Liberace’s Last Agony : Ugly Battle Over Entertainer’s Estate Strips His Life of Any of Its Final Secrets

Times Staff Writer

Question: Are you stating now that he left the party before it was over?

Answer: When Liberace leaves . . . the party is over. That is what I am saying.

--Dorothy McMahon, Liberace’s maid, testifying about pianist’s last Christmas.

Celebrity is to Las Vegas what steel is to Pittsburgh. Here in the kingdom of Wayne and Frank, a city of excessive light and hyperbole, entertainers are fed to the strip’s neon maw and made over as celebrities, as living legends. Immortals.

Vegas immortality is of course relative and not necessarily forfeited upon death. On the 11th anniversary of his demise, Elvis still headlines at the Hilton, his act enlivened by a stable of impersonators of varying girth.

Liberace presents another case.

The man heralded here as Mr. Showmanship is gone, claimed Feb. 4, 1987, at age 67 by the complications of AIDS. But his celebrity lingers, along with about $18 million in assets. Certain portions of this legacy came to be the subject of a strange and bitter dispute this summer in Department 8, Circuit Court, Clark County, Nev.


Evolved Into Morbid Theater

Technically, the matter concerned a petition to remove Liberace’s lawyer as trustee of his estate. What it evolved into, however, was morbid theater, an overwrought attempt to reevaluate after the fact, just what Liberace had intended for the fortune and fame he left behind. If ever a courtroom proceeding needed a channeler, this exercise in tabloid jurisprudence was it.

There was, in fact, testimony that Liberace was directing the court action from the grave. There also was exhaustive testimony about his last days, sketching him alternately as a man unable to speak in sentences or control bodily functions, and as a coherent if worn patient with wits enough to weigh complicated legal options.

There were allegations about missing jewels and gunplay, about promiscuity and plotting among the hired help. Tears flowed freely on the witness stand as everybody remembered “Lee.”

And when it was all over, after 21 days of testimony spread out from May to mid-August, and countless more hours of wrangling among lawyers, the one who seemed to have lost the most was Liberace himself.

He had died vainly struggling to keep secret the nature of his illness, and by extension his sexual preference; by the time the last witness left the stand Monday, his privacy had been thoroughly ransacked.

The petition had been brought by Liberace’s 74-year-old sister, Angie Liberace; his companion of seven years, Cary James; his longtime maid, Dorothy McMahon; his personal manager of nearly 38 years, Seymour Heller, and the elderly cook Liberace called “my black mother,” Gladys Luckie. Their membership in the entourage that Liberace termed his family could hardly be questioned.


Motivation was another matter.

“This is my last fight for Liberace,” said McMahon, who sometimes served as the entertainer’s “date” at public occasions. “For what he wanted. For what I know he wanted.”

An attorney for the defendant, Joel Strote, a Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer who had been Liberace’s principal counsel for 17 years, offered another motive in closing arguments Tuesday:

“The plaintiffs lived a dream,” Strote’s attorney argued, “but now they cannot face reality. The want the court to change reality for them. . . . They want control. Control they never, ever, ever had in Mr. Liberace’s lifetime, control he never chose to vest in them, control they now demand.”

The plaintiffs presented Judge Michael J. Wendell with a rather pat narrative--too pat, he would rule in the end. In the final days of Liberace’s life, their narrative went, the attorney Strote foisted upon the enfeebled entertainer a new estate plan.

The new plan did not alter to any surprising degree the benefactors or size of bequests designated in previous wills: For example, Liberace still left his sister more than $500,000. He still left the dogs he always called “my children” $50,000.

He left his companion, Cary James, $250,000 and two automobiles. He left his manager $60,000; his cook a house and a car, his maid $5,000.

And he left the bulk of his legacy, as he had in previous wills, to the Liberace Foundation, which awards musical scholarships and maintains the Liberace Museum in the Liberace Shopping Center here.

A Disneyland of Glitz

It had been Liberace’s dream that his museum, shopping center and Tivoli Gardens restaurant would form the nucleus of a piano-shaped Liberace Park, a sort of Disneyland of glitz where visitors would admire his collection of antique cars and pianos, his furs, his sequined costumes and his rhinestone, said to be the largest in the world.

What bothered the plaintiffs most about the new estate plan was that it provided Strote with full control of Liberace’s legacy.

Under the new plan--approved by Liberace 13 days before he died--Strote was named sole executor and trustee of the Liberace will and trusts, with power of attorney and authority over the use of Liberace’s name and likeness.

Previous wills had named Seymour Heller, Liberace’s manager, as executor, but did give Strote the power to dismiss him.

The plaintiffs maintained that Liberace wanted Heller as his executor, along with an accountant he had befriended named Frank Di Bella. They testified about moments when Liberace, dying, would command with uncommon lucidity, “Get Frank Di Bella, he’s my executor!”

The plaintiffs complained further that Strote had gouged the estate and wielded his power against Liberace’s wishes, depriving them of gifts he had given them long before he died--houses, cars, jewels, pensions.

He shut down the Tivoli Gardens Restaurant. He auctioned off thousands of the entertainer’s collectibles. He moved James out of the main house in Palm Springs and into the servants’ quarters--”the dungeon,” Liberace’s companion called it.

A Different Tale

Strote came to court with a far different tale.

Throughout the hearing, he sat directly behind the defense counsel table. A slight, dapper man, he was a portrait of nervous energy, jabbing his pencil into the backs of his lawyers, whispering urgent directions in their ears.

“I think this will affect me for the rest of my life,” he said in an interview as the case was concluding. “I think it has been a very distressing experience, because I always believed that I have been a very moral, ethical, conscientious, honest person. . . . To me it is a Kafkaesque nightmare.”

Strote’s version was that Liberace had called him in early January and asked him to upgrade his last will. When he presented it 10 days later, he was surprised to hear Liberace inform him that Heller was not to become executor.

“He said, ‘Would you do it?’ ” Strote testified.

Complications Mounted

“It” became a more complicated assignment after Strote conferred with experts in estate planning, who recommended that Liberace implement living trusts rather than a will, a not-uncommon strategy that would keep any contests out of probate court and provide a tax advantage, saving the estate tens of thousands of dollars.

Strote testified that he discussed this approach with Liberace by telephone and received his approval.

The next day, Jan. 22, he went through the documents with Liberace at his Palm Springs residence and then, before witnesses that included a physician, a notary public and two neighbors who were close friends of Liberace, the documents were signed.

Strote said Liberace had his wits about him at the Jan. 22 signing, offering as proof the entertainer’s refusal to sign a document that would have instructed doctors not to keep him alive on artificial life support systems.

Worked ‘Night and Day’

Further, Strote maintained that he had earned the $450,000 in fees he has charged the estate since Liberace’s death.

He had toiled “day and night.” He had located and sold several Liberace properties, scattered from Malibu to Manhattan. He had negotiated a deal for a television movie of Liberace’s life and gathered about 22,000 items for auction.

“I felt I had to strike while the iron was hot because Mr. Liberace’s name had been before the public just recently,” he testified.

”. . . In order for the Foundation to be a viable institution for as long as possible,” he testified, “it is important or was important or is important that a positive image of Mr. Liberace be projected to the world and that image be kept in the public eye.”

He had dealt with the media and with legal problems and with the demands of an entourage that refused--in the Strote view--to accept that the meal ticket had been cashed, that Liberace was gone, that the party was over.

The plaintiffs began to put on their version way back in May, and from the start it was clear that this would not be a common court matter.

There was an uncommon amount of weeping on the stand, an uncommon number of male witnesses who arrived with shirts unbuttoned far down their chest, an uncommon seasoning of invective.

Gossip and Tantrums

Pointed questions were asked--but not always answered--about the whereabouts of certain jewels Liberace was known to carry, and about the contents of safety deposit boxes opened after his death.

Gossipy nicknames were recalled, some of them startingly nasty, and at times the hearing seemed a tantrum over whom Liberace liked best.

The plaintiffs testified at length about how Liberace lived, as well as how he died. They described a boyish man who loved to stage gourmet “cook-offs” with his neighbors, to play practical jokes and to scan the supermarket tabloids for gossip about his peers.

There was testimony about how he loved his dogs and forgave their lack of house training. There was lengthy testimony that he loved Christmas, and his mother.

Shunned Tabloid Publicity

The testimony made clear that, though a fan of the gossip sheets, Liberace preferred not to become one of their targets.

He was said to have been angry when a settlement in a palimony suit brought by a previous companion became public. He had summoned Strote shortly before his death to threaten legal action against a newspaper preparing to report that he was afflicted with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

And so then, would Liberace have approved of his entourage, his “family,” pressing the case in public court, given that it required such an intimate telling of his last days?

“I can’t say,” James said in an interview. “. . . We have to. It breaks our heart.”

Some Details Overlapped

There were certain points where the plaintiffs’ narratives intersected: A comment Liberace made backstage in the fall of 1986 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall that Strote would not be his attorney much longer; a Christmas party in Malibu where Strote was invited as a prop for a practical joke; Liberace’s calls for “my executor” Di Bella.

The entertainer’s last month was described in tortuous detail. The plaintiffs explained how they had fed Liberace, bathed Liberace, how they had bent his knees so that he could shuffle, how they had laid atop him to stop his convulsing in bed.

Conversation, they said, was out of the question that January, along with reading and dialing the telephone.

Strangely, for all the graphic intimacies they volunteered, the plaintiffs always balked when the subject was AIDS.

Denial, Over and Over

Liberace, they said outside court, had known he had the disease for more than a year, but never came fully to terms with pending death. Denial was a practice in the house of Liberace, and it continued into the court.

If Liberace was not prepared for his final exit, neither was his entourage.

Angie Liberace especially expressed the vacuum his absence created for “the family.” She wrote in a letter that she was bothered by the sense that her brother’s spirit lingered in the house he had given her.

She tried to help run his restaurant, only to see Strote close it because it was losing about $50,000 a month. She learned of the closing, she said, when a security guard “stuck a gun in my ribs” as she attempted to enter the establishment.

Her Brother’s Dream

“It was my brother’s wish” to keep it open, Angie Liberace said. “It was his dream.”

It was also Liberace’s dream, the sister testified, for her “to live the good life” after he was gone. She spent tens of thousands of dollars attending memorials for her late brother, buying clothes especially for the occasions and jewelry she said he had designed for her.

She was asked if it was true that she believed her brother had directed her to be in court, that she talked with Liberace every day.

“I do, yes,” she testified.

“Because of his direction are you pressing this lawsuit?”

“Yes,” she responded evenly.

The defense presentation was comparatively staid. It began last week after a long summer recess and moved quickly, a succession of men in gray suits, ties and white shirts buttoned all the way to the collar.

They testified about estates and trusts, real estate transactions, the standard rates of fees charged by attorneys in such cases. The general theme was that Strote had done an extraordinary job in a difficult situation.

Documents Backed Story

The defense presented bills indicating telephone calls between Liberace’s residences and Strote’s office on dates consistent with the attorney’s account. A deposition of a notary public was read into the transcript, indicating that Liberace was more together at the will-signing than the plaintiffs’ witnesses had claimed.

The instruments themselves were powerful witnesses, each signed by Liberace in his looping signature, and also by Strote.

“Logic, logic, logic,” Strote said at the closing of testimony Monday.

If his intent had been to trick Liberace, why had the original draft of the new will initially listed Seymour Heller as trustee? If Liberace was so addled, why had he been able to comprehend and reject the provision for doctors to resist any heroic measures to preserve his life?

If Liberace had wanted to fire him, why had he not done so? And where was Frank Di Bella, the accountant Liberace allegedly had wanted to serve as executor? Why had he not been called to testify? Why wasn’t he a plaintiff in the case?

“I think what Liberace wanted,” Strote said in an interview, “is what he did.”

Though Liberace’s health was clearly failing, Strote said, “he was very cogent, knew exactly what he wanted to do, and gave me very specific instructions.”

A Lively Note

One defense witness did liven up the defense case.

Georges Llinares, a former Liberace house manager who spoke in a thick French accent and wore cowboy boots, had been manager of Liberace’s Palm Spring residence in the 1970s and early 1980s. Llinares admitted under cross-examination that when he was fired, he had warned Liberace that God would get him and, worse, that he would tell all to the National Enquirer.

From the witness stand, Llinares unleashed a barrage of invective at the plaintiffs, one by one, sparing only Gladys Luckie.

With each grenade Llinares lobbed, one of his targets would leave the room sobbing, until eventually the gallery was all but depleted.

It got so sordid that eventually even Strote stalked out. Finally, Judge Wendell put a stop to it.

“I’m here for one thing,” he said, wearily “Should Mr. Strote be removed or not?

“I’m not interested in personalities and I am not interested in morals.”

The closing arguments were made late Wednesday, and as often happens the opposing lawyers appeared to have been locked in different courtrooms for the duration of the case, so contradictory were their appeals.

Each side bemoaned the other’s paucity of evidence and misreading of the law.

Harold Gewerter, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, railed on and on about how Strote had raped and robbed Liberace’s estate. He shouted about “fraud on face” and about “a web of deceit.”

The defense argument was more measured, if equally biting.

John O’Reilly, one of several lawyers engaged in Strote’s defense, spoke of Liberace’s “dream” for the foundation and the “Shangri-La” that the generous entertainer had provided his entourage before he passed away.

“It’s often said that in life you have to pay the fiddler,” the attorney said. “In Liberace’s case, as a result of his life style, he chose to subsidize the whole symphony orchestra.”

These people, he said, indicating the plaintiffs who were seated in the front row of a now packed courtroom, “lived a dream.” And now it was finished.

The judge was quick and precise in his ruling, which he issued immediately from the bench.

One by one he went through the plaintiffs’ assertions, and one by one he found them lacking.

“There is no evidence that I see,” he said, “that Liberace’s mind was deteriorating. He knew what was going on.”

Strote, he said, had done “an excellent job” as trustee.

“In sum and substance,” Wendell concluded, “I am going to deny the motion to remove Mr. Strote.”

Strote had started to sob softly as the judge’s intentions became clear. Now he wailed out loud, the last to cry.