Often considered the most popular entertainer of the 20th century--his extravagant performances set still-unchallenged attendance records--Liberace (dubbed "Mr. Showman" in tribute to his flashy theatricality) sued a London columnist in 1956 for implying he was gay. He won. At the same time, virtually everyone in gossipy gay bars knew that he was not only gay but very active in his homosexuality; and in his popular television and concert shows, he flaunted queeny ways, cultivated a purry lisp, donned glittery costumes. Still, even at the point of death, he refused to admit publicly that he was gay.
A pervasive atmosphere of homophobia in his time kept him in the closet, and today he is excoriated by an assertive faction of gay activists for staying there; they consider him a reprehensible reactionary and, in severest politically correct judgment, a stereotype.
In his intelligent biography of this complex man, Darden Asbury Pyron makes an unusual concession: "Insofar as the criticisms identified the entertainer as a womanish, lower-class, consumer sissy who corrupted art . . . I was not eager to justify, much less identify with, such a figure." His agent warned him against undertaking the biography: "What does a dead closeted queen performer . . . have to say to contemporary gay men?" Still, as Pyron persevered, his view altered: "I came to respect him, in some ways even to admire him. And . . . he never bored me." That dual point of view allows him to explore contrasting aspects of the star. Like the performer, he never bores.
Wladziu Valentino Liberace, born in West Allis, Wis., in 1919, made a spectacular entrance: The survivor of male twins, he appeared with a mysterious membrane veiling his head, a caul that, among Italian Polish Catholics of his ancestry, was believed to portend an exceptional life, perhaps genius. It certainly augured later dramatic entrances: He once swooped onstage strapped to wires, a rhinestone-spattered cape flying.
Classically trained, Liberace idolized Ignace Paderewski. At age 23, he soloed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and won praise. He shifted to more lucrative venues: supper clubs and television; he produced successful record albums. With eminently less success, he starred in two movies. John Rechy is the author of numerous books, including "City of Night" and "The Coming of the Night." He received the William Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature last year and PEN-USA-West's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. Hugely popular at his height as a concert entertainer, he broke attendance records at Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl and Radio City Music Hall. He dismissed disdainful critics by claiming, "I cried all the way to the bank."
Blessed or cursed with good-boy looks, Liberace fawned over his "Mom," often bringing her onstage, smiling her a toothy goodnight when she wasn't there. Middle-aged and older women adored him. He became every American apple-pie Mom's ideal son, the son who would never leave her, never find another woman as wonderful as she, and if he was gay--and didn't he deny it?--he would never embarrass her by coming out. (Pyron, who sweetly dedicates his book to his own mother, suspects incestuous yearnings among Liberace's female fans, but their adulation was much too benign for that.)
In private, Liberace could be notoriously assertive in his homosexuality. During a formal dinner, an attractive male (this modest reviewer), seated next to him by compliant hosts (anticipating a return favor, perhaps a gold-leafed "antique"), was startled by a hand wandering under the table long before dessert.
The performer was crafty. If tears were needed to achieve a seduction, he would cry, lamenting his starry isolation (a performance this reviewer had occasion to be exposed to when it was strategically staged in the star's Hollywood mansion while pampered, beribboned black and white poodles skittered about on black and white marble floors). If more tangible blandishments were required, he would extend them--jewels, a cottage in Palm Springs.
He was famously generous, lavishing gifts on friends and assistants. He would provide salaried positions in his entourage to former intimate companions. Still, his gifts could be grotesquely selfish. He paid for plastic surgery to be performed on longtime companion Scott Thorson, in order to make the young man look like him. (More likely, Thorson became a version of what Liberace would have wanted to look like when he was young: masculine, handsome.) The performer's generosity had strict limits. Those who violated his expectations were banished, as was Thorson, who, after exile, sued the star for palimony and won a meager out-of-court settlement.