Born On This Day, 1919: Liberace

Jim Burroway

May 16th, 2016

Top: Liberace’s signed photo to his mother. He was always Walter to her. Bottom: Liberace’s transparent closet.

(d. 1987) Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace, he was known as Lee to his friends, Walter to his family, and Liberace to everyone else. His father, a french horn player, loved music but his mother saw it as an unaffordable luxury. His father prevailed, taking his children to concerts and insisting on excellence in their music lessons. Liberace later recalled, “My dad’s love and respect for music created in him a deep determination to give as his legacy to the world, a family of musicians dedicated to the advancement of the art.”

On “Mr. Showmanship’s” terms, the advancement of the art took on an entirely new meaning. The word “synonymous” doesn’t do justice to the connection between Liberace’s name and flamboyance. He raised eyebrows by wearing a relatively simple white tuxedo at the Hollywood Bowl in 1952, and he continued to wear it so he could be easily seen in darkened concert halls. But it didn’t take long before that gave way to sequined jackets, then entire rhinestone-encrusted, fur-trimmed monstrosities that were “just one tuck short of drag,” as he put it. In the 1950’s he installed a Plexiglas lid on his piano so as to not obstruct the view; by the 1960s his pianos were often encrusted with jewels and mirrors. And then there was the candelabrum. Always the rococo candelabrum. His entrances at the start of his Las Vegas shows were legendary. Sometimes he’d step out of a sequined limousine that rolled onto stage (driven by his very young and handsome lover, Scott Thorson), sometimes he flew in by invisible wires. After making a grand runway walk, he’d hold out his arms to show off his outfit and yet, “I hope you like it! You paid for it!” The audience roared back their approval.

He was as out as any closeted gay man could possibly be, and as closeted as every fearful performer was determined to be. His verbal denials aside — he even sued London’s Daily Mirror in 1956 when they questioned his sexuality in print and, incredibly, won! (Jun 17) — Liberace didn’t try too terribly hard to fool his audience. In that respect, Liberace joined a long line of not-entirely-closeted public figures whose non-closeted closets became an essential part if their identities as public figures, daring their audiences to see what was right there in front of them. Art critic Dave Hickey, in his essay “A Rhinestone as Big As The Ritz,” I think, put it best:

He never came out of the closet; he lived in it like the grand hypocrite that he was, and died in it, of a disease he refused to acknowledge. But neither, in fact, did Wilde come out of it, and he, along with Swineburn and their Belle Époque cronies, probably invented the closet as a mode of subversive public/private existence. Nor did Noel Coward come out of it. He tricked it up with the smoke and mirrors of leisure-class ennui and cloaked it in public-school double entendre. What Liberace did do, however, was Americanize the closet, democratize it, fit it out with transparent walls, and take it up on stage and demand our complicity in his “open secret.” …”A bit like cousin Ed, ain’t he,” my grandfather said. Getting it but not saying it.

Fake publicity dates with such celebrities as Mae West, Sonja Henie, Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Susan Hayward, and dancer JoAnn Del Rio, to whom he was rumored to be engaged before Liberace declared that his busy career left no time for marriage (Oct 7) — this all helped to maintain Liberace’s heterosexual public persona. But if straight America danced delicately around “the question,” gay America wasn’t nearly so demure. Gay publications often featured catty comments about His Glittership, like this small notice in Milwaukee’s GPU News in 1973:

Milwaukee’s own Liberace has announced the forthcoming publication of his autobiography called “Why I Never Married.” We wonder if he will reveal that, before television made him famous, he played piano regularly at a local gay bar called “The Red Room”, affectionately remembered by old timers as “The Bed Room.”

Scott Thorson and Liberace

His autobiography that year was simply titled, “Liberace: An Autobiography,” which, suffice it to say, carried no such bombshells.

In 1982, Thorson, by then Liberace’s 24-year-old lover of five years, sued Liberace for $113 million in palimony after they broke up. The lawsuit made for sensation headlines, but Thorson wound up settling for a pittance. Liberace’s closet remained sealed right up until he died in 1987, and after. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest due to congestive heart failure brought on by sub-acute encephalopathy. Before he died, Hank Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, wrote in a front-page story that he had known Liberace for 40 years and that he, Greenspun, had the medical records, laboratory reports and other documentation to prove that Liberace had AIDS. Liberace and his handlers continued to deny the reports. After Liberace’s death, Thorson published a tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace, in which Thorson described the “tender love” he shared with Liberace and their reconciliation at Liberace’s death bed. But despite that, and even despite Betty White’s 2011 revelation that she was a beard for some of Liberace’s dates for publicity’s sake, Wikipedia had maintained entire section devoted to questioning the “allegations of homosexuality” until 2013. That section is still there, but the contents have changed considerably now that the question has been pretty much settled in the public’s mind, when HBO’s biopic, Behind the Candelabra, based on Thorson’s book and starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson, premiered that year.


May 16th, 2016

I don’t like Liberace. But his performance as a casket salesman in The Loved One is superb.

(Sorry about the subtitles.)

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