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Even Liberace’s Smile

On trying to love the flashy, gnashy, piano basher

This will shock you, but Liberace was not my cup of peculiar.

Frankly, I found his persona slightly repellent as a kid in the 1970s. Maybe it was just rejection of my inner fabulousness, but he reminded me of a sexless, American version of 1970s TV comic Dick Emery’s “hello honky tonks!” Clarence character – and a sexless Clarence was the definition of pointless. While his fans reminded me of Emery’s Hetty.

Maybe it was my snobbishness: I was interested in classical music back then – and Liberace’s shtick was ‘classy’ music for people who didn’t like classical music. Or as W?adziu Valentino Liberace, born to a Polish mother and an Italian French-horn-playing father in Wisconsin 1919, put it himself, ‘Classical music with all the boring bits taken out’. (Which of course became the slogan for Classic FM.)

Maybe it was my misogyny. Liberace was a product manufactured to salve the loneliness of middle-aged women in 1950s America. Knocking out melodrama melodies of the 1930s-40s Big Screen on the small one in their living room, the tuxedoed, plump cheeked, wavy-haired momma’s boy grinning and winking salaciously at the camera as his skilled fingers attentively induced personal pleasure in a way that hubby never would or could, he was the sequinned soul in a soulless suburban world.

Maybe I was just being English. Liberace was super-vulgar in a way that only an American could be. In the 1970s-80s, that vulgarity became the essence of his act. The ostrich feathers, the mink capes, the golden pianos, the giant rings, the bragging: “You remember that bank I cried all the way to? Well, I bought it!”

But that famous, dazzling, determinedly fixed smile, which he somehow maintained at full wattage, even while speaking, or playing – and probably eating too – obliviousness to which Nina Simone cites in her 1959 song as conclusive proof of her baby’s total devotion to her, was the most American thing about him.

Americans smile as easily as the English don’t – though Instagram is teaching our younger generation how to roll those petulant lips back and flash their gnashers. Smiling, American style, is when you show the world your saleability – by showing it your dentistry. Sadistic submissiveness. But even by American standards of gormless grinnery, Liberace’s smile was his superpower. So much so, it teetered on parody – so American it was almost un-American.

Thanks to his smash-hit networked sentimental 1950s TV show, which included performances of Ave Maria and love songs addressed to his ageing mother, Frances, Liberace and his intimate, direct, shameless style, became the first bona-fide star of the TV age, a soap opera Sinatra. Liberace was allegedly the highest paid entertainer in the 1950s-60s. But as with most of Liberace’s show-boasts, this needs to be taken with a pinch of smelling salts.

He was undoubtedly extremely successful and influential: Elvis and Ali were fans, at least of his showmanship and success. A young Elton John made him his role model (which may explain some of my lack of enthusiasm for Reg.) Plus there is more than a hint of Liberace in His Trumpness’ hair, décor, boastfulness, on-stage patter and gold plated 757.

Liberace was primetime glam before almost anyone else was, though it seems it was his savvy manager brother George, who decided ‘Lee’, as his family and friends called him, should copy some of the gimmicks of the ‘heel’ wrestler Gorgeous George, who had achieved fame by adopting a big, flashy, flamboyant style for the flickering box which arrived in most American homes in the 1950s.

(Of course, there was someone even glammer than Liberace hitting the big time and the keyboards back then. Someone much more talented – and as sexy as Liberace wasn’t. But Little Richard was for the teeny boppers; Liberace was for their moms.)

So, when I recently happened across World of Liberace, a famous feature-length 1973 profile of him made when he was fifty-two, including footage of his Vegas act and him showing off his ‘outrageous’ homes, pianos, and customised cars, I thought I would find out how time had treated his shtick – and whether I had finally embraced my inner fabulousness.

Well… his plinkety-plonkety piano playing was even worse than I remembered it. The homes made me pity his cleaner – all that dusting. And I won’t even mention his ‘singing’.

But there was no denying his timeless charisma in front of the camera, and an audience. In between the plinkety-plonkety stuff. There was no real content to his act because his act was pure personality. Real talent would get in the way of that. The mirrored piano is just there to amplify his personality – reflecting his rhinestones and big, frilly-ruffed-hands and be-ringed fingers playing at playing the piano into the camera.

Or as he puts it in one of his favourite lines, ‘My clothes may look funny, but they’re making me the money.’

While there is not much persisting ‘work’, aside from records that no one listens to, and a museum of tat that closed in 2010, to immortalise this once supremely famous man – and his core fan base is long dead – his camp cult of personality has conquered the culture. His fake and corny as all hell but strangely convincing intimacy as he delivers his shtick to camera with that invincible grin is both old skool and somehow now.

Plus, his ostentatious, tacky consumption that made me wrinkle my nose was a kind of generosity. Sharing his success and wealth – symbolically – with his fans.

What was impressively genuine about Liberace, a man whose whole, famous life was arguably a lie, was his passion for being loved. His understanding and yearning for celebrity for its own sake was in many ways ahead of his time. Today he would skip TV and the piano altogether and be a smash-hit Tik Tok attention-seeker, demonstrating hair dryers and eyelash curlers. Or maybe he would have been a stand-up comic – the best parts of the doc are his on-stage patter and his impeccably delivered, if time-worn, one-liners.

As he says, ‘I want the audience to love me and the only way to do that is to let them know that I care about them and love them.’

I’m not sure that Liberace did care that much about his audience, but I believe he cared very much about their love for him. Without it he isn’t sure who he is.

In one scene, the camera follows him around a shopping mall signing autographs and shaking hands, that stupendous smile subjugating everyone, and we hear his voiceover telling us how, until television, he found his successful but largely anonymous life as a nightclub pianist deeply unfulfilling.

‘I think that possibly, one of the great accomplishments in my life is that I am one of the most recognizable persons, the most waved at persons.

Let’s put it this way, from taxi drivers, truck drivers to waitresses, waiters, as I walk through the lobby of a hotel, ladies who are polishing the floor look up, they recognize me, they know me, and I love it.

I think that being a concert pianist would have been very, very lonely.’

The audience for his show in the doc is mostly women of a certain age in horn rimmed glasses, many hopelessly in love with him. At one point, he goes up to the front row to let people admire his rings. More than one woman clutches at his hand and arm, gazing up at him in a way that suggests she’s never going to let go. But somehow Liberace manages to extricate himself courteously and kindly, without any unpleasantness at all – or recourse to the heavies who would accompany someone like that today.

Liberace knew exactly who his audience was, even making a joke of it. He invites ladies in the audience to shout out ‘HEY!’ at a certain point during his rendition a lively tune, which they do, loudly – and then invites the men in the audience to shout out ‘HEY!’ as well. (They do, but not quite so loudly.)

‘You see there are men in my audiences, too!’ he exclaims, to laughter. Adding, ‘I hope I didn’t leave anybody out.’

Which reminds me, at a later point in the doc Liberace brags about his infamous 1959 UK libel case against Cassandra, real name William Connor, and the Daily Mirror, for a column published in 1956.

‘I find that there is a sort of cancerous journalism that is out to destroy a person and this is very difficult to correct. Take the case of my London libel suit, for example.

The largest libel settlement in the English courts that had ever been awarded an individual. A total stranger like Cassandra said something that was so distasteful that people who had never been aware of my presence at reading this could instantaneously hate me.’

The famous passage from that Cassandra column, always cited regarding the case, and often presented as evidence of 1950s homophobia reads:

…this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.

Now, perhaps I merely reveal myself as a 1950s homophobe, but it seems to me that every single word is true, and, moreover, funny. But it cost The Daily Mirror £8000 plus legal costs, a vast and unprecedented sum at the time. The case mostly revolved around the single phrase ‘fruit-flavored’, and Liberace’s sworn testimony that he was not homosexual, had never had homosexual sex, and disapproved of homosexuality.

Liberace’s 73-year-old lawyer, Gilbert Beyfus, pulled out his trump card when he asked Cassandra: “You know, do you not, that ‘fruit’ is slang in the United States for homosexual?” Cassandra replied that he did not, whereupon Beyfus brandished The American Thesaurus of Slang as proof. He then asked Liberace several times whether he was homosexual and Liberace replied: “No sir, I am against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society.”

Although the judge, Mr Justice Salmon, directed the jury to discount the term “fruit” as it was an American word, they took no notice and found for Liberace, who was awarded £8,000 damages – the highest award for libel to date.

The libel against Liberace, someone whose entire act was a form of queenliness, was, in essence, that he was ‘fruit-flavoured’. Not even fruit. Just ‘fruit-flavoured’.

Shades of Oscar Wilde taking the Marquis of Queensbury to court for suggesting that he was ‘posing as a sodomite’. Posing! Though of course Wilde lost that case, thanks to his and Bosie’s indiscretion with rent boys, and Liberace won his, thanks to the popularity of his TV show, then airing in the UK on the new ‘commercial channel’ ITV.

But Liberace’s victory, because it was over the truth, meant that he could never acknowledge his (extremely active) sexuality – and in fact continued to deny it, even under oath, for the rest his life. Even after death in 1987, aged sixty-seven. He and his ‘people’ arranged for his personal physician tell the world that he died from heart failure. However, The Riverside County coroner performed an autopsy and determined that Liberace’s cause of death was cytomegalovirus pneumonia, a frequent cause of death in people with Aids, or ‘the Gay Plague’ as it was dubbed at the time.

If Liberace had risen from the grave, he would have sued the coroner too.

Which is part of the reason I’m posting below the entire William Connor piece – because Liberace went to so much trouble to suppress it. And because it is possibly the most accurate and funniest description of Liberace’s appeal and significance in the 1950s – as flattering as it is scornful: the ‘summit of sex’ indeed:

I have to report that Mr. Liberace, like “Windstarke Fuenf” is about the most that man can take. But he is not a drink. He is Yearning Windstrength Five. He is the summit of sex—Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want.

I have spoken to sad but kindly men on this newspaper who have met every celebrity arriving from the United States for the past thirty years. They all say that this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love has had the biggest reception and impact on London since Charlie Chaplin arrived at the same station, Waterloo, on September 12, 1921.

This appalling man—and I use the word appalling in no other than its true sense of terrifying—has hit this country in a way that is as violent as Churchill receiving the cheers on V-E Day. He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief, and the old heave-ho. Without doubt, he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time.

Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss has an answer for every situation. Nobody since Aimee Semple MacPherson has purveyed a bigger, richer and more varied slag-heap of lilac-covered hokum. Nobody anywhere ever made so much money out of high speed piano playing with the ghost of Chopin gibbering at every note.

There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle-aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown.

Liberace’s total dedication to his own paradoxical, highly Catholic mythology must have been angered by the way Connor’s piece captured him so completely and hence reached, seething, into his deep, luxurious pockets to mobilise the best lawyers that money could buy along with the injustice of English libel law against its author and his publisher. The ‘fruity’ homosexual ‘slur’ was just the legal pretext to smite them. (After reading it, he sent a telegram to Mr Connor: ‘What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.’)

Besides, the homosexual implication of the column – even if you pretended that a 1956 Daily Mirror readership knew what ‘fruit’ denoted in American slang – was no more than the carefully contrived homosexual implication of his whole act. An implication that only became even louder as the years went by.

This dedication to his own mythology is also why he refused, nearly three decades later, to acknowledge a sexual relationship with Scott Thorson, his much younger live in lover and driver of five years that he allegedly cut off without a cent, and fought his palimony case, the first same-sex palimony case in history, for four bitter years.

Liberace met Thorson in his late fifties, when the fellow Wisconsinite was just sixteen and living with foster parents. Thorson, who was gay, and drawn to glamour, animals – and money – didn’t really stand a chance.

Thorson was, like fifty-year-old Christopher Isherwood’s lookalike teen lover Don Bachardy, a means of narcissistic reproduction – but in this case the paternal resemblance had to be artificially induced: he famously insisted that Scott have plastic surgery to look more like him, including the insertion of a large prosthetic chin. Which I think we can all agree would be by itself sufficient grounds for suing him.

Of course, things have progressed enormously since then. Nowadays, gay male celeb couples don’t go in for such icky behaviour. Instead, they reproduce respectably – by renting wombs.

I’ve ordered the Scott Thorson memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace. I saw the 2013 film based on it when it came out, but don’t remember much about it except that I thought Matt Damon miscast – but I often think that about Matt Damon. 

I will let you know what I make of the memoir….

Opening of Liberace’s 1980 Vegas show, with Thorson driving him and his sixteen-foot virgin fox cape onstage in a mirrored Rolls Royce Phantom:

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