A flamboyant musical showman, Liberace is remembered for his extravagant costumes and campy stage presence as much as for his talent as a pianist. The country’s highest paid piano soloist for nearly 30 years, Liberace combined florid renditions of popular songs with abbreviated versions of the classics in a show that became a Las Vegas mainstay. His decision to reach for every excess and embrace it with just a hint of self-mockery paved the way for such androgynous superstar musicians as Michael Jackson, Boy George, and Elton John.
Newsweek correspondent Bill Barol described a Liberace concert at Radio City Music Hall: “Liberace flew in from the wings suspended on a wire; introduced his valet/chauffeur, put on a purple sequined-and-feathered robe; took it off; played Chopin on a Lucite piano with lacework trim; did a soft shoe; bestowed a selection of gifts on an audience member; shamelessly plugged his new book and Las Vegas restaurant; drove onstage in a red, white and blue Rolls-Royce; peeled away a red, white and blue sequined-and-feathered robe to reveal red, white and blue satin hotpants, and grabbed a red, white and blue sequined baton to lead the Rockettes in ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’ This was all before intermission.”
Liberace constantly strove to outdo himself, and his audience never grew tired of seeing his extravagant and warmly amusing displays. New Republic correspondent Edward Rothstein wrote that Liberace’s was “a material version of dazzling splendor, found in minks and jewels and capes and glitter…. But it is an image of the ’classics’ refracted through rhinestones and diamonds—puffs of smoke rising from the floor.”
Throughout his life, Liberace was coy about his personal relationships. Biographers who sought to discuss his homosexuality were summarily dismissed, and only an official coroner’s report revealed that he died of complications of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). In a People magazine obituary, Michelle Green noted that at his death “the world lost an exotic original—a sweet-natured self-promoter who, for all of his extrovert showiness onstage, had been something of a lost soul.” The reporter continued: “Liberace’s was a life of exquisite paradox; for flamboyance and repression, kitsch and concealment.”
Liberace was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in 1919 in West Allis, Wisconsin. One of four children, he was the son of a french horn player who eventually earned a spot with the Milwaukee Philharmonic Orchestra. Liberace
For the Record…
Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace, May 16, 1919, in West Allis, WI; died of cytomegalovirus pneumonia resulting from AIDS, February 4, 1987, in Palm Springs, CA; son of Salvatore (a musician) and Frances (a grocery store operator and bakery employee) Liberace. Education: Attended Wisconsin College of Music.
Pianist and musical entertainer, 1929-87. As a young teen, played piano in speakeasies and movie theaters; member of Works Progress Administration Symphony Orchestra, c. 1936; professional solo perfomer, 1939-87; recorded with Columbia Records, beginning in the 1950s; appeared on television in The Liberace Show, 1952-56, and as guest on numerous other programs; concert performer in Las Vegas and on national and international tours, 1952-86.
showed his musical talent early, learning to play the piano by ear when he was only four. At first his father tried to discourage his interest in piano, but timely praise from Poland’s most noted pianist, Ignace Jan Paderewski, made the way clear for a musical career.
Tensions remained high in the Liberace household, however. Calling himself Walter Busterkeys, the young pianist made the rounds of speakeasies and movie theaters, earning wages for playing the popular melodies of the time. This infuriated his father, who was devoted to the classics. “Liberace’s emotional difficulties surely sprang from his unsatisfactory relationship with his harsh father,” wrote Green. “While proud of his son’s musical abilities (the boy won a piano scholarship and later played with the Chicago Symphony), Salvatore was bitterly opposed to the popular music that his son loved. But songs like ’Sweet Jennie Lee’ were the budding musician’s preference, and to help keep the family afloat, young Liberace gladly played piano in silent-movie houses.” Relations between father and son were further strained when Liberace discovered that his father had a mistress—his parents eventually divorced.
At the age of 17, Liberace was offered a place with the federally funded Works Progress Administration Symphony Orchestra. This in turn led to a scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music and to concert appearances in many major cities. He developed his trademark style quite by chance in 1939, when, after a classical recital, his audience requested a rendition of the popular tune “Three Little Fishes.” Liberace launched into the number, giving it impromptu, quasi-classical flourishes, and brought the house down. His sudden idea on “how to make piano playing pay” won him bookings at the Persian Room of the Hotel Plaza in New York City and other large nightclubs. By 1947 he was traveling with his own custom-made piano, an oversized Bluthner grand, insured for $150, 000. He also decked his instrument with a candelabra, borrowing the idea from a Hollywood motion picture about composer Frederic Chopin.
Liberace was the star of the very first syndicated television program, The Liberace Show, filmed in Los Angeles. The show began in 1952 and quickly established Liberace as television’s first matinee idol. Within two years it was being carried by more stations than either Dragnet or I Love Lucy. The performer added to his popularity by making frequent live appearances, in one instance drawing a sellout crowd—13,000 women and 3,000 men—to Madison Square Garden on May 26, 1954.
The star suffered a setback in 1956, though, during a tour of England. One of the newspapers there hinted at his homosexuality, prompting a quick lawsuit from the entertainer for defamation of character. Liberace won the case, but his popularity in the United States plummeted. He sought to remedy the matter by appearing in more conservative dress and offering more conservative concerts, but by the early 1960s he realized that he could draw more customers by capitalizing on his kitsch. He amassed a wardrobe worth millions, including lavish fur coats that could weigh as much as 150 pounds, and he joked, sang, and even danced during his concerts.
“Critics were—and are—dismissive about [Liberace’s} recordings,” Green claimed. “Few dispute the fact that he possessed talent; but the consensus is that it was showmanship, rather than technique, that was his forte.” Liberace could play Chopin’s famed “Minute Waltz” in 37 seconds and a truncated version of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in approximately four minutes. His classical repertoire was often performed in abbreviated form because he felt he would lose the audience’s attention otherwise. Rothstein called the entertainer a “representative of our time” who was simply “an exaggeration of the character of our musical life, which itself is a distorted, peculiar transformation of nineteenth-century musical culture, thriving on invoked images, ritualistic signs, and commercial energies.”
Nevertheless, Liberace did indeed exert an influence on modern popular music. As Barol put it, “his apparent homosexuality—not acknowledged but not exactly hidden—must have given hope to millions of closeted gays in… less open years.” Liberace’s legacy lives on in the exuberant piano work of Elton John and Billy Joel as well as in the eye-catching costumes of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Little Richard.
Afflicted with heart disease and emphysema, Liberace nevertheless performed regularly until the autumn of 1986. It is estimated that he earned $5 million each year during the 1970s and 1980s. He spent lavishly on himself, his costumes, and his friends. However, he also became a serious patron of the fine arts by creating a Liberace Museum; profits from the museum’s admission fees provide college scholarships to needy classical musicians.
Early in 1987 Liberace’s condition deteriorated, and he died at his home in Palm Springs, California. To the time of his death he denied rumors that he was homosexual—even after a former chauffeur brought a “palimony” suit against him. An official autopsy ruled that the pianist died as a result of AIDS. His many fabulous artifacts, costumes, and furniture were disbursed at a much-publicized auction.
Liberace was never considered a serious concert musician. The critical barbs did little to deflate his spirit, though. For years his theme song was “I Don’t Care,” as he joked about his vast earning power. Behind the surface glitter of Liberace’s image lay a solid grounding in classical music and the ability to transmit that music to a public that just wanted to hear popular songs. As Barol concluded, the ebullient Liberace “never disappointed an audience…. It is a measure of his talent that he made the two biggest celebrity cliches ring quite true: there was no one else like him, and he will never be replaced.”
Here’s Liberace, MCA, 1968.
Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1969.
Concert Favorites, 3 volumes, Columbia, 1986.
16 Most Requested Songs, Columbia/Legacy, 1989.
The Golden Age of Television, Curb/CEMA, 1991.
Liberace Remembered, USA, 1992.
The Artistry of Liberace, MCA.
The Best of Liberace, MCA, reissued, RCA-Camden.
Liberace Christmas, MCA.
Liberace Plays Moon River and Other Great Songs, Richmond.
’Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Thorson, Scott, and Alex Thorleifson, Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace, Dutton, 1988.
American Weekly, July 18, 1954.
Life, December 7, 1953.
New Republic, July 2, 1984.
Newsweek, February 22, 1954; May 7, 1984; February 16, 1987.
New Yorker, June 5, 1954.
People, February 16, 1987; April 25, 1988.
Time, February 16, 1987.
Washington Post, February 5, 1987.
—Anne Janette Johnson
LIBERACE (b. 16 May 1911; d. 4 February 1987), pianist, entertainer.
Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace, to a musical family in working-class West Allis, Wisconsin, this musical prodigy developed from these roots his devotion to Catholicism, his working-class conservatism, and his ability to speak directly to his audiences. An excellent musician by most accounts, he was most noted for his flamboyant costumes and presentations.
Liberace won several classical music competitions and it is said he played piano with the Chicago Symphony, under Dr. Frederick Stock, when he was only fourteen. Despite disapproval from his parents, who wanted him to stay with classical music, in the 1940s Liberace moved to New York and into popular music because of the money and the joy of pleasing large audiences. He promoted himself relentlessly and, while playing the cabaret rooms of prestigious hotels in major American cities, developed a gimmick, placing a candelabra on the
piano as Chopin had. Liberace solidified his career in the early 1950s with a local television program in Los Angeles, presenting an image of himself as the good son, which endeared him to a certain type of older woman. The show started as a summer replacement for Dinah Shore, but became a syndicated success and earned Liberace two Emmys.
Over the course of his career, Liberace won the hearts of large audiences; he was especially popular with women. Before Liberace, other homosexual stars, such as Ramon Novarro, used a similar image of flirtatiousness toward women to cover their sexual interests. Liberace linked this image to the spectacle of his performances and the enjoyment of the material successes of the American Dream.
Liberace played in venues ranging from nightclubs to Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, and the Hollywood Bowl. In addition, he appeared in three royal performances in London, the third in 1972, and toured Australia successfully in 1971. Three books were published about him, and he was named three times the Pop Keyboard Artist of the Year by Contemporary Keyboard magazine. His flashy clothes, pianos (often mirrored), classic cars, and jewels were part of his persona and fascinated his audiences.
Like many LGB people of the era, Liberace strove to keep his homosexuality a secret. He went on staged dates with women, including a few with actress Mae West, and like other entertainers sought media coverage of concocted heterosexual romances. During the mid-1950s, he fought in the courts to control his image. He won a libel suit on a technicality against Confidential, a tabloid that labeled the entertainer a homosexual. A few years later, Liberace won the largest British libel settlement up to that time against the London Daily Mirror, which he said implied he was a homosexual. The pianist denied his homosexuality in court. As was the case with other homosexuals in U.S. society, compulsory heterosexuality forced Liberace to be dishonest about his sexual interests.
Liberace did not embrace gay liberation after the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Yet on stage, his shows contained flamboyance and innuendoes that suggested his homosexual interests. Off stage, he lived the hedonistic Hollywood/Palm Springs lifestyle of the 1970s, engaging in sexual promiscuity without the ideological perspective of sexual liberation that energized some LGBT people during this era. After 1969 he had three primary lovers, the second of whom, Scott Thorson, brought a palimony suit after the pianist left him. The courts ruled that Thorson's palimony clause, based on Liberace's alleged commitment to adopt and take care of Thorson financially, was an unenforceable contract for sexual services. (Only with a 1988 California court of appeals decision did palimony rights become extended to same-sex couples.)
Like so many men of his generation, Liberace contracted AIDS. The entertainer denied this condition as vociferously as he had his sexual orientation. While actor Rock Hudson admitted that he had the disease at a press conference in 1984, Liberace continued to perform and make regular public appearances without disclosing his illness. Even after Liberace's death, members of his entourage and others with vested interests struggled to keep the pianist's sexual orientation hidden from the public. His doctors told the public that Liberace died of cardiac arrest due to heart failure, but the Riverside County, California, coroner announced that analysis showed that the pianist died of pneumonia due to AIDS.
Berrett, Jesse. "Liberace: Behind the Music," Rethinking History 4 (2000): 77–79.
Ehrenstein, David. Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928–1998. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Mitchell, Mark. Virtuosi: A Defense and a (Sometimes Erotic) Celebration of Great Pianists. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Pyron, Darden Asbury. Liberace: An American Boy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Brett L. Abrams
see alsomusic: popular.