Dressed to thrill

Liberace: an American boy

Darden Asbury Pyron <em>University of Chicago Press, 510pp, £19.50</em>

This book tells us about the Liberace of your mind's eye. He was gay, but pretended, on various levels, not to be; he was a consummate exhibitionist; he played the piano with a natural flair; he threw his money around; he sued the Daily Mirror; he made a late comeback as a parody of himself; he died of Aids. Just about everything you would imagine, all the materialism and sex, is true. But this is a long, long book, and the degree of detail causes a curious reversal. Before I read it, I imagined Liberace as some kind of pantomime costume. Now I think of him as the sweaty, uncomfortable man whose fate it was to toil away inside the costume.

Inevitably, this is a book about repression, celebrity, dangerous sex, misery and death - in other words, a feat of modern journalism. The author, Darden Asbury Pyron, is aware of the tackiness of his subject: "Insofar as the criticisms identified the entertainer as a womanish, lower-class, consumer sissy who corrupted art (and maybe the youth of America)," he tells us, "I was not eager to justify, much less identify with such a figure." But Pyron, a history professor at Florida International University, also has a serious purpose. Liberace, he tells us, "seemed to me a kind of emblem of modern America, overflowing with both the virtues and the vices of the national character".

Is this true? It's certainly food for thought. Liberace was from immigrant stock; he started off poor and made a ton of money; in the American way, he embraced vulgarity. He said that "the most important part of show business is not the second word, it's the first. Without the show, there's no business." He also said: "I'm a one-man Disneyland." Like America, Liberace spent a lot of his time keeping up appearances. Like America, he deceived nobody but himself. It's not a bad metaphor.

The showman, we are told (Pyron often refers to Liberace as "the showman", or "the entertainer"), "entered the world still enveloped in the delicate, transparent membrane of the birth sac. He was born with a caul." This is a sign, in some societies, that the child has special powers. It was his first costume. He had a stillborn twin. His full name was Wladziu Valentino Liberace, although he came to be known as Wally or Lee. His family lived in Milwaukee, where his father Sal tried, often unsuccessfully, to get work as a player of wind instruments. He grew up with what Pyron calls "Midwestern American values", and always remained a conservative at heart; later, he would dislike hippies and never spoke in public about his homosexuality. He was invited to the White House by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan, but not Kennedy or Carter. When somebody compared him to Elton John, he pointed out that, whereas Elton John "goes for laughs", he, Liberace, was serious about dressing up.

The Depression was, apparently, a formative influence, in that "it made some mean, mercenary and guarded; in others, it nurtured profligacy", says Pyron. It made the young Liberace's father go to the bad. When Sal, who was 5ft 3ins, lost his job, he started hiding his wife's alarm clock to stop her getting to work. Then he started philandering. The young Liberace developed a lisp and became known as a sissy. He sewed, had crushes on teachers, loved Christmas and hated sports, not because of the games themselves, but because "you got dirty playing them". He was a piano prodigy from the age of three.

He worried about his sexuality. According to one story he told, he lost his virginity to "a big, chesty broad who sang blues songs" when he was 13 and already performing in nightclubs. Pyron writes: "The night was warm. She pulled over and began groping the boy. She went down on him." Liberace reported: "I didn't quite know what was happening, but I liked it, I liked it. I was all ready in a few minutes for a repeat. Then she crawled over on my lap and screwed me.'" Later, he told his lover, Scott Thorson, that he was not deflowered by a woman at all, but by "a football hero from the Green Bay Packers" who was "the size of a door".

Which version are we to believe? As the book goes on, you realise that Liberace was a fantasist in more or less every way. He spent his life fuelled with desperate ambition to impress and entertain; hardly any moments, as described here, do not seem sad. He "wore his wig to bed and even in the summer". As a lover, he was "aggressive". Pyron wonders if his subject contracted Aids orally. "For one thing," he tells us, "the entertainer possessed a street reputation as an insertive rather than a receptive sexual partner." Towards the end of his life, he still performed, slipping offstage to breath from an oxygen mask. On the morning of 3 February 1987, "his nurse recognised the death rattle" and "replaced his toupee". You close the book feeling sad and mildly titillated; it's like reading the News of the World.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit