“Would you be interested in a story on Angelyne’s true identity?” the man wrote last fall under a pseudonym, referring to the enigmatic L.A. billboard diva who has been a pop culture icon of self-creation and self-marketing since the early 1980s — and is now regarded as a forerunner to Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and every personal-brand hustler on social media. “I have many details on her life — all well documented — from when her parents met to early adulthood. It’s very different from her public, concocted story — and more interesting.”
Angelyne is one of the vanishingly few contemporary public figures whose background has remained shrouded in mystery, along with the conceptual artist Banksy, Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto and aircraft hijacker D.B. Cooper. The man, who claimed to work in an undefined role for the federal government, said he was a hobbyist genealogist, occasionally taking on paid assignments in the field as an amusing side gig. A few years earlier, he’d decided it’d be fun to set himself the challenge of cracking Angelyne’s case. “And I did,” he explained.
Later, at the 101 Coffee Shop in Hollywood, the genealogist — who looks like Michael Kelly’s contained political operative Doug Stamper from House of Cards — unfurled an elaborate story of Angelyne’s past, based on material he contended he’d enterprisingly pulled and synthesized from a global network of public databases. He laid down a folded printout of a row of yearbook photos.
“This one,” he said, pointing at a 1967 Monroe Senior High School sophomore from the San Fernando Valley, third from right, “is Angelyne.” A schoolgirl with hooded eyes and long center-parted locks, in a button-down white shirt and tie, stared out across half a century. “Also known as Renee Goldberg.”
The Hollywood Reporter has since independently confirmed this is Angelyne’s real identity with public records and family members. Far from the archetypal transplant-with-a-dream, as she has tacitly long alluded, she’s the locally raised daughter of Holocaust survivors, a Jew who has found refuge in shiksa drag. It’s a fascinating, only-in-L.A. story of identity, history and a symbiotic yearning both to be forgotten and to be famous.
The yearbook photo was no smoking gun. By her own cosmetic surgery confessions, Angelyne has had quite a bit of work done — and if the genealogist was right, that high school junior is now 66 years old.
Copies of immigration, marriage and death records pointed to a cloaked prehistory of Renee Tami Goldberg (originally Ronia Tamar Goldberg), which seems to reveal the trauma Angelyne had both emerged and escaped from. She was born in Poland on Oct. 2, 1950, the daughter of Polish Jews who’d met in the Chmielnik ghetto during World War II — they were among 500 to survive out of a population of 13,000, the rest sent to death at Treblinka. According to the documentation — obtained from the International Tracing Service, established by the Red Cross as an archive of Nazi crimes — her parents, Hendrik (aka Heniek or Henryk) Goldberg and Bronia (aka Bronis) Zernicka, endured unimaginable horrors at a series of concentration camps, first together at Skarzysko, where prisoners’ main job was to make munitions, and then apart at the 20th century’s most infamous hellscapes, including Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen.
Bronia later submitted paperwork to Yad Vashem indicating she’d lost more than 40 relatives in the Holocaust, including her father, three brothers and a sister. Shortly after liberation, she and Hendrik married in the Foehrenwald displaced persons camp in Germany. They were eventually repatriated to Poland, which remained hostile to Jews after World War II. So after Goldberg’s birth, the family immigrated to Israel, remaining in an ultra-orthodox community of Hasidic Jews called Bnei Brak, east of Tel Aviv, until 1959. (A younger sister, Annette, was born in 1952.)
They boarded a ship leaving Haifa for New York and settled in L.A.’s Fairfax District. Her father worked as a tool-and-die mechanic. Then, in 1965, her 44-year-old mother died of cancer. Goldberg was 14.
The next year Hendrik (now Henry) remarried another Holocaust survivor, a seamstress divorcee named Deborah, and Goldberg acquired a younger stepsister, Norma. She and her father moved from the Westside to Panorama City, deep in the San Fernando Valley, where she’d begin high school and Henry and Deborah would run a strip-mall liquor store in nearby Van Nuys. She’d have a brief marriage to the son of a Beverly Hills executive, living in Hollywood with him. Goldberg’s paper trail ends with their divorce in 1969.
Angelyne had single-handedly created and then inhabited a modern myth of L.A.: the platinum blond bombshell in the bright pink Corvette forever circumnavigating the city, seeking to enchant by dint of her sheer superficial glamour. It had the aesthetic power and emotional resonance of genuine performance art, Marina Abramovic by way of John Waters, particularly as she kept on rambling around the city over the decades while she aged.
I’d written a profile about Angelyne for THR in 2015. She attempted to micromanage the terms of our time together in sharp-elbowed fashion before agreeing to let me ride in her Stingray 1LT. Once inside, reality quickly shone through her constructed shallow facade: a keen intelligence, a striking vulnerability. Also something else, undefinable but perceptibly troubled, even haunted.
When I asked about her family and her past, she described herself as an only child and an orphan. “I lost my parents at a young age,” she said, “and because of that, I sought the attention of the world through my tricks. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to get the love of the world.’ ” When I pushed for more, she shut me down. “It’s just a long story,” she said, the cartoonishly girly lilt of her voice gone flat. “I don’t want to get into it. I made my way here.”
Angelyne was similarly mum or vague when I inquired about other things that might have forged her, from religion (“I’ve tried them all — Jewish, Catholic, Hindu: too many dogmas”) to her place of origin. Some internet stories suggest that she is from Idaho, but she wouldn’t talk about where she grew up. A distant hometown perfectly fit her narrative of an American small-town girl coming to L.A. to fulfill a dream. (I searched Idaho public records and could find no indication of someone named Angelyne, Angelyne Lyne or Angelyne Lynne — all names that have appeared on her business filings.)
I came away with an understanding of how she’d built and perpetuated the Angelyne phenomenon — including the business by which she made a living: lucratively marked-up and vigorously hawked merchandise sales out of her trunk, plus licensing and appearance fees. (Of course the Kardashians and other proteges have exponentially scaled and digitized the model.) But I’d fallen short in penetrating who she really is, why she’d dedicated her life to transforming herself into what she described to me as a “Rorschach test in pink” — a figure who simultaneously elects to commute among us and hold herself apart, in her formulation, “on top of a pink cloud on top of a pink mountain.”
Jews had assimilated in the postwar period. Surnames Anglicized, religious observance ebbed, kosher compliance curtailed — both to better conform to their American homeland and, often, as a conscious or unconscious departure from the trauma of their European pasts. They’d arrived and imagined themselves anew.
Yet Goldberg becoming Angelyne: That would be a feat far more radical, a leap far more extreme, out of a grim and drab past into a realm of complete fantasy. How fitting it would be for such an act to take place amid the New World shtetl of Hollywood, defined by metamorphosis and make-believe.
To many Jews, Angelyne reads distinctly gentile, the quintessential shiksa, whether by accident or intent. Her taste and status cues exist in a goyish Bermuda Triangle somewhere between Dolly Parton, Loni Anderson and Traci Lords.
But once I floated the idea of Goldberg as Angelyne to friends and colleagues who had been fascinated by her over the years and occasionally had had their own fleeting curbside run-ins, the surprisingly unsurprised reaction (particularly from the Jewish ones) was consensus and instantaneous: That makes sense. The stereotypical old-school shmatte-selling, the hardnosed negotiations, the pure all-purpose chutzpah — “I’ve known that woman,” one happily told me, as if welcoming home a long-lost relative, “all my life.”
As thorough as the genealogist had been in piecing together Goldberg’s early life, he’d missed an easily Google-able recent connection between Angelyne and her alleged true identity. Late last year, I saw that The Fillmore Gazette, a community newspaper of a small town 60 miles northwest of L.A. in Ventura County, had published online a legal notice on April 28, 2016, that Renee Goldberg had petitioned to change her name to Angelyne Llyne at Ventura Superior Court. (After short-selling her Malibu condo in 2010, she now lives in the Ventura County area of Thousand Oaks.)
If the genealogist’s claim is to be believed, Goldberg recently had become eligible to collect Social Security benefits. (It is unknown whether Angelyne has applied for such benefits under any name.) While the Social Security Administration had previously not required applicants to document proof, the policy changed in 2005 after Congress took action in response to terror concerns.
I drove to the Ventura County courthouse to get the document. She claimed to have been born on Jan. 26, 1962 (a dozen years after the genealogist’s records indicate), and to be from the statistically gentile Louisville, Kentucky. As for the reason for the name change, she states on the form, “This is my stage name that I use and have used since 1978.”
Goldberg also listed a residential address that was 2 miles away. When I headed over, I discovered it was a commercial showroom for personalized trophies, plaques, gavels, medallions and clocks called Custom Awards & Engraving. I decided to refrain from asking owners Jerry and Linda Mendelsohn about Angelyne for the time being.
Scott Hennig, a 60-year-old portrait illustrator from Idaho, has been Angelyne’s assistant, close friend and gatekeeper since the late 1980s. We’d spoken many times but always over the phone. He’d declined to meet when I requested an interview while profiling Angelyne two years ago, stating he preferred to remain “behind the scenes.” I told him that a self-described genealogist had come forward with documentation attesting to the fact that Angelyne was in fact Renee Goldberg.
Hennig scoffed. “This stuff comes up every few years — it seems to get more and more ridiculous,” he says. “My favorite one of all was this 300-pound black woman who claimed to be her mother. ‘I’m your long-lost brother,’ ‘your twin sister.’ Chalk it up to life in Hollywood. I’ve never heard of ‘Renee Goldberg.’ It’s laughable, it’s outrageous.” And as for the genealogist? “This guy needs to get a life. It’s almost like …” He thought for a moment. “Like stalker stuff, it really is. It’s kind of creepy. It’s weird.”
I brought up the name-change document connecting Renee Goldberg to Angelyne, and told him I would be happy to send over some of the genealogist’s material for her review. “I’m not saying the paperwork isn’t legitimate,” he responded, growing testy. “I’m saying it ain’t her. Look, I get emails from another Scott Hennig, a karate expert in Texas. People think that’s me. There are a lot of girls out there named Angelyne. I don’t know what to tell you. And who knows how legitimate this old stuff is, going back to World War II?”
Hennig went on, wondering, “And who’s this guy? He’s poking into Angelyne’s business — why don’t we get his name?” I put that question to the genealogist soon afterward, who’d communicated with me under the pseudonym Ed Thompson.
“There’s a difference between her and me — and she and most people,” he reasoned by phone. “She’s a celebrity, and beyond that, she forfeited any claim of privacy when she ran, as a joke or a stunt or not, for governor of California” during the recall race that Arnold Schwarzenegger won in 2003. “As for me,” he went on, explaining he had a government job that included a top-secret clearance, “reputation is fairly important, and the controversy that might be involved in this situation is not part of that culture. There’s a minute possibility that surreptitious activity — not illegal but surreptitious — could reflect badly on a top-secret clearance.”
I sent Hennig the name-change document and the yearbook photos the day after we spoke. Subsequent efforts by phone and email to discuss those materials with him — or, better yet, Angelyne — were repeatedly dodged.
On a rainy Tuesday evening nearly two weeks later, I was reporting on another story at a Sunset Strip tattoo shop when I spotted Angelyne’s new Pepto Bismol-hued Corvette Z06 gleaming under a street light across the street. It was parked in front of 1980s hair metal haven the Rainbow Bar & Grill.
I soon found the reclusive Hennig, clad in a denim jacket and jeans, loitering in an empty upstairs hallway next to a Pantera poster. He looked just like the lanky fellow whose over-exposed vintage photos had appeared beside his boss’ in the 2005 premiere issue of Hot P!nk, Angelyne’s short-lived glossy fan magazine. Before I could say hello, she emerged from an adjacent restroom, in full regalia.
Her eyes went wide as she shook my hand. I asked if Hennig had conveyed my queries about Renee Goldberg and the Holocaust. While he stood mute a few feet away, she stammered, “I have a weird stalker who has been following me and hanging underwear outside my home and all sorts of things. We’re going to catch him — big time!” Usually, she explained of her history with obsessives, “I use reverse psychology on them and they go away.”
As Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” softly piped in overhead, I offered my sympathies, asking if she’d yet taken legal action or informed the authorities. In the past she’d told me she’d filed restraining orders against two stalkers. Angelyne said she and her team hadn’t — that they were “building a case.”
Angelyne cast herself as a victim of a scheme, and me as an unwitting — or even witting — pawn. (The next day I spoke with the genealogist, who’d previously told me that he had “no tie to her other than curiosity,” and asked him if he was stalking her. “No, not at all,” he chuckled. “It’s a contorted, convenient way to try to come up with a semi-plausible story. Or not even that plausible. It doesn’t even make any sense. How could this kind of information about her past possibly be part of a plot to force her to do anything?”)
I asked Angelyne about the Ventura County name-change document. Her expression scrunched. “It was a complication thing,” she said, tipping from one foot to the other. “I don’t want to talk about it.” I pressed, and she said she’d have her lawyer call me. I asked if it would be her business attorney, William Remery, or the attorney on the document, David Lehr. “Someone else.”
She wheeled around to Topic A. “I know you want it to be true because you’re Jewish — and that’s adorable!” This last word was enunciated with her breathy falsetto inflection, a stagey girlishness that Paris Hilton appropriated. I told her, without success, why my interest was justifiable on journalistic terms. She nodded, unbowed: “Is your editor Jewish?”
She bid me goodbye with a hug — “I know you love me and don’t want to hurt me” — and a promise that I’d hear from her lawyer. Angelyne also stated that it’s her inalienable right alone to share her story as she sees fit — or not. (Earlier, regarding the details of her past, she’d told me, “I want to save it for my memoirs; that’s my right for my own financial interest.”) Later, when I left, I saw her on the sidewalk beside her Corvette under a translucent pink umbrella, huddled in what appeared to be an intense conversation with Hennig.
The next day, curious to revisit those Hennig photos, I unearthed from the bottom of a pile on my newsroom desk the premiere issue of Hot P!nk, which Angelyne bulldozed me into purchasing two years ago for $50 — along with other merchandise — before even agreeing to seriously discuss participation in a potential profile in THR. What instead caught my eye were the advertisements, which on closer inspection all seemed to be personally connected to her: the North Hollywood auto body shop that I’d elsewhere read custom-paints her Corvette; the late Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. George Semel, who she’d previously told me was her “artistic collaborator.”
I kept scanning. There was an eighth-page ad from Custom Awards & Engraving, the trophy business Angelyne listed as her residential address on the name-change document. Co-owner Linda Mendelsohn also was mentioned in the text, which congratulated Angelyne on the launch of the magazine. Bingo.
A fortnight passed without word from Angelyne. I rang Hennig and told him I was still looking for clarification. Where, at least, was the follow-up from the mystery attorney? This time he was curt. “I’ll tell her you called,” he said, his tone cold, hanging up. It would be the last I’d hear from either of them.
The next day I called Goldberg’s stepsister, Norma St. Michel, who resides in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley. I brought up Angelyne. “Oh, I have no idea,” she said, an edge to her voice, cutting me off and hanging up.
Then I tracked down Michael Strauss, the Jewish boy (scion of a Beverly Hills dynasty forged by the changeable reader board on movie theater marquees) whom she’d wed in the late 1960s. He was now a family man living in Carlsbad after a successful career manufacturing acrylic furniture.
I told him what I was calling about. “Holy smokes,” he said, astonished. “I haven’t talked to Angelyne in years. I’ve kind of followed her on the internet.”
We chatted for an hour. Strauss had tender memories of Goldberg, referring alternatively in the past and present to her as “Angelyne” and “Renee.” He’d never spoken publicly about the identity of his first wife before, and only rarely in private, he said. (An exception: In 2016 when she applied for a new driver’s license, a DMV investigator contacted him to corroborate her true identity.)
They’d met through mutual friends while she was still living on the Westside. “She was the most gorgeous redhead,” he said. “She was unique, beautiful, smart.” Later, during their short matrimony, they lived together with Annette and her first husband at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, “right where Wolfman Jack used to record.” Strauss emailed me photos while we were talking: the pair posing barefoot by the pool at a friend’s backyard party, a striking black-and-white portrait he’d taken of Goldberg at his family’s Trousdale Estates home. (A budding photographer, he shot the likes of Donovan and War.) And, most importantly, he sent the same yearbook photo the genealogist had shown me.
Strauss explained that Goldberg’s childhood had been difficult. Her father, a man with a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm, had been controlling, cruel and narrow-minded, propelling her to flee home early. Like many survivors of trauma, Henry didn’t discuss it. This extended, to Strauss’ memory, as far as Goldberg’s own history; her father told her she was born in Israel, not a German displaced-persons camp. Regardless, “she has never considered herself Jewish.”
Strauss was surprised to learn from me that Goldberg’s mother had died just a few years before he met her; he’d always thought it had been much earlier, a hardened scar. “She’d never talk about her mother — ever, ever, ever. It was a subject that couldn’t be brought up. If I brought it up, it was shut down.”
After they broke up — it was amicable — he traveled for several years, returning to L.A. in the mid-1970s. “I hooked up with Renee again, and she was Angelyne,” he said. “I wasn’t there when she made the transition. All of a sudden, big boobs, blond hair, this voice — the voice used to make me nuts. It didn’t compute with who I’d known she was.”
It would be another decade before she’d achieve notoriety for her pioneering famous-for-being-famous billboard campaign. “As an entrepreneur, I was sad that she wasn’t ever able to be more [financially] successful,” Strauss said of her career, which emerged out of punk and new wave bands and occasional bit parts in films. “Why didn’t she take it farther? Why not a TV show? She invented this marvelous, crazy, out-of-this-world character but couldn’t fully sell it. I was always a Renee rooter: ‘Come on, girl, take it to the next level!’ But she only had the capacity to take it so far.”
When they broke up, Strauss held on to some of her effects — personal photos, official documents — “because she didn’t want them, and I wasn’t just going to throw them away. I mean, what if she eventually wanted them back? Except she never did. I saw her in the early 1990s, and I said, ‘I have these things.’ She didn’t want them. She wanted nothing to do with it. She’d created another life.”
Why had she done it? “You’d have to ask her that,” he said softly.
Renee Goldberg had purely committed to the fundamental principle of Hollywood — escapism — by inhabiting the character she conjured to the point of no return. Like many dreamers, she adopted a stage name and altered her body and behavior to better position a prospective entertainment career that, like many dreamers, never panned out quite as intended. Nevertheless, far more than most, by any definition of success, she truly became the person she was pretending to be.
Strauss eventually, reluctantly, ventured a guess. “It’s a persona that must have suited her,” he said. “It made her way in life. It’s not an easy world out there.”
August 14, 2017 update: Mentions of Annette Block and her husband, Stanley, incorrectly believed to be Angelyne’s sister and brother-in-law, have been removed from this story. Subsequent reporting indicates that Annette Goldberg, who was born two years earlier than Block, is Angelyne’s sibling.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.