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.
Asked about the glitzy loop of a career path that might have been charted by Mickey Spillane and Jacqueline Susann, Renay claims she's never really given it a whole lot of thought.
"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.
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.
To this day, Renay insists she was as surprised as anyone when she finally discovered that Coppola was actually right-hand man to Albert Anastasia, head of Murder Inc.
"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."
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.
Then, not six months later, Lana Turner's daughter fatally stabbed gigolo Johnny Stompanato in her mother's bedroom; the hunky goon had been Cohen's bodyguard.
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.
"In those days, they had kind of a blacklist that put the kibosh on the whole thing," says Renay. "I was doing everything I could just to get back in the swing, even if it meant settling for independent movies."
Spies a Go-Go, The Thrill Killers, Lady Godiva Meets Tom Jones--most of the exploitation cheapies from Renay's mid-'60s oeuvre are remembered today, if at all, solely because of her pseudonymous appearances.
Realizing the fake name wasn't fooling anyone who mattered, Renay dropped the charade and concentrated on doing what she did best. Mainly, promoting Liz Renay, anywhere and anytime.
During the porn craze of the early '70s, she earned star billing in a string of X-rated pix like Refinements in Love, even though she refrained from actual nudity or participation in hard-core activity. "I was always the madam or the narrator," Renay hastens to add. "I'd talk about the ecstasy of love and how beautiful love was--then they'd cut away to that other stuff."
When blaxploitation was big, she did a cameo in Blackenstein; in her big scene, her nearly nude disemboweled body is found covered with entrails.
Several years later, the 46-year-old bombshell was wearing even less when she "streaked" Hollywood Boulevard to publicize a nude revue in which she was appearing, tying up traffic for blocks as thousands of onlookers poured into the street to cheer her on. Charged with indecent exposure in a circuslike trial that made headlines for a solid week, she was eventually cleared when the jury determined that she "was nude, but not lewd." Renay admits that it probably didn't hurt her case that her lawyer stood outside the courthouse, distributing souvenir "crime scene" photos of her scandalous run.
By the time the novelty of a "streaking grandmother" had worn thin on the burlesque circuit, Renay already had a new gimmick in the wings: a mother-daughter strip act featuring her 30-something daughter Brenda. Not nearly the exhibitionist her mom was, the younger Renay reportedly had to be shoved onstage on at least one occasion.
"I wanted to give my daughter a chance to be on the stage," says Renay. "We had identical costumes and hairdos. People thought we were sisters--or twins. You have to live out of a suitcase when you're going all over the country like that. I loved having her along."
The two became so close that when Renay moved to Las Vegas in the mid-'70s, her daughter bought a house right around the corner. After the strip act broke up, the pair worked together in several low-budget films, including an X-rated number in which they portrayed a madam and a hooker.
In 1982, on her 39th birthday, Renay's daughter unexpectedly committed suicide.
"That was the tragedy of my life," says Renay, who theorizes that her daughter, not thinking straight after an evening of cocktails and Quaaludes, shot herself because she hadn't received an expected phone call from a boyfriend in jail.
"Losing a child is something you don't get over," says Renay, whose son John owns a bottled-water company in Tucson. "Terminal Island was a drag, but it was nothing compared to this."
Four decades after her astral path jumped the tracks, Liz Renay still believes she could have been a contender.
"Cecil B. De Mille said I was the most exciting face he'd seen in 20 years," she says. "I think I would have had a career like Lana Turner or one of those other blond bombshells."
Not that Renay's complaining, mind you. Would John Waters have ever offered Lana Turner a role that required her to smother a baby sitter in a bowl of Alpo, strangle her husband in an electric car window, patch up a botched sex-change operation with a needle and thread, and address lines of dialogue to her breasts?
"At first, I hated the script; I thought it was ridiculous," says Renay of Desperate Living. "But I did it anyway and now I like it. John really knew what he was doing. Now it's a classic high-camp cult movie that's required viewing in some of the colleges."
An unintentional recruiting film for the Liz Renay fan club, Waters' 21-year-old black comedy is still popular on video and has inadvertently prompted a run on the actress's out-of-print literary efforts.
Tops on the list? Staying Young, a 1982 self-improvement tome in which Renay reveals how to get free face-lifts, rhapsodizes over the erotic joys of a shower massager and, in a chapter titled "How to Make Big Money Fast the Easy Way," suggests that readers supplement their income by working up strip acts or turning their homes into after-hours clubs.
"I'm always getting mail from college kids and a few of them even got my phone number somehow," says Renay, who seems genuinely amused by the attention from the younger set. "Someone's even selling damn Liz Renay tee shirts. You know that TV show--Everybody Loves Raymond? Well, it's like everybody loves Liz Renay."
Glancing at her watch, Renay realizes she's got a plane to catch if she wants to get back to Vegas in time for a date that night.
"Oh, yeah, I still date," says the woman who's "had more love relationships than any five swingers combined."
"I go to shows, I go gambling 'til all hours, I love my life. I have fun."
Playing coy, the author of My First 2,000 Men declines to name the man who's taking her out on the town later that night. "I will tell you that he's as old as my son, though," says Renay.
Then, slipping into a fox fur coat, she laughs.
"Can you believe it?" asks Liz Renay. "I never thought I'd see the day when going out with a 50-year-old guy would be considered robbing the cradle."
Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.