Liberace: the lurid, litigious luvvy who lived a lifelong lie
Steven Soderbergh's ambitious new Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, opened here yesterday. It wasn't given a cinema release at all in America, and premiered on cable television after Hollywood refused to back a project the major studios considered "too gay", according to Soderbergh.
It's pretty gay all right. Behind the Candelabra is based on a memoir of the same name by Scott Thorson, Liberace's lover. Thorson was only 17 when the then 57-year-old entertainer hired him as his personal factotum: pretty soon afterwards, the pair became lovers for more than five years before Liberace abandoned him for an even younger model.
Michael Douglas was widely praised for his eerily accurate portrayal of Liberace when the film premiered at Cannes: puffed-up and pomaded, he sashays virtually unrecognisable through the film, exuding charm and cunning in equal measure.
Matt Damon plays the young and vulnerable Thorson, and much fuss has been made of the frank sex scenes involving the two macho actors.
Of far more interest, however, is the cold light the film shines on the private life of one of the 20th Century's most intriguing and enigmatic entertainers, a man from the middle of nowhere who literally reinvented himself and lived a racy secret life, the details of which only began to emerge after his death.
I remember watching Liberace on the television when I was a child, and being utterly perplexed by him. With his blinding smile, strange voice and ludicrously elaborate costumes, he seemed like a creature from another planet. He did as much posing as he did piano playing, but he was some showman, and between 1950 and 1970 he was probably the highest-paid entertainer in the world.
He was one of America's first major TV stars, and even enjoyed a brief movie career. But Liberace started out as a very serious musician, and only turned to mainstream entertainment by accident.
Wladziu Valentino 'Walter' Liberace was born in West Allis, Wisconsin, on May 16, 1919. His parents were first-generation immigrants: his father was from southern Italy, his mother from Poland. Both were musical, and young Walter's precocious talent on the piano was obvious from an early age. He learnt to play by ear at the age of four, and was playing complex classical pieces by heart at seven.
The young Liberace stammered and was mocked by neighbourhood children for his love of music and cooking, but he got the last laugh when he debuted as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 17. He would later perform the works of Franz Liszt, among others, with the Chicago Symphony, but his destiny lay elsewhere.
Whether or not Liberace would have had either the talent or the discipline to make it as a top concert pianist is questionable, but such conjecture is irrelevant. Because one night in 1939, at the end of a classical recital in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Liberace discovered his true calling.
When asked to play the popular comedy song 'Three Little Fishes' as an encore, he did so in the styles of several different classical composers. His antics delighted his audience, and Liberace would never forget this special connection with that crowd.
By 1942 he was touring the US with a new act which he described as "classical music with the boring bits left out". He began dressing more and more flamboyantly, and his show mixed Chopin with popular songs such as 'Home on the Range' and involved lots of audience participation. It was a strange concoction, but the public loved it.
As his career grew, Liberace refined his act, buying a massive, gold-leafed grand piano on which, during performances, he would rest his trademark candelabra.
He had lavish, brightly coloured costumes made that aped the styles of the late 18th Century and invariably involved lots of rhinestones. He travelled with a small orchestra and arrived on stage in a white Rolls-Royce, from which he emerged trailing a 16-foot fur cape. It was pure theatre, and box-office gold, and by the mid-1950s Liberace was making more than $1m a year from his public appearances alone.
He earned even more money – an estimated $7m in only two years – from his TV show in which he played popular tunes extravagantly and winked theatrically into the camera. His biggest ambition was to become a film star, and in 1955 Warner Brothers asked him to star in a big-budget melodrama.
Sincerely Yours starred Liberace as a popular pianist surrounded by glamorous women whose world collapses when he goes deaf. Warners spent a fortune publicising it, but Liberace's magic didn't translate to the big screen, and the film sank without a trace.
In all other respects, though, Liberace's star continued to shine through the end of the 1950s. He sold shedloads of records and received hundreds of thousands of fan letters a week from female fans. What they didn't know was that they were barking up the wrong tree. Although he was frequently described as one of showbiz's most eligible bachelors, Liberace was as gay as Christmas.
Open homosexuality was not an acceptable life choice in 1950s and 1960s Hollywood, and Liberace was only one of a number of stars who hid their true orientation. Throughout his life he steadfastly maintained the fiction of his heterosexuality and sued anyone who implied otherwise.
He famously took Irish-born Daily Mirror columnist William Connor to court over an article in the Cassandra column that described the performer as a "fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love". When he was awarded £8,000 in damages, he sent the newspaper a telegram which read: "What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank."
Thorson was only one of a string of younger lovers Liberace installed in his Hollywood mansion. They were described as personal assistants, and their tenures tended to end abruptly when Liberace found a replacement.
Thorson, though, seems to have been the love of his life, and it's claimed in his book and Soderbergh's film that at one point Liberace considered adopting him as his son. He also, however, insisted on the boy undergoing plastic surgery to look more like himself.
Liberace's vanity seems to have known no bounds. He was terrified of ageing, and underwent painful cosmetic procedures. Though quite bald he wore a thick wig at all times, and even left it on in bed. On the bedroom ceiling was a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel frescoes with his face grinning out from among the cherubs.
Between 1977 and 1982, Thorson shared Liberace's Las Vegas mansion with its casino, 17 pianos and ermine bedspreads. They effectively lived as a married couple, but Thorson's idyll ended in 1982 when Liberace had him forcibly ejected from his LA penthouse, and all communication ceased.
Thorson, who had a drug problem, sued for $113m in palimony, but settled out of court for $95,000. Touchingly, they made peace shortly before Liberace's death in 1987, and Thorson still describes his years with the pianist as the happiest of his life.
But even on his deathbed, Liberace was terrified of people finding out he was gay. He had his doctor attribute his death to emphysema and heart failure, but a county coroner obtained tissue samples from Liberace's body and confirmed he had died of Aids.
Liberace's secret was finally out, and Thorson's memoir appeared only a year later.