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Name at BirthWładziu Valentino Liberace
BornMay 16, 1919
BirthplaceWest Allis, Wisconsin, United States
DiedFebruary 4, 1987 (aged 67)
Place of deathPalm Springs, California, U.S.
OccupationPianist, entertainer, actor

Władziu Valentino Liberace He was informally known as "Lee" to his friends and "Walter" to his family[1] (May 16, 1919 – February 4, 1987), known as Liberace, was an American pianist and entertainer.

A child prodigy and the first generation son of working class immigrants, Liberace's career spanned four decades of concerts, recordings, television, motion pictures, and endorsements. At the height of his fame from the 1950s to the 1970s, Liberace was the highest-paid entertainer in the world,[2] with established residencies in Las Vegas, and an international touring schedule. Liberace embraced a lifestyle of flamboyant excess both on and off stage, acquiring the sobriquet "Mr. Showmanship". Liberace was recognized during his career with two Emmy Awards, six gold albums and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Throughout his career, Liberace publicly denied his homosexual orientation and successfully sued both The Daily Mirror newspaper and Confidential magazine, who reported some of his gay relationships, winning damages and legal fees. Toward the end of his life, his former chauffeur and lover, Scott Thorson, unsuccessfully sued him for palimony, slander and conversion of property. Liberace also released a book on his life, and performed 21 sold out shows at Radio City Music Hall which set box office records a few months before his death in Palm Springs, California on February 4, 1987. Liberace's death remains controversial because there had been rumors prior to his death that he had contracted HIV, which his management, publicist, friends, and even Liberace himself had vehemently denied. Against the wishes of his estate, the Riverside County coroner ordered an official autopsy and determined that Liberace had died of an AIDS-related illness, making him the second major celebrity after Rock Hudson to officially succumb to the illness during the early days of media frenzy surrounding the disease.

Worth over $110 million at the time of his death, Liberace bequeathed the bulk of his estate to his scholarship foundation, but his official museum closed its doors in 2010 due to an economic downturn. In November 2013, a few dozen of his famous costumes and cars went on display for a six-week period at the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas in an exhibition titled "Too Much of a Good Thing Is Wonderful", Liberace's unofficial motto, and an often-used one liner from his act.

Early life

Liberace (known as "Lee" to his friends and "Walter" to family)[1] was born in West Allis, Wisconsin. His father, Salvatore ("Sam") Liberace (December 9, 1885 – April 1, 1977), was an immigrant from Formia, Italy. His mother, Frances Zuchowska (August 31, 1892 – November 1, 1980), was of Polish descent.[3] Liberace had a twin sibling who died at birth. Liberace was born with a caul which, in some cultures, is considered indicative of genius, good luck, or the promise of a prosperous future.[4] Sam played the French horn in bands and movie theaters but often worked as a factory worker or laborer. While Sam encouraged music in his family, his wife, Frances, believed music lessons and a record player to be unaffordable luxuries. This caused family disputes.[5] Liberace later stated, "My dad's love and respect for music created in him a deep determination to give as his legacy to the world, a family of musicians dedicated to the advancement of the art".[6]

Liberace began playing the piano at age four. While Sam took his children to concerts to further expose them to music, he was also a taskmaster demanding high standards from the children in both practice and performance. Liberace's prodigious talent was evident from his early years. By age seven, he was capable of memorizing difficult pieces. He studied the technique of the famous Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski. At age eight, he met Paderewski backstage after a concert at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. "I was intoxicated by the joy I got from the great virtuoso's playing. My dreams were filled with fantasies of following his footsteps…Inspired and fired with ambition, I began to practice with a fervor that made my previous interest in the piano look like neglect". Paderewski later became a family friend.[7]

The Great Depression was financially hard on the Liberace family. In childhood, Liberace suffered from a speech impediment and as a teen from the taunts of neighborhood children who mocked his avoidance of sports and his fondness for cooking and the piano.[8] Liberace concentrated on his piano playing and became prodigious with the instruction of music teacher Florence Kelly. Kelly oversaw Liberace's musical development for ten years. He gained experience playing popular music in theaters, on local radio, for dancing classes, for clubs, and for weddings. In 1934, he played jazz piano with a school group called "The Mixers" and later with other groups. Liberace also performed in cabarets and strip clubs. Even though Sam and Frances did not approve, their son was earning a tidy living during hard times. For a while, Liberace adopted the stage name "Walter Busterkeys".[9] He also showed an interest in draftsmanship, design, and painting and became a fastidious dresser and follower of fashion. By this time, he was already displaying a penchant for eccentricities into attention-getting practices and earned popularity at school, despite some making him an object of ridicule.[10]

Early career

A participant in a formal classical music competition in 1937, Liberace was praised for his "flair and showmanship".[11] At the end of a traditional classical concert in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1939, Liberace played his first requested encore, the popular comedy song "Three Little Fishies". He later stated that he played the popular tune in the styles of several different classical composers.[12] The 20-year-old played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on January 15, 1940, at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, performing Franz Liszt's Second Piano Concerto under the baton of Hans Lange, for which he received strong reviews. He also toured in the Midwest.

Between 1942 and 1944, Liberace moved away from straight classical performance and reinvented his act to one featuring "pop with a bit of classics" or as he also called it "classical music with the boring parts left out". In the early 1940s, he struggled in New York City but by the mid- and late-1940s, he was performing in night clubs in major cities around the United States, largely abandoning the classical music altogether. He changed from a classical pianist to an entertainer and showman, unpredictably and whimsically mixing the serious with light fare, e.g., Chopin with "Home on the Range".[13] For a while, he played piano along with a phonograph record player on stage. The gimmick helped gain him attention. He also added interaction with the audience—taking requests, talking with the patrons, making jokes, giving lessons to chosen audience members. He also began to pay greater attention to such details as staging, lighting, and presentation. The transformation to entertainer was driven by Liberace's desire to connect directly with his audiences, and secondarily from the reality of the difficult competition in the classical piano world.

In 1943, he began to appear in "Soundies" (the 1940s precursor to music videos). He re-created two flashy numbers from his nightclub act, "Tiger Rag" and "Twelfth Street Rag". In these films he was billed as Walter Liberace. Both "Soundies" were later released to the home-movie market by Castle Films. In 1944, he made his first appearances in Las Vegas, which later became his principal venue. He was playing at the best clubs, finally appearing at the celebrated Persian Room in 1945, with Variety (magazine) proclaiming, "Liberace looks like a cross between Cary Grant and Robert Alda. He has an effective manner, attractive hands which he spotlights properly and, withal, rings the bell in the dramatically lighted, well-presented, showmanly routine. He should snowball into box office". The Chicago Times was similarly impressed: He "made like Chopin one minute and then turns on a Chico Marx bit the next".[14]

During this time, Liberace worked to refine his act. He added the candelabrum as his trademark, inspired by a similar prop in the 1945 film A Song to Remember.[15] He adopted "Liberace" as his stage name, making a point in press releases that it was pronounced "Liber-Ah-chee".[16] He wore white tie and tails for better visibility in large halls. Besides clubs and occasional work as an accompanist and rehearsal pianist, Liberace played for private parties, including those at the Park Avenue home of millionaire oilman J. Paul Getty. By 1947, he was billing himself as "Liberace—the most amazing piano virtuoso of the present day".[17] He had to have a piano to match his growing presence, so he bought a rare, over-sized, gold-leafed Blüthner Grand, which he hyped up in his press kit as a "priceless piano".[18] (Later, he performed with an array of extravagant, custom-decorated pianos, some encrusted with rhinestones and mirrors.) He moved to the Los Angeles neighborhood of North Hollywood in 1947 and was performing at local clubs, such as Ciro's and The Mocambo, for stars such as Rosalind Russell, Clark Gable, Gloria Swanson, and Shirley Temple. He did not always play to packed rooms, and he learned to perform with extra energy to thinner crowds, to maintain his own enthusiasm.[19]

Liberace created a very successful publicity machine which helped rocket him to stardom. In 1950 he performed for music-loving President Harry S. Truman in the East Room of the White House. Despite his success in the supper-club circuit, where he was often an intermission act, his ambition was to reach larger audiences as a headliner and a television, movie, and recording star. Liberace began to expand his act and made it more extravagant, with more costumes and a larger supporting cast. His large-scale Las Vegas act became his hallmark, expanding his fan base, and making him wealthy.

His New York City performance at Madison Square Garden in 1954, which earned him a record $138,000 for one performance, was more successful than the great triumph his idol Paderewski had made twenty years earlier.[20] By 1955, he was making $50,000 per week at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and had over 200 official fan clubs with a quarter of a million member fans.[21] He was making over $1 million per year from public appearances, and millions from television.[20] Liberace was frequently covered by the major magazines and he became a pop culture superstar, but he also became the butt of jokes by comedians and the public.

Liberace appeared on the 8 March 1956 episode of the TV quiz program You Bet Your Life hosted by Groucho Marx.[22]

Music critics were generally harsh in their assessment of his piano playing. Critic Lewis Funke wrote after the Carnegie Hall concert, 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." Even worse was his lack of reverence and fealty to the great composers. "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". His sloppy technique included "slackness of rhythms, wrong tempos, distorted phrasing, an excess of prettification and sentimentality, a failure to stick to what the composer has written".[23]

Liberace once stated, "I don't give concerts, I put on a show."[24] Unlike the concerts of classical pianists which normally ended with applause and a retreat off-stage, Liberace's shows ended with the public invited on-stage to touch his clothes, piano, jewelry, and hands. Kisses, handshakes, hugs, and caresses usually followed.[25] A critic summed up his appeal near the end of Liberace's life: "Mr. Showmanship has another more potent, drawing power to his show: the warm and wonderful way he works his audience. Surprisingly enough, behind all the glitz glitter, the corny false modesty and the shy smile, Liberace exudes a love that is returned to him a thousand-fold."[26]

Liberace was a conservative in his politics and faith, eschewing dissidents and rebels. He believed fervently in capitalism and was also fascinated with royalty, ceremony, and luxury. He loved to hobnob with the rich and famous, acting as starstruck with presidents and kings as his fans behaved with him. Yet to his fans, he was still one of them, a Midwesterner who had earned his success through hard work—and who invited them to enjoy it with him.[27]

In the next phase of his life, having earned sudden wealth, Liberace spent lavishly—incorporating materialism into his life and his act. He designed and built his first celebrity house in 1953, with a piano theme appearing throughout, including a piano-shaped swimming pool. His dream home, with its lavish furnishings, elaborate bath, and antiques throughout, added to his appeal. He leveraged his fame through hundreds of promotional tie-ins with banks, insurance companies, automobile companies, food companies—even morticians. Liberace was considered a perfect pitchman, given his folksy connection with his vast audience of housewives. Sponsors sent him complimentary products, including his white Cadillac limousine, and he reciprocated enthusiastically; "If I am selling tuna fish, I believe in tuna fish."[28]

The critics had a field day with his gimmicky act, his showy but careful piano playing, his non-stop promotions, and his gaudy display of success, but he always had the last laugh, as preserved by the famous quotation, first recorded in a letter to a critic, "Thank you for your very amusing review. After reading it, in fact, my brother George and I laughed all the way to the bank."[29] He used a similar response to subsequent poor reviews, famously modifying it to "I cried all the way to the bank."[30] In an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson some years later, Liberace re-ran the anecdote to Johnny Carson, and finished it by saying, "I don't cry all the way to the bank any more – I bought the bank!"

Lawsuits and allegations of homosexuality

Liberace's fame in the United States was matched for a time in the United Kingdom. In 1956, an article in the Daily Mirror by columnist Cassandra (William Connor)[31] 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-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love", a description which strongly implied that he was homosexual without actually saying so explicitly.[32]

Liberace sent a telegram that read: "What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank."[30] (this phrase was already in use by the 1940s)[30] He sued the newspaper for libel,[33] testifying in a London court that he was not a homosexual and that he had never taken part in homosexual acts. He won the suit, partly on the basis of Connor's use of the derogatory expression "fruit-flavoured". The case partly hinged on whether Connor knew that 'fruit' was American slang implying that an individual is a homosexual.[34] The £8,000 damages he received from the Daily Mirror led Liberace to repeat the catchphrase to reporters: "I cried all the way to the bank!"[35] Liberace's popularization of the phrase inspired the title of Crying All the Way to the Bank, a detailed report of the trial based on transcripts, court reports and interviews, by the former Daily Mirror journalist Revel Barker.

Liberace fought and settled a similar case in the United States against Confidential. Rumors and gossip magazines frequently implied that he was gay. A typical issue of Confidential in 1957 shouted, "Why Liberace's Theme Song Should Be 'Mad About the Boy!'"[36]

In 1982, Scott Thorson, Liberace's 22-year old former chauffeur and live-in lover of five years, sued the pianist for $113 million in palimony after he was let go by Liberace.[37] Liberace continued publicly to deny that he was homosexual and he insisted that Thorson was never his lover. The case was settled out of court in 1986, with Thorson receiving a $75,000 settlement, plus three cars and three pet dogs worth another $20,000.[37] Thorson stated after Liberace's death that he settled because he knew that Liberace was dying, and that he had intended to sue based on conversion of property rather than palimony. He attested that Liberace was a "boring guy" in his private life and mostly preferred to spend his free time cooking, decorating, and playing with his dogs and also that he didn't play piano outside of his public performances. "He had several decorated, ornamental pianos in the various rooms of his house, but he never played them." Thorson also remarked that he was not aware that Liberace had had any health issues prior to contracting AIDS and that "He was in overall excellent shape for his age; barrel-chested and powerfully-built."[38] In 1986, during one of his last interviews, Liberace indirectly acknowledged his illness with AIDS by remarking "How can you enjoy life if you don't have your health?"

Because Liberace never publicly acknowledged that he was gay, confusion over his true sexuality was further muddled in the public's mind by his public friendships and his romantic links with women.[39] He further obscured his sexuality in articles like "Mature Women Are Best: TV's Top Pianist Reveals What Kind of Woman He'd Marry."[40]

In a 2011 interview, actress and close friend Betty White stated that Liberace was, indeed, gay and that she often served as a "beard" to counter rumors of the musician's homosexuality.[41]

Later years and death

Liberace died of cytomegalovirus (CMV) pneumonia[42] as a result of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome AIDS on February 4, 1987, at his winter home in Palm Springs, California.[43] He was 67 years old. A devout Roman Catholic to the end, he had a priest administer the last rites to him. The original cause of death was attributed variously to anemia, emphysema, and heart disease, the latter of which was attested to by Liberace's personal physician, Dr. Ronald Daniels.[44] The Riverside County coroner conducting the autopsy stated there had been a deliberate attempt to hide the actual cause of death. The postmortem discovered that he had emphysema and coronary artery disease from years of chain smoking, but the cause of death was pneumonia due to complications from the HIV virus.[42][44] How and when Liberace became HIV positive has never been made public. Author Darden Asbury Pyron writes that Liberace had been "HIV-positive and symptomatic" from 1985 until his death.[45]

Liberace's body is entombed at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.[46][47] In 1994, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.[48]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Barker, 2009, p. 12.
  2. Barker, 2009, p. 367.
  3. Ancestry of Liberace.
  4. Pyron, 2000, p. 1.
  5. Pyron, 2000, p. 12.
  6. Pyron, 2000, p. 17.
  7. Pyron, 2000, p. 42.
  8. Pyron, 2000, p. 35.
  9. Pyron, 2000, p. 63.
  10. Pyron, 2000, p. 57.
  11. Pyron, 2000, pp. 46–54.
  12. Pyron, 2000, p. 66.
  13. Pyron, 2000, p. 77.
  14. Pyron, 2000, pp. 90–94.
  15. Kart, Larry (February 5, 1987). Liberace, 67, Pianist Turned One-man Musical Circus`. Chicago Tribune.
  16. Pyron, 2000, p. 96.
  17. Pyron, 2000, p. 79.
  18. Pyron, 2000, p. 115.
  19. Pyron, 2000, p. 139.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Pyron, 2000, p. 161.
  21. Pyron, 2000, p. 162.
  23. Pyron, 2000, p. 180.
  24. Pyron, 2000, p. 272.
  25. Pyron, 2000, p. 281.
  26. Pyron, 2000, p. 292.
  27. Pyron, 2000, p. 7.
  28. Pyron, 2000, pp. 165–67.
  29. Pyron, 2000, p. 168. "Thank you for your very amusing review. After reading it, in fact, my brother George and I laughed all the way to the bank."
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Smith, Chrysti M. (2006). Verbivore's Feast: Second Course: More Word & Phrase Origins. Farcountry Press, 84. ISBN 1-56037-402-0. 
  31. "Yearn-Strength Five", Daily Mirror, September 26, 1956, p. 6.
  32. "High Court Of Justice; Queen's Bench Division, "I Don't Care What My Readers Think", Liberace V. Daily Mirror Newspapers Ltd", p. 16. "They all say that this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love has had the biggest reception and impact on London since Charlie Chaplin arrived at the same station, Waterloo, on September 12, 1921." 
  33. Barker, 2009.
  34. Hodgkinson, Liz (May 25, 2009) "Dispatches: Publishing: Libel show stopper", The Guardian
  35. "Cry all the way to the bank" . World Wide Words. 
  36. Pyron, 2000, p. 211.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Liberace had last laugh on critics by 'crying all the way to the bank' The Pittsburgh Press, February 5, 1987
  38. CNN LARRY KING LIVE: Interview With Scott Thorson CNN, August 12, 2002
  39. Kelly, Jon. BBC News – What Liberace reveals about the march of gay rights.
  40. Pyron, 2000, p. 210.
  41. "CNN Official Interview: Betty White: Bea Arthur was not fond of me" . YouTube. Retrieved on 2014-02-25. 
  42. 42.0 42.1 Coroner Cites AIDS in Liberace Death. The New York Times, February 10, 1987
  43. Nelson, Harry. "Liberace Died Of Pneumonia Caused by AIDS", Los Angeles Times. 
  44. 44.0 44.1 Liberace AIDS confirmed The Pittsburgh Press, Feb 10, 1987
  45. Pyron, 2000, p. 369. "Although he was both HIV positive and symptomatic when he signed the publishing contract with Harper and Row in 1985..."
  46. Petrucelli, Alan (2009-09-29). Morbid Curiosity: The Disturbing Demises of the Famous and Infamous. ISBN 9781101140499. 
  47. Never, Johns. Forest Lawn Cemetery – Liberace Tomb 01.
  48. Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated (PDF).

External links

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