal process. His motivations are much debated and his life was a turbulent one from the very beginning; the widely differing opinions of him by people who knew him keep the true Jack Ruby cloaked in mystery.
A native Texan, Tony Midnite was born in 1926 and began his performance career as a female impersonator in Galveston. Before long he took his show on the road, made it to Hollywood by age 20, and then joined Chicago’s Jewel Box Revue in 1948. Midnite’s passion for costuming eventually took him away from the stage and in 1952, he opened his own studio. He outfitted all of the best performers, both female impersonator and female, worldwide, in lavish costumes and gowns. In 1958 Midnite costumed the Jewel Box Revue for its Broadway performance and after that he stayed on in New York, doing costumes for theatre, television, and even the Metropolitan Opera. He later returned to Chicago to open his own show; although the Chicago police were open with their dislike of female impersonation, this never held him back. In the early 1950s, the police department attempted to quell his career, but undaunted, Midnite audaciously booked the Jewel Box to perform a two week run of 25 Men and a Girl at a lush show lounge. The show, consisting of 25 drag queens emceed by a drag king, was so popular that it continued at this venue for eight months. The Jewel Box Revue also pushed boundaries by employing a multiracial cast of performers in the early fifties. Although his career was a very successful one, it was nonetheless peppered with discrimination and, effectively, segregation, at times. Tony Midnite participated in protests and publishing about LGBT issues, earning him an induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1996.
Burlesque has seen many incarnations, ups and downs, and even periods of hibernation over the past century, but try as the censors might, it has never really gone away. The magical connection between burlesque and the American audience can be summed up in the lyrics of Willkommen from the opening of Cabaret: “Leave your troubles outside! So life is disappointing? Forget it! We have no troubles here! Here life is beautiful…the girls are beautiful…even the orchestra is beautiful!” Although burlesque has seen success on the stages of Broadway and other high end venues, it remains an essentially working class form of entertainment, aiding escapism from the worries of everyday life through the troubles of the Great Depression and war times. Miss Georgia Sothern was a big player throughout. Her career lasted from 1922-1977 and began when she was barely 13!
Raised in vaudeville, Georgia began performing with her uncle when she was a toddler; her father had abandoned the family and her mother struggled to make ends meet for Georgia (then called Hazel) and her sister, Jewel. Within a week of Hazel’s thirteenth birthday, her mother was in a state-funded hospital being treated for tuberculosis and her beloved Uncle Virgil had died of the same. Uncle Virgil had entrusted Hazel to another vaudeville act, but that form of entertainment was vanishing quickly and the act soon dissolved, the manager running off without paying Hazel, and she found herself alone on the streets of New York city. After a week of nearly starving and without finding work in the only field she knew, the brave young girl turned to burlesque. She had a number of false birth certificates from her vaudeville days and was able to pass herself off as 17! Later, when Mr. Minsky found out that she was only 14 (and had been working for him for over a year) he nearly hit the roof, but she gave him one of her false birth certificates and assured him that she would never alert the law to this indiscretion.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia picked her name on the spot in Phil Rosenberg’s office and in her nervousness, forgot the ‘u’ in Sothern, and so the spelling stuck. Her unique style of whirling dervish striptease was also born out of nervousness, during her very first performance and this jazz age baby rode it all the way to the bank, eventually having a signature tune written for her, “Hold that Tiger.” Ann Corio wrote, “The mere sight of this red hot red-headed temptress tossing her hips in fantastic abandon to the wild music of the band caught up everybody in its spell…the audience was almost as exhausted watching as Georgia was performing.” Sometimes she would get so caught up in her exuberant dance steps that she would end up taking off and putting on her clothing several times during a number, leading one fan to remark, “She strips just like she had dynamite for lunch.”
Not only did she do a fast strip, she led a fast-paced life in the roaring twenties and no matter how conservative she actually was, adventure always seemed to seek her out. Her skirmishes with the law didn’t always involve burlesque, but often gangsters and bootleggers, as well as her poorly picked husbands. While still only 13, Georgia witnessed a gangland murder that would have had her dead that very night, but for the fact that she had worn black and the streetlight happened to be burned out, so that the killers didn’t notice her. The plot thickened later, when she found out that perpetrator was her best friend’s boyfriend! Months of living in fear that he would discover her identity culminated in his dropping a large wad of stolen cash at their apartment as he fled from the police. But when he returned much later, to kill his former flame, he was the one that ended up snuffed out in a nearby park, thanks to her friend, Foxie, a rival bootlegger. The police also became involved in her personal life when her first husband threatened to jump from a tall building, to the amusement of a large crowd and the chagrin of the police squad. Georgia, however, called him on it, and he flew into a rage, swearing at her and hitting her, and ultimately landed himself in jail.
But back to burlesque. She was never busted for being underage, but she was escorted out of Philadelphia by the police. Whenever Mr. Poole, the city’s censor, would come around, the burlesque houses would tame down the show and cut all the bumps and grinds. He became fixated on finding Miss Sothern doing whatever it was that made her so popular; one night the theatre was not slick enough and Sothern was caught wearing only three sequined rosebuds. She was given 24 hours to leave town, or end up in jail. Although Georgia was mortified, the reporters were on her side and it all turned out for the best, with Mr. Cohen selling Georgia’s contract to none other than Billy Minsky. Burlesque thrived in the city of New York’s emerging nightclub scene for years to come, but further into the thirties, things began to change. Mayor LaGuardia was doing his best shut down burlesque and issued stricter and stricter edicts, including this one: “You are not allowed to remove an article of clothing. You may not peel from your person even so much as a glove.” The biz had to get creative, some operations creating floating nightclubs, modeled after prohibition speakeasies. However, when the states entered WWII, the art of the striptease didn’t seem so bad. As Ann Corio wrote in 1941, for Variety, “Burlesque, along with aviation and munitions, is experiencing a wartime spurt.” During this time, Georgia joined Gypsy Rose Lee on Broadway in Mike Todd’s productions of Star and Garter and The Naked Genius.
But when the war was over, burlesque was booted from The Great White Way and it was back to the nightclubs for the peelers. In 1948, Georgia was arrested at Club Samoa in Manhattan, under the charge “lewdness in a tent.” The star was fined $125, but this didn’t stop her. She spent years fighting the case and finally won, the judge ruling that “the city could not deprive her from earning a living in a lawful occupation.” Furthermore, Georgia is cited as being the main force behind the abolishment of the ‘police card,’ which performers in New York had to pay for every two years and, if their card was taken up for any reason, they were not allowed to work in the city. Georgia was a great advocate of her profession and prompted H.L. Mencken to coin the term ‘ecdysiast’ to try and ameliorate the unfavorable image brought to mind by the term ‘stripper.’ Performing the carnival circuit in the later years of her career, Georgia eventually took her own shows on the road, Sothern’s Red-Headed Revue and the Top Hatters. She didn’t retire from the stage until five years before her death, in 1981. She was 72, and in my book, this dynamite dame deserves a lifetime achievement award.
For more information on Georgia Sothern, the Red Headed Bombshell, I highly recommend reading her autobiography, Georgia: My Life in Burlesque.
By: Femme Vivre LaRouge
This month’s installation of Burlesque Arrests illustrates the ongoing decency debate through the life and trials of Lili St. Cyr, billed as the Anatomic Bomb. Lili, a sophisticated chanteuse, played quite a part in elevating the art of the striptease from a solely burlesque house existence to one on the glitzy new stages of Las Vegas. Miss St. Cyr dressed and undressed herself very finely, testifying in 1951that she currently had $4,200 invested in her costumes and $11,750 in her props! After retiring from the stage, she went on to open her own line of high-end, mail-order lingerie like the garments she wore onstage; packages were delivered tantalizingly marked “Intimate Secrets by Lili St. Cyr.”
As a burlesque queen, Lili St. Cyr reigned over Montreal’s thriving nightclub scene for most of the 1940s, but in the early 1950s, a campaign to clean up the nightlife was sweeping the city. Religious groups began protesting about Lili’s show, claiming that “a stench of sexual frenzy plagues the theater the whole time this dancer’s exhibition lasts” and demanding that the authorities ban any shows given by her in the city of Montreal. Although the police initially observed her performances at The Gayety and decided there was no cause for action, public pressure eventually drove officials to re-examine the existing laws dealing with performance and public morality. As a result, Lili received a summons to appear in court to “answer charges under a section of the Criminal Code dealing with offensive, immoral, or indecent exhibitions,” in 1951. The evidence offered against her was rather flimsy and Miss St. Cyr was acquitted, with the judge noting, “It seems to me that those who made the most noise here today were persons who didn’t even see the performance complained of.” As Lili herself told a reporter, “everyone has a right to his opinion, but a lot of people are prejudiced who would not be if they could see my act. I don’t like vulgarity – I think it is ugly – and on the burlesque circuit they think I’m high-hat.”
Naturally, the brouhaha only served as publicity for her, as is usually the case with these matters. The victory was celebrated in an article from Commerce Montreal, which described Lili’s performance thusly: “With a sparkling light she executes the most fantastic dances of eternal theme…She gives a wake-up to adolescence, a stimulant to the young man, comfort to the middle-aged man, sweet memory to the old man…Lili is the goddess of love reincarnate.” The article also warned that if the reformers triumphed the city would not only lose its reputation as the capital of nightlife, but millions of tourist dollars as well. Unfortunately, the Commerce’s advice went unheeded, The Gayety was shut down, and Lili St. Cyr moved on…to Las Vegas.
That same year, the Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce led an investigation on political corruption, the Mafia, and its connection with strip joints. As the U.S. drifted out of war times and into the family-focused fifties, public consensus about decency took a conservative swing and the pin-ups and burlesque dancers who had been praised for helping to win the war were now being told to cover up. Even Sin City wasn’t yet ready for St. Cyr; her act was in interrupted at El Rancho and she was arrested in September of 1951. She was let out on $1,000 bail, skipped her hearing, and hoofed it to Los Angeles.
In L.A. Lili had been headlining a swanky Hollywood club, Ciro’s, where she entertained the likes of Dean Martin, Ronald Reagan, and Humphrey Bogart with her famous bubble bath, even selling her own line of bubble bath in the gift shop. Although Lili kept herself covered by bubbles, a bath towel, or her ladies’ maid, there were those who took umbrage to her act. In October 1951, club owner Herbert Hover and Lili St. Cyr were arrested, and her g-string and net bra seized for evidence. The charges were giving an indecent performance and lewdly exposing her person. Despite the insistence of the club’s publicist that the whole debacle had been an orchestrated media stunt, the D.A. pursued the case and Lili hired renowned defense attorney Jerry Giesler. Giesler had already successfully defended Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, and gangster Bugsy Siegel, just to name a few. He noted, of his tendency to take cases revolving around sex, “It’s because sex is not only one of the facts of life, it’s also – at least in my experience – one of the most prevalent bases of legal strife.” Giesler insisted that Lili’s act was artistic and refined and requested that her jurors be made up of “people capable of judging such things on their artistic merit.” Accusations against Lili included that her towel was see-through, which was refuted by examination of the towel in question, and that her dance involved a pelvic bump. Captain Walker Hannon described this hip motion as “Mae West wiggles” and the short, rotund Hover, when asked to demonstrate a bump, shyly sent the courtroom into fits of laughter. Captain Sutton testified that he had not seen either bumps or grinds and the jury soon acquitted Lili, after which she stated, “This is a real victory for the profession.” Once again, the trial increased her fame and the Hollywood Report gossip column ranked her with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner in their Pucker-Up Poll, while an ad for Ciro’s touted, “See What Hollywood Saw! – Was the Jury Right?”
Lili, whom journalist Walter Winchell said outstripped even Gypsy Rose Lee, stated, “If I do demoralize an audience, as some people say, then I’m glad I do it. People need a loosening up. Most of the people in this country are hypocritical, too many put on a front of being shocked at certain kinds of behavior. It’s a joke to think I could demoralize anyone with this little act. If one has morals, then they can’t be taken away by me or anyone else.” As the line goes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “God bless Lili St. Cyr!”
Editors note: When Femme came up with the idea to do an article on burlesque arrests, I thought it was fabulous. When she came back and said there were just too damn many for one article, I thought- even better! What better way to kick off a new monthly series than with the delicious Mae West & the legendary Sally Rand.
Burlesque Arrests: Sally Rand & Mae West
By: Femme Vivre LaRouge
Burlesque house raids are as infamous as those of speakeasies during prohibition, sometimes being one and the same. As performers pushed the envelope further and further, policing agencies and government lobbyists went tit for tat trying to pass new laws of censorship and to enforce a moral code. Many a famous burlesque performer has come under the scrutiny of the law; here we shall spotlight fan dancing pioneer, Sally Rand, and 20th century sex icon, Mae West.
Born Harriet Helen Gould Beck, Sally Rand was a teenage runaway, circus performer, cigarette girl, model, dancer, stage actress, and silent film star before she ever picked up a pair of ostrich feather fans. In 1933, at the Chicago World’s Fair, she not only wielded her fans wearing nothing but Max Factor body paint, but also appeared as Lady Godiva, riding a white horse, apparently nude. Thus began her arrest record, with a total of four arrests in a single day! Though Rand was charged with lewd conduct, Superior Court Judge Joseph B. David dismissed the case, noting that, “Some people would want to put pants on a horse…if a woman wiggles about with a fan, it is not the business of this court.” The incident’s publicity made her a burlesque sensation, her weekly pay escalating from $125 to $3,000 in a single summer. Never actually baring quite all, Sally Rand was noted for saying, “the Rand is quicker than the eye.”
1946 found Miss Rand back in court, charged with indecent exposure, corrupting the morals of an audience, and conducting an obscene show. She was taken into custody after an engagement at the Savory in San Francisco, where six police officers witnessed one of her fan dances, in which she decreased her costume to a flesh-colored triangle. Rand hired renowned defense attorney, Jake Ehrlich, who had kept both Billie Holiday and Gene Krupa from going to jail on drug charges. Ehrlich made the point that nudity was respected in the art of the great masters and suggested that the court view the dance in question, as evidence of its artistic nature. The judge agreed to this and even granted Miss Rand a release to continue her performances, unaltered, until the trial was over. That very same night, however, Rand began her dance, but was stopped for arrest by the San Francisco Police Department. Imagine their surprise when the lights came up and it was revealed that Sally Rand was hiding a pair of flannel long-johns behind her fans. Furthermore, in place of her customary triangle of costume, was a note marked “CENSORED. S.F.P.D.”! The next morning she performed her usual routine for the judge and jury and was promptly acquitted, on the grounds that, “Anyone who could find something lewd about the dance as she puts it on has to have a perverted idea of morals,” as Judge Shoemaker pronounced.
From flapper to fan dancer, Miss Rand continued to strut her stuff into the, and also her, sixties. As she said herself, of her illustrious career, “I haven’t been out of work since the day I took my pants off.”
Mae West, a household name to this day, began her career in Vaudeville, working her way up to radio, Broadway, and later the screen. Her entire career, which lasted her a lifetime, was based on one infamous character: herself. Known for her sexual candor, wit, and double entendres, she coined many famous phrases, such as “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me” and “A hard man is good to find.”
Not only an actress, but a producer and writer, as well, Miss West titled her first Broadway show “Sex.” The play was not such a great success until it was brought up on a morals charge, sparking a heated debate over the role of censorship in the theatre. After being arrested and released on $1,000 bail, West continued her show, to packed audiences, for a lengthy run. As with Sally Rand, the publicity did her nothing but good! However, in 1927, the play was again brought up against charges of obscenity and West was convicted of corrupting the morals of youth, for which she served nine days out of a ten day sentence, getting out early on good behavior! She served her sentence at Welfare Island Women’s Workhouse, where Mae West, never a quitter, gathered a great deal of material from observing her inmates and wrote her play-turned-film “Diamond Lil.” During the scandal of “Sex,” West was also busy writing and producing “The Drag,” which the New York Times described as the play that “caused the sudden action…toward cleaning up the stage.” Although the show was a success at its out of town previews, it was not allowed to open on Broadway. This didn’t stop her from staging “Pleasure Man,” which also featured drag performers, and landed West, once more, in jail and, once more, released for $1,000 bail. The lady certainly had a fighting spirit and, as she said herself, “Those who are easily shocked…should be shocked more often.”
Her involvement in the film business was fraught with the same battles over censorship as her Broadway career. She caused such scandal on the silver screen that some authors jokingly credit her with singlehandedly bringing down the hammer of the censors that resulted in the Hollywood Production Code of 1934, which was the mode of film censorship until 1968. But Mae West outlasted the production code, using her same shtick in 1978 for her final film, Sextette and still using her most iconic quote, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime…when I’ve got nothing on but the radio.”