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Renay, Liz

(Pearl Elizabeth Dobbins, aka Melissa Morgan, 1926.04.14-    )

Actor, painter, gangster moll, stripper, publicity hound, great-grandmother.

Born in Mesa

Lived in Mesa, Phoenix


Books & video from amazon.com
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 fianc� 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.

Books about Arizona from amazon.com
Arizona For Dummies(r), 2nd Edition by Edie Jarolim
Arizona Goes to War: The Home Front and the Front Lines During World War II by Brad Melton (Editor), Dean Smith (Editor), Marshall Trimble (Introduction), John S. McCain
Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon by Michael P. Ghiglieri, Thomas M. Myers
Roadside History of Arizona (Roadside History Series) by Marshall Trimble, Joe Beeler
Arizona: A Cavalcade of History by Marshall Trimble
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