It was in many ways, a love story.

Although their love was acted out against a backdrop of crime and prison, there seemed little doubt that Lillian Reis and Ralph "Junior" Staino Jr. were really in love.

She was the glamorous ex-chorus girl who bought a Center City nightclub under dubious circumstances, and he was the handsome tough guy with reputed mob ties.

But despite long absences when he was in prison, their love held fast for 54 years.

And it held despite accusations that they were the principals in one of Pennsylvania's most sensational burglaries, which featured a cast of characters right out of a Damon Runyon story, and two brutal murders.

Staino was at her bedside, along with her family, when Reis died Thursday in a hospital in Marlton, N.J., at the age of 79.

"Even when she was dying, she was beautiful," Staino told the Inquirer.

When Staino was on the lam in the Dominican Republic in the 1980s, he kept a diary that wound up as evidence in his federal court trial on racketeering and drug-trafficking charges.

"Had dinner and then called Lil," Staino wrote from his hideaway. "How great she sounded. Oh, how I love her! She breathed new life and hope in me. I went from despair to bliss."

At another point he wrote about Lillian, "God knows she needs me. I'm her only champion. . . . My dreams were full of Lillian."

After Staino was sentenced to 33 years in prison in federal court in May 1989, Lillian proclaimed, "We love each other today I believe as much as we did 35 years ago."

They both blubbered like babies at his sentencing.

Lillian was a show girl at the Celebrity Room in Center City in the late '50s when she met Clyde L. "Bing" Miller, of Pottsville, Schuylkill County, who had made a fortune in strip-mining.

He fell for the beautiful Lillian and showered her with expensive gifts - but to no avail. She loved another.

Prosecutors would claim that the lovesick Miller told Lillian that a man named John B. Rich kept a fortune in his home in Pottsville.

A group of burglars from the old K&A gang from Kensington and Allegheny avenues broke into a cabinet in Rich's home in August 1959 and stole what the cops claimed was $478,000 in cash. Rich contended to his dying day that only about $3,500 and some jewelry were taken.

Shortly after the burglary, Lillian bought the Celebrity Room for $40,000. Her defense lawyers would later claim that she saved the money by being thrifty.

After an investigation led by the colorful Capt. Clarence J. Ferguson, late head of a special investigation squad of the Philadelphia Police Department, Lillian, Miller, Staino, along with Robert Poulson, Vincent Blaney and John Berkery, were arrested and charged in the case.

Ferguson contended that Lillian was the "mastermind" of the caper, to which she once told a Bulletin reporter: "Do you think I would get myself into anything like this? Money? If I really wanted just money, I could go out today and marry one of the many men with money who want to marry me."

Lillian was tried twice in Schuylkill County Court. The first trial ended in 1961 with a hung jury. She was convicted in the second trial three years later with legendary defense lawyer Robert "Bobby" Simone as her counsel. They appealed, and in 1970, charges were dropped.

Vincent Blaney and his brother, Richard, who was not directly involved in the burglary, were murdered. Poulson was badly beaten and decided against his original intention to squeal.

Charges were later dropped against Miller, Berkery and Staino.

Although Lillian Reis was called "Tiger Lil" in newspaper stories, she won a $1.8 million libel suit against the Saturday Evening Post in 1964 for a story about her titled "They Call Me Tiger Lil." Bobby Simone was her lawyer. The judgment was later reduced to $500,000.

Joseph R. Daughen, retired Daily News reporter, covered Lillian's first trial. He and she and most of the principals in the case were crowded into the Neccho Allen Hotel in Pottsville.

Although Joe sometimes found her seated only a couple bar stools away at the hotel bar, attempts to talk with her were rebuffed.

"She was very standoffish with reporters," he said. "She would tell you where to go and in very colorful language. But she was a knockout."

"Lillian was a very unique character that this city is not likely to replicate," said Philadelphia-based writer Allen Hornblum. "When she came along, they cracked and threw out the mold."

He said the Rich caper deserves a book. "Stuff out of Hollywood today doesn't rival what happened in that case."

Lillian Reiskin grew up in New York City, moved to California, and came to Philadelphia about 1950. She led the chorus line at the old Latin Casino and became a hostess at the Bon Bon Supper Club.

Her favorite expression with customers was "Drink it up, boys!" The line appeared on Celebrity Room matchbook covers.

She had two bad marriages and raised two daughters.

Constant harassment of the Celebrity Room by police and state liquor agents eventually led to its closing. Lillian herself, called the "Queen of the Twist," was arrested on indecency charges for her dancing.

She finally decided to quit the entertainment business and focus on her family.

She is survived by two daughters, Midge Pfersich and Barbara Reis; a sister, Maxine Reiskin, and her mother, Marge Reiskin.

Services: 11:30 a.m. tomorrow at the Carto Funeral Home, 2212 S. Broad St. Friends may call at 7 this evening and 9 a.m. tomorrow.