It’s All Wunnerful for Liberace
“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.