The Liberace family tree

Władziu Valentino Liberace was born 100 years ago today. On this august occasion I commend to your attention the video below, Tony Palmer’s documentary about the colossally successful entertainer and genial anarch of taste which was filmed in 1972 and released three years later under the title The World of Liberace.

Many years ago, for reasons I am powerless to explain, I succumbed to a fascination with Liberace that bordered on obsession. In a box in Sydney, or on some lucky person’s bookshelf, there is a trove of Liberaceana that includes cookbooks, coffee table volumes of his interiors and the catalogue from the auction of his estate, an eye-popping collision of museum-quality antiques and… oddments. And by oddments I mean the trashiest dust magnets imaginable (yes thank you I will have an original Louis XV escritoire and a two-dollar cut-glass gewgaw that Lee picked up in an airport gift shop). These editions shared shelf space with books on Ludwig II’s castles, William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon and other fearless examples of performative excess. It wasn’t that I wished to inhabit all that post-taste abundance myself, I just found some indefinable solace in contemplating what it might look like. Since then I have been drawn to other similarly singular and profligate figures, and with time and distance it has become easier to recognise the elective affinities of ornament, profusion and tragedy that bind them, an exalted lineage of maximalist presentation constituting a Long Gilded Age.

As it happens, both Ludwig and Hearst turn up in The World of Liberace. Liberace had copies made of furniture and artwork from San Simeon; that is, copies of what was already a miscellany of uprooted European styles and epochs (in much the same spirit as Lee airily referring to one of his own bedrooms as “French Victorian”). And as the film captures Liberace tenderly frigging the shaft of a candelabra that once belonged to Ludwig II, we have left camp way, way behind us and are witness instead to the exalted communion of kindred sensibilities. Where the French Decadents, say, took literary inspiration from the Bavarian king, Liberace backed his rhinestone-encrusted Roadster up to Neuschwanstein and simply helped himself to the fittings.

Henry Cyril Paget

Outside we join Lee on the terrace overlooking Sunset Boulevard, and he proudly indicates the outdoor carpet and the hidden heaters (in your face, nature), evoking the free-spending Edwardian aristocrat performer Henry Cyril Paget, Marquess of Anglesey who had burning braziers dotted about his estate for his nocturnal strolls. Like Liberace, Paget owned furs by the rack, numerous dogs and a fleet of cars, although even Lee would probably have balked at scenting his car’s exhaust with perfume as the Marquess did. Paget spent a fortune on fleeting theatrical enchantments but never sought nor won widespread acclaim. The two men shared a fondness for jewelled costumes but where Liberace had a tireless work ethic Paget merely had entitlement, squandering his inheritance rather than labouring for his rewards. Exiled, almost bankrupt, he was still ordering big-ticket items on his death bed.

Magician The Great Lafayette died in a stage fire before Liberace was born – his charred corpse identified by his rings – but there are clear parallels. Like Liberace, Lafayette (born Sigmund Neuburger) was a hugely successful performer from an immigrant family, was known for his elaborate bejewelled costumes and frequent changing thereof and even drove a car on stage. His house in London was filled with antiques and shared with canine company.

The Great Lafayette

Liberace almost died for his art, or at least from it. The day John F. Kennedy was shot he had accidentally inhaled fumes from his newly dry-cleaned costumes and suffered kidney failure so acute he was given the last rites. Like Paget, his first (or last) instinct was to shop, although not for himself, instead spending lavishly on gifts for friends and family.

Although little-known outside his native Turkey, dog-loving singer Zeki Müren was probably the most direct legatee of Liberace’s visual presentation. He arguably went even further with his costumes, and in a far more conservative environment. He too met his end onstage; during a 1996 television special dedicated to his career in showbiz he was presented with the first microphone he ever used, a sentimental gesture that brought on a fatal heart attack. Less direct reflections of Liberace can be seen in the ruffly end of Carnaby Street, the immoderation of Elton John, the not-quite-drag of Sylvester, the trio of Prince, Madonna and to a lesser extent Michael Jackson c. 1985, Versace, hip hop bling and most recently Cardi B and her spangled piano.

Zeki Müren

One quaint insight from the film is how maladroit celebrities used to be before they became accustomed to constant surveillance. We watch a stilted Liberace fingering his organ, cooking lasagne, showing off his cars, introducing his numerous dogs. It’s difficult to dislike a man so devoted to his fur friends (conversely I’m about 20 pages into a door-stop biography of Stefan George and he’s already kicked a dog and frankly I don’t know if I can bear to spend another 800 pages in his company. Prick). We are privy to Liberace’s interiors which are as extraordinary as you would imagine; he wouldn’t so much buy and furnish a house as he would construct a Liberace theme park of which he was the sole patron. We also watch him working out new stage outfits with his comically staid costumier; for one black number they settle on black jewels, because “anything else would be ostentatious.” Heaven forbid.

This domestic portrait is intercut with concert footage. That includes a truly unexpected spoken-word anti-war mash-up of Pete Seeger and Dvořák  – and this was at the height of the Vietnam War. And remember that for all the stage patter and the occasional torch song, Liberace was in fact essentially a non-vocal soloist, one of the most successful of all time.

Of course as well as Liberace’s spiritual family he had an actual family. His pushy father was a musician who wanted Liberace and his brother to devote themselves to the classics rather than the ragtime and other popular styles to which they were increasingly drawn. Thankfully he was not as extreme in his discipline as, say, Lang Lang’s father who, when the nine-year-old budding pianist was dropped by his teacher, apparently proffered a bottle of pills and told him to kill himself.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski

But the most remarkable presentiment of Liberace’s destiny came through his beloved Polish-American mother. His middle name Valentino was testament to her love for the silent movie star, but even more significantly she had contact with the pianist, composer and Polish national hero Ignacy Jan Paderewski, whom Liberace met when he was eight. At the late 19th-century height of his fame Paderewski exerted an influence on audiences, particularly women, that was said to be demonic. Unsurprisingly Chopin was a great influence on Liberace as well, particularly the Hollywood version of the composer in the 1945 film A Song to Remember, which inspired Liberace’s trademark piano-top candelabra.

For some time this remained the only embellishment in his act, but soon Liberace added jewels to his evening wear, transgressing the swishy code of the time; a natty bow-tie and a fastidious manner were fine but discretion was all. In his utter disavowal of taste, restraint or proportion, Liberace offered little by way of plausible deniability, although he still stepped out with compliant beards. His true self was hiding behind the candelabra. And a candelabra really doesn’t conceal much.

In an age of plaintive acoustic authenticity, before irony became an obligatory element of the modern sophisticate’s personality, Liberace’s candied cascade of sentimental patter and syrupy fingering was naturally anathema. But earnest critique was tribute withheld in a currency that Liberace didn’t recognise anyway. As one of his mercilessly repeated lines put it – “I cried all the way to the bank”. The abiding impression of Liberace is of someone essentially warm, wise and good, his smile as much a trademark as the laugh of his friend Phyllis Diller, their habitual self-deprecation built on a bedrock of self-possession. They were both devotees of one of the first self-help authors, Claude M. Bristol. This, as much as the vast reach of network variety TV and the post-war rise of Las Vegas as an entertainment hub, was instrumental in Liberace’s success.

And – although this point is impossible to make without risking condescension – he introduced millions to classical music who were otherwise largely estranged from it. He never claimed to be Vladimir Horowitz, but then could Vladimir Horowitz play 16-to-the-bar boogie woogie? Would Alfred Brendel have tap-danced in plus-fours? Was Glenn Gould given to a high-kick in stars-and-stripes sequined shorts? Please, he’d catch his death. And it’s not like Liberace was doing the Goldberg Variations, instead the classical portion of his shows stuck largely to Romantic repertoire. Is it even possible to overdo Tchaikovsky at his most bombastic? And take Liberace’s beloved Chopin. Along with immortal works for the keyboard there are truly horrible moments, like the Étude no. 1 in C. It already sounds like an overblown parody of the dynamic range of Romanticism, so what’s to ruin? Liberace certainly knew which composers offered him the most wriggle room.

Liberace was – is – known for the devotion of his fans. Much of the snobbery attached to him was indirectly targeting his audience; the fact that women of a certain age adored him was tendered as proof of his mediocrity. It also offered critics the satisfaction of pointing out the apparent disconnect between Liberace’s evident sexuality and the love of his female audience. These women, they thought, just don’t get it. But of course they got it. They just didn’t care.

His appeal was a fusion of attraction and identification. On the one hand he inhabited the role of the walker – the fragrant, presentable bachelor companion for older wealthy women to take to their sickle cell anaemia awareness charity canapé receptions who would be guaranteed not to try any funny stuff once the bellinis had kicked in. But in another sense he offered a form of aspirational womanhood, proudly displaying his housewifely accomplishments in décor, cuisine and fashion, kvetching about his yo-yoing weight and showing off his accessories with just the right measure of ribaldry. “It’s nice to have a big one if you have the choice,” he tells one audience member as she admires his ring. For one piece of audience participation he divides up the women and the men, adding “I hope I didn’t leave anybody out”. It’s camp, it’s winky – it’s generous.

Of course it wasn’t the stage or his costumes that claimed Liberace. In one of his last television appearances, a gaunt Liberace regaled Oprah at length about the loss of his virginity (to a woman). And if he wasn’t going to come out to Oprah he was never going to come out. Compare this with the divine, indomitable Sylvester, telling Joan Rivers about his husband and later, close to death and no longer able to walk, taking part in the 1988 San Francisco Pride parade from a wheelchair.

Liberace was one of the first major celebrities to die of an AIDS-related illness after Rock Hudson, who came out before the end. But Liberace never did. In part this was understandable, smarting as he still was from one of the first high-profile palimony cases, brought by his ex-lover and nominal chauffeur Scott Thorson, who shared the experience in his book Behind the Candelabra (source of Steven Soderbergh’s excellent film). And of course we can never forget how vicious much of the media and government were in the early years of the AIDS crisis. But this dogged denial of the self-evident truth seems sad, a refusal to extend to his core self the generosity he had so often lavished on others. He was still hiding behind the candelabra.

But all this is in the distant future as you journey to a happier time, to a friendlier place, to The World of Liberace. Buckle up!

(click here if you don’t see the video embedded)

Update:

How could I have forgotten to include my adoptive country’s own Harald Glööckler, a fashion designer whose extensive range of non-fashion branded products includes bed linen, laminate floorboards, dog accessories, wallpaper and his own edition of the Martin Luther Bible (with 3D cover)?

19 comments

  1. I was so glad to see Ryan Murphy’s homage to Liberace at this year’s Met Gala. I had been thinking that the evening would have gone seriously astray without some reference to Lee, quite arguably the King–and Queen–of 20th-Century Camp (American division).

    Thanks for the warning re: the Stefan George book, btw. I have zero tolerance for any kind of animal cruelty, and sit in pointed silent judgment on people who do not have companion animals. (Is it any surprise that the current occupant of the White House has no pets? No, not really.)

    a refusal to extend to his core self the generosity he had so often lavished on others

    Such a typically deft, insightful turn of phrase. 🙂

  2. James this is delicious. Check out my Camp show screed. Romaine would have turned up her nose at all the celebrating pretenders but Libarace was an musical phenomenon so she might have given him a pass.

  3. This is pure gold. I am stopping everything to watch the Tony Palmer film. Thank you!

  4. Elouise M Payne

    I just watched the opening of the film –and then put a YT video of Liberace in one of his 50’s tv show. He oh so elegantly introduced the piece he was to perform-Claire de Lune and proceeded to appear as a concert pianist. I never watched any of his shows later on when to ‘flamboyance’ became a part of the act-he seemed to become another person–so it is difficult to reconcile the man in the drum majorette ? costume to the man in white tie tux. think in time I will watch the film-he seemed to be able to laugh at himself so I will keep that in mind.

  5. This post makes me happier than I can say!

  6. My Mississippi grandmother loved the Lawrence Welk show and Liberace. As a child, I so remember watching her face become literally entranced as she watched Liberace play and was delighted by his ad libs. He really did bring JOY to so many people. Re: Stefan George – kicking a dog or abusing any animal is an absolute dealbreaker!.Thanks for the heads-up on that one AND the whole of the Liberace post. Made my day.

  7. William

    Wonderful piece James. I’m not a Liberace family member, suffering as I do from an excess of minimalism, but did quite enjoy Behind the Candelabra, and now with your work here I feel like I have gained a friend.

  8. Thaddeus J Reycraft

    Loved this. Your style and flourish. You’re kind, witty, biting, revealing, camp, astute and funny. Thanks. I enjoy reading your work. Thanks.

  9. A brilliant essay! I’d add that Cardi B didn’t just use a Liberace styled piano. She used Liberace’s actual crystal piano, on which he performed at Radio City before she was born. When hip hop started name checking Liberace, Cardi B was a little girl. She footed the bill for the piano’s restoration, along with Chloe Flower, the Juliard phenom who stole the show playing it that night.

    I hope you will all visit us at Liberace’s collections and the museum of his influence, again available to view in Las Vegas.

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