He was a high-living showman looking for a toy boy and a son – and Scott Thorson, a teenage hunk in the care system, fitted the bill. Together, as the film 'Behind the Candelabra', starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, shows, Liberace and his young lover lived a life of wild excess. Since the entertainer's death, Thorson's existence has been just as strange and sad, writes Julia Molony

Julia Molony

It says something about the almost willful naivete of 1950s America, that when a British newspaper published an article insinuating that Liberace, a man who regularly appeared on prime time television dressed in head-to-toe furs, rhinestones and sequinned spangled jumpsuits, was not only gay, but used sexual suggestion to entertain, he responded with wounded indignation and successfully sued for libel.

In those days, apparently, a passion for feathers and rhinestones was not presumed to speak for itself.

By the time Liberace arrived in the UK from across the Atlantic in 1959, most of British womanhood had already been whipped into a frenzy of anticipation, and some quarters of the British press considered this disco-ball-dressed dandy to be an envoy of sin, direct from Sodom and Gomorrah.

"This deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, 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 Sept 12, 1921," seethed a columnist in the Daily Mirror.

"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."

In the libel case that ensued, Liberace fiercely defended his reputation. His success depended on the affections (and moral approval) of the middle classes, who had taken him into their hearts thanks to his skill of combining his elite musical credentials with a popular style and dramatic showmanship.

He even perjured himself in order to clear his name.

Under oath Liberace was asked: "Are you a homosexual?"

"No," he replied.

"Have you ever indulged in homosexual practices?"

"No, sir, never in my life."

The jury, who had been ordered to refrain from watching his television show as a measure against prejudice decided, rather incredibly, in his favour. The hearing took seven days, and at the end, Liberace walked off with £8,000 in damages plus £27,000 in legal costs. When a journalist asked him for his reaction to the outcome, his famous rejoinder "I cried all the way to the bank," became an instant catchphrase.

In fact, Liberace, the campest peacock showbiz has ever seen remained officially closeted for the duration of his life. He never publicly acknowledged his sexuality, even when dying of AIDS in the late 80s.

In showbiz circles, however, his passions were an open secret. Though his PR team worked frantically to link him with any number of female celebrities, including, rather improbably, Mae West, despite the 26-year age gap between them, few who knew him socially were fooled. Instead he was known for his taste for Mexican boys, prodigious sexual appetite, predatory seduction styles, and fondness for "rough trade".

For four memorable years, a buff, tall, beautiful boy named Scott Thorson was his lover and significant other. Officially, he worked for Liberace as a chauffeur. Now, a new film Behind The Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, directed by Steven Soderbergh dramatises the love affair between the two and its acrimonious end.

Based on Thorson's 1988 memoirs of the same name, the film brings to life the excesses and eccentricities of their lives together, travelling first class between the musician's many luxury homes.

Liberace was the living embodiment of the "more is more" aesthetic of his home town, Las Vegas. If Elvis was that city's king, Liberace was its crowned queen. His personal creed was that "too much of a good thing is wonderful".

"I am a one-man Disney land," he once said, while spending millions of pounds a year in order to maintain his lavish lifestyle. His ostentation was legendary; among the more memorable items in his wardrobe were a fur cape with a 16ft train, one in purple lame that had an 8ft train of pink feathers and a black diamond mink coat lined with Austrian rhinestones.

His primary home in Las Vegas boasted a piano shaped pool, and, allegedly, an encyclopedic collection of pornography. His bedroom ceiling was painted with a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel.

He shared the house with his 26 dogs, and his mother, who remained his emotional lode star, the enduring love of his life.

Born in Wisconsin in 1919, Wladziu Valentino Liberace's exotic name referenced his Polish-Italian heritage. His father was a grocer and the family lived in humble circumstances, but both parents were musical – his father had played the French horn in John Philip Sousa's concert band and his mother, herself a pianist, started Liberace at piano lessons when he was just four years old.

From the beginning he was able to play by ear, and was quickly recognised as something of a prodigy. By the time he was into his teens, he was working as a jobbing musician, providing the live soundtrack to silent movies in cinemas and later, to help support the family, playing in dive bars and speakeasies around town, where he presumably fostered a taste for decadence – he was twice arrested during police raids.

From early on, his aspirations were to lift himself from the ordinariness of his early life.

"I wanted a life where I wouldn't always be running from drabness and grime," he later explained. He was a classically trained pianist, once performing with the Chicago Symphony orchestra, but developed his trademark cross-over style when responding to audience calls after a recital to play Three Little Fishies as an encore.

His high-art credentials and popular sensibilities made him an almost instant star. Soon, he started adding elaborate costumes and flamboyant showmanship into the mix, catapulting him headlong into the hearts of middle America.

"People say I'm prostituting myself by not sticking to the classics," he told a reporter in 1951. "But there's more money in being commercial."

His transition from recital pianist to matinee idol was rapid and total. He outsold Elvis, and his television show was bigger than I Love Lucy.

Such was his popularity among the housewives in middle America that in 1953 he received 27,000 Valentines.

He became known, too, for his talent for gestures of monumental narcissism. In 1975, he opened his house as a museum to himself, with all proceeds donated to the Liberace foundation for music and theatre. His dream was to develop a theme park to himself – Michael Jackson-style.

When Scott Thorson met Liberace in the mid-Seventies, the boy was a 17-year-old tearaway with a dysfunctional family background who had been brought up mostly in foster care.

The 40-year age gap between them rather muddied the dynamic, with the older man vying to become rescuer, lover, father and family to the young Thorson.

After he had moved him into his Las Vegas home, kitted him out with a rhinestone-studded chauffeur uniform and insisted on his presence as an escort on all his appointments and tours, Liberace toyed with the idea of formalising the relationship by applying to become Scott's adoptive parent.

Certainly, he went to great lengths to remake the boy in his own image. In a twisted version of a Dorian Grey story, he paid for him to have his face remodelled by a cosmetic surgeon in order to match a portrait of Liberace as a younger man.

The exuberant partnership eventually combusted – Liberace blamed his lover's drug use (Thorson had become dependent on narcotics after embarking on a doctor-prescribed appetite-suppressing drug regime which included pharmaceutical cocaine).

Things came to a head when Thorson walked in on Liberace in bed with an 18-year-old. In the ensuing row, Thorson was kicked out of the mansion for good.

The break-up was bitter and acrimonious. Thrown out of the golden fold, Thorson sued his former lover for "palimony" with the details of their lives together making their way into the tabloid press. He demanded a stake in Liberace's fortune worth $113m, but the case was eventually settled out of court for a figure of $95,000.

In his later years, Liberace became slightly more open about who he really was.

"My act is just that far away from being drag," he admitted in the 80s, "but I would never come onstage like, say, Danny La Rue [a comic female impersonator], who is a very dear friend of mine.

"I have a general family audience appeal and I don't want to develop only a gay following. It's going to take many, many years for this kind of an audience to accept people who are totally gay or come out on Johnny Carson. I've seen careers hurt by that kind of thing–look at Billie Jean King. But with a name like Liberace, which stands for freedom, anything that has the letters L-I-B in it I'm for, and that includes gay lib," he conceded.

Yet still, even in the immediate aftermath of his death in 1987, the double-speak and denials continued. The cause of death initially filed was congestive heart failure brought on by sub acute encephalopathy, and early obituaries made no speculation about his secret life, until government officials demanded further testing and he was revealed to have passed away from complications related to AIDS.

He called Scott to him on his deathbed, and the pair were reconciled, but for Scott this was not the end of his troubles. His life after Liberace was characterised by an on-off addiction to crack cocaine, and brushes with crime.

As for Liberace, he has gone down in showbiz history as the ultimate showman, a man whose whole life was an act of theatre and invention, whose gaudy costumes and many masks were a kaleidoscope which obscured any clear view of the real man.

The cost of which, for him, was a life defined by both the hysterical adoration of his public and the isolation of his private life.

Being alone, he once explained, was part of the cost of being Liberace. Of his romantic disappointments, he said, "sometimes, unfairly, I would put stumbling blocks on associations I developed just to test whether it was me they really loved or just the glamour of my profession.

"Invariably they failed the test, and I cut it off. I finally realised that I really couldn't tie myself down to a commitment that could never change because I'm too generous with my feelings. For instance, you'd think one dog would be enough, but as you can see I have to have 26."

Behind the Candelabra is in cinemas from Friday