Published: January 2, 2017
As a flamboyant pianist and entertainer who wore extravagant costumes and always played with a candelabra placed on his piano, Liberace put on one of the world’s most successful and dazzling stage shows. He died on this day at the age of 67.
From the 1950s to the late 1960s he was the world’s highest paid entertainer, outstripping Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
But he had a big secret. The extraordinary performer publicly denied throughout his life that he was gay and was particularly guarded about the issue in Britain where, in the 1950s, he was enormously popular. Here, at the time, homosexuality was illegal.
So when in 1956 Bill Connor, a columnist writing in the Daily Mirror under the pen-name of Cassandra, posed questions about Liberace’s sexuality, it was like lighting a fuse on a showbusiness bomb.
He described the entertainer 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.”
Liberace sent a telegram to Connor reading: “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.” And that’s where he planned to go – after suing for libel.
The case was heard in 1959 when the entertainer hired a famous barrister, Gilbert Beyfus, known as “the Old Fox.” In court, Beyfus claimed to be astounded that a man of Liberace’s quality could be so gravely insulted by Connor – “a literary assassin.”
He called his client to give evidence and asked him: “Are you a homosexual?”
Liberace replied: “No, sir.”
“Have you ever indulged in homosexual practices?”
“No, sir, never in my life. I am against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society.”
In his defence, Bill Connor, supported by the Mirror newspaper’s boss, Hugh Cudlipp, surprised observers – and probably the jury – by saying that the column was not meant to imply Liberace was homosexual. But the words “mincing” and “fruit” – American slang for a homosexual – swung the case.
After a six-day hearing the jury found for Liberace, who was awarded damages of £8,000 (about £500,000, or three quarters of a million US dollars in today’s money).
With the cash safely in the bank, Liberace resumed his highly successful career, returning to his adopted home of Las Vegas, his act swelling with more and more spectacle.
He would dress in exotic costumes of ostrich feathers and mink and was sometimes driven on stage in his Rolls-Royce by his chauffeur Scott Thorson. “I am,” he declared, “a one-man Disneyland.”
The cover-up about Liberace’s sexuality continued to the end of his life. His death at Palm Springs, California, in 1987 was attributed by his publicity team to anaemia, emphysema and heart disease.
However, after a post mortem the coroner declared that “a deliberate attempt” had been made by Liberace’s doctors, his manager, and his entire immediate family to hide the actual cause of death. It came about from pneumonia due to complications from AIDS.
The next day, on its front page, the Daily Mirror asked: “Can we have our money back, please?” The request was ignored by Liberace’s executors.
Postscript: A year later, Scott Thorson published a book, Behind The Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, detailing his homosexual relationship over a number of years with the entertainer. It was made into a film in 2013 starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson.