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Liberace's Last Agony : Ugly Battle Over Entertainer's Estate Strips His Life of Any of Its Final Secrets

August 19, 1988|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Question: Are you stating now that he left the party before it was over?

Answer: When Liberace leaves . . . the party is over. That is what I am saying.

--Dorothy McMahon, Liberace's maid, testifying about pianist's last Christmas.

Celebrity is to Las Vegas what steel is to Pittsburgh. Here in the kingdom of Wayne and Frank, a city of excessive light and hyperbole, entertainers are fed to the strip's neon maw and made over as celebrities, as living legends. Immortals.

Vegas immortality is of course relative and not necessarily forfeited upon death. On the 11th anniversary of his demise, Elvis still headlines at the Hilton, his act enlivened by a stable of impersonators of varying girth.

Liberace presents another case.

The man heralded here as Mr. Showmanship is gone, claimed Feb. 4, 1987, at age 67 by the complications of AIDS. But his celebrity lingers, along with about $18 million in assets. Certain portions of this legacy came to be the subject of a strange and bitter dispute this summer in Department 8, Circuit Court, Clark County, Nev.

Evolved Into Morbid Theater

Technically, the matter concerned a petition to remove Liberace's lawyer as trustee of his estate. What it evolved into, however, was morbid theater, an overwrought attempt to reevaluate after the fact, just what Liberace had intended for the fortune and fame he left behind. If ever a courtroom proceeding needed a channeler, this exercise in tabloid jurisprudence was it.

There was, in fact, testimony that Liberace was directing the court action from the grave. There also was exhaustive testimony about his last days, sketching him alternately as a man unable to speak in sentences or control bodily functions, and as a coherent if worn patient with wits enough to weigh complicated legal options.

There were allegations about missing jewels and gunplay, about promiscuity and plotting among the hired help. Tears flowed freely on the witness stand as everybody remembered "Lee."

And when it was all over, after 21 days of testimony spread out from May to mid-August, and countless more hours of wrangling among lawyers, the one who seemed to have lost the most was Liberace himself.

He had died vainly struggling to keep secret the nature of his illness, and by extension his sexual preference; by the time the last witness left the stand Monday, his privacy had been thoroughly ransacked.

The petition had been brought by Liberace's 74-year-old sister, Angie Liberace; his companion of seven years, Cary James; his longtime maid, Dorothy McMahon; his personal manager of nearly 38 years, Seymour Heller, and the elderly cook Liberace called "my black mother," Gladys Luckie. Their membership in the entourage that Liberace termed his family could hardly be questioned.

Motivation was another matter.

"This is my last fight for Liberace," said McMahon, who sometimes served as the entertainer's "date" at public occasions. "For what he wanted. For what I know he wanted."

An attorney for the defendant, Joel Strote, a Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer who had been Liberace's principal counsel for 17 years, offered another motive in closing arguments Tuesday:

"The plaintiffs lived a dream," Strote's attorney argued, "but now they cannot face reality. The want the court to change reality for them. . . . They want control. Control they never, ever, ever had in Mr. Liberace's lifetime, control he never chose to vest in them, control they now demand."

The plaintiffs presented Judge Michael J. Wendell with a rather pat narrative--too pat, he would rule in the end. In the final days of Liberace's life, their narrative went, the attorney Strote foisted upon the enfeebled entertainer a new estate plan.

The new plan did not alter to any surprising degree the benefactors or size of bequests designated in previous wills: For example, Liberace still left his sister more than $500,000. He still left the dogs he always called "my children" $50,000.

He left his companion, Cary James, $250,000 and two automobiles. He left his manager $60,000; his cook a house and a car, his maid $5,000.

And he left the bulk of his legacy, as he had in previous wills, to the Liberace Foundation, which awards musical scholarships and maintains the Liberace Museum in the Liberace Shopping Center here.

A Disneyland of Glitz

It had been Liberace's dream that his museum, shopping center and Tivoli Gardens restaurant would form the nucleus of a piano-shaped Liberace Park, a sort of Disneyland of glitz where visitors would admire his collection of antique cars and pianos, his furs, his sequined costumes and his rhinestone, said to be the largest in the world.

What bothered the plaintiffs most about the new estate plan was that it provided Strote with full control of Liberace's legacy.

Under the new plan--approved by Liberace 13 days before he died--Strote was named sole executor and trustee of the Liberace will and trusts, with power of attorney and authority over the use of Liberace's name and likeness.

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