By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
At the tender age of 4, the ambitious tyke even attempted to escape her humble origins by floating to China in a washtub, via a backyard irrigation ditch.
She didn't get far. "My sister told me China was on the other side of the world and everyone would be walking upside down," says Renay, who jumped ship. "I was afraid I couldn't do it and I'd fall off."
As it turns out, fear of falling off the face of the Earth may be one of the few publicly acknowledged moments of self-doubt Liz Renay has ever experienced.
Considerably more confident (and mature-looking) by the time she'd hit puberty, Renay ran away from home repeatedly, always with the vague goal of somehow crashing show biz. Although juvenile authorities were never far behind, the star-struck teen always returned home with a new set of adventures to horrify her deeply religious family, like her short-lived job as a 15-year-old cocktail waitress.
Before she was barely old enough to legally buy a drink herself, Renay was already the veteran of two bum marriages (five more would follow) and was the mother of two small children. And, like a sagebrush Evita, was already grasping at anything that even remotely resembled a Big Break.
In 1950, Hollywood called--sort of. Learning that a movie company was coming to Phoenix for two weeks of location shooting, Renay snared two days' work as one of 500 extras in a lynch-mob scene.
The young looker became a permanent fixture in the hotel lobby where the crew was staying and even signed autographs for fellow extras who assumed from her behavior that she must be a star. Intrigued by Renay's desperate attempts to be "discovered," a photographer/writer team who was covering the production for Life magazine shifted the focus of its article to the star-struck face in the crowd.
Titled "Pearl's Big Moment" (Renay's face would eventually appear onscreen for 23/24ths of a second), the five-page photo essay included pictures of Renay practicing lynch-mob outrage in a mirror, as well as posing with a satin rosette she'd won in a bra manufacturer's beauty contest the previous year. The spread concluded with a poignant shot of Renay standing at the gate of Sky Harbor Airport, wistfully watching the Hollywood-bound plane take off into the night sky without her.
Flash forward to New York. In a life packed with jerky transitions, Renay somehow segued from Phoenix to the Big Apple. Failing to set the town on fire as an actress or a model, she was working in a strip joint where she immediately caught the attention of the free-spending wise guys who frequented the nightery. One of them, underworld character Tony "Cappy" Coppola, even picked up all the hospital bills when Renay's son fell off a third-story fire escape.
Perhaps understandably, the financially strapped young mother turned a blind eyelash to her now-infamous play pals' more unsavory activities. Instead, the red-headed Renay preferred to believe she'd simply lucked into a real-life Guys and Dolls, a wicked wonderland where tough-talking hoods showered their girlfriends with jewels, furs and powder-room money in exchange for performing simple favors like delivering mysterious messages and envelopes.
"I thought he was a bookie who was just trying to impress me!" she says. "It was like when I came to Vegas years later; everybody I met told me they were Howard Hughes' lawyer. To me, he was just one of those guys who hung out at the club; they'd tell you anything."
Unfortunately, she didn't take Coppola seriously when he asked her to marry him, either. Thinking it was a practical joke--who proposes marriage in the midst of a mob dinner?--Renay exploded with laughter. When Coppola and his stone-faced cronies merely glared back at her, she realized she'd goofed.
The would-be bride of the mobster fled the restaurant and hid out in a flophouse for a few days. Realizing she'd have to face her jilted suitor sooner or later, she finally confronted Coppola and uttered, "Kill Me--I Dare You!" a phrase that would later be used as a chapter head in her book. He responded by holding a knife to her throat; she countered by pulling a pistol on him. At a stalemate, the warring lovers tossed their weapons aside and hopped into the sack.
"I didn't see much of him after that," says Renay, with uncharacteristic understatement.
Out of the frying pan, into the klieg lights.
Figuring a change of scenery might be a good move, Renay left New York, parked her kids in Mesa and headed for Hollywood in the summer of '57. Unfortunately for the fledgling starlet, friends back East could hardly have arranged a more unwelcome welcoming committee than mobster Mickey Cohen. Cohen was a brazen publicity hound whose clownish activities earned him the nickname "Public Nuisance No. 1." The dwarfish thug's insatiable lust for ink made Renay seem downright reclusive.
"Mickey was so eager to get his name in the paper that he'd do crazy things like place himself at the scene of a crime," observes Renay. "He always wanted to have this reputation as the Big Bad Wolf, a huge gangster bigger than he was. He should have been an actor or a publicist."