In the master bedroom of the mansion that Liberace calls the Versailles House is a mural that bears a strong, if acrylic, resemblance to the Sistine Chapel’s. Liberace says it was painted by a reincarnated Michelangelo. In the adjacent marble courtyard is an even more curious mural. Floating on the ceiling –—directly above two gold swans languishing in a sunken marble bath –– is an abundance of putti, seraphs and other heavenly hosts dancing on piano keys under the beneficent gaze of Liberace, whose disembodied head floats serenely and Oz-like amid the cherubs.
All intended whimsy aside, the aura of heavenliness is appropriate for the 62-year-old pianist, whose very hair has becomes an icon to millions of adoring fans. To the devoted, who have provided this immigrant’s son from Milwaukee with more riches than just about any other entertainer, Wladziu Valentino Liberace is indeed godlike or, at the least, celestial –– the avatar of virtue, innocence… and enormous success. Liberace has founded a fey sort of evangelism that celebrates schmaltz, glitter and vanity. If one single asset has enabled him to take in no less than $1 million a year since 1950 and forge a lifestyle that can only be described as a mixture of schlock and overstated elegance –– High Motel Art, perhaps –– it is accessibility to his swooning flock. “If I thought I couldn’t go to a Safeway or Woolworth’s,” he says of his need for adulation and his personal taste, “I wouldn’t want to be in show business.”
Liberace the healer. The crippled and arthritic have risen to dance a few steps with the maestro during his shows. His sentimental love songs, rendered so amoroso, have startled the deaf. The blind have witnessed, in their mind’s eye, his inimitable playing technique: arms swirling around his head, a histrionic pause, then a descent to the ivories in a dramatic crash –– “never hitting a clam,” as Seymour Heller, his personal manager, likes to say.
Numerous shrines have been raised to this seminal conceptual artist. In the Fifties, the most visited holy rood was the television set, which in some cities offered The Liberace Show 10 times a week. The TV gospel: love thy family, cheer the less fortunate. Accordingly, the program often featured Liberace’s mother, Frances, and brother, George, and the show would be filmed at such maudlin locales as the bedroom of a lady encased in an iron lung. Woman would make their husbands dress up just to watch the young godsend in white mohair offer his rendition of “Ave Maria,” which included a nun kneeling and praying in the background.
There is an actual shrine at the Cloisters, Liberace’s Palm Springs estate: A small room contains religious artifacts blessed by a Catholic priest. Lee, as his friends know him, could hold mass there. But the true monument to the Church of Liberace is the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, located by no miraculous coincidence in the Liberace Shopping Plaza. Since opening its doors in 1979, 200,000 of the faithful have paid an average $3 homage to enter the shrine, which contains six custom-made automobiles, dozens of jeweled furs and costumes, scores of miniature candelabras and pianos and thousands of full-face photographs that seemingly chronicle each day in the $100 million career of Mr. Showmanship. Proceeds from the museum provide music scholarships to several colleges.
None of this projected godliness is lost on Liberace. “There will always be the need for people to worship,” he says, “whether it’s religion, an entertainer or a movie star. I’ve always felt close to religion because it’s a form of show business.”
Seldom has a star risen so quickly and shone so long. Liberace’s first burned in 1951 with the introduction of his television show. It created a mad scramble for advertising time among banks, eyebrow-pencil manufacturers, biscuit makers and undertakers. His more than 180 sponsors credited him with bringing them $50 million-plus worth of new business in one year.
Of course, the adulation of millions was mixed with the sniping of a few. Newspaper columns were filled less with critical assessments of his florid, bowdlerized renditions of the classics than with innuendo surrounding his dandyish costumes, his milk-of-magnesia charm, his love of mom –– and that hair: a veritable Alpine range of peaks and valleys, perfectly coifed and molded to his handsome Florentine features. Were the undulating waves marcelled? Were the temples sprayed gray to achieve an air of distinction? Was the hair even his? Liberace played the “controversy” for all it was worth, inviting women onstage to run their fingers through his curls. In 1954, the issue was resolved at a Detroit concert when an “impartial hair specialist” examined the pianist’s mane to see if it had been waved by a curling iron. To a relieved audience, the specialist announced it had not.
Sitting at a small table inside the Versailles House, Liberace looks like, well, Liberace. He is dressed in white from his toes to his famous smile, which flashes warmly now and then with unforced grace. His graying hair, once a wavy washboard, now loops from his left temple to his right in a long ‘S’-curve. The edges of his eyes are stamped with crow’s-feet, and his lids seem heavy even without the thick eyeliner he uses onstage. But he looks fit enough and seems to have his celebrated weight problem under control.
Adjacent to us is the living room, a dazzling fun house of mirrors. The mirrored walls are etched with Aubrey Beardsley drawings. There are mirrored tables, mirrored chandeliers, mirrored urn stands, mirrored candelabras and a mirrored and glass-topped grand piano. To the right is a small game room; the slot-machine jackpot is three candelabras. To the left is a long, marbled colonnade lined with classical Greek statuary. And trotting down the hall, trying to grip the shiny marble floor with his claws, is Baby Jacques, one of Liberace’s many poodles.