Wladziu Valentino Liberace was born to Polish and Italian immigrants in 1919. His musician father made a concerted effort to expose his children to the art at an early age. Liberace began to play the piano aged 4, quickly taking to the instrument and memorizing complicated pieces by the age of 7.
The youngster, known as Lee to his friends and Walter to his family, first came into the public eye after his performace with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Wisconsin in 1940, which gained him strong reviews. In the following years, Liberace decided to spice up his act, which he called “classical music with the boring parts left out“. After an initial struggle, he began performing in night clubs all over the United States.
His stage presence, extravagant performaces and flamboyant costumes earnt him the love of millions of fans and during the 1950s to 70s Liberace was the highest paid entertainer in the world, according to Revel Barker.
Over the years, the performer also appeared on numerous television shows, released several recordings and even featured in a couple of films, including When the Boys Meet the Girls starring Connie Francis.
Aside from the acclaim for his showmanship, Liberace was plagued by media attention surrounding his personal life. A self-proclaimed heterosexual, he spent the majority of his career fighting off rumours that he was gay.
In 1956 The Daily Mirror published an article insinuating Liberace was a homosexual. Columnist Cassandra wrote: “…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”. The star sued on the grounds of libel and received $22,400 in damages.
In 1982 Liberace’s problems worsened, when his 24-year-old live-in bodyguard and alleged boyfriend of 5 years, Scott Thorson, took the entertainer to court, suing from $113 million in palimony. Liberace continued to deny any allegations, and although Thorson’s claim was largely unsuccessful, he did receive a $95,000 settlement.
The pianist was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and was hospitalised in January of 1987 with suspected anemia. He died just a couple of weeks later. Though his condition was never made public, an autopsy following his death confirmed that Liberace died from AIDS related causes.
Journalist Michael Segell, who had collaborated with Liberace on a photo book and was subsequently fired for intimating that the performer was a homosexual commented: ‘I think he was just terribly ashamed … He was such a dandy, it must have been terribly humiliating for him to suffer the ravaging decline that that disease inflicts,” Entertainment Weekly reported.
Actors Michael Douglas and Matt Damon have recently signed up to star in a film about Liberace’s life. Douglas will play the pianist and Damon the role of boyfriend Scott Thorson, according to Same Same. The movie is due for release in 2012.
Images: Wikimedia Commons