"We've had a bit of a tragedy," he says, his breaking voice at nearly a whisper. "Domenick Allen, my supporting act...I knew something was wrong in the second show, when he sang 'Smile, though your heart is breaking.' Right at that line I just had to stop playing. Somehow the normal accompaniment wouldn't work. After the show I was having a drink in my dressing room, and my manager came in and said, 'Lee, we need you for a minute—Domenick has a problem.' Well, there was Domenick crying and his girlfriend Kathy was crying and then they told me what had happened and I started crying. It seems that when they came home the night before they opened the bathroom door and she was hanging from a doorpull. She had caught her little collar on it and broken her neck." The "she" of the story is a Yorkshire terrier named Sushi, now deceased.
Days and weeks pass before his visitor can quite reconcile the stunning bathos of this scene with the Liberace of renown: the jewel-encrusted, oddly embarrassing showman judged to be a prodigy of stagecraft by his fans and show critics, but by others to be flagrantly offensive, a musical subversive and a kind of Mom-ist turncoat in the battle of the sexes. The wish to know what Liberace is really like, indeed, comes to fewer people with each passing year; in his heyday, when The Liberace Show was carried by more U.S. television stations than I Love Lucy, the baby boom was barely crawling. Yet even now on Liberace nights from Dayton, Ohio to Norman, Okla., cars and pickups with the mud of the farm on them roll into town in droves, like moths to his candelabrum, and American mothers still drag their muttering husbands to his act and find it thrilling. With his raunchy drum majorette's wardrobe, his impress-your-friends-at-parties piano style and dimples you could lose your car keys in, he remains unique, an American exotic.
He has realized the dreams of a most common man. His Las Vegas act, concert tours and records (60 million sold to date) have brought him an average gross income of $5 million for each of the last 30 years, and he has worked his bejeweled tails off to make it so. In his portfolio are many mansions (three in Las Vegas alone), pianos (18 at latest count, including Chopin's and Gershwin's), cars (20, two of them Rollses), gems (he wears about $3 million worth onstage and has one $35,000 Tiffany watch that plays his theme song, I'll Be Seeing You), furs (including a $150,000 black diamond mink coat lined with Austrian rhinestones), antiques (don't ask) and real estate. At the Liberace Plaza in Las Vegas there is now a Liberace Museum and a Liberace antiques store to take the spillover from a way of life that makes Kenny Rogers' look positively restrained. All this from leaving the classical piano repertoire for what he has called "the happiness side of music," by which he means the Beer Barrel Polka and a six-minute version of the Warsaw Concerto. "People say I'm prostituting myself by not sticking to the classics," he told a reporter in 1951. "But there's more money in being commercial."
Despite everything, it is difficult not to like Liberace. He has become a more interesting man with age, and far more open about himself. In 1959, at his celebrated libel trial in London, he answered the offending columnist's innuendos with a round denunciation of homosexuality: "I'm against the practice because it offends society." (He won the suit.) Now he frankly admits the gay drift of his show and speaks sympathetically of all sexual preferences. "My act is just that far away from being drag," he says, "but I would never come onstage like, say, Danny La Rue [a comic female impersonator], who is a very dear friend of mine. I have a general family audience appeal, and I don't want to develop only a gay following. It's going to take many, many years for this kind of an audience to accept people who are totally gay or come out on Johnny Carson. I've seen careers hurt by that kind of thing—look at Billie Jean King. But with a name like Liberace, which stands for freedom, anything that has the letters L-I-B in it I'm for, and that includes gay lib."
As the facade lifts, a man of contradictions emerges. The thousand-megawatt smile he turns on for his show and for fans who come backstage to meet him goes to flat zero when he turns away; his face in these unmarked moments is grave and lonely, inaccessible as a frightened child's. He has a large, devoted following whose affection plainly moves him, but in his private life, says one longtime associate, "The only people he's really close to are the people who work for him, the ones on his payroll." He has acquired some of the world's most treasured antiques (a priceless table of solid Baccarat crystal made for a 19th-century maharajah, for example), but he sometimes shows remarkably bad taste. His older sister, Angelina Farrell, who has come to visit him from her home in Stockton, Calif., sits in his living room and shakes her head at "this glitter gulch, all these dust collectors." She waves dismissively at a clutter of what Liberace calls his "happy-nappies" on an elaborate Venetian coffee table; the gesture is reflected in a wall of mirrors etched with Beardsley drawings.
"This is his dream world," Angie observes. "All these things. It's because we were so poor. You wouldn't believe all the stuff he bought mother and me, all the minks and rocks and dresses hanging in the closet with the tags still on them. He even bought our shoes, for God's sake. We didn't shop for ourselves for years. He wanted us all to live together, like Mother Hubbard. He wanted to make a world of the past. He's so unlike the rest of us, really. I think he belongs in another century. He doesn't much care for the real world, you know."
The childhood of Wladziu Valentino Liberace was neither normal nor entirely happy. The oldest photograph in the Liberace Museum shows him at home in Milwaukee in 1921, age 2, wearing a knickered jump suit and high-top shoes. He was very large at birth—more than 13 pounds, his sister recalls, disclosing in a conspiratorial sotto voce that a twin, emaciated, was born dead: "My brother had taken all the vitality, you see." Despite his initial bulk, young Walter, the third of four children, was frail and chronically ill, sustained mainly by a robust fantasy life. He and Angie whiled away countless hours with pretend games, and made costumes from odd bits of found fabrics, beads and feathers. For Walter the play had a special gravity; one day he braved certain ridicule to wear his brother George's old band uniform to school. "He just knew he was going to be a star," says Angie, "and he was damned well going to dress like one."
Also in the Liberace Museum, by itself in a glass case, is the French horn that belonged to his father, an Italian immigrant and classically trained musician. Put out of a job in Milwaukee's Alhambra Theater orchestra by the "talkies," Salvatore Liberace would eventually win a chair in the Milwaukee Philharmonic. But during the Depression he often chose unemployment over jobs playing "that popular garbage" with dance bands. To make ends meet, the children did odd jobs and their mother, Frances, worked days in a cookie factory and embroidered hosiery at night.
Salvatore Liberace was a distant, chastening figure to his son Walter; he took pride in his son's prodigious musical talent, but it was expressed mainly in harsh discipline. His deepest scorn came when, during practice time, Walter's restive, infallible ear tempted him to pick out some popular melody he had heard. "My father was a narrow-minded musical purist," Liberace says. "He didn't approve."
The conflict only deepened as popular music helped Walter out of his social isolation. "I started playing for silent movies when I was about 11," he remembers. "Pretty soon the kids weren't watching the movies at all—they were making requests. So I'd play Sweet Jennie Lee for them, and I found it made me popular. Sometimes I'd go back to classics, but the kids would get bored. When I told my teacher about it, she said, 'Don't give it to them in big doses—just a little at a time.' That's when I started my Reader's Digest versions of concertos, and learned about keeping the audience's attention—by trying to make friends."
The Depression brought new imperatives. By his early teens he was paying family bills with piano jobs in dance bands, speakeasies and stag shows. Arrested twice in police raids but released because of his age, he continued to defy his father's wrath by going back to work. Desperate, his father asked the high school principal to forbid it, but Frances Liberace intervened. "I was basically supporting the family by then," Liberace explains.
Some time later he asked his father to a concert. "He said he had a rehearsal and couldn't go," Liberace recounts. "But he was there that night, sitting two rows ahead of me with a woman I knew, a cellist in the Milwaukee symphony. It turned out she had been his mistress for years. I was terribly, terribly hurt." Not long after that his parents divorced, and Walter Liberace became "Walter Buster-keys," banging out honky-tonk nightly at the Wunderbar, a small club in Wausau, Wis.
The option of a concert career was still open to him then; indeed, Walter Liberace was luckier than most piano students. For 17 years, starting at the age of 7, the Wisconsin College of Music put him on full scholarship to study with Florence Bettray-Kelly, a former pupil of the legendary virtuoso Moriz Rosenthal. At 17, Liberace made his debut recital in Milwaukee before the Society of Musical Arts, and three years later he took time off from the Wunderbar for a chance to play the Liszt A Major Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. What seems to him now the turning point came at about the same time, at the end of a recital in La Crosse, Wis., when he playfully obliged a request from the audience for Three Little Fishies as an encore. That slight but titillating breach of highbrow convention brought him an accolade he would find increasingly addictive: He got his name in the papers.
The heady years of his greatest success now seem a distant blur, but certain images stand out: the massive traffic jam the night he set the Hollywood Bowl's box office record in 1952; the show in which he sang Ave Maria to a woman in an iron lung; the riotous mob that greeted him on his arrival in London in 1956; the piano-shaped pool at the house he shared with his mother; his mother, in white mink and diamonds and dime store glasses. Liberace's celebrity then could not be overstated. He was TV's first matinee idol, inspiring the same mania among his fans as his middle-namesake. Women threw themselves at him, baked him cakes, knitted socks for him with little pianos on them, and in 1953 sent him 27,000 valentines. The Liberace Museum is filled with evidence of the frenzy: a tiny piano made with 10,000 toothpicks by a fan in Florida, for example, and a Madonna
of beads painstakingly pieced together by a woman who had lost the use of her hands in a car accident. "It could have been the exercise that cured her," says the conductor of this tour, "but there might be something mystical involved."
Such vague hints that there is Something Special about Liberace are dropped liberally by those around him, in stories about airplanes he kept his entourage from boarding which later crashed, and about lame fans who walked after a meeting with him backstage. But Liberace is no churchgoer, and in his press kit gospel, what might be considered the First Sign was not from God but from Paderewski, Liberace's lifelong idol. Backstage after a concert he gave in Milwaukee, so the story goes, the old virtuoso was so impressed by Frances Liberace's pitch for her son's playing that, placing his hand on the boy's head in benediction, he was moved to the verge of prophecy: "Someday this boy may take my place."
Liberace proved an entirely rightful heir to Paderewski, whose self-indulgent, showy playing would be frowned upon by any reputable music school today. But Paderewski excelled in filling houses, and he capitalized on his fame by moving into show business and politics. Paderewski had shrewdly advised young Walter to drop all his names from the marquee but "Liberace," which he did in the early '40s, but otherwise Liberace was way ahead of his mentor in the art of self-promotion, recruiting such gimmicks as the candelabra, the jewelry and the wardrobe, whose annual unveilings came to be awaited as avidly as new car models. In the lulls he stirred up controversies, got pummeled in the press, and cried all the way to the bank. "Those adverse reactions," he says, "sell tickets. Especially among people who have avoided me, there is a strange sort of curiosity about me after all these years, and sooner or later that curiosity gets the better of them. I'm businessman enough to know that, and I've fed on it from the beginning of my career."
Only once, in 1958, awash in syndicated reruns and other signs of overexposure, he boldly shed all the trappings for a clean-cut, no-frills look. His hair was cropped short and his wardrobe changed to button-down shirts and Brooks Brothers suits. The experiment nearly ruined him. His concert bookings took a dive, and his annual gross was halved. He learned his lesson.
In 1971, while antiwarriors of the counterculture went to jail for costuming themselves in the American flag and thus defiling it, Liberace went on a tour of macho Australia with a surefire new piece of business: He made his entrance twirling a baton, in a pair of jeweled, star-spangled red-white-and-blue hot pants.
For the last several years Liberace has considered his home to be Las Vegas, an urban frontier on the killing desert made habitable only by the full defensive array of human artifices. Here the false front is exalted as a sign of sanctuary, a place of safety.
Liberace's presence in the city is more felt than observed. He keeps his entourage small and close about him, and he entertains at home. His current passions include a line of artificial flowers to be sold under his name and "Liberace's Tivoli Gardens," a new restaurant opening in the Liberace Plaza. In the next 12 months, if past performance holds, he will do some 300 concerts in 25 cities from North Tonawanda, N.Y. to San Jose. Everywhere they will give him parties, and he will enjoy virtually none of them. "I become introverted offstage," he says. "Onstage I'm in command. Offstage I'm not too sure. At parties I seek out a corner and wait for people to come up to me. I just feel like I have nothing to back me up—no costumes, you know, no music, no rings. I just get very quiet."
He blames his distrust for the fact that he never settled down. "Sometimes, unfairly, I would put stumbling blocks on associations I developed just to test whether it was me they really loved or just the glamour of my profession. Invariably they failed the test, and I cut it off. I finally realized that I really couldn't tie myself down to a commitment that could never change because I'm too generous with my feelings. For instance, you'd think one dog would be enough, but as you can see I have to have 26." He keeps 17 of them with him at his house in Las Vegas. "I just can't confine my feelings to one person, you know what I mean?"
And so he courts the multitudes with patented props and wiles, every new crowd a first date. Offstage only his dogs ask nothing of him by way of paychecks or songs or big dimpled smiles. In the desert, a dog's death can assume the burden of all sorrows. In such a world the stage is a good place to hide, and perhaps the only place quite safe to feel really alive.
He appears at the entrance to his wantonly overdecorated living room in Las Vegas as one who has just awakened from a nightmare. His eyes, red and unfocused, convey the haunted look of a man who might never sleep again. Visibly shaking, he sinks into an overstuffed sofa beside his visitor and tries to light a cigarette.