People loved Wladziu "Lee" Liberace for the same reason they love Las Vegas -- because he grabbed the branch of history -- along with the legacy of the upper crust -- and bent it down, down low, so the unwashed masses could easily reach its low-hanging fruit. Witness Caesar's Palace, which painstakingly re-creates the Roman empire down to surprisingly minute details, then turns around and stuffs it chock full of trash from tacky lowball haberdashers like Versace, Gucci, and Disney. Within the palace walls, a perfect replica of the statue of David, perfectly poised beneath an artificially luminescent sky, shares mallspace with a refrigerator magnet store... while Venus glances sidelong from her faux marble perch across the plaza and into the windows of the best-stocked Sharper Image store in North America. The MGM's Grand Hotel walks visitors en route to one of the largest casinos on earth through the arms of a life-sized sphynx. And all the while, a decade after his death and departure from the Vegas nightscape (but not from its mythos), the legacy of Liberace ripples through town, merging a passion for misunderstood European aristocracy and its unabashed grand opulence with the pure, unadulterated cheese of America at its aesthetic nadir.
Liberace was a genteel, half innocent culture whore, gambling the soul of history on the craps table of showbiz, a strange, inbred cross between a historian and a pimp. He worshipped nobility, but did it with only half the cultural education necessary to pull it off. But he had just enough class to fool his audience of middle-class, unquestioning, mostly conservative housewives and their tag-along husbands. Liberace knew enough about Victorian culture to know which goblets he just had to own, but not enough to know that any proper owner of fine cut crystal would never place them on the same table with the world's most gauche sequinned napkin rings. Liberace didn't know when to quit because Liberace didn't know where class began and where gauche left off.
Emerging opulent and anti from the butt end of an America weaned on war rations, an America for whom the glittering podia of swing bands were the ultimate extravagance, his was an entirely new form of cheese, and it worked. Oh, god how it worked. Liberace and all of his flash were invited time and again to royal dinners, presidential evenings, and celebrity birthdays. To those who knew no better, Liberace symbolized elegance unfettered. To be aware of his existence was to shake ones' head in awe at what money could truly mean. And so he quickly became an archetype -- much more so than the Rockefellers or oil barons of the day -- a symbol of just how much fun obscene wealth could really be. Liberace proved that extreme money didn't have to drag along the boring trappings of real class. It only meant having the guts to show off what you had. To brag openly, to indulge publically, to brazenly wave a clip of bills under the nose of the antique collector and buy what one didn't understand, to have dealers of fine antiquities humble themselves, swallow their pride, and kiss your ass for a loaf of that sweet Las Vegas bread... this was the real point of being grotesquely monied. This philosophy in and of itself was not new. After all, Liberace certainly wasn't the first public figure to make his wealth an object of public lust. It's just that he took wealth to such transcendent, rococo levels. Liberace was not rich like Rockefellers were rich. Liberace was rich like a king. Rich like a queen.
In Vegas, a subtle but telling war bubbles underneath the surface of the collective consciousness --- a war that is about deciding who is the true king of Vegas: Elvis or Englebert, Tom Jones or Wayne Newton, Sigfried and Roy or Liberace. Conduct an informal interview of metropolitan cabdrivers and waitreses, and you'll find that most contemporary Las Vegans mysteriously, unaccountably insist that Siegfried and Roy own the crown, always and forever. But these people are thinking only of crowd sizes, not eternal class. Naturally Siegrfied and Roy draw more people because the Vegas of today has more visitors than the Vegas of yesterday. What we need to know in order to understand Vegas and the influence that extravagant showmanship has had on American life is this: Who set the stage for the mass acceptance of outrageous flamboyance that became a defining gesture for our times? In other words, who in Vegas' history best defines the spectacle?
I submit that Liberace, a man who wore a platinum candelabra with diamond flames as a simple finger ring (when asked how he could play wearing such huge rings, he replied glibly: "Very well, thank you,") a man who owned dozens of rare automobiles, most of them literally bathed in rhinestones and mirrors, a man who commissioned a "surrey with the fringe on top" be made especially for him when he couldn't find an original model, a man who owned 17 pekinese and at least as many porcelain dogs to cheer up dozens of empty rooms in both of his mansions, a man who owned more rococo furniture, flatware, dinner goblets, beds, and other home furnishings than the duchess of York (one of his most oft-used antiques was his office desk, a 17th century relic that had once belonged to the czar of Russia, an unbelievably ornate, sprawling, curvaceous sexpot of a priceless desk), a man who had the hood of a Rolls Royce welded to the front of Volkswagen bug just so he would have a separate vehicle in which to carry his cape, a man who caused an international sensation by wearing a heavily sequined pair of red, white and blue hot pants and fire-red knee-high boots with a matching vest and cape for the nation's bicentennial celebration, a man who covered most every one of his dozens of priceless pianos in etched mirrors, rhinestones, or both, was America's most spectacular, most fabulous man.
There is no underestimating the importance of Liberace's outrageous costumery in the spectacle and paradox of his life. His audience was comprised almost entirely of blue collar workers and their wives, who would have dropped their allegiance to him in a hot second had his sexuality been outwardly revealed. But as Liberace's costumes became more important to him than his music, increasing amounts of attention were drawn to his homosexuality ... which needed to be concealed at all costs. Paradoxically, the public could acknowledge that Lee was gay as long as no one talked about it. History teaches that Lee was a self-indulgent flamer, and there's only one reason he got away with it in mainstream America's face -- unadulterated confidence and an extremity of conviction. Lee wasn't half-baked -- he was all-the-way there, totally immersed, never apologetic or unsure of how far he could go: the only distance to go was all the way. That, and he had a set of really good lawyers.
Lee wasn't the only person to whom the costumes and stage presence became increasingly important. His ever-swelling contracts with the hotels that hired him began to specify that his costumes never disappoint - that next week's ensemble always be more stunning than last week's. The finances fed the ego, the ego fed the rhinestones, the rhinestones fed the haberdashers, and Liberace's costumes became an all-consuming monster. At one point, Liberace was making around $50,000 per week in salary, and you know very well it wasn't because he was the greatest piano player on earth. It was because he looked great.
But finally, the spectacle and its pursuit reared violently back at Liberace when he was almost killed by one of his own costumes. One particular outfit that he had grown fond of had been soaked with tetrachloride to clean out the gallons of showbiz which Liberace sweated into the costume's polyester mountains each night. But when onstage under the sweaty spotlights, the chemical loosened from the fabric and was absorbed into his skin a little at a time, until ultimately his kidneys shut down and he ended up dying in hospital (Nov. 22, 1963). Liberace began spending money from his hospital bed -- on furs, tiffany jewelry, and miscellaneous extravagances he couldn't hope to ever enjoy. Nearing his final end, Liberace started to pray, and later claimed that we was visited by a mysterious, white-robed nun (amazingly, there were no white-robed nuns at this hospital) and suddenly, miraculoulsy healed. Normal mortals might have taken the miracle as a last chance warning, and embraced a healthier lifestyle. But not Liberace. Instead, Lee saw the incident, in his typically arrogant fashion, as evidence that no sin was too great for God to forgive. With the lord suddenly on his side, Liberace would stop at nothing in pursuit of pure, unadulterated pleasure.
But there's a critical ingredient missing from this portrait of the ultimate performer, the ultimate life. Is money and ostentation sufficient to make a great performer great? Ostensibly, Liberace was a pianist. But oddly enough, he's remembered for his showmanship and for his lifestyle, not for his skill at the keyboard. It didn't seem to matter what or how Liberace was playing, only that he took stage, and that he took it well. He always did. Ask anyone to describe Liberace's style at the ivories, and they'll likely say something like "flamboyant" or "lavish," but have precious little to say about whether he was inspired in the slightest, or whether he contributed anything to the continuum of great pianists. To be fair, Liberace was a great pianist from a technical standpoint, but a completely uninspired one. He had earned his chops, but lacked any internal flame whatsoever. Detractors, of course, level this as a criticism of the man qua performer. But ironically, pathetically, or perhaps happily, Lee realized this about himself. As Scott Thorson, his chauffeur and partner of many years notes in Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, "God had given him perfect pitch and large, powerful hands... everything but genius."
Although Liberace sincerely believed himself to be the reincarnation of Liszt, his arrogance belied his skill. To be sure, his contributions to the pop culture were vast - perhaps incalculable -- but they were all to the world of fashion, to the world of visuals and showmanship, not to the world of the piano. The keyboard was just the vehicle -- the excuse, if you will - for his life and lifestyle, for an archetype of proto-indulgence and absolute hedonism. What Liberace cared about was opulence and taudry sex, not classical music, and the man who once played vaudeville piano in cheap dives under the name Walter Busterkeys fought like hell to escape criticism from his moralistic fans for the lifestyle he championed.
Note: Lee made Ripley's Believe It or Not for being "world's fastest pianist," and Guinness for being best-paid ($2m for 26 weeks, 1954)
His mission was one of defiance, to play to the mainstream without being critiqued on the same accounts that anyone else as aesthetically crazy as he would be. Who else could get away with what Lee did and not be laughed out of town? Who else could wear 200 lb. outfits of ermine and rhinestone with total impunity, and not be heckled as a self-indulgent flamer?
No era is complete without a gender trickster to tweak its knobs. Lee played the fey heckler for an era one generation before Little Richard, and two generations before Boy George (he also had more class than the two of them combined). A fey heckler inserts himself between the fears and the desires of his contemporary culture and sits there, revered, loving it. We as a culture generally choose one individual to represent the archetype of gender confusion, then turn around and mock ordinary citizens who play the same game. If I wore one of Lee's outfits down the street, I'd likely return home with my knees broken or my hair full beer. But we the culture allow an example individual to revel in the woman that resides in every man, then crack the skulls of any that dare to do the same offstage. Because the fey heckler is in this odd and seemingly unaccountable position of social acceptance, he can laugh in the shower of attention, rather than tremble in fear of persecution.
Despite the tremendous personal resources that went into Lee's extravagance, which in turn made him appear more gay by the minute, even more energy went into keeping his homosexuality a secret. Liberace insisted on a double life with stubborn, and perseverant strength. One respects this decision because it was his, and because of the times in which his career began, but the lie of his life became so huge, yet remained at all times paper-thin. According to those close to him, Liberace's private life was a constant, hedonistic orgy of indulgent sex. But in public, he fought tooth and nail to prevent his sterling reputation from being defamed in the press. The first time he was publically labeled as being gay (by the London Daily Mirror), he sued and won. A 1959 issue of the NY Daily News trumpeted, "I'M NO HOMO, SAYS SUING LIBERACE." (After his death and the public announcements of his lifestyle, the newspaper countersued Liberace's estate to win back the money they had wrongfully paid all those years ago to keep the star's secret life a secret). After that "success," Lee turned litigation-hungry and sued every time he wanted his way with anything, always wearing his opponents down with his money, factual correctness not being a factor in the play of justice.
And yet, in private, Liberace was an extremely promiscuous, card-carrying chickenhawk. If his biographer/chauffeur is to be believed, his taste for teens knew no bounds, and was only magnified as time went on. The older he got, the younger he liked 'em. By the time he reached his 50s he preferred teenage boys. When he was almost 70 he dropped his long-time lover and confidant for a boy of barely 18. Throughout his life, he treated partners like grapes, to be commanded to the bedside with the aid of a staff of loyal servants. When Liberace grew tired of a lover, he would order up a new boy by snapping his fingers.
But to the public he was no more dangerous than a perhaps clownish entertainer, part of the Las Vegas scene, not a part of the blue collar world, and certainly not a threat. Liberace's facade was like Oz' Wizard - a curtain behind which we dare not look. When the national climate toward gays began to change during the 1970s, Lee supposedly considered coming out, but by then it was too late - he had already put too much energy into suppressing the fact from the public, and he would have come off as a lifelong liar, an idol who had taken his fans for a ride. He would have left his audience duped, and shot holes in the trickster's delicate facade of credibility. Liberace found himself trapped by his own artifice.
Even today, if one visits the Liberace museum in downtown Vegas, one is liable to meet an employee guide who claims not to be aware of Liberace's homosexuality, nor of the cause of his death.
Note: Liberace began the non-profit Liberace Foundation in 1976. The foundation runs the Liberace Museum, and has awarded almost $4 million in scholarships to talented students in all disciplines of the Arts nationwide. Liberace left his entire estate to the Foundation, and considered it his greatest achievement.
Even in his passing, the denial of fans is as fervent as it was while he walked the earth. In some unconscious way, fans knew and know that acknowledging Liberace's homosexuality would mean being required by the collective moral compass to relinquish the game of idol worship. Liberace kept his fans in a half Nelson head lock for almost 15 years, pulling them always closer to the edge of making that impossible confession: "My hero is gay." But the fey heckler always succeeded in pulling his adoring fans back again toward the safer comfort of willful blindness, blindness to even the most glaring of truths. In admiration of this grand and long-lived public psych-out, we doff our hats. The deceit was fabulous, Lee. Just fabulous.
Mini-movie-review: Sincerely Yours - 1955, in which a pre-flamboyant Liberace plays Anthony Warrin, a concert pianist threatened by deafness. Plunged into despair, Warrin finds escape from his personal sorrow by secretly involving himself in the problems of strangers. By playing God in their lives, he rediscovers God on his own. The film includes 31 (count 'em!) musical selections, from Chopin to Chopsticks. In typical style, Liberace romances Joanne Dru and Dorothy Malone, ostensibly as a simple part of the movie's plot, but in actuality as a flagrant attempt to get press hounds who would accuse him of homosexuality off his trail. All but the most na•ve viewers must have had to don extremely thick blinders to blot out the obvious: that Warrin's deafness represents the "illness" of Liberace's sexual persuasion. By continuance of the analogy, clever viewers who saw through the ruse would be led to the conclusion that, since Warrin's deafness was magically cured, then so could be Liberace's homsexuality. At times the metaphor is so ham-fisted as to make the viewer nauseous. Includes cameos by Jack Webb of Dragnet and Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons.
" The Mirror's gossip columnist, "Cassandra" (William Connor) called him "the summit of Masculine, Feminine, and Neuter" as well as "fruit-flavored," but apparently didn't intend these as queer-bashing slurs, "fruit" not being British slang for gay. He also won a suit against Confidential in 1958; the article that prompted the suit, called "Why Liberace's Theme Song Should Be 'Mad About the Boy,'" is a trip and well worth digging up."
More gorgeousiosioso Liberace photos are to be found at Philm Freax.
I ran across your story today about Mr. Showmanship and enjoyed reading it. I must take exception with your rather dismissive attitude of his piano skills.
Like some classical pianist colleagues of his, Lee was the victim of the repertoire he chose to play. A case in point was Leonard Pennario, a very talented American pianist in his day who is still alive. Pennario could play anything and play it well. The problem was that he played concerts and made recordings of not-so classical music like the Warsaw Concerto and other Hollywood movie music.
From that time on, Pennario wasn't considered a serious classical pianist. I believe the same fate befell Liberace. Early in his career he is said to have been a marvelous classical musician. But, fame and money called and he transformed his talent in a different direction - towards what he felt people wanted to hear.
Once someone asked him what kind of music he played. He replied that he played classical music with the boring parts left out! This is so true and why so many loved him. He knew how to play the piano, but it was just one part of his persona, as you stated. The whole, in Lee's case, was much more than the sum of it's parts.
I used to live in LA and made many visits to Vegas esepcially to see Liberace's shows. I was in college then so couldn't be accused of being a middle-aged housewife. Those were tough times for me but seeing him was incredibly uplifting. He made you forget your everyday life for a couple hours. Standing outside in the casino, you could see smiles on people's faces as they left the show. He really knew how to connect with his audience better than almost anyone I've seen.