Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

People Who Died


Liz Renay

Okan Arabacioglu

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/26/2007

it's not like being famous for pneumatic body parts or cashing in on a slutty reputation is anything new. Decades before the likes of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton courted paparazzi lenses, Liz Renay made a career out of making a literal spectacle of herself with all manner of self-exploitation: Vegas showgirl, modeling, game shows, stripping, Z-movies, tell-all memoirs, general public nudity, and more stripping. In between, she dated mobsters (and a lot of other guys, too), went to prison, and married at least seven times. It's amazing she made it to 80.

To paraphrase the old rock 'n' roll tune, the girl couldn't help it. Pearl Elizabeth Dobbins was born into a fundamentalist Christian household in Chandler, Ariz., in 1926. Despite regular churchgoing and strict rules (no movies, for example), Dobbins was eager for bright lights; as a teenager she started running away to Las Vegas to try to break in as a showgirl. She hoped that her 44DD breasts and passing bottle-job resemblance to megastar Marilyn Monroe would get her noticed, and they did. She had already been married twice, had two kids, and won a bra-modeling contest when she landed a job as an extra on a film being shot in Phoenix in 1950; she somehow parlayed this modest exposure into a Life magazine photo spread called "Pearl's Big Moment." Her first moment, anyway.

Redubbed Liz Renay, she worked as a stripper and developed a taste for Mafia men--first Murder Inc.'s Tony Coppola in New York, then, after relocating to Los Angeles, West Coast kingpin Mickey Cohen (see the collected works of crime novelist James Ellroy, in which Renay appears as a character). She showed up in magazines as a model and in tabloid photos on Cohen's arm. She was eventually called to testify in Cohen's 1959 tax-evasion trial and lied on the stand about helping him launder money. She wound up spending 27 months in the federal penitentiary at Terminal Island for perjury.

Her conviction killed whatever legitimacy there was to her career, but she pressed on. In addition to stripping, she started appearing in low-budget exploitation films with titles like The Thrill Killers, Hot Rods to Hell, and Blackenstein. She was not above the occasional attention-getting stunt: In 1974 she tried to draw attention to the premiere of one of her films by running naked down Hollywood Boulevard. She also published a memoir in 1971 called My Face for the World to See. Her breathless account of her adventures and trials (literally) made it a cult fave, and the book helped win Renay the role of which she was most proud: Muffy St. Jacques, the lipstick half of the leading Mortville lesbian couple in John Waters' Desperate Living. The film renewed and solidified her demimonde icon status.

Though past 50 when Desperate Living was released in 1977, Renay continued stripping and making appearances. She wrote another memoir with the arresting title My First 2,000 Men; though she later acknowledged that the title figure was a little high, the book detailed trysts with Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, and Regis Philbin, among many, many others.

Her life was not without its share of tragedies: She and her daughter Brenda had a mother/daughter strip act until Brenda killed herself in 1982. But Renay continued marketing her ample flesh and va-va-va-voom mystique throughout her twilight years, which she spent in Las Vegas, the city of her original dreams of stardom. She died Jan. 22.

Related stories

People Who Died archives

More Stories

Ed Boyd Jr.: 1961-2008 (8/20/2008)
Activist and Green Party Member Ed Boyd Jr. Ran For Maryland Governor in 2006

Dorothy Pitts: 1935-2008 (8/13/2008)
Dorothy Pitts Co-Founded The Westsiders Marching Band in The 1960s

Arthur Murphy (6/25/2008)
1950-June 14, 2008

More from Lee Gardner

The Lady Vanishes (8/4/2010)
Meet Henrietta Vinton Davis-one of the most amazing women you've probably never heard of

Blaster Master (7/14/2010)
Landis Expandis can't live without his radios

The Black Box (6/16/2010)
Baltimore's African-American indie filmmakers search for an audience

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter