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It’s All Wunnerful for Liberace

An extraordinary visit with the gilded cherub of American camp

Flamboyant, American, pianist, Liberace, jewelry

Flamboyant American pianist Liberace displays his wealth of jewelry as he sweeps into a London Airport. Circa 1980.

David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty Images)

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.

“Controversy,” Liberace says while smothering Baby Jacques with affection. “I was first aware of it in 1952 when I wore a white tuxedo at the Hollywood Bowl. That was considered very daring, but I wore it so the people in the back rows could see me against a sea of black tuxedos.”

Liberace turned the flak to his advantage, fashioning a personality he could extend onstage. “Only I know what I can get away with,” he says. “When I walk onstage I look at everybody’s face, particularly the men’s. They’re shocked. They go, ‘Is he kidding?‘ It’s something that only works for me.”

To the women who have swooned over the spangled virtuoso, it may be disappointing to learn that the object of Liberace’s career-long crusade has been the liberation of male vanity. “I think men instinctively want to outshine women,” he says. “It takes someone like an entertainer to put himself on a pedestal where men can say, ‘See how gorgeous he looks.’ Inwardly, their feathers want to come out.”

Some of the vicious criticism directed at Liberace in the early days –– that he was a court jester who had stumbled into the queen’s wardrobe, and the nonsensical claim that he made love to his brother on the piano lid –– begged for a denial from Liberace. But he is loathe to discuss his romantic life. “I don’t think entertainers should publicly air their sexual or political tastes,” says Liberace, who once romanced Sonja Henie, the Norwegian skating star who appeared in airy Hollywood musicals. “What they do in the privacy of their home or bed is nobody’s business.”

Nevertheless, Liberace is delighted to reveal his new fascination with pornographic movies. “Two Christmases ago, I bought a television that can tape and show movies,”he says with a feral glint in his eyes. “So I went to a place that sells movies and I came home with True Grit, Nasty Habits and Inside Jennifer Welles. Her claim to fame is that she had 72 men in one night. And she actually does it! Then she gives a Chinese dinner party for all the men, and while they’re having dinner, she takes on the Chinese waiters for an encore. It’s pretty wild.

“Over the holiday, I had a lot of company. They found out I had a couple of porno movies and asked to see them. I said, ‘Oh, come on, you don’t want to see them. They’re awful. I mean, they’re really dirty, you know?’ But I showed them and these very respectable people were sitting there going, “Oh, look at the size of that’ and ‘Look what he’s doing to her’ and ‘Oh, my God.’ The attitude is different today. Twenty years ago, if somebody found out I had dirty movies, they’d have called the police.”

Liberace dismissed most of the sexual innuendo he encountered in the Fifties with the quip, “I’m crying all the way to the bank.” But there was another sort of criticism that touched him more than any fag-baiting. As he admits today, his dismissal as a schlock artist and murderer of the classics hurt him deeply, because it recalls the icy disapproval he received early in his career. For most of his 93 years, Liberace’s father refused to forgive his son for butchering, reviling and shaming the classics.

Salvatore Liberace, an Italian immigrant born outside of Naples, was a self-taught French horn and trumpet player who performed with John Philip Sousa’s marching band and the Milwaukee Philharmonic Orchestra. He and his wife, Frances Zuchowski, the daughter of Polish immigrant farmers, raised four children in a small clapboard house on the west side of Milwaukee. At the age of four, each child was taught the fundamentals of harmony and music by their father, who detested “the wild music, the jazz” that was popular during his children’s adolescence. But third-born Walter, as Liberace was christened, needed no encouragement. Before he’d turned five, he sat down at the family piano and, in the words of a Liberace concept program, “proceeded to unveil the soul of a super sensitive child as he played simple melodies seemingly with some strange and invisible guidance.”

Invisible guidance or not, young Walter was made to practice, particularly after a visit to the Liberace household by Ignace Jan Paderewski, the Polish statesman and concert pianist, who praised young Walter’s playing and later encouraged him to adopt the single name Liberace. “He was a real taskmaster, my father,” Liberace says in his slightly adenoidal Midwestern drawl. “Practice came before everything else –– school, friends, dinner. But it never really bothered me, because I loved to play.”

During the Depression, which left concert musicians like Salvatore out of work, Walter worked as a delivery boy at his mother’s vegetable market and played for dance classes and style shows. The young prodigy won a scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music at age 15. Often, he’d play stuffy recitals by day and ice-cream parlors at night with a dance band. When he was asked at 16 to appear as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he received his first taste of the enmity that classical musicians harbored towards pop music.

“I was told that if I insisted on using the name Liberace with my dance band, I would have to forfeit the opportunity to play with the Chicago symphony,” he recalls. “So I told the bandleader to call me anything but Liberace, and he came up with Walter Busterkeys.” In 1939, Liberace the concert pianist worked a bit of Busterkeys into his classical repertoire. At a recital in La Crosse, Wisconsin, he played “Three Little Fishes” as an encore –– winking, smiling, emoting throughout. The ensuing applause gave him an idea of how he could make piano playing pay.

He took his wink and smile to New York the next year and was booked as an intermission pianist at the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel. By 1947, when he returned to the Persian Room, he had his own oversize Bluthner grand piano, insured for $150,000 and crowned with an ornate Louis XIV candelabra – a motif he borrowed from A Song to Remember, a film about the life of Frederic Chopin. After the war, when George Liberace became his brother’s business manager, bandleader and violinist, the pair played nightclubs across the country. Never was there a sign of approval or a word of good luck from Salvatore.

“The kind of musical artistry he appreciated was so pure nobody bought it,” Liberace says gloomily. “I gave concerts and recitals, but it was only for glory. To earn a living, I had to prostitute my art. In classical music, there’s lots of dull stuff before you get to the good parts. My ability is more in adaptation – taking the dull stuff out of the classics and making them palatable to the layman. I’d rather appeal to the masses than to the phonies who go to concerts because it’s the cultural thing to do.”

Liberace sought approval elsewhere. His late mother, who approved of all music except rock & roll (which she called “dirty wiggling”), gave her full endorsement and shared in her son’s early success, accompanying him to television shows or concerts dressed in matching furs and jewels. And he found further approval from his sister, Angie, and George. (The youngest Liberace sibling, Rudy, died in his thirties.) Only late in life did taskmaster Salvatore acknowledge his son’s success.

“I guess that was my rebellion –– playing the kind of music he couldn’t stand,” Liberace says. “All those years he withheld his approval… he could just never forgive me.”

Liberace also sought approval from the masses –– and found it. By 1954, the first four of the 200-odd albums he would record had sold more than 100,000 copies each, outdoing Eddie Fisher, the pop idol of the day. His concerts drew capacity crowds to Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl; he packed in 120,000 at a single show at Chicago’s Soldiers Field. Hollywood capitalized on his syrupy charm and enormous popularity by casting him as a deaf pianist turned philanthropist in Sincerely Yours and as a casket salesman in The Loved One.

In 1963, firmly established as one of the highest-paid entertainers in show business, Liberace survived a life-threatening sickness that gave him a new sense of values. After he accidentally inhaled fumes from a dry-cleaning solvent, the pianist’s kidneys failed, and he was told to put his affairs in order. “I took it very philosophically,” Liberace says. “I had led a good life, made a lot of people happy, and I had no regrets.” His attorney and business manager flew in with reams of papers, and Liberace spent all his cash –– about $750,000 –– on goodbye presents for family, friends and staff. Then, as though by the grace of Saint Anthony, Liberace was fed a potion he later dubbed “nun’s soup,” which he credits with saving his life. To show his appreciation to the sisters of St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, Liberace played a benefit that financed a new intensive-care ward. “

“After I recovered, I realized I wanted to work half as hard and get paid twice as much for it,” Liberace remembers. “When no one protested, I said, ‘This is nice, this positive thinking is working.’ Then I got rid of certain friends who were negative –– you know, cynics and pessimists. ‘You bring me down,’ I said, ‘and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t call me anymore.’ I learned to say no, to put things in their place. I used to do benefits, raffle off costumes, give money –– anything if it was for a worthy cause. Everybody wanted a little piece of me.”

The change of values enabled Liberace to partake in some rather extreme indulgences, including designing costumes. “He draws beautifully,” says Frank Acuna, a former Hollywood tailor. “His designs are perfect.”

Aside from the paranoia that attended the delivery of diamond buttons to his shop, Acuna can recall only two sartorial problems that arose during his 30-year association with Liberace: “We had to send to Europe for jewels without prongs, because Lee would sweat a lot and the prongs would rust and ruin the suits. And sometimes he’d put on weight –– mostly on his legs. But if he didn’t like something, he would never holler at you. He never makes you feel bad.”

Liberace claims that Elvis Presley was the first convert to his spangled style. If you splice together various accounts from George Liberace, Seymour Heller and Liberace himself, the story comes out like this: In 1957 Elvis got his first Vegas booking –– at the Last Frontier with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, a society ensemble. He was popular on television but had yet to appear before the money crowd. It was a bad booking and Elvis bombed. After the first show, Elvis’ public-relations man called Liberace, who was appearing at the Riviera. Would the pianist drop by and cheer up the young teen idol? When Liberace arrived, somebody suggested a picture. Liberace told Elvis to wear his gold jacket, and Liberace wore Elvis’ red blazer. Elvis’ face lit up. It was the start of a whole new image for him.

Liberace’s image has remained unchanged for all but one year. In 1969, the pianist scrapped the silks and candelabras for a business suit and an austere set. His income dropped by $800,000.

Liberace’s other love is restoring houses and filling them up. His mansions bulge with Baccarat crystal, gilt furniture, onyx tables dripping in gold leaf, baroque pianos, antique dinner services, miniature pianos and candelabras. Each room is designed and decorated by Liberace, who likes to sprinkle around what he calls “happy happies” –– outrageous statuary and hapless knickknacks that he salvages from the back rooms of antique shops. His taste could be described as purist: It runs from the purely authentic to the purely inauthentic. In the Hollywood mansion he sold last year, for instance, everything that looks like gold is real gold, while everything in his garden that looks like grass is green outdoor carpeting. “I love the fake,” he says.

To unburden himself of some of his less-favorite furniture, Liberace opened an “antique salon” in Hollywood called Liberace Interiors and Objets Art. But the enterprise failed because Liberace usually refused to sell the collectables. After five years of operating at a loss –– the maximum allowable by the IRS –– the salon closed. But not before Liberace had designed and patented the disappearing toilet, an innovation that rotates on an axis and folds neatly into a wall. “There’s just no reason why you should walk into a bathroom and see a toilet,” he says. “It’s unglamorous.”

Though it’s all great fun to Liberace, his lavish acquisitiveness also translates into good business sense. Excluding the millions that he has invested in costumes, jewelry, pianos, candelabras and antique cars – all tax deductible –– Liberace’s real-estate holdings are extensive enough to keep a realtor in business for years. In Las Vegas alone, Liberace owns the Versailles House, three condominiums, four model homes, a 20-store shopping center and, of course, the Liberace Museum. The Palm Springs mansion, which features a cloister garden with plastic flowers, is his other principal residence. He also owns an English Tudor house in Tahoe that he leases to the Sahara Hotel and a five-story office building in Los Angeles.

According to those around him, Liberace is as lavish with others as he is with himself –– a fact that has not gone unnoticed by hundreds of fortune seekers who write him each week requesting money for a sick relative or a piano for a son. “He spends 12 months a year Christmas shopping,” says Seymour Heller.

“So many people leave wills that provide for people after they’ve gone,” says Liberace. “I figure that if you intend to leave people something when you’re gone, why not do it when you’re living, so you can enjoy it with them.”

Indeed, everything Liberace touches seems to turn to gold, or at least gold plate. Each of his three books – a self-titled autobiography, The Things I Love and Liberace Cooks –– has sold 100,000 copies. This year, Liberace will work 26 weeks (about half of that in the Las Vegas Hilton’s Elvis Presley Room), and he’ll earn more than $6 million.

But he probably won’t be hard pressed to spend it.

In his Vegas show this year, Liberace shares the marquee with the Young Americans and Domenick Allen, a Seymour Heller discovery. Judging by a recent dinner show, the majority of Liberace’s audience are quiet pensioners –– the same bespectacled, over-40 crowd that made the pianist a phenomenon in the Fifties. This is a polite, not overly demonstrative group. “My kind of audience,” Liberace says. “I want to play so pianissimo you can hear them breathe.” And you can. Sighs turn into tears, a little laughter usually winds up as a cough or wheeze.

His stage entrance, in a Phantom V Rolls-Royce, produces muffled applause and a few oohs and ahs. Climbing out of the Rolls, his painted face a canvas of glee and delight, Liberace opens his arms to his audience and basks in their adoration. He introduces his chauffeur, Scott, a strapping blond who stands Adonis-like, puckering his lips and twinkling his soft blue eyes. “Isn’t he wunnerful?” Liberace says to more muted applause. Scott drives off and Liberace, talking nasally into a mirrored wireless microphone, tells the audience that the white virgin fox cape he is wearing was designed for one of his royal command performances. “The train is 10 feet long,” he gushes. “I hope you like it, because you paid for it.” He walks to the front of the stage to allow his fans to examine the diamond lining. Several hands reach up to stroke the fur. Then he spreads his fingers wide, displaying his candelabra and piano-shaped diamond rings. A valet appears, and Liberace introduces him. After shedding the cape, Liberace, now dressed in a spangled white tuxedo, sits down at a mirrored tile piano and introduces a bit of Chopin, minus the “dull stuff.” Then he rises and says, “Why don’t I go out and slip into something more spectacular?”

Liberace returns dressed in a purple velvet King George costume with gold epaulets. Sitting at a gold-leaf piano topped by a Louis XIV candelabra, Liberace delivers, as his brother George would say, “a thumbnail version” of Johann Strauss. As the virtuoso races his fingers across the keyboard with “some strange and invisible guidance,” the Dancing Waters –– colored fountains that squirt and sashay rhythmically in the background –– provide a visual coloratura reminiscent of Disney’s Fantasia.

After summing up Strauss, which requires just under eight minutes, Liberace changes into a red, black and white sequined suit. “Honestly, ladies and gentlemen, you’re just wunnerful,” he swoons. “You know, as long as it makes you happy to see the costumes, it makes me happy to wear them.”

He flees to the dressing room again, and this time emerges in a black diamond mink robe lined with Austrian rhinestones –– a 136-pound monstrosity that gave his former manservant a hernia. Flashing his glittery lining at the audience like a tired hooker, Liberace tells his dirty joke of the evening: “If I went streaking, Burt Reynolds would be jealous. I’ve got the diamonds, he’s got the jewels.” He sheds the cape and plays “Chopsticks,” a smattering of Gershwin and then joins a synthesizer in some disco music. After playing a polka, Liberace invites a fan onstage to dance with him. Janet, who’s from Kansas City, is wearing double-knit pants and a polka-dot blouse. She rises slowly and takes the steps to the stage one at a time. After a waltz with Janet, Liberace guides her to the piano, where he gives her a handkerchief with his image and autograph on it and two tickets to the Liberace Museum. Then he helps her down the steps.

Liberace plays “It’s Impossible” and “As Time Goes By” for a 70-year-old couple who have just married. He segues into a quick rundown of American rhythms, playing a boogie-woogie with not eight but sixteen to the bar, and winds up the show with “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

Liberace bows deeply to the applause. “Honestly, ladies and gentlemen,” he says, clasping his hands together, “you’re just wunnerful. Thank you so much. You make me so happy.”

Then the godsend walks to the wings of the stage and harnesses himself to a wire. When he reappears, he is floating like some sequined archangel, his arms and cape spread wide, his smile fairly exploding from his face. The wire sends him soaring in a great arc from one side of the stage to the other, then back again. As the curtain begins to fall, the wire pulls Liberace up and up –– into his piano-shaped heaven, perhaps, where he can play for the seraphs and cherubs and other heavenly hosts that inhabit his make-believe world. 

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