View Full Version : R.I.P. Liz Renay; Mickey cohen's Girlfriend

01-28-2007, 11:51 AM
Liz Renay, 80; model turned actress gained notoriety for dating L.A. mobster
By Dennis McLellan, Times Staff Writer
January 28, 2007

As a fledgling actress fresh from New York, small-time nightclub performer Liz Renay felt she was on her way in Hollywood after director Cecil B. De Mille spotted her in the Paramount commissary.

"He said I was the most exciting face he had seen in 20 years," Renay said in a 1999 interview with the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. "He was going to star me in a big extravaganza called 'Esther,' from the book of Esther in the Bible. Agents were clamoring to sign me…. This was my big hope. I was going to be a big star for Paramount."

The De Mille picture never panned out. The next time the legendary director saw the statuesque, red-haired Renay, she was being hustled out of the dining room of the Plaza Hotel in New York by federal agents for questioning in a grand jury investigation into the finances of her boyfriend, Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen.

Such was the life of Renay, who died of cardiopulmonary arrest and gastric bleeding in a Las Vegas hospital Jan. 22 at 80.

Hers was a life that included stints as a high-fashion model, nightclub performer and writer — and, more famously, a mobster's girlfriend, convicted felon and stripper.

The voluptuous Renay made headlines in 1974 when she was arrested for indecent exposure after streaking down Hollywood Boulevard as a publicity stunt for her "This Is Burlesque" show at the nearby Ivar Theater. The jury acquitted her.

"Lewd — that's the one thing she wasn't," said one juror who asked for an autographed picture of Renay, in the nude, for his 15-year-old son.

Renay also gained something of a cult following after playing the role of sexpot Muffy St. Jacques in director John Waters' 1977 crime comedy "Desperate Living."

But she received her greatest notoriety in the late 1950s and early '60s, a time when she was known in the media as "the underworld's new darling" and "a friend of East and West Coast racketeers."

Columnist Walter Winchell, noticing the gold flecks in her hazel-green eyes, dubbed her "the girl with the polka-dot eyes."

Renay, who met Cohen through a mutual mob friend in New York after arriving in Hollywood in 1957, testified more than a dozen times before grand juries in Los Angeles and New York.

She enjoyed the notoriety — at least at first.

In 1959, she was indicted on five counts of perjury. And in 1961 she began serving 27 months at Terminal Island federal prison in Los Angeles.

"I have paid a dear price for the mistake I made, and I hope the public will be forgiving," she told reporters who met her at the prison gate when she was released. "I wanted to protect Mickey. I felt I owed him that. I couldn't deliberately hurt someone who had been nice to me."

At the time, Cohen was serving a 15-year sentence for income tax evasion.

"It sure knocked the hell out of my career when I went to Terminal Island," Renay told the Phoenix New Times in 1998. "I would have been a big star had I not gone to prison."

Fantasies of fame were something she always held dear.

She was born Pearl Elizabeth Dobbins in the small town of Chandler, Ariz., in 1926. The family of seven was so poor, she later recalled, that when she visited a friend's home for the first time she thought their bathtub was a boat.

As chronicled in a 1972 story in The Times, her father was a heavy drinker and her mother was deeply religious. As she grew up, her grandmother, a onetime beauty contest winner, encouraged her dreams of becoming famous.

Beginning at 13, she ran away from home repeatedly. With a figure that was, according to the account in The Times, already "formidable," she became an underage cocktail waitress.

At 15 during World War II, she had a two-week marriage with a soldier that produced a daughter. Five of her seven marriages ended in divorce, and she was widowed twice.

When a Hollywood movie company came to Phoenix in 1950 and advertised for hundreds of extras for a lynch-mob scene, Renay signed up.

The striking young woman caught the attention of a Life magazine photographer and writer. Instead of focusing on the film's stars — Frank Lovejoy and Adele Jergens — they did a five-page photo essay on "the young movie hopeful" titled "Pearl's Big Moment."

Renay later moved to New York, where she became a high-fashion model and appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine. She later sang and danced in a small nightclub.

After her 1963 release from prison, where she taught an oil painting class and wrote, directed and choreographed a show called "Terminal Island Follies," she appeared in several low-budget films, including "The Thrill Killers" and "Lady Godiva Rides."

When a Times reporter caught up with her in 1972, she was working in a Sunset Boulevard strip joint.

She didn't need to work. She was married to her sixth husband, millionaire entrepreneur Tom Freeman, who did not want her to take the strip joint job. But who was he to argue? "She's an exhibitionist," he told The Times. At the time, Renay had recently published her best-selling autobiography, "My Face for the World to See."

During the 1970s, she toured in a mother-daughter strip act with her daughter Brenda, who died in 1982. Among her survivors are a son, John McLain.

Renay, whose last film role was in "Mark of the Astro-Zombies" in 2002, wrote cookbooks and a 1982 self-improvement book, "Staying Young." Renay, who boasted of affairs with some top stars, also wrote a second memoir that was published in 1992, "My First 2,000 Men."

"It wasn't really anywhere near 2,000 men," she admitted in the 1998 Phoenix New Times interview, in which she said her publisher had encouraged her to exaggerate the number from what she figured was "probably more like 600."

"I led a wild life, but 2,000?" she said with a laugh, "C'mon, that's too many, even for me!"


01-28-2007, 11:54 AM

01-28-2007, 12:48 PM
My Face for the World to See by Liz Renay
The autobiography Liz wrote while in the woman's prison at Terminal Island.
John Walter's Desperate Living (1977) starring Liz Renay. VHS
Hollywood's first streaker landed the lead role in a cult classic.
Liz Renay was born to fanatically religious parents in Mesa in the same year, she is proud to say, as Marilyn Monroe. At 14, she ran away from home with a girlfriend. The young girls intended to become showgirls in Las Vegas, thinking that because they were big for their age with a lot of makeup they could look older. They hitched a ride with a couple that turned out to be a minister and his wife who turned them in.

More runaways followed, but in 1949 she hit the big time when she won a beauty contest sponsored by a bra company. She was in and out of the spotlight and in and out of Phoenix since then. In Phoenix, she lived at 2417 East Oak.

In 1950, Hollywood came to Phoenix for two weeks of location shooting. Liz, then still going by her given name of Pearl, nabbed a job as an extra eventually getting a close-up lasting almost a second. But she acted the part of a star on the set--so much so that other extras asked for her autograph thinking that she must be somebody. A photography and writing team for Life Magazine were so intrigued by her desperate efforts to become a star that they featured her in a five page photo essay titled, "Pearl's Big Moment."

Liz eventually made her way to New York where she found work not as an actress or a model, but as a stripper. She became more than friendly with the club's clientele which included underworld characters like Tony "Cappy" Coppola. Coppola was then the right hand man to the head of Murder, Inc. When she turned down his marriage proposal, she thought a change of locations would be a wise move. She headed for Hollywood, dropping her kids off in Mesa on the way.

Things went well among the stars, thanks to the help of her "sponsor," mobster Mickey Cohen. Liz got several television roles, such as an unlikely schoolmarm/dance-hall-girl on Sugarfoot. She was a contestant on Gaucho Marx's You Bet Your Life, and won $1,000 by correctly answering geography questions.

And then on October 25, 1957 back in New York, a couple of thugs pumped four bullets into the boss of Liz's would-be fiancé while he sitting in the barber's chair in the Park Sheraton Hotel. No one was ever arrested for the murder of Albert Anastasia, but there was plenty of investigating.

Liz was called in to testify before more than a dozen grand juries on both coasts. She treated those appearances as publicity opportunities showing up in exotic outfits and posing for photographers. She was asked about her old New York connections and about money Mickey Cohen had run through her checking account. She spouted the mobster line that the money was from loans she had made to the big spending Cohen. Cohen was actually wiring her money which would be laundered by running it through her checking account. The gig was up when Western Union records were subpoenaed.

Charged with perjury, Liz received a three-year suspended sentence, and went back to her other activities. Unfortunately, those activities included a "modeling" assignment in a Hollywood motel which had an unwelcome visit by the cops. They burst in finding Liz wrapped in a bath towel and otherwise misbehaving. She was found guilty of disturbing the peace. This transgression violated the terms of her probation. On her 35th birthday Liz check into the Terminal Island women's prison where she would spend the next 27 months.

Ever resourceful, Liz took the forced vacation as time to pen her autobiography and complete over 80 paintings. Her paintings had sold for as much as $5,000 before her imprisonment. Her autobiography, My Face for All to See, is still in print. In prison, she even achieved the celebrity that had eluded her on the outside. She wrote, directed, choreographed and emceed a frisky prison variety show "Terminal Island Follies." Inmates even vied for the opportunity to knit presents for her grandchildren.

On release Liz renewed her career. She teemed up with her daughter Brenda for a mother-daughter strip act. A few years later, she became Hollywood's first streaker when she ran naked down Hollywood Boulevard to publicize her appearance in a nude revue. She tied up traffic as thousands poured into the street to celebrate her verve. The inevitable indecency charges brought the show even more publicity, and when she demanded a jury trial she was headline material for a week. The jury concluded that Liz had been "nude, but not lewd." Liz says that her cause might have been help by her attorney handing out "crime scene" photos outside the courtroom.

Liz was cast in 19 pictures, some in which she appeared under her acting name, Melissa Morgan, but most of which came after her streaking incident. Her most famous appearance, if it can be called famous, was the lead character in the 1977 John Waters film, Desperate Living. Described as funny and disgusting, and receiving an incredible 7 out of 10 stars from IMDb users, the film tells the tale of a rich housewife that murders her husband with tainted dog food, assisted by her overweight maid. The homicidal duo bolt, finding their way to a town that provides refuge for criminals where they shack up with a lesbian ex-wrestler and her murderess lover.

Liz eventually made it to the town she had headed for when she was just 14. At last report she was living in a Las Vegas home that would compete with Liberace's for glitz while hosting a cable television show from the Imperial Palace. In 1999, Todd Oldham was working on a movie based on her first book, My Face for the World to See.

01-28-2007, 03:28 PM
I remember picking up MY FACE FOR THE WORLD TO SEE in the library as a kid on a number occasions. I never checked it out, but I spent many an afternoon perusing the photos contained in it. This should tell you how much I read while glomming those pictures: I didn't even know she was Cohen's squeeze. PeteLeo.

01-28-2007, 03:55 PM
I remember picking up MY FACE FOR THE WORLD TO SEE in the library as a kid on a number occasions. I never checked it out, but I spent many an afternoon perusing the photos contained in it. This should tell you how much I read while glomming those pictures: I didn't even know she was Cohen's squeeze. PeteLeo.