Liberace (in full, Wladziu Valentino Liberace)

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Liberace (in full, Wladziu Valentino Liberace)

Liberace (in full, Wladziu Valentino Liberace), popular American pianist of Italian-Polish parentage; b. West Allis, Wise, May 16, 1919; d. Palm Springs, Calif., Feb. 4, 1987. He received musical training from his father, a horn player, then studied piano, exhibiting so natural a talent that no less a master than Paderewski encouraged him to try for a concert career. However, he was sidetracked from serious music by jobs at silent-movie houses and nightclubs, where he was billed as Walter Busterkeys. In 1940 he moved to N.Y. and soon evolved a facile repertoire of semiclassical works, such as a synthetic arrangement of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, taking advantage of the fact that both works are in the same key. He prospered and made lucrative inroads into television (1951–55; 1958–59), and also made numerous recordings and toured extensively overseas. He built himself a house in Calif., complete with a piano-shaped swimming pool. Inspired by a popular movie on Chopin, he placed a candelabrum on the piano at his public appearances. This decorative object identified him as a Romantic musician, an impression enhanced by his dress suit of white silk mohair and a wardrobe of glittering cloaks, which he removed with theatrical flair before performing. In 1959 he won a lawsuit for defamation of character against the London Daily Mirror and its columnist “Cassandra” (William Neil Connor) for suggesting in print that he was a practitioner of the inverted mode of love. But then in 1982 his former chauffeur-bodyguard-companion sued him for $380 million for services rendered in “an exclusive non-marital relationship.” In 1984 most of the suit was quashed, and in 1986 Liberace settled out of court for $95,000. When he died of AIDS in 1987, his multimillion-dollar estate containing valuable curiosa was sold at auction. A large percentage of the sale price was bequeathed to charities, for Liberace was a generous man. In spite of his critics, he once said, he cried all the way to the bank. His autobiography was publ, in 1973.


B. Thomas, L. (N.Y., 1988); S. Thorson, with A. Thorleifson, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with L.(N.Y, 1988).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire