Leslie Zemeckis, the author of Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl, which drops next week, is well-known in the burlesque world for her previous book on the life of Lili St. Cyr, and the book that started it all for her: Behind the Burly Q, which was also made into a documentary.
She followed that film with this year’s Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, about Mabel Stark, a Jazz Age badass who—no spoiler—trained tigers. (And yes, since you’re going to ask, Leslie is married to another well-known Zemeckis.)
If Zemeckis sounds busy, she is, and if you’re hoping she’ll bring something more glamorous to the usually staid scene of tepid-white-wine book launches, you’re in luck: her upcoming kickoff at Housing Works promises actual fan dancing, presented by the Ziegfeld Club.
We caught up with Zemeckis in a midtown hotel to talk about the new book and burlesque “Legends”—a term with an ever-shifting definition. In person, she’s charming, poised, and willing to admit that she fell into burlesque both whole-heartedly and kind of by accident—a common theme amongst burlesque aficionados and practitioners alike, from the “classic” era till now.
Why are you so interested in burlesque?
It was the women. Just hearing these women’s stories that have never been told before. Really that nobody had ever asked about it. That’s what drew me into it. It wasn’t really burlesque per se until I learned more about it. It was like, “Oh this is really undiscovered.” you know, you read most history books on burlesque, it’s what the show was, what Minsky’s was, “This is Lili St. Cyr’s act,” but never, “Well, how did she get to do that, what did her family think about it, what happened to her afterwards?”— it was never from the performer’s point of view. Where’s the person behind it? So that’s what drove me into it.
That I don’t want to say. Because that is kind of what the book is about. I’ll say, they both did it. They both did it at the same time. They were both really well known for it, it was a competitive thing between them. And not only them, but the press and the world around them made it a thing between them.
Is that the main impetus for your wanting to tell this story?
My impetus was, I was absolutely fascinated by Faith Bacon, and it really bothered me that this beautiful woman killed herself at a relatively young age, and it was like, Why?
That’s what drove everything.
There’s such a contrast between Faith Bacon’s decline and Sally Rand’s long, celebrated career arc.
Nobody’s done anything on Faith — she [has] a chapter in Behind the Burly Q, and she was definitely an inspiration for Lili St. Cyr. And not to disparage, but there’s only this one crappy untrue book on Sally Rand, who is a legend, so to me it was like, “What, nobody’s ever dug into [Bacon’s] life?”
And it’s not just their lives, it’s society and pop culture and what was happening, they were at the Chicago World’s Fair — all these worlds fairs that were so hugely popular. Huge nightclubs, it’s just a whole world, and then the mobsters and everybody that ran with that. It’s rich, rich history. And they were right at the center of it.
These women were so celebrated back then, in what can seem like a more glamorous time. What do you think about the shifts in society and the changes in feminism?[Feminisim] should be whatever the woman wants it to be. Their society in that day, in talking to all these legends—you didn’t leave the house looking a certain way. You put on your gloves, you put on your stockings — that’s just what you do. Whether they were going out to work or they were going out to shop. That’s a whole separate thing.
The main difference, for the—I’ll say average—an average working burlesque woman back in those days, was they were making a living. Most of them were not making statements, they were just trying to survive, and this is how they could do it. There were so few opportunities for women, a lot of them were single, a great majority of them came from abuse and poverty, and it was their way out.[In interviewing veterans of burlesque,] very few of them said to me, “Oh, I thought I was a pioneer and I was making a statement.” It was, “I was putting bread on my table, and then, you know what, I grew” —for the most part —“to love it. I could see the world, or I could at least see the United States, and I could have beautiful things and I could support myself. And the husbands can come and go, but I was still there and I could make a living.” Into their 50s, into their 60s, into their 70s, some of them. So it was just a different thing.
Do you identify more with Faith than with Sally?
No, [I identify] differently. The one thing I always loved about Sally, when I interviewed her son, is she was one of the only ones who clearly was an amazing mother. I mean it really stood out — he loved her, and they stayed close forever and lived near each other, and she was a really good grandmother to his kids. She was a really good mother and so, as a mother [myself], that really drew me in, that aspect of it, even though she was always on the road.
I heard horror stories — some of these kids…
You mentioned that a lot of these performers had well-kept secrets…
They have so many secrets, that’s what’s all so interesting about these times and why I do so much research, because you could say anything. You could just change your name. Lili St. Cyr was not her real name — but you could literally sign documents, like, I saw the deeds to her house with that name. I was like, are you fucking kidding me? You could just invent anything you want.
So I have to ask, do you have any fun Mae West stories? She’s a legend around here because supposedly she lived upstairs from Teddy’s.
I don’t, because she wasn’t a stripper. I just have a little about her in the Mabel film, because Mabel doubled for her [in movies]. And Mae West said about her, I guess they asked her, “Is there any other woman you’d wanna be?” and she said, “Oh, that tiger lady!”
This interview has been edited and condensed.