By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Thanks to her beauty and Cohen's industry connections, Renay landed several TV roles within months of arriving in the film capital. On Sugarfoot, she portrayed a schoolmarm moonlighting as a dance-hall girl; as a contestant on You Bet Your Life, she traded quips with Groucho Marx and won $1,000 with her knowledge of geography. Cecil B. De Mille reportedly expressed interest in starring her in his next Biblical extravaganza. Sticking to more traditional casting, Warner Bros. tested her for John Dillinger's traitorous "Lady in Red" in The FBI Story.
For a brief moment, it looked like Renay's lifelong dreams of stardom just might become a reality.
But that was before her name was knocked out of the entertainment pages and into screaming headlines by a sudden flurry of high-profile mob activity on both coasts.
A notoriously big spender, Mickey Cohen was under investigation for tax evasion after he filed returns claiming that he'd earned less than $2,500 for a two-year period.
Meanwhile, one of Renay's New York pals had come under more direct fire: In October 1957, a pair of hit men pumped four bullets into Albert Anastasia, her old boyfriend's boss, while he was waiting for a shave in a hotel barber chair.
Like Holly Golightly, the Breakfast at Tiffany's playgirl whose fictional exploits roughly paralleled those of her own life, Liz Renay suddenly discovered "that there are some shades of limelight that can wreck a girl's complexion."
Not to mention her career. As an actress, Renay couldn't get arrested. Conversely, as the peripheral "mystery woman" in a series of lurid tabloid dramas, she couldn't stop getting subpoenaed.
Over the next couple years, Renay would eventually testify before more than a dozen federal grand juries on both coasts, eager to know what she knew about the Anastasia rub-out and Cohen's finances. Although she treated the appearances as a lark (she kept flash bulbs popping by showing up dressed as a spy-movie femme fatale, high-fashion model and other exotic types), she refused to sing to the jury. Grilled about a series of suspect "loans" she'd made to Mickey Cohen (the mobster had actually wired her the money and was laundering it through her checking account), Renay stuck to her story--even when prosecutors pointed out she couldn't pay her own bills.
"I figured it was my word against theirs," says Renay. "Perjury is hard to prove. Then they subpoenaed the Western Union records and that was the end of the ball game."
Receiving a three-year suspended sentence, Renay thought she was off the hook. She learned otherwise when, during a drunken, you-had-to-be-there modeling assignment in a Hollywood motel, cops burst into the room and found Renay wrapped in a bath towel. She was subsequently guilty of disturbing the peace, a violation of her terms of parole.
Claiming that the bust was a setup, Renay insists she got a raw deal. "[U.S. Attorney General] Bobby Kennedy was behind the whole thing," she contends. "His office wanted to get a conviction in the Mickey Cohen thing and I was the only weak link [in the chain]. They had to justify all the money they'd spent somehow."
On April 14, 1961, her 35th birthday, a stunned Liz Renay was shipped off to Terminal Island.
Or, "Next Stop, Prison!" as Renay would later title her inaugural chapter on Big House life.
A lifelong movie fan who'd undoubtedly seen more than her share of "caged women" epics, Renay couldn't have been disappointed by her interlude behind bars. The glamorous con witnessed firsthand every cliche of the genre: cat fights, sadistic matrons, insane prisoners, predatory lesbians--in short, everything but an actual prison break. Even Renay's cellmate was something right out of a B-movie. A hard-boiled vice queen doing time for shooting two men: She'd set fire to her parents' house as a child when she discovered her mother had fried a pet chicken for dinner.
With typical resourcefulness, Renay chose to view her 27-month sentence as a forced vacation, using the time to stockpile assets for her eventual release. In addition to writing her autobiography, she executed more than 80 paintings, many of them fanciful pastorales populated with toga-clad starlets and leering satyrs. She also kept her theatrical skills honed by producing "Terminal Island Follies," a frisky variety show she wrote, directed, choreographed and emceed. By her own account a star prisoner in more ways than one (the other inmates reportedly vied for the privilege of knitting presents for her grandchildren), Renay almost hated to leave the joint.
As newsreel cameras rolled, a beaming Liz Renay finally swept out of the Southern California prison one sultry day in July 1963. The free woman wore a mink stole.
In the years immediately following her release from prison, surprisingly little was heard from Liz Renay.
Not much more was heard from "Melissa Morgan"--the alias Renay used for the few acting jobs she did manage to scrounge up.
One of those gigs was a potentially lucrative soap commercial she filmed with her daughter Brenda, part of a popular campaign of the day featuring youthful mother-daughter teams. But upon discovering "Morgan's" true identity (Renay believes an ex-friend blew the whistle on her), the ad agency shelved the commercial, fearing that housewives wouldn't buy a product endorsed by an ex-con.