Liz Renay
by Michael Lane
October 15, 1999


Las Vegas, NV

ou may think you know camp. But you don't know camp unless you've met Liz Renay, the bright, bubbly and surgically reconstructed star of many B-movies, including John Water's Desperate Living .

As we enter through the gate of Liz Renay's home west of The Strip, the first thing that greets us is THE FACE. Though she reluctantly admits to a few "nips and tucks" there is an exaggerated quality to this countenance that likens it to a face from Terry Gilliam's Brazil. It seems that every known advance in facial reconstruction has been utilized on Ms. Renay's mug. Having clearly rested her success on her "beauty," she isn't about to let mother nature have the last word.

Once inside, we immediately notice that the very pink color scheme of her home rates a very close second to the sequined excesses of Liberace. Or is it Angelyne? Or the Del Rubio Triplets? Or Jackie Stallone? In a town known for its outrageous characters--Bob Stupak (Vegas World, The Stratosphere Tower), Lieutenant Governor Lonnie Hammargren (who owns one of the most mind-blowing houses in town) and Brian Zembic, "The Man with the 100,000 Dollar Breasts"--Liz Renay might be the most outrageous of all. Sparky, her dancing poodle, obviously agrees.

Through the HOURS of stories of Liz's all-important life, we sensed here was a woman who clearly had a flair for the grand gesture, who clearly did not believe in self-restraint, who CLEARLY had plenty to say, and who represented, in Las Vegas columnist John Smith's treasured words, "the original stand-up girl." She was gangster Mickey Cohen's lover (going to the slammer for three years because she wouldn't spill the goods). And, as he she explains in her second book, My First 2000 Men , Liz was a lover to Jerry Lewis, Glen Ford, Burt Lancaster (her "Prince Charming"), and scores of other notables. She was also the first woman to streak down Hollywood Boulevard, and is the subject of a forthcoming Todd Oldham movie based on her first book, My Face for the World to See .

Born April 16, 1926 (the same year as Marilyn Monroe, which she never tires of mentioning), and raised in Arizona, this artificially buxom former beauty is Vegas right down to the bone. We catch her as she prepares to appear on a local cable show, Connie and Gary's Backstage, from the notorious Imperial Palace Casino showroom. As much as we were thrown off by her look, we slowly become enraptured by her high speed nonstop self-promotion. Liz Renay is a sweetheart, and this is her story.

MONK: Now you're from Mesa Arizona originally?

LR: Yes. I ran away from home all the time when I was a teenager. They were always chasing me. Every time they turned around I was running away. I was going to come to Vegas with a girlfriend and we were going to become showgirls. We were only 14 but we thought we could put on a lot of makeup and look older. We were big for our age. We were hitchhiking and we took a ride from the wrong couple; a minister and his wife. They turned us in.

MONK: Was that when you got interested in show business?

LR: Even younger, when I was a little kid, I used to stand by my mother's old fire pot where she boiled clothes to make them white, and I noticed this vapor that would escape from this soapy water. Somehow I imagined that if I stood in this vapor a mirage of me would float to Hollywood and I'd get discovered. I really wanted to be a movie star all of my life. And my grandmother was very [encouraging]. She'd tell me, "You can do anything you're big enough to do. Just give it a shot. Try anything." My mother was just the opposite. She'd try to make you think you couldn't do anything . "You have to do this, you can't do that, they say this and they say that." And then my little grandmother would say, "Who is this mysterious 'they' that are always saying things? I want to tell them to go to hell because they don't know what they're talking about." She was a fabulous little lady. My mother was extremely religious and rained on all my parades and my grandmother just egged me on. She was my greatest role model. She was a hellion. My grandmother was married seven times just like me. And she always said, "Look, some marriages should have been over in 20 days and they lasted 20 years and what a waste of time. If you know you're with a deadhead just throw him in and get a new one."

MONK: Who were some of your movie star idols back then?

LR: When I was a kid I didn't even go to the movies. My mother was very religious and wouldn't let us go. I didn't see my first movie until I was 15. Betty Grable was the first gorgeous blonde I saw in the movies. I just loved the whole idea of being a big movie star. I really think I would have been exactly that if it hadn't been for all that gangster stuff that was supposed to have "helped my career." It did just the opposite. I was up for a part in a biblical extravaganza. Cecile B. DeMille said I was the most exciting face he'd seen in 20 years and I was going to play Esther in this big movie. The only thing I ended up doing with Cecile B. DeMille was sharing the newsreels because he died the same day I was indicted. I was up for all these parts and I got whisked away to Terminal Island for three years, actually 27 months.

MONK: Now when did you end up in prison?

LR: I went there in 1959 and I got out in '63.

MONK: And that was for perjury?

LR: Perjury in Mickey Cohen's case.

MONK: So you lied. What happened?

LR: You know, I did a thing kind of like Clinton did. Only thing was I thought I had a better reason because I didn't want to end up in the East River. I was called to testify against known gangsters, the Anastasia Group, who were known as Murder Inc., who did the executions for the underworld. I wasn't about to say anything to make any of these people mad at me. It was kind of a "have to" case. I mean it wasn't just a case of trying to keep my spouse from knowing I had erred [laughs]. It was a case of life and death. Yet I got three years for telling what I considered a little white lie that I could have pussy-footed around even better than Clinton. The lie was this: I said I loaned him the money when actually they repaid the money almost simultaneously. They wired it to my bank as I gave him the check because he couldn't show money and he had to pay things with checks. Billy Graham did the same thing for $12,000. Jerry Lewis did the same thing, Red Skelton. All of them got out of it just fine because they had better stories. My story was I loaned it to him because he was a friend and they subpoenaed the Western Union to show that the money was immediately sent by his attorney to my New York bank on the very same day. So that was a technicality of it not being a loan. Actually, it was a loan for a few minutes [she breaks out in peals of laughter].

MONK: Oh, he couldn't write checks so he had friends write checks for him.

LR: Yes, yes. Because you see he was trying to say he had no money. He had two or three million dollars stashed. So because it was a tax evasion case, oh well, this is really the truth. Bobby Kennedy was really, really out to get anyone connected to the Mickey Cohen case and I was the weakest link. They had spent thousands of dollars in tax payers' money and had no convictions at all and they just had to grab somebody and I was the only grabable one.

MONK: How were you grabable?

LR: Because of the Western Union records.

MONK: I see. But you lied, so Mickey Cohen never went to jail.

LR: No, no. He did. They got him anyway. But I was in jail long before him. They gave him 15 years, and a crazed inmate who wanted to be a big man hit him over the head with a lead pipe, and he had to have brain surgery and he was never the same after, and he lost his motor control, had to walk on a cane and everything. When he came out he was sort of finished due to all that.

MONK: Now you were his lover. Were you ever his wife?

LR: No, I was not his wife. I was one of his main squeezes. He had a few but he always tried to marry me . He always said, "Jewish men make the best husbands." I met him in '57 and [we were together] until '59 when I had to land in Terminal Island.

MONK: Where is Terminal Island?

LR: They tore it down. The women's prison doesn't even exist anymore. [It was] in San Pedro.

MONK: What was it like there?

LR: Being an optimist I said, "Well, they're going to give me three years, I'll let them give me three years! I'll do more in here than I would on the outside. They can support me while I pursue art and writing." Not only did I write the book [My Face for the World to See] in there and paint 150 paintings, but I taught oil painting to the inmates, I had a little theater group. I had T.I. Follies, a chorus line that I put together. I ran the prison newspaper. The time just flew by. In fact, a very hard to believe thing that I'm going to tell you, I begged them to let me stay a couple days longer. I didn't want to leave without finishing the murals in the chapel. But they wouldn't let me stay so I tried to come back as an art teacher to finish the [mural] but they wouldn't let me in. It's as hard to get in as it is to get out.

MONK: Were there things that you didn't put in the book [My Face for the World to See] because they were too risky to say at the time?

LR: By the time the book came out they were no longer risky. [Mickey] was in prison, nothing I said could hurt or help him. And then Tony Coppola died. In fact, all those guys who were involved are dead. Anastasia was shot in that famous barber chair murder. All the things pertaining to that are really high adventure. No wonder Todd Oldham wants to do a movie. A lot of crazy, wild things are in that book.

MONK: This is the movie that Todd Oldham is doing, based on My Face for the World to See ?

LR: Uh huh. But I've never talked to Todd yet. He said that he doesn't want to meet me until after the movie is done. He's so afraid that I'll try to influence him and sway him. He doesn't want any comments about his casting, he doesn't want any input about anything. Todd's a big fan of mine. He's got my paintings hanging all over his flagship New York store. But he has a crystal clear image of me. He doesn't want to see me at this age. He wants to hold the image of me when I was young and gorgeous and flamboyant.

MONK: How did you meet Mickey Cohen in the first place?

LR: The guys in New York called him to meet my plane when I decided to come to Hollywood because it was already too hot [back] there. I was already subpoenaed for federal Grand Juries. I was questioned and later subpoenaed like a yo-yo, coast to coast, for 13 federal Grand Juries.

MONK: For what?

LR: The Anastasia Group.

MONK: So you knew a lot of the Mafia guys in New York.

LR: Well, you know how I met them, I worked in clubs that were owned by them and were hangouts for them, and I was an entertainer.

MONK: So naturally you'd meet them.

LR: Yeah! How I became friendly with Tony Coppola----the one that caused the whole big problem, he was Anastasia's right-hand man----that was because my little son fell of a wall and was dying in the hospital, well we thought he was dying, he was in a coma and everything, and they came to my rescue and helped me with the whole thing and helped me with his medical bills and kept me on salary at the club even though I wasn't there. They just befriended me so much that I started liking them and thinking they were pretty nice guys. I didn't even believe Coppola when he said he was Albert Anastasia's bodyguard. I thought that he was just some bookie trying to glorify his status and sound like a big man. Just like when I came to Vegas, everybody I met said they were Howard Hughes' attorney. You meet a lot of people who use these lines and I never even believed him until I got involved in this investigation and found out it was even worse than what he'd told me.

MONK: Now, you were pretty famous in a couple of other ways. I'm told that you were the first person to streak down Hollywood Boulevard.

LR: You know how that happened? I was in a semi-nude role that was opening. They had this party in my honor and there was this big sign that said "The Striking Liz Renay." Somebody crossed it out and changed it into "Streaking." All the press were there.

MONK: When was this?

LR: It had to be about 1975.

MONK: You were in a live revue?

LR: Yes it was a revue, my own revue. So anyway, they were all asking me "what is streaking? Are you going to streak?" It was a big fad right then. So I said, "I'll tell you one thing, if I ever do, I'll streak Hollywood and Vine at high noon." Then I forgot about it and I went to a big party that Ephram Zimbalist, Jr. was having. It was a groovy party, lots of champagne. I got about half-smashed and I came home and went to sleep at about three or four in the morning. At six o'clock a live radio news show called and said, "Are you really going to streak Hollywood and Vine at high noon?" I said "yeah sure," and then I went back to sleep. The next thing I know the theater was calling me. They said all the news, the foreign press, everybody was calling them about me streaking Hollywood. I said I was damn sure I wasn't going to do it, but he said I had to do it because everybody was going to be there, [and if I didn't] I would make a fool of the theater and a fool of myself. "You said it, now you have to do it." They promised they would have a car from the theater that would follow along and grab me up after a couple of blocks, so I wouldn't have to run forever. They also said they'd have stagehands to run interference so that nobody could grab me. So I decided to do it. They said there would be one or two hundred people there. There were four thousand people there! It turned out like a big sporting event. Little old ladies were out there yelling, "Atta girl, baby! Do your thing!" People were leaning out windows and climbing flag poles. Four thousand damn people. The car from the theater was surrounded by a herd of people, so they were no help. The stagehands didn't even try to keep people at arms' length. I had to run like hell for a block! I couldn't stop running or I'd get trampled. They were finally able to collect me. They had this see-through lace robe they put on me and took me down to the theater. Hundreds of people came like a mob scene down to the theater. They only let the press in so I sat on stage and did simultaneous interviews. When the show opened that night they had to turn away hundreds of people. The house was packed to the rafters. It was a highly successful show for the whole run due to that streaking thing. It made national and international press and it was on the end of the year news highlights. Oh, not to mention that I got arrested for being lude and nude and for indecent exposure. What happened was I had this big criminal lawyer----he later got murdered by some of his underworld connections----but he represented me and he handled it like a criminal case. He strung it out for a week with all this publicity. He asked for a gag order for the jurors and all these silly things, but it kept it alive. He had streaking pictures made up and passed them out to all the jurors. Then the bailiff came and requested one for the judge! The wind-up was they found me not guilty of indecent exposure. They said it was one of the most decent exposures they'd seen in years. They said, "She was nude but not lewd." I walked away and everything was beautiful and the next thing I know I get this request from Mayor Alliotta in San Francisco. He wanted me to streak his political affair. But he said he thought I should wear a g-string. So I did.

MONK: Now, you've been in a number of films. What were some of your major acting roles?

LR: Well, the one that I like best of all was the one that I did for John Waters, Desperate Living , because I had a part that I could really get into. He gave me more to do and I was able to run the gamut of feelings.

MONK: Any others?

LR: Dimension in Fear, and I play this psychic. I just finished that a few months ago.

MONK: What do you consider your greatest achievement?

LR: Being happy [giggles], enjoying life, making the most of it.

MONK: Why is that?

LR: Well, a lot of people are very unhappy and don't know how to achieve happiness. I wish everyone could be as happy as I am and have as much fun as I do.

MONK: What is your greatest fear?

LR: I really don't fear anything. It is true that Sparky's a good little watchdog and he doesn't have to bite anybody to protect me because I do have a loaded

German Walther

under my bed.

MONK: A load of what?

LR: A German Walther . That's the woman's equivalent to the German Luger . And I do know how to shoot it. I've never had to shoot it in 20 years. I never shot it except on the 4th of July to be sure it's still working.

MONK: I wouldn't want to mess with that!

LR: Well, if anybody broke in and I felt like my life was in danger I would just like to have a little edge. I'm a very good shot, so I just hope no one ever has the misfortune to break into my bedroom. So far so good.