Wladziu (Walter) Liberace, who was born on May 16 in West Allis, Wisconsin, was a famous pianist and entertainer known for his flamboyant style and his insistence that he was not a homosexual. Despite what are now recognized as quintessentially, if not stereotypically, homosexual mannerisms and affectations, plus his long-term relationships with male partners, Liberace publicly maintained that he was a heterosexual until his death on February 4 in Palm Springs, California.
Liberace rose to fame on television in the 1950s, achieving celebrity status as an attractive and flamboyant pianist who presented a very middlebrow idea of refinement to mass audiences. As a musician he was mostly a critical failure, often accused of playing in a flashy style without a great deal of technical proficiency. His weekly television show The Liberace Show debuted in 1951 and quickly became one of the most popular in the United States. At the same time, he began to perform at large concert venues like the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden. He became a regular performer in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas (which is now the home of the Liberace Museum), and also headlined several performances at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in the 1980s that broke box office and attendance records for the venue.
His trademark was overblown style, and included elaborately coiffed hair, a gleaming white piano, and a huge, ornate silver candelabra. These were all stage techniques designed to make every detail of the set visible even from the last row of a huge theatre. His style was particularly evident in his stage costumes. Over time simple flashiness was replaced by bright, feminine colors, as well as capes encrusted with rhinestones and sequins. His style became a model for other Las Vegas performers (including Elvis Presley), and embodied a camp sensibility that was recognized and imitated by the gay community even though Liberace denied its significance.
Liberace's relationship to the gay community is unquestionable but complicated. While all indications are that Liberace was a homosexual, he denied it even as he was dying of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) (at that time a disease mainly associated with male homosexuals). His dramatic weight loss prior to his death was attributed to a watermelon diet, rather than acknowledged as a symptom of AIDS or any other disease. Liberace was involved in at least two court cases involving claims that he was a homosexual. In 1957 Liberace successfully sued the London tabloid The Daily Mirror for libel after it published an article that mentioned his neuter quality and hinted at his homosexuality. During his testimony Liberace claimed that he was not and never had been a homosexual, nor had he participated in any homosexual acts.
In 1982 Liberace was sued by Scott Thorson, his longtime partner, for palimony. Thompson claimed that he was owed $113 million, but eventually settled for $95,000 after the bulk of his claims were dismissed in 1984; Liberace argued that he did not have a homosexual relationship with Thorson. Despite his protestations, Liberace is remembered more as a gay performer and icon than as a classical pianist.
Liberace. 2003. The Wonderful Private World of Liberace. 2nd edition. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing.
Pyron, Darden Asbury. 2000. Liberace: An American Boy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Thorson, Scott, and Alex Thorleifson. 1988. Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. New York: Dutton Press.
Brian D. Holcomb