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Liberace: Biography Of A Larger-Than-Life Man, With Lots Of Secrets

Icons | February 4, 2020

Portrait of flamboyant pianist Liberace. (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Flamboyant pianist Liberace had a story like no one else. As the highest-paid entertainer in the world at one point in time Liberace definitely lived it up. He had the most garish clothes, the biggest houses, and he lived one hell of a life.

Władziu Valentino Liberace, the pianist who made the whole world love classical music, and cried all the way to the bank, may have seemed like an alien from outer space, but he actually came from Wisconsin, of all places. This flashy and fabulous gentleman sashayed through the ’50s ‘60s and ‘70s, and even if you never saw him live you saw him charm the pants off the audience on television.

Liberace Wasn’t A Concert Pianist, He Was A Showman

source: pinterest

As a child prodigy born in Wisconsin, Liberace’s skill was fostered by his father, a musician himself, who wanted to make sure that his son was as good as he could be. He took lessons as a child and learned the classics, but rather that dutifully play them like every other concert pianist he decided to make the songs his own. In some cases he simplified the music, and when he felt that a song was too simple, he added his own touches. Audiences loved his performances but critics weren’t as kind.

After seeing Liberace at Carnegie Hall, critic Lewis Funke wrote that Liberace's music "must be served with all the available tricks, as loud as possible, as soft as possible, and as sentimental as possible. It's almost all showmanship topped by whipped cream and cherries." Another critic wrote “Liberace recreates—if that is the word—each composition in his own image. When it is too difficult, he simplifies it. When it is too simple, he complicates it.”

The Man Was A Social Butterfly

source: People

Aside from entertaining his millions of fans, the one thing that Liberace liked to do was hang out with his famous friends. He was close with stars like Lucille Ball and Bea Arthur, but he also knew John Steinbeck and Rip Taylor. According to everyone who knew him there wasn’t a greedy bone in his body in spite of the fact that he had millions and millions of dollars. The head of the Liberace Foundation told Closer, “He was always giving things away, even cars and houses.” That kindness likely comes from his Depression-era upbringing. When you grow up with nothing it’s easy to continue living that way even if you’re a millionaire.

Liberace Is The One Who Got Elvis To Dress Like He Did When He Got All Flashy

source: getty images

When Elvis Presley made his big comeback, he initially wore a lot of black leather, and while that looked cool he slowly started leaning into his flashy Vegas style. This wasn’t something that happened by chance. Elvis and Liberace shared a longtime friendship, and when the two were both performing in Sin City, Liberace bent the ear of the King to let him know that he needed to kick things up a notch. Richard Zogling, author of Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show explained:

Liberace was very supportive of Elvis, who learned something from him. Liberace had this over-the-top showmanship Elvis responded to. He started wearing gaudy gold suits the way Liberace did. Liberace said, ‘You need more glitz in your act,’ and that led to what Elvis became.

He Loved Real Estate

source: pinterest

The one thing that he loved as much as entertaining was real estate. He owned a series of homes in Southern California, and after fame brought him to England in 1970 he nearly purchased “Tower House,” a residence in London famous for its pronounced tower. After agreeing to buy the house he left the home without placing a down payment on the property. Irish actor Richard Harris swept in and placed an offer on the house, snatching it out from under the pianist’s nose.

Even without the Tower House in his portfolio, Liberace had a killer home. In 1953, he designed a piano themed home that featured a piano-shaped swimming pool, musical notes in the wrought iron fence, and ornamental pianos placed through the home.

He Sued A Newspaper For Calling Him Gay, And He Won

source: Hollywood Reporter

Even though Liberace was definitely gay, he wasn’t out while he was alive because it would have destroyed his career. When the Daily Mirror published an article about the performer in 1956 that hinted towards his sexuality he dropped the lawsuit hammer. The article described Liberace as:

…the summit of sex—the pinnacle of masculine, feminine and neuter. Everything that he, she and it can ever want… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love", a description which strongly implied that he was homosexual.

Liberace sued the paper for libel and testified that he was not a homosexual and that the description of his act as “fruit-flavored” nodded towards his sexuality. The performer won after a three week civil trial and he walked away with £8,000 (around $22,400) in damages (that’s about £182,800 or $196,500 today). After his win he told reporters “I cried all the way to the bank.”

His Former Partner Sued Him In The '80s

source: La Crosse Tribune

Decades after winning a lawsuit over his alleged sexuality he once again found himself in court. In 1982 his 22-year-old former chauffeur and alleged live-in lover of five years filed a $113 million palimony suit after Liberace fired him. Liberace’s former lover, Scott Thorson, faced an uphill battle in the suit, not only did the pianist have gobs of money at his disposal but he continued to insist that he was straight. In 1986 Liberace settled out of court and Thorson left with $75,000 in cash, three cars, and three dogs worth another $20,000. Thorson later said that he settled because his former lover was in failing health and that he didn’t want to keep battling. 

Liberace Passed Away After Contracting AIDS

source: Fox

After decades denying his sexuality Liberace was diagnosed as HIV positive in August 1985 by a private physician. The performer kept his ailment a secret and aside from a few of his close personal friends and lovers who were well aware that Liberace was dying. He kept his illness under wraps until the day he died, and never sought medical treatment. The only hint that the performer gave that he was on the way out was during a Good Morning America segment when he said, "How can you enjoy life if you don't have your health?”

On January 23, 1987, he was hospitalized for pneumonia at the Palm Springs County Hospital. He passed away from complications from AIDS on February 4 of the same year at his home in Palm Springs. He was 67 years old when he passed.

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.