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Thorson’s Liberace

The Toy Boy’s TalePart II of my Liberace post.

Published in 1988, Behind the Candelabra, a kiss and tell expose, credits Liberace’s much younger lover Scott Thorson on the cover of my 2013 edition, along ‘with’ (in smaller font) Alex Thorleifson – a celebrity biographer whose previous best-known work was My Life with the Duke, a memoir by John Wayne’s wife, Pilar Wayne.

So she clearly knows her camp icons.

It’s highly readable, and intelligently written, though I wonder sometimes about its accuracy (for instance, it gets the name of the UK newspaper Liberace famously sued for libel wrong). And how much of it is Thorson and how much is Thorleifson, even by the standards of this kind of ‘with’ book. I also wondered, several times, how easy Thorson was to work with.

Thorson claims here he was eighteen when he met Liberace, but since then has said that they met when he was just sixteen, c. 1976. He speaks mostly fondly of his five-year relationship with Liberace, who lavished him with cars, gifts and money and even included him in his act, introducing him as ‘my driver’ – though it’s difficult not to conclude from this book that Liberace was, for all his famed extravagance with gifts, monstrously selfish.

Like Elvis, Liberace had an identical twin who didn’t survive the curtain up moment – or his time in the dressing-room of life with Liberace:

‘Lee tipped the scales at more than thirteen pounds when he was born on May 16, 1919, in the suburb of West Allis. His tiny shriveled twin, an apparent victim of Lee’s greed in the womb, was stillborn. Lee’s mother named her enormous surviving infant Wladziu for his Polish ancestors and Valentino…. But he would grow up being called Wally or Walter, names he detested until, in his twenties, he anointed himself as “Liberace” (his actual surname) on stage and as “Lee” to his friends.’ (p.6)

His mother Frances singled Wladziu out from her other two sons and daughter as a suitable vehicle for her ambitions, perhaps because she saw talent, or perhaps because she sensed him pliable, making him practice the piano every day from an early age, depriving him of what he saw as a proper childhood. Frances was, according to Thorson, an overpowering presence for most of his life – despite all his fame and success, Liberace was still afraid of her in late middle-age:

‘From my own observations, all the Liberaces suffered the whiplash of their mother’s anger. She dominated them as youngsters, and she continued to dominate them as adults… Lee lavished public affection on his mother while avoiding her in private. Frances could be a sweet old lady one minute and a merciless nag the next. She frowned on cigarettes and would snatch them from Lee’s mouth as if he were a little kid behind the barn instead of a sixty-year-old superstar.’ (p.8)

If you think this sounds highly Freudian, Liberace himself would agree with you:

‘Freudian theory ascribed homosexuality to a boy’s overattachment to his mother and hostility to his father. Freud believed it caused the boy to mould his personality to his mother, thereby acquiring feminine reactions and behaviour. In Lee’s opinion, that set of circumstances described his own background perfectly. He recalled his mother’s love as “completely suffocating and damn near incestuous.” And his dislike for his father – after he left home – bordered on hatred. If, as the psychiatrists claimed homosexuals were really created by the circumstances of their childhood, Lee said he had the perfect parents to blame.’ (p.10)

Thorson claims that after Frances died, Liberace didn’t display grief, instead he announced, “I’m finally free.”

Perhaps because they reminded him of his stentorian mother, Liberace’s famous pianos that filled his famous homes were sadly neglected.:

‘Like Lee’s other homes, this one was filled with pianos, including one that had reputedly belonged to Chopin. Lee never played any of them. I was learning that he performed only for money not for pleasure. Once or twice, at special parties, he played briefly for his guests. The rest of the time those pianos just took up space. They were part of his image but not of his life. Lee told me he’d spent enough time practicing as a kid to last a lifetime.’ (p.82)

I would further speculate that part of the reason his piano playing sounded so bad, so heartless, to me at least, despite being technically proficient, was because he didn’t enjoy it – since it reminded him of his smothering mother and his resentment. He was unconsciously murdering her when he annihilated Chopin.

It is also intriguing to consider that Liberace’s enormous fame and wealth stemmed from his presentation of himself to the world as the perfect, adoring son – ‘quivering mother love’ – along with his uncanny and unnatural ability to woo millions of mothers in their own living rooms, by doing something that his controlling mother made him do, and which he hated her for.

Liberace and Thorson wrapped up warm in chilly Las Vegas, 1981.

The most compelling passage in the whole book is when Liberace is having a consultation from a seriously dodgy, drug-addicted plastic surgeon called Startz about a facelift for himself – but which turns out to be a two-for-one.

‘When the finished discussion the surgery, lee suddenly said, “I want to talk to you about doing some surgery on Scott.”

It really took me by surprise. No way, at the age of twenty, did I need a face-lift. Nor had Lee ever voiced any unhappiness with my appearance, other than to suggest I try to lose a little weight… I’d always been Lee’s “blond Adonis” – his words not mine. So the mention of plastic surgery for me came as a complete surprise.

Startz turned and began to study my face. “What would you like me to do with Scott?” he asked.

Lee jumped up and ran into another room, returning with a large oil portrait of himself. “I want you to make Scott look like this,” he said, propping the painting up in front of the doctor. I was so stunned that I didn’t say a word. Meanwhile, Startz looked at the painting and then back at me, studying my face and then the painting with intense concentration. It was a full-face portrait of Lee and one of his favourite paintings of himself, clearly showing his prominent cheekbones, slightly arched nose, and pointy chin in the most flattering way. If anything, it also emphasized the differences between my face and his. Even the most casual observer could say that Lee had a heart-shaped face while mine was round. We had completely different bone-structure.

“Yes,” Startz said into the room’s silence, “I think I can do what you want. He’ll need to have a nose job, and I’ll have to restructure his cheekbones and chin with silicone, but it’s possible I can make Scott look a lot like you, if that’s what you want.” (p.138)

Thorson, who is discussed as if he wasn’t in the room, is shocked, but also flattered that Liberace wants him to resemble him. A foster kid, he was looking for a father figure, a family, a belonging, and yes, probably a lifelong living.

‘When I looked well enough to work in the concession booths at the end of his shows it wasn’t unusual to have women come up to me and ask if I was Lee’s son. Not exactly, I thought to myself. But those remarks did get us to thinking. Lee was thrilled every time someone suggested a blood kinship between us. Over the years, I’d changed from being his lover or companion to become a perfect reflection of Lee himself – flamboyant, a little crazy. Lee had often talked about how much he would have liked to have a son. Even before my surgery it wasn’t unusual for him to say that in many ways I’d become a son to him.’ (p.148)

There was, according to Thorson, even talk of adoption. This may have been amplified in Thorson’s mind by the litigation that came after their breakup, since it would have a bearing on the palimony settlement. Nevertheless, it fits with the notion of Liberace reproducing himself through Thorson. (Something a famous American fashion designer also seems to have attempted with his much younger ex-lover, another troubled foster kid.)

Liberace was overjoyed with the results of both his own plastic surgery, which made him look younger, and Thorson’s, which made him look like a younger version of him.

As for sex – and I know you’re gagging to hear about Liberace’s bedroom antics – according to Thorson, Liberace was highly sexed for his age, but suffered from erectile dysfunction: he had a silicone implant in his penis to help ‘firm’ things up (this was long before Viagra). He also had an extensive collection of porn, which Thorson disapproved of. Thorson also disapproved of anal sex, and refused Liberace’s suggestions later in their relationship that they try it. They did however try an open relationship, at Liberace’s suggestion, but supposedly neither of them could cope with the jealousy that it provoked. Thorson says that although Liberace wasn’t his ‘type’ when he met him, he quickly fell in love with him.

One gets the impression however, that Liberace was more interested in sex than Thorson. Or more interested in sex than Thorson hoped a multi-millionaire sixty-year-old man would be. That said, Thorson’s main role seems to have been full-time, constantly available companion for Liberace, who absolutely hated being alone. He always needed an audience.

On a rare trip to Europe, Liberace and Thorson visit Paris and go shopping (which seems to have been the real sex in their relationship) and dining. But Liberace is barely known in France, and this is less of a relief than an irritation to him:

‘After a few days in France his anonymity began to annoy him. He’d smile expectantly at passing strangers, trying to elicit a response, and then frown angrily when he failed to get one. Lee was one of the few stars I ever met who liked being hassled by autograph seekers. I think it reassured him.’ (p.158)

Oh, and when I joked in my earlier piece that if Liberace could have risen from the grave, he would have sued the county coroner for outing him as having died from Aids, it turns out that is, after a fashion, what happened.

‘On May 12, 1987, as reported in the Orange County Register, the estate of Liberace filed a claim for unspecified damages against Riverside County, California, alleging that Liberace’s reputation had been damaged when the county coroner gave a nationally televised press conference at which he revealed the presence of the AIDS virus in Lee’s body.’ (p.112)

The claim was never heard from again.

In the book, Thorson gets a final, emotional deathbed reconciliation with Liberace. Allegedly, Liberace himself rings and asks him to visit. Their first meeting since he was kicked out years previously, apart from during depositions for their lengthy litigation. (And I should mention that the final quarter of the book, once Thorson is removed from Liberace’s home and his life by heavies, is mostly about the ‘palimony’ case, which Thorson insists, by the way, wasn’t really about palimony, but ‘conversion of property’. In other words: it’s really dull.)

I’m not entirely convinced that this final, touching scene happened. It’s out of character with what the rest of the book describes as Liberace’s attitude to ex-lovers, let alone ones that so publicly destroyed his carefully constructed candelabra closet. It’s also of course too convenient and too Hollywood an ending for a book that would otherwise end no differently to the way Liberace ended for the rest of us – reported in the news.

And the only person other than Thorson who can confirm or deny that meeting is dead.

Thorson is still alive, now aged sixty-five, but alas his life went Gothically off the rails after the grinning piano player spurned him. He became a serious drug addict – he claims that it was the pharmaceutical cocaine he was prescribed by Liberace’s dodgy cosmetic surgeon that got him hooked. Whatever the cause, he ended up in some very dark places, including the FBI witness protection program, after testifying against a mass-murdering drug lord, and state penitentiary, where he appears to still be incarcerated. He also found god – and even tried heterosexuality.

He had Liberace’s chin removed in 2002.

When I was typing up the excerpts from Behind the Candelabra into MS Word for this post ‘homosexuality’ was flagged by Microsoft’s bossy wokeprocessor as ‘bias’. I was urged instead to use ‘same-gender attraction’ or ‘same-gender relationship. Three woolly words instead of one pointed one.

Please find it in your hearts to forgive me for my blatant transphobia in keeping the ‘bias’ term. I doubt that Freud or Liberace would have been keen on ‘same-gender attraction’.

And I’m hardly a fan myself of doing away with sex.

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