(Click here for information on the 2020 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This week, the July selection, My Face for the World to See By Liz Renay.)
When I announced this title, I described Liz Renay as “famous for being famous,” but what exactly was she famous for being famous for? I had thought of her as a B-movie actress, a 4th tier Marilyn Monroe knock-off, somewhere in the realm of Cleo Moore or Joi Lansing; but a look at her filmography reveals it is (with one notable exception) very skimpy even by that criteria. So who WAS Liz Renay?
I have trouble answering that even after having read this 400 page account of her entire life up to the publication of this tell-all (the second of three she’d publish during her lifetime) (!!!)
The cover describes her as “V-girl – Mafia moll – Hollywood ‘model’!”; a charitable reviewer might describe her primary employment as a “professional girlfriend”; Renay herself describes her income as coming largely from her work as a artist trading on her notorious name.
The book opens mid-career, with Renay, a young single mother of two children, working as a performer and “hostess” in a mafia-run clip joint on New York City’s 52nd Street night club row. It is… the mid 1950s? As we shall see, the timeline gets extremely murky.
Liz gets into an altercation with another hostess over dibs on a “mark” that gets physical, because Liz Renay takes no guff!
No time to think. I grabbed Patty by both shoulders and flung her from me. She went bouncing down the stairs like a bag of cantaloupes. I stepped through the stage curtain and smiled woozily at the Johns.
A BAG OF CANTALOUPES!
The opening sets the tone for the entire book: always ready with the perfect comeback, ready to physically tussle when necessary, in her telling Liz Renay always comes out on top.
And honestly, every description of events sounds so incredibly made-up, I am inclined to believe it is all true.
We then switch back to Liz Renay’s origins- she doesn’t mention she was born Pearl Dobbins, nor that she initially gained national recognition under that name. Raised as a “barefoot urchin” in a literal shanty on the bank of a drainage canal in Mesa, Arizona, by devotedly religious family (Renay recalls her pariah status at the local grade school as her family were known “Holy Rollers” in the local Assembly of God), she is kicked out of Youth Group for lying about her age and rebels by embarking of a career of drinking, smoking, and “necking and petting”, managing to hang on to her technical virginity until she elopes with a soldier stationed at the local army base at 14.
Within days I decided to leave him. I wanted even more freedom. Now that I was free from my parents, I wanted freedom from Ricky too.
Running away to San Diego, she lives in the ladies lounge at the bus station and becomes highly adept at scamming meals off of the servicemen passing through on their way to the Pacific theater- until her parents and husband track her down and have her sent to Juvie, where she discovers she pregnant. Eventually released into the custody of her Aunt in Phoenix, Ol’ Ricky is a good sport about the whole thing and makes sure she receives an allotment check from his pay to supplement her income from working at a coffee shop… which is where she meets Marine Paul, who will shortly become her second husband and father of her son. Refusing to move to the Marine base in North Carolina, she instead takes an apartment with her sister who eventually gives her a stern talking-to about all of her running around:
“What are you becoming? You are everybody’s thrill girl. The girl who can’t say no. Your Marine husband is out there fighting a war. You have a darling daughter and another baby on the way. Don’t you think what you’re doing is a little outrageous?”
“It’s my body and my life,” I said. “I’m bringing happiness to a lot of men who deserve a better break than the war is going to give them…”
“Do you ever think about Paul?”
One Dear John letter later and Paul is gone forever from the narrative.
After living as a kept woman of a cattle baron for awhile (when she finds out that he’s married, Liz nobly refuses money, house and jewels, leaving with only the clothes on her back…) and finally gets her big break in show business, when the crew for the low budget film The Sound of Fury arrives in Mesa and is casting locals as extras. A Life magazine photographer is also attached to the production, and Liz draws so much attention to herself, she becomes the star of the resulting photo essay.
She parlays this easily into a modeling career in New York City (with the Eileen Ford agency, no less!) and also marries for a third time, but walks out him when he starts beating her children. As usual, men and money have a way of turning up whenever she needs them, and she easily finds employment as a performer in the mafia-connected night club where the book opens.
More lucratively, she also becomes close “friends” with a number of underworld figures, doing some light money laundering and part time work as a mafia bag man (bag woman? Bag mistress?) (Bag lady?)
But she learns the hard way that once you get in, you can’t get out, when she turns down a marriage proposal from her Gambino Family associate-boyfriend:
Then a voice like a madman hissed over the wire: “Next time you pick up that phone it will explode in your face because I’ve got it wired for sound.” The bloodcurdling laugh sounded again. It was Cappy’s voice. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had never known this side of him.
(My margin-note reads: “Liz is surprised gangsters do gangster shit.”)
But actually… maybe once you get in, you can get out, if you are Liz Renay. After being stalked by the rejected boyfriend, Liz finally has ENOUGH goes to his apartment:
I hailed a cab. I’d find that damn son of a bitch and tell him a thing or two.
I pushed my way into the room and closed the door behind me.
“All right, tough guy- kill me. What are you waiting for?”
Cappy pulled out a knife and started for me. I didn’t move.
He looked dumbfounded. “That would be too messy.”
He took a gun from the dresser drawer. “This gun has a silencer,” he said, “No one will know, no one will hear.”
“If you’re going to shoot me, go ahead. I’ve heard enough of your big talk! I’m sick to death of it!”
“Liz, honey! You didn’t think I would really kill you? My God, I wouldn’t harm a hair of your head.” He shook his head sadly. “You don’t have to marry me. If marriage to me is all that distasteful to you, forget I ever mentioned it.”
I suddenly felt sorry. I rushed across the room to Cappy. I thew my arms around him and gave him a big kiss. “Let’s go to bed, “ I said.
Yup, that totally happened!
But Liz soon departs New York for Hollywood, with a personal introduction to the west coast gangster Mickey Cohen. While professionals warn her that association with Cohen will surely blacklist her, Liz soon finds, as always, men tripping over themselves to help her, and within days she finds herself well on her way to a new career:
I had come to Hollywood prepared to struggle and fight for a long time. Yet here I was with a Warner Brothers film contract in my purse and a Screen Actors Guild card in my wallet before I even had time to find an agent. It all seemed too easy.
So, points for self-awareness… at least until she has a serendipitous meeting with Cecil B. DeMille who immediately wants to cast her as Queen Esther in his latest biblical epic.
But the party’s oven in a chapter entitled “The Party’s Over” when she heads back to New York for an art exhibition of her oil paintings and is arrested at Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room for helping Mickey Cohen launder some money through her bank account. And oops, Cecil B. DeMille happens to be there to witness the arrest, shaking his head sadly.
Thus we enter the lengthy middle part of the book focusing on Liz’s legal troubles which is REALLY, REALLY boring. In short, she gets a millionaire boyfriend to say he deposited the money in her account, but she chickens out at the last minute and takes a plea deal. The kindly judge suspends her sentence, and she is supervised/stalked relentlessly her probation officer, who shows up at her house in the middle of the night, having seen a number of men arrive under the cloak of darkness (improbably, they are priests she knew from her time at Fordham University!)
Finally, there is a big misunderstanding when she arrives at a modeling shoot at a local motel and the cops bust into the room and find her en déshabillé and pick her up for “resorting”. The not-so-kindly judge, in league with Bobby Kenendy and out to get Mickey Cohen, throw the book at her and she is sentenced to two years in the federal prison on Terminal Island for the probation violation.
Who was this farce in judge’s robes- who used a federal courtroom for his sadism? “This is a disgrace!” I heard myself crying out suddenly. “You can’t smash my life just because of Bobby Kennedy’s political machine!”
Which is all the more remarkable for happening in 1959, two years before Kennedy was attorney general.
The last part of the book details her stay in prison, and seems like a genuine effort to expose the horrible conditions. Well, some of the time it does:
Prison attitude and policy strongly encouraged homosexuality.
Some average, red-blooded American females without a homosexual bone in their bodies found it hard to resist. It would have been hard to entice normal women into homosexuality if women were obliged to look like women.
If a woman like my mother got ahold of a place like Terminal Island, she’d straighten it out in no time.
Although she assures us, it’s not lesbians per se that she has a problem with, it’s just that the ratios seem out of whack to her:
I wondered why the Board of Prisons hired known lesbians with obvious mannish attributes. After all, homosexuals represented only 15 to 20 percent of the inmate population.
This of course is followed by a TOTALLY TRUE story about Liz dealing with the “advances” of her roommate, “a notorious 200 pound lesbian”:
I was furious. I shoved her through the swinging cell door and she landed on her oversized rump.
“Get out and stay out,” I yelled. “Every time you walk in this door, I’ll shove you back through it.”
In the process of making my position clear to the Butches, I created a new problem. The Femmes started flirting with me. One of them undulated up with a little giggle. “Oh, Liz” she breathed “you’re so beautiful and brave. We always wondered why you didn’t play with the Butch Broads- when all the time you were a Butch Broad yourself.”
Even Liz has to admit that her life isn’t much different in prison than it was on the outside. Every just loves her and wants to help her with her career! She soon gains a position teaching painting and “social living” classes, gets thrown in the hole for bravely standing up to the corrupt warden and taking the side of visiting Mormon missionaries (the prisoners both try to dig her out and threaten to riot on her behalf). That fink Bobby Kennedy pays a visit to the prison, and he’s a total snob to everyone. Liz is not impressed:
“Gee, if he didn’t have a reputation as a woman-chaser, I’d swear he was a fag, the way he swishes around. He looks like a fairy.”
Liz is briefly sprung to testify at Mickey Cohen’s tax-evasion trial, where she has a surreal jailhouse encounter with Candy Barr, which I hoped was going to foreshadow Liz’s Kennedy Assassination theories, but goes nowhere.
Finally having served her sentence, Liz is released and finds that there is money to be made, not only selling her artwork, but also her story, parlaying her notoriety into a book and numerous magazine articles, as well as a fifth husband. That marriage would end a few years after the publication of this book, and she would marry and divorce a sixth and final time before her death in 2007.
So that is Liz Renay’s tabloid-fixture, show biz-adjacent life to 1971. It wasn’t until after this books publication did she score what I consider her two biggest acting roles. The first was in a 1972 episode of Adam-12, in which she played a go-go dancer with amazing name of Dawn Patrol; but today she is probably most widely remembered for her role in John Waters’s 1977 film Desperate Living. As the girlfriend of lady wrestler (on the lam after killing her opponent in the ring), Liz seems game for the all of the nudity, simulated sex, and gross-out gags the script calls for (at one point she appears wearing nothing but panty hose pulled up to her armpits). But she never manages to find the frantic rhythms of the rest of Waters’s stock company- in terms of performance, she’s definitely the weakest link.
The book includes an epilogue, which is basically a list of how every man who ever wronged her (judges, federal prosecutors, ex-husbands, gossip columnists, and ESPECIALLY THOSE G-DAMN KENNEDY BROTHERS) are now dead.
Availabilty: New edition released in 2002 with an introduction by John Waters (sadly not the one I have); mass-market paperbacks are widely available used.