Liberace: the Gilded Showman


There had never been another like him, and when Wladziu Valentino Liberace died last week in his dizzyingly overdecorated Palm Springs home, the world lost an exotic original—a sweet-natured self-promoter who, for all of his extrovert showiness onstage, had been something of a lost soul. Liberace’s was a life of exquisite paradox; of flamboyance and repression, kitsch and concealment. Beloved by multitudes of middlebrow moms, he had difficulty maintaining emotional intimacy with the men who were his lovers. He lived in a roseate realm of his own creation: “He’s so unlike the rest of us,” sister Angelina (who nursed him through the final hours) once said. “He doesn’t much care for the real world, you know.”

Liberace’s homosexuality had been one of the worst-kept secrets in show business, but he had guarded it until the end. “He thought his personal life was nobody’s business,” says Scott Thorson, the erstwhile lover who filed a $113 million palimony suit against him in 1982. “At home, all of his friends knew he was gay. But in public, he would go to any length to deny [it].”

“He had this idea that no one in America knew he was a homosexual, which was preposterous,” adds Michael Segell. A writer who formerly wrote for Rolling Stone, Segell worked with Liberace on a biography that was scotched, in part, because the subject objected to hints about his homosexuality. “He was an acute businessman, and he realized he couldn’t afford to offend [his audience].” In 1959 he had won a libel suit against a London newspaper columnist who had dared to hint at his sexual preference.

It was an irony, then, that the 67-year-old entertainer should succumb to AIDS—a disease still thought of by many as the gay plague. When Liberace grew gaunt and frail after a successful engagement last fall at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, manager Seymour Heller asserted that it was a “watermelon diet” that had leached dozens of pounds from his 6′, 180-lb. frame. Friends visiting him in the final days loyally supported that story: “I think he just let himself get overly tired and run-down,” said Tido Minor, who had known him for 33 years.

In the end, his devoted fans seemed not to care about the nature of his illness. In Las Vegas—where Liberace kept a baroque home and established the wildly popular Liberace Museum—there was broad resentment against the local paper that broke the news about his AIDS diagnosis. On the Sunday before his death, 70-year-old Mary Ann Smith drove to the museum to make a teary communion with her idol. Slowly approaching a Liberace mannequin that was bedecked in a spangled black suit with silver piano keys emblazoned on the collar and cuffs, she reached out and gently touched its shoulder. “God,” she said to herself, “if I could only make you well.”

Outside the Cloisters, the 15-bed-room, 16-bath Palm Springs house where Liberace would fall into a coma that afternoon, the scene was tinged with a surreal frenzy: Under brilliant, cloudless skies, a throng of spectators, reporters and photographers assembled to wait for the increasingly gloomy communiqués. Motor-driven still cameras erupted into a chorus of whines each time visitors approached the gates, where security guards stood by to admit friends stopping to pay their last respects. Outside, a procession of cars driven by strangers who felt the same impulse cruised by at a funereal pace.

The emaciated Liberace lay in the master bedroom, next door to his chapel. A committed Catholic who often prayed before his performances, he had had the room blessed by a priest. Along with its leopard skin-lined safari lounge, the Gloria Vanderbilt Suite and the Persian tent room, the Cloisters is “filled with religious things,” according to Thorson. With Liberace to the end were Heller, sister Angie, sister-in-law Dora, Dorothy MacMahain and Gladys Luckie, his beloved housekeepers, and Cary James, his 24-year-old chauffeur and friend. Calls from well-wishers like Elton John and Frank Sinatra poured in throughout the long vigil. A physician was on hand, but there was no reversing the sudden turn for the worse that Liberace had taken on Sunday, Feb. 1. “I held his hand for a while but there was no response,” Tido Minor said. “Just heavy breathing. Everyone is taking it quite hard… it’s horrible.”

The end came three days later. By most accounts, the incurable disease had done its work rather swiftly. According to sources at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas, Liberace checked in under an assumed name last October to undergo testing for AIDS. A chain-smoker who suffered from advanced emphysema and heart disease, he was weakened by these conditions and apparently was unable to stave off the deadly syndrome. A Palm Springs acquaintance who encountered Liberace in November scarcely recognized him when he spoke to her. “He had lost about 75 pounds,” she says. “He was chalk white and all his hair was gone. I had never seen an upright human that thin before.” His booking agency was told to cancel his engagements for the next eight months.

To most of those who knew him, Liberace was a generous spirit whose gilded public persona belied his love for homely pleasures—turning out gourmet meals, pampering his beloved dogs and shopping in mufti at the local market. “He was just a nice man, a gentle man,” says Rosemary Clooney, a friend for more than 30 years. “He was always positive about things…I think he saved [his complaints] for a very few people.” Adds another friend: “There was an ease about him…he was the most genuine, caring, sincere guy who ever was.”

Phyllis McGuire, a neighbor in Las Vegas, remembers Liberace’s love for self-deprecating stories. After becoming deathly ill about 15 years ago from cleaning-fluid fumes emanating from one of his garish costumes (some of which weighed 300 pounds), he was hospitalized in Philadelphia. “He told me the last rites were administered and he gave away all he had, setting up trusts for relatives and making sure his mother got the furs. He didn’t die, and when he came to he said, ‘My God, I’ve given everything away. What am I going to do? Well, I’ll start over again. I’ll just charge more at the concerts.’ ”

Some of those stories were used to bolster his deceptive public image: In The Wonderful Private World of Liberace, published last year by Harper & Row, he offered a tale about his first sexual encounter, which, as he describes it, was a tryst with a hunk-of-woman who called herself Miss Bea Haven.

“Women especially loved him because he was the right combination of glamour and sensitivity,” says singer Julie Budd, a friend since 1975, when she toured with him as a 17-year-old prodigy. “He [was] exactly the same off stage as on, but funnier. “Liberace “wasn’t just keyboards and clothes,” says Budd. “He had tremendous inner strength and handled pressure very well.”

Liberace’s munificence became a trademark. An obsessive shopper, he bestowed lavish gifts—”happy happys”—upon those he cared for. To celebrate their opening together in Las Vegas, he bought Budd a gold-and-emerald watch and later a mink coat to wear to an Elvis Presley concert. Proceeds from the Liberace Museum were channeled into his Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, which offers scholarships to 22 universities, colleges and schools of music. In 1980 he volunteered to host a wedding ceremony at his Las Vegas mansion for Mickey Giebler, a stagehand working on his show. “Scott [Thorson] and Lee got together and decorated the whole house for us…he cooked, he had the wedding cake, everything,” Giebler remembers. Since Liberace’s show ran until 2 a.m., the nuptials were held at 3 o’clock in the morning; Lee himself played the wedding march on a mirrored Baldwin as the couple proceeded down a flower-bedecked hall to where the rites were performed.

But Liberace was a complex man with facets his intimates found troubling. While Thorson—whose two suits against Lee netted him $95,000, two dogs and a 1960 Rolls-Royce, among other booty—remembers him as a “great guy,” he maintains that Lee had difficulty with romantic love. “He always thought love was about buying,” Thorson claims.

The two met in 1974 when Thorson—a troubled 17-year-old who had shuttled between foster homes—attended one of Liberace’s Las Vegas shows and was invited backstage by his manager. Lee, he says, asked him to his house for cocktails the next day, and barely two weeks later he was hired on as the entertainer’s “personal chauffeur.”

At first, their life together was “pretty normal,” Thorson says, although “he didn’t really like to have his family or mine around much. He was very strange that way—he liked the two of us to be alone.” Liberace, who eschewed jewels and gaudy gear around the house, spent time cooking and shopping with his young lover. There were times, Scott says, when the two would “wake up in the middle of the day and go out and buy houses on a whim.”

According to Thorson, the problems began in 1981, when Scott refused to be “completely and utterly under his control. Lee was control-oriented,” he says. “He once told me the happiest he ever was was when he was onstage because he was in full [command] of the situation.”

After seven years as Liberace’s companion, Thorson got the boot; in his 1982 lawsuit, he alleged that a gang of thugs Maced him and threw him out of Lee’s Beverly Boulevard home in L.A. The attack, Thorson says, was hardly Liberace’s style—”He was a pussycat. He doesn’t like to handle messy situations, and I think it was arranged by someone else.”

Lawsuits or no, Thorson and Liberace apparently were reconciled before the end. “We had a very personal and very touching conversation on the phone,” Scott claims. “I told him I was very sorry about everything, and I said, ‘I love you.’ ”

Liberace’s emotional difficulties surely sprang from his unsatisfactory relationship with his harsh father, Salvatore. A classically trained musician, the Italian immigrant was often out of a job during the Depression. While proud of his son’s musical abilities (the boy won a piano scholarship and later played with the Chicago Symphony), Salvatore was bitterly opposed to the popular music that his son loved. But songs like Sweet Jennie Lee were the budding musician’s preference, and to help keep the family afloat, young Liberace gladly played piano in silent-movie houses. The father-son clashes worsened when Walter, as he became known, went to a concert and unexpectedly spotted his father in the audience. “I lived in this dream world where everything was beautiful—Mom and Dad were perfect and very much in love. As fate would have it, two rows in front of me was [Salvatore] with his mistress,” Liberace said. “I found that moment very difficult.”

Salvatore and Frances Liberace—a prominent and beloved fixture in her son’s life until she died in 1980—were divorced as the pianist was dubbing himself “Walter Busterskeys” on the honky-tonk circuit. One of Lee’s enduring goals was to reconcile his parents and make his peace with Salvatore. It never happened. “Liberace [never stopped] trying to get his father’s approval,” Segell contends.

Through the years, it was Liberace’s fans who remained a constant source of approval. Critics were—and are—dismissive about his recordings. Few dispute the fact that he possessed talent; but the consensus is that it was showmanship, rather than technique, that was his forte. “He falls into the great American tradition of P.T. Barnum, and Pavarotti at the Hollywood Bowl,” says West Coast critic Alan Rich.

Still, the critics allow that he was a seminal influence in popular music. He paved the way for flamboyant figures like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Boy George, all of whom adopted the Liberace formula of high costume and camp. And as Liberace himself noted, the financial rewards of gold records and sellout Vegas gigs (which reportedly brought him as much as $400,000 a week) helped assuage the critical disapproval.

When his life ended, he left a legacy like no one else’s. There was the grand piano encrusted with mirrors; the bedspread-size, 137-pound Norwegian blue shadow mink; the gold ring depicting his much-loved poodle, Baby Boy (the eyes were emeralds, the tongue rubies); the $175,000, 26-foot pink feather train. “He could perform all year round and not repeat a single costume,” says Michael Travis, a supplier of outfits for more than a dozen years. Indeed, each season the costumes had to be more gaudy and outrageous. His fans expected that. And Liberace lived for their adoration.

He was never more vital than when he stood aglow in the spotlight, immersed in applause. His theme song was I’ll Be Seeing You.

—Written by Michelle Green, reported by the Los Angeles Bureau

Related Articles