Featured Interview with Kelly DiNardo

A former USA Today staffer and current freelance journalist, Kelly DiNardo’s (http://thecandypitch.blogspot.com/) first book, Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique, recounts the fascinating life of “the queen of striptease.”  DiNardo sat down to discuss her well-researched and superbly written book with Monsters & Critcs’ Rick Klaw, grandson of legendary pin-up industry pioneer Irving Klaw.  They talked about Lili St. Cyr, Marilyn Monroe, Irving Klaw, burlesque, heroin, and other diverting topics.

Rick Klaw: You are usually on the other side of interviews.  So how does being interviewee compare with being the interviewer?

Kelly DiNardo: This is mildly nerve wracking.  I much prefer my normal end of it   It’s different being on the other end.

RK: Why did you decide to write a book about Lili St. Cyr?

KD: I was doing research for Anthony Summers on his biography on Frank Sinatra (with Robin Swann).  One day he called and asked, “Can you find out if Lili St. Cyr ever was involved with Frank Sinatra?  What his relationship with her was?”  I started digging around and looking into it.  They didn’t have any kind of relationship.  But in the process of finding that out, I learned a little bit about her life.  I was very intrigued.  She definitely had a fascinating and interesting life.  I actually had spoken early on with her half-sister [Rosemary “Dardy” Minsky], who is Lili’s closest remaining family, about doing a coffee table book.  As I spoke to agents and people in the industry, I became more interested in [St. Cyr’s] life and realized the depths of it myself, we parted ways.  I wanted to do more of a straight biography.

RK: What was perhaps the most startling thing you uncovered?

KD: Nothing really startled me.  I went into this so blindly.  [Lili] intrigued me and she was the last of the really big name burlesque dancers of the era.  All that said, I really knew nothing about her.  I did not come into it with any preconceived notions about burlesque and about Lili.

RK: I would have thought the heroin might have surprised you.

KD: It didn’t startle me.  Having worked on other entertainment stories and biographies, drug use is unfortunately part of that.  Babette Ory [daughter of jazz musician Kid Ory], actually asked Lili why she thought so many entertainers use drugs.  Lili had a very good answer about the craving and needing of attention but also needing the privacy as well.  To me that makes sense why entertainers use drugs.

RK: How did you find Lili’s heroin dealer?  That was quite a coup.

KD: The burlesque community when I started writing [Gilded Lili] was much smaller.  I met a woman out of Baltimore, Kara Mae Harris, who runs the Viva Vavoom website (http://www.vivavavoom.com/).  She was the one that Kash [Lili’s former drug dealer] had actually emailed after finding her website.  Kara and I spoke early, early on when I was putting all of this together.  She connected me with Kash.  At first he was a little bit hesitant, but once he realized I was legitimate he was unbelievably helpful and very open about his own experiences as well as his experience with Lili.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t have used any of it, if I hadn’t been able to confirm her drug use with other people.  That’s the only way I would use it.  There are actually things that didn’t make it in the book because I couldn’t find a second source on it.  I’m too much of a journalist to do it otherwise.

RK: Where you interested in burlesque before or after your interest in Lili?

KD: My interest in burlesque definitely developed out of Lili.  I find the whole thing completely fascinating, particularly the women of burlesque.  While they were the headliners– at least for the period I wrote about, it was the men who came out of burlesque, the comics like Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, and Abbott & Costello, who are the names people know today.  That discrepancy really interested me.

RK: A few years ago, my wife and were vacationing in Galveston, TX (pop 57,466) and we discovered a burlesque show!

KD: I think that speaks to how much the new burlesque movement is really, really expanding, changing, and growing.  More and more people really are getting into it.  Things have grown exponentially in the four years that I’ve been researching it.

RK: How long did you work on Gilded Lili?

KD: This took me about four years.  Probably about a year to put together a proposal, get that to an agent, and get it sold.  Then they gave me about a year to do the research, but I took a little longer.  And then a year to do the writing.  I turned it in a little bit late.  Not too bad.  It kinda been sitting, hanging tight doing edits, photos and all that.  So from start to finish, it has been about four years.

RK: Was there was someone still alive that you wished you had interviewed but couldn’t for some reason?

KD: There are two people.  I ended up really not getting to speak with Lili’s [half]-sister [Rosemary “Dardy” Minsky].  She did not want to participate at all.  I was very disappointed at first, but in the long run in ended up being a good thing.  As I progressed through the research I learned they weren’t particularly close.  At the end of [Lili’s] life because of the heroin addiction, they weren’t close at all.  She hadn’t known her sister had died until a filmmaker from Canada called because they wouldn’t release the body to anyone but family.

The other person was a very good friend of Lili’s, Pat Carroll.  He never met her but the corresponded for years by mail and on the phone.  He wouldn’t speak to me out of respect for Dardy.

RK: Did aspects of Lili’s story not make the book that you would have really liked to have included?

KD: Not entirely.  There were pieces I would have like to have developed more or get more information on that it just wasn’t really available.  I would have like to have known more about her father.  I spent far more time than I’d really like to admit trying to hunt down whether his second wife was alive, whether they had any children, any other relatives.  

I would have like to know more about [Lili’s] second husband Richard Hubert.  There was very little available about him.  I never did find family members that knew him.  

I would have like to no more about her abortions.  The information at the time was kept so quiet that a lot of what I wrote about had to come from Lili.  So I write about in very general terms.  She told people she had abortions.  I’m not sure exactly of the number.  It ranges from six to twelve.  I don’t know when the earliest one were.  I know what she says.  Those were the sort of things, I would really like to have found more information.

RK: What was the piece of information that made you realize that the entire book would work as you envisioned?

KD: The big thing was Lili’s connection to Marilyn Monroe.  There had been a lot of speculation about that because of Ted Jordan’s book [Norma Jean: My Secret Life with Marilyn Monroe].  You want it all to be true because of course it’s going to grab headlines and sell books.  Some of it was true, but his claims that the two of them had a lesbian affair [are false].  I’m not Lili St. Cyr or Marilyn Monroe so I can’t yell you 100% for sure that it didn’t happen, but I don’t believe it happened.  I don’t think it happened.

At the same time, I do believe from everyone I spoke to that Marilyn used Lili as model.  I suspect Marilyn used several people as models, but its absolutely fascinating to me that our number one, our top 20th century sex symbol would have used Lili as an icon, a model and that no one would really know about that.  That was really interesting to me.

RK: My big complaint about the book is that there should have been more pictures.

KD: That was actually harder than you would have imagined.  Most of the glamor shots of Lili were taken by [Bruno] Bernard of Hollywood and that’s how they make their living.  My photo budget only allowed for so many.  The other photos that exist of her– like the other glamor shots, even though things are widely available on the Internet at this point, things that I couldn’t include were by photographers that I couldn’t track down who had died, whose family couldn’t find the rights to those photos anymore.  That was a disappoint.

RK: Lili was angry about my grandfather [Irving Klaw] selling her stills, but it was probably those same stills that helped fuel the revival in her?

KD: I think so.  One of the things that brought her to mind was the interest in Bettie Page.  They, as you know, both photographed and filmed by Irving Klaw.  As people became interested in Bettie Page and starting digging into those photos in general, they found out about who Lili was.

RK: Has there been movie interest in Lili’s story?  It’d seem to be a natural.

KD: There was when I first signed the deal to do it.  We had a couple of people approach my agent.  I know that he has talked to some folks in California about that.  We’ll see what happens with that.  At this point I have nothing to report.  

RK: Who do you see playing Lili?

KD: I’ve actually been asked that a lot.  I think Charlize Theron looks a lot like her.  Charlize has proven herself with unattractive roles and its time to play someone pretty again.

RK: The book trailer contest was a great idea!  Has it had the impact you expected?

KD: It did.  It was very little effort on my part.  I completely wrangled other people into it.  I think it could have more of an impact.  There’s probably a very interesting business or marketing story on how authors in general are using the web, blogs, book trailers, and things like that to market their books.  I am pleasantly surprised how much its been viewed on You Tube, because it doesn’t have a high placement there at all.  It’s introducing more people to the book.  It’s gotten really good feedback.  One blog called it the most creative book trailer ever.  That’s really flattering.

Click here to see trailer.

KD: I don’t think so.  The kind of longevity in entertainment is rare especially in the type of entertainment that Lili did and I don’t mean striptease or burlesque.  I mean she very much used her body and sexuality for sale.  In a culture where we consider sexual appeal and youthfulness to be so closely intertwined, that’s a really hard thing to have… that kind of longevity.  On the other hand, she really inspired and impacted decades of pop culture and ultimately the fact that her life has gone unheralded until this point (hopefully) and that her impact has gone unnoticed is really one of those tragic things.  She inspired Marilyn Monroe, Anais Nin, and Madonna.  She impacted Rocky Horror Picture Show.  She obviously impacts Dita Von Teese and the whole current crop of burlesque performers.  So no there hasn’t been anyone quite like her but she certainly has inspired several pop culture icons


Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique (0-8230-88898 $24.95) by Kelly DiNardo was recently released by Back Stage Books and should be available in finer bookstores.