By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Liz Renay was never married to the mob--but the former gangland party girl insists her professional prospects were certainly marred by it.
"It sure knocked the hell out of my career when I went to Terminal Island," says the Mesa-born headline grabber of the late '50s and early '60s. "I would have been a big star had I not gone to prison."
Though Liz Renay didn't exactly become a large luminary in Hollywood's glittery firmament, she definitely became a colorful one. After she lied to a grand jury rather than rat out gangster boyfriend Mickey Cohen, the perennial glamour girl still managed to rack up the most checkered resume this side of any three characters in a Harold Robbins potboiler.
In addition to Mafia "hostess" and jailbird, the multihyphenate's dizzying dossier includes (but is by no means limited to) stints as a beauty-contest winner, stripper, painter, author, poetess and cult-movie idol. Perhaps best known today for her role in John Waters' 1977 black comedy Desperate Living (then 50-ish, she played sexpot "Muffy St. Jacques," a fugitive "dog food murderess" hiding out in a Dogpatchlike crime ghetto), Renay recently saw her professional track take yet another bizarre left turn.
As lifestyle columnist for the Las Vegas trade paper Dirt Alert, the onetime gun moll now dispenses recipes, beauty tips and handicraft hints--like instructions on making personalized steppingstones by pouring colored concrete into greased cake pans.
Okay, so you won't find Liz Renay's footprints in the forecourt of Mann's Chinese Theatre. You will, however, find her fingerprints all over the retro landscape currently being re-excavated by pop-culture aficionados, crime buffs and Cocktail Nation hipsters.
A real-life survivor of the era that inspired L.A. Confidential (Renay briefly turns up as a character in James Ellroy's American Tabloid, the third installment in his L.A. trilogy), the noir goddess has finally turned her long-ago notoriety into something of a late-life annuity.
Last month, she reminisced about her relationship with L.A. gambling rackets czar Mickey Cohen on an episode of A&E's American Justice series as part of a panel of true-crime talking heads that included former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates. Renay fan Todd Oldham (Liz's fairy-tale-like oil paintings hang in the trendy designer's New York showroom) recently snapped up movie rights to her 1971 autobiography My Face for the World to See, a page turner she secretly penned while serving a 27-month prison stretch for perjury. Filled with tales of ring-a-ding high jinks with the likes of Frank and Sammy (Renay and her teenage daughter once shared a bed with Ol' Blue Eyes--but only platonically), My First 2,000 Men, her follow-up tell-all, is a must-read for any current-day lounge lizard worth his shark skin.
"It wasn't really anywhere near 2,000 men," admits Renay, rolling the gold-flecked orbs which prompted columnist Walter Winchell to nickname her "The Girl With the Polka-Dot Eyes." Confessing that her publisher urged her to fudge upward the number of notches on her bedpost, she estimates the actual number of conquests to be "probably more like 600." "I led a wild life," she says, laughing. "But 2,000? C'mon, that's too many, even for me!"
A teenager trapped in the body of an AARP sex kitten, 71-year-old Liz Renay is positively bubbly during a recent visit to the Valley. At an age when most of her contemporaries are either retired or cooling their heels in Forest Lawn, the gregarious great-grandmother is alive, well, and still dotting the "i" in her name with a star.
Quizzed about her boundless zest for living--in addition to everything else, she's currently in negotiations for a syndicated radio show that would posit her and a male co-host as "the senior-citizen Regis and Kathie Lee, only racier, more risque"--Renay simply shrugs.
"My energy just hasn't petered out yet," she enthuses. "It will sooner or later . . . I guess."
If Renay doesn't sound particularly convinced that she'll ever exhaust her get-up-and-go, few who've followed her high-octane antics could blame her.
This is, after all, the onetime nightclub headliner who made audiences sit up and take notice by hollering "Hello, swingers!" as she made her entrance while firing blanks over the crowd's heads. Breathtakingly beautiful in her prime, her lengthy list of romantic entanglements includes Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando, Desi Arnaz and, yes, Jerry Lewis.
"I've just tried to cram everything in because I wanted to get everything done before I got too old," answers the septuagenarian stunner. "But, mentally, I never got old; I still think exactly as I always did."
Born into an impoverished family of devout fundamentalists, Pearl Elizabeth Dobbins began early her lifelong quest for stardom. Fascinated by the glamorous world pictured in forbidden movie magazines she'd salvage from her neighbors' trash cans, the imaginative youngster mentally transported herself out of her hardscrabble existence. Using the wall of an outhouse as a backdrop, she'd stage little shows, performing for a large, if not particularly receptive, audience that consisted of a cornfield.