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Liz Renay, 80; Cult Actress, Stripper and Mobster's Girl

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

Liz Renay, 80, who died Jan. 22 at a Las Vegas hospital from gastric bleeding, was a gangster's moll, ex-con, author, painter, stripper, Hollywood Boulevard streaker, actress and charm school instructor.

She was convicted of perjury in 1959 during the federal tax evasion trial of her boyfriend, racketeer Mickey Cohen. Given a three-year sentence, she was released after 27 months for good behavior.

"It sure knocked the hell out of my career when I went to Terminal Island," she once said of the low-security facility in California. "I would have been a big star had I not gone to prison."

Her sense of her own potential was undoubtedly exaggerated, as was everything else about this starlet who boasted of her measurements: 44DD-26-36. She once won a Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest sponsored by Twentieth Century Fox studios.

Her acting portfolio consisted of roles in movies such as "The Thrill Killers," "Interlude of Lust" and her final feature, in 2002, "Mark of the Astro-Zombies."

Director John Waters provided her best-remembered part, as "dog food murderess" Muffy St. Jacques in "Desperate Living" (1977). The part required her to smother a drugged-out babysitter in Alpo.

Her cult status was long assured. She made an appearance in crime writer James Ellroy's book "American Tabloid." She wrote a book of beauty advice and several memoirs put out by maverick publisher Lyle Stuart, including "My Face for the World to See" and "My First 2,000 Men."

"It wasn't really anywhere near 2,000 men," Ms. Renay told the Phoenix New Times. "I led a wild life. But 2,000? C'mon, that's too many, even for me!"

Pearl Elizabeth Dobbins was born in Chandler, Ariz., on April 16, 1926, which she liked to note was the same year as Monroe. Tweaking her evangelical parents, she tried to crash Las Vegas as a showgirl and was a bra model.

In 1950, she became an extra in a mob scene when a movie company filmed in Phoenix. Her precocious behavior on the set won her a five-page photo display in Life magazine titled "Pearl's Big Moment." At the time, she had been through two marriages and had two children.

She scrapped her way to New York via Washington -- her husband worked for the U.S. Mint. She worked as a Ford model and stripper at clubs filled with underworld figures. She dated Tony Coppola, a bodyguard to Murder Inc. leader Albert Anastasia.

"I thought that he was just some bookie trying to glorify his status and sound like a big man," she told Monk Magazine in 1999. "Just like when I came to Vegas, everybody I met said they were Howard Hughes' attorney."

In 1957, she left for Hollywood and met Cohen, who helped her find television roles. She won $1,000 for correctly answering geography questions on Groucho Marx's TV program "You Bet Your Life." She also worked at a charm school.

Mostly she was seen in tabloid pictures sharing intimate glances -- and once, an ice cream sundae -- with Cohen. She also was a fur-adorned presence at trials involving gangland slayings and the tax-evasion case against Cohen. Cohen was accused of laundering money through her. She refused to snitch.

In jail, she wrote a memoir, started a theater group that produced the "Terminal Island Follies" and taught oil painting to inmates. She told Monk Magazine that she pleaded to extend her sentence a few days, explaining, "I didn't want to leave without finishing the murals in the chapel."

After her release, she found a niche playing madams in exploitation films, some pornographic. As a publicity stunt in 1974, she streaked Hollywood Boulevard at high noon. She attracted enormous crowds as well as the attention of the city attorney's office, which charged her with indecent exposure and being intentionally lewd.

She was acquitted by an eight-man, four-woman jury. One male juror asked for her autograph "for his 15-year-old son." Meanwhile, stripper Jennie Lee, who started an Exotic Dancers Hall of Fame, placed Ms. Renay on her 10-best-undressed list.

At trial, her lawyer had passed out pictures of the "crime scene" to promote Ms. Renay's burlesque act.

Ms. Renay also encouraged her daughter, Brenda, to join her onstage. They continued to work together until Brenda killed herself in 1982, on her 39th birthday.

Long settled in Las Vegas, Ms. Renay had been focusing on her writing and planned a new memoir and a recipe book.

Her seven marriages ended in divorce. Survivors include a son from her second marriage, John McLain of Sierra Vista, Ariz.

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