“You know that bank I used to cry all the way to? Well, I bought it.”
When someone seems too obviously & outrageously gay, & yet people in my life seem to not get it, my response is often- “He attended Liberace Community College”.
Overheard on the Max Train:
Older Gay Guy: That guy is so gay.
Other Guy: Totally gay.
Older Gay Guy: Liberace gay.
Ironic then, the man spent his life time hiding the truth & denied being gay to the very end.
Liberace was an international superstar dating back to the early 1950s. He averaged $5 million a year in income for more than 35 years. The 1978 Guinness Book of World Records identified Liberace as the world's highest paid musician.
He was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in a Milwaukee suburb in 1919 to poor parents. He was classically trained on the piano as a youth & made his concert debut as a soloist at age 11. As a teenager during the depression, he played piano in speakeasies to make money for his family.
In 1940, Liberace moved to New York. His charm & piano skills paid off. Within 7 years he was touring the hotel clubs. The story might have ended there, except that Las Vegas & TV discovered Liberace’s charms. By the late 1940s he began playing extended runs in Las Vegas. He would appear at the casinos in Vegas regularly for the rest of his life. As Sin City grew, so did Liberace's fame.
Liberace appearances on TV cemented his superstar status. In the early 1950s, Liberace had a variety show on TV, where he would play his elaborate piano, sing & dance a little, & praise his mother Frances, who was always in the audience, & make jokes about the show’s band leader his brother- George. His TV show was a huge hit, & was carried by more stations than I Love Lucy.
In 1954, the year I was born, Liberace played to capacity crowds at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl, & Soldier Field in Chicago. In 1955 he opened at the Riviera in Las Vegas for $50,000 per week, becoming the city's highest paid entertainer. Liberace became a true superstar. He bought lavish mansions, remodeled them extravagantly, & filled them with ornate pianos, antiques, & over the top furniture. He even had a piano shaped swimming pool.
Liberace's musical repertoire included a unique mix of classical, movie themes, cocktail jazz, & sentimental ballads. He knew thousands of songs & could play almost any request from the audience. He would edit classical pieces to under 5 minutes: "I took out the boring parts. I know just how many notes my audience will stand for. If there's any time left over, I fill in with a lot of runs up & down the scale."
He commissioned more elaborate costumes as the years went by. Eventually he was spending $40,000 every year on bigger, flashier, & more opulent costumes. On various tours, he wore a cape made with $60,000 worth of chinchilla, a tuxedo embedded with diamonds spelling out his name, & a King Neptune costume covered in pearls & sea shells weighing 200 pounds. He had large rings shaped like a candelabra & a grand piano, each studded with diamonds. He was the Elton John of his time.
He added showgirls, jugglers, singers, giant water fountains, light shows, a full orchestra, & even an elephant. During many of his shows he flew above the stage from a cable in a feather cape. He toured with a grand piano covered with thousands of glittering mirror tiles.
Liberace emphatically denied his homosexuality throughout his career. He evidently thought that coming out of the closet would hurt his popularity, & his female fans refused to acknowledge the obvious. But his denials unraveled when Liberace was sued for palimony in 1983 by his “chauffeur”- Scott Thorson, who had been living with Liberace for years. Liberace had Thorson on the payroll, dressed him up like himself, & paid for plastic surgery to have Thorson look like a young version of himself. But even this bizarre scandal didn't put a dent in Liberace's popularity. The case was eventually settled out of court for less that $100,000.
In the 1970s, Liberace moved to Las Vegas, where he was the highest paid performer in the city. Las Vegas is a city built on fantasy, superficiality, & unbridled spending Liberace's calling cards. Both Las Vegas & Liberace proved the same motto: Nothing succeeds like excess.
Liberace was at the apex of his career in the mid-1980s. At Radio City Music Hall he had 3 extended engagements. From 1984-86, he sold out 56 straight shows. Liberace called his Radio City shows "the fulfillment of a dream & the culmination of my forty years in show business." Liberace’s massive fortune continued to grow. He owned houses all over the world & had all of his clothes made especially for him. He even had the front of a Rolls Royce attached to the front of a VW Beatle so he could drive both of his favorite cars at once.
Liberace was in a steady relationship with Jamie Wyatt when the gay world was shaken by AIDS. Liberace discovered that he was HIV positive. In the press, he attributed his weight loss to the popular watermelon diet. After a last tour to promote his new book- The Things I Love, Liberace fell gravely ill. He spent 4 days in hospital before it was decided that the best thing would be for him to go home & die comfortably in his own surroundings. Liberace spent his last days at home with his 27 dogs, watching episodes of The Golden Girls. His family & partner were by his side when Liberace died of a cardiac arrest, brought on by HIV, on February 8th 1987. Only then did the world find out about his hidden life & illness.
Liberace chose a life where showmanship & flamboyance were his mainstay. His lust for everything fabulous, his showmanship & his talent, touched the hearts of his many fans & influenced a long line of artists from Elvis to Adam Lambert. Liberace proved that being fabulous can be a life unto itself.
Steven Soderbergh's movie version of the Liberace/Scott Thorson story has finished filming starring Michael Douglas & Matt Damon.