Often considered the most popular entertainer of the 20th century--his extravagant performances set still-unchallenged attendance records--Liberace (dubbed “Mr. Showman” in tribute to his flashy theatricality) sued a London columnist in 1956 for implying he was gay. He won. At the same time, virtually everyone in gossipy gay bars knew that he was not only gay but very active in his homosexuality; and in his popular television and concert shows, he flaunted queeny ways, cultivated a purry lisp, donned glittery costumes. Still, even at the point of death, he refused to admit publicly that he was gay.
A pervasive atmosphere of homophobia in his time kept him in the closet, and today he is excoriated by an assertive faction of gay activists for staying there; they consider him a reprehensible reactionary and, in severest politically correct judgment, a stereotype.
In his intelligent biography of this complex man, Darden Asbury Pyron makes an unusual concession: “Insofar as the criticisms identified the entertainer as a womanish, lower-class, consumer sissy who corrupted art . . . I was not eager to justify, much less identify with, such a figure.” His agent warned him against undertaking the biography: “What does a dead closeted queen performer . . . have to say to contemporary gay men?” Still, as Pyron persevered, his view altered: “I came to respect him, in some ways even to admire him. And . . . he never bored me.” That dual point of view allows him to explore contrasting aspects of the star. Like the performer, he never bores.
Wladziu Valentino Liberace, born in West Allis, Wis., in 1919, made a spectacular entrance: The survivor of male twins, he appeared with a mysterious membrane veiling his head, a caul that, among Italian Polish Catholics of his ancestry, was believed to portend an exceptional life, perhaps genius. It certainly augured later dramatic entrances: He once swooped onstage strapped to wires, a rhinestone-spattered cape flying.
Classically trained, Liberace idolized Ignace Paderewski. At age 23, he soloed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and won praise. He shifted to more lucrative venues: supper clubs and television; he produced successful record albums. With eminently less success, he starred in two movies. John Rechy is the author of numerous books, including “City of Night” and “The Coming of the Night.” He received the William Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature last year and PEN-USA-West’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. Hugely popular at his height as a concert entertainer, he broke attendance records at Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl and Radio City Music Hall. He dismissed disdainful critics by claiming, “I cried all the way to the bank.”
Blessed or cursed with good-boy looks, Liberace fawned over his “Mom,” often bringing her onstage, smiling her a toothy goodnight when she wasn’t there. Middle-aged and older women adored him. He became every American apple-pie Mom’s ideal son, the son who would never leave her, never find another woman as wonderful as she, and if he was gay--and didn’t he deny it?--he would never embarrass her by coming out. (Pyron, who sweetly dedicates his book to his own mother, suspects incestuous yearnings among Liberace’s female fans, but their adulation was much too benign for that.)
In private, Liberace could be notoriously assertive in his homosexuality. During a formal dinner, an attractive male (this modest reviewer), seated next to him by compliant hosts (anticipating a return favor, perhaps a gold-leafed “antique”), was startled by a hand wandering under the table long before dessert.
The performer was crafty. If tears were needed to achieve a seduction, he would cry, lamenting his starry isolation (a performance this reviewer had occasion to be exposed to when it was strategically staged in the star’s Hollywood mansion while pampered, beribboned black and white poodles skittered about on black and white marble floors). If more tangible blandishments were required, he would extend them--jewels, a cottage in Palm Springs.
He was famously generous, lavishing gifts on friends and assistants. He would provide salaried positions in his entourage to former intimate companions. Still, his gifts could be grotesquely selfish. He paid for plastic surgery to be performed on longtime companion Scott Thorson, in order to make the young man look like him. (More likely, Thorson became a version of what Liberace would have wanted to look like when he was young: masculine, handsome.) The performer’s generosity had strict limits. Those who violated his expectations were banished, as was Thorson, who, after exile, sued the star for palimony and won a meager out-of-court settlement.
Relying prominently on previous biographies, media accounts and Thorson’s memoir, “Beyond the Candelabra,” Pyron surprisingly includes few unpublished reports by those still living who knew Liberace. That creates gaps, at times mistakes. Left a tantalizing blank is what became of Thorson after his banishment and after his well-recorded involvement with drugs and mobsters. (In recent televised biographies of his mentor, Thorson, in apt paradox, has begun to look and act like the middle-aged Liberace.)
Pyron recounts a version of the wandering-hand incident at a formal dinner and places it 10 years earlier than its actual occurrence, thus skewing his contextual conclusions about the performer’s developing “randiness” (Pyron’s quaint word). Citing this reviewer as a source, he lists among Liberace’s Palm Springs excesses a spooky “dress-only-in-white party” that actually occurred in Hollywood and was not given nor even attended by, the performer.
What makes Pyron’s book impressive is his astute interpretation of the forces that shaped Liberace. He draws a sharp picture of the Midwest during the Depression. He analyzes the pressure to succeed among Liberace’s immigrant ancestors and the entrenched conservative values that the performer absorbed. He details the sexually restrictive influence of Catholicism on Liberace, who as a boy considered becoming a priest. He quotes Duke University professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s provocative “Epistemology of the Closet” (1992) on the allure of the priesthood for young gay males: “the possibility of adults who don’t marry, of men in dresses, of passionate theatre . . . images of the unclothed or unclothable male body, often in extremis and/or ecstasy--to be gazed at and adored.” (Although he did not become a priest, Liberace discovered common ground with that vocation. His costumes had antecedents in the bejeweled ostentation of high priestly garb, draggy cassocks, swishy robes, winking pendants. Votive candles evolved into his trademark candelabra. His acolytes were his muscular attendants.)
Because Pyron located virtually no record of Liberace’s sexual activities during early decades, he assumes that the performer must have frequented what is routinely referred to as “the homosexual underground.” However flawed that conjecture may or may not be, it gives Pyron a chance to roam with lively zeal through the landscape of outlaw encounters--movie balconies, sweaty bathhouses and--famously--the standing-room section of the Metropolitan Opera (where gay men related to each other as the divas they worshiped displayed their throaty talents onstage).
Pyron falls into the prevalent trap of dividing gay history into only two steadfast periods, “pre-Stonewall” and “post-Stonewall,” the former judged as repressive, the latter extolled as liberated. Overemphasis on that single event (a gay riot in New York in 1969) distorts the history of gay courage and diminishes other acts of equivalent defiance, several occurring years earlier but not as widely documented or eulogized, in Los Angeles and San Francisco during more dangerous times. Nor did repressive elements disappear after the New York riot. They lessened. As before, there were advances and regressions. Within arbitrarily branded territory, Liberace is easily relegated to “pre-Stonewall” purgatory: a cowardly stereotype, judgment affirmed. True, the performer obsessively denied his homosexuality in public. At the 1956 libel trial in London, he swore under oath that he was not gay. He often pretended to be on the brink of marriage (not unlike many other gay stars of the time and of today, several of the most famous of whom are aggressively married). He boosted his denials by pointing out that he was a Catholic and that the church judged homosexuality a sin.
To accurately evaluate Liberace’s behavior requires the placing of him within the social climate of the country as he grew into it. Homophobia was accepted even among so-called liberal intellectuals. New York Times critic Howard Taubman waged a war of innuendo on Liberace and soon extended his assaults to an imagined “homosexual Mafia” that included William Inge, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. Confidential magazine destroyed singer Johnny Ray with only a suggestion of attempted homosexual activity. Movie studios bartered with that magazine: Withhold a scandal about a money-making heterosexual star in exchange for revelations about expendable gay actors.
There were graver dangers. Police followed cruising gay men home, waited and then broke in and arrested them having sex. Such consensual acts between adults, in private, were punishable with five or more years in prison, lifelong registration as a “sexual offender” and, at times, with aversion shock therapy. (Vice arrests in private are legal even today; a 1986 Supreme Court decision let stand the conviction of two consenting Georgia adults arrested at home; imprisonment is still possible.)
In context of those dangers, Liberace may be seen as a radical trompe l’oeil by the nature of his flamboyant presentation. Like other banished stereotypes, those easily spotted, often noble early transgressors (including drag queens) who, reexamined, may reveal a powerful source of pioneer courage, Liberace may be viewed as a saboteur, an infiltrator unsettling homophobic consciousness. To judge him for his refusal to come out during very perilous times is to ignore the fact that even today, there are dangers for some in doing so. Barbara Walters--all knifey smiles and arm-locking hugs--flirted with wrecking the career of a young male star recently when she tried to corner him into stating whether he is gay.
The weakest passages in Pyron’s book involve attempts to pin down Liberace’s sexual activities. What positions did he assume? What types of men did he choose? Did his tastes shift? If he had a liaison with Rock Hudson, who did what? Pyron thereby succumbs to another prevalent trap, the attempt to categorize homosexual desire, to assign staunch sexual roles, an impossible venture.
At the end, Liberace’s life shifted from gothic to tragic. The man who sued to prove he was not homosexual contracted AIDS and retreated in doubled despair to his Palm Springs mansion. “I don’t want to be remembered as an old queen who died of AIDS,” he said.
He died a sad figure in what must have been brutal physical and psychological pain. More horror was to come. Angling for a share of fame at the star’s expense, a small-town coroner recalled the performer’s body on its way to burial in order to perform a further autopsy that would assert death by AIDS. The performer was cruelly outed as a corpse.
Pyron’s recounting of Liberace’s life provides a strong answer to his agent’s question about the relevance of the performer’s life: Liberace, Pyron deduces, lived as “an American Boy"; but, as a member of the conservative political and religious wing of Americans, “he confirmed their values even as he transgressed them.” That courageous transgression makes Liberace relevant today; certainly, it provides an admonitory example to politically conservative homosexuals. Still, Liberace’s many fans will choose to remember the remarkable performer for a reason uncompromised by other aspects of his life and death, the sole reason for his endurance: He put on one hell of a show!