Every grandmother's ideal: Liberace, a force of nature

A new biography delves seriously into the life of a purring, effeminate, piano-playing idol

Books: The Argument

June 11, 2000|By Richard M. Sudhalter | Richard M. Sudhalter,Special to the Sun

My grandmother had little time for, still less patience with, the frivolities of popular entertainment. A woman of fierce opinions, deep faith and formidable girth, she'd badgered her way out of Czarist Lithuania shortly after the turn of the century, crossing most of Europe to catch a Boston-bound steamer. Her children deferred to her; their children held her in the kind of awe only dark terror can inspire.

But she loved television. Adored it. Paid it rapt homage at weekly trysts with New York variety show host Ed Sullivan, veteran comic Milton Berle, Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen -- and, most of all, Liberace.

What was it, we wondered, about this reflexively smiling, relentlessly ingratiating showman-pianist that captivated so life-hardened a woman, for whom most professional music-making rated just below finger-painting on her scale of useless pursuit?

She never offered an explanation: But each Tuesday evening was an apotheosis, as the wavy-haired, sequin-encrusted figure on the small screen played and sang his closing theme, "I'll Be Seeing You." He had appeal all right, and it had little specifically to do with his purring speech, effeminate manner, or the ever-present Louis XIV candelabrum on the grand piano. It wasn't even his playing -- better by far than his detractors liked to admit -- that accounted for his eminence as, in one reporter's words, "television's first genuine matinee idol."

From a 15-minute spot, based and sponsored in Los Angeles, he'd quickly graduated to the half-hour syndicated series that made him a national celebrity and kept him there for more than a decade, presenting decorative readings of familiar late 19th century classics, and such crowd-pleasers as "The Beer-Barrel Polka" and boogie-woogie variations on Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee."

Critics might sneer, male viewers squirm, but his faithful -- predominantly female, predominantly older -- audience tuned in week after week, and, later, descended on his supper-club appearances with all the breathless fervor of bobby-soxers mobbing Frank Sinatra at the Paramount Theatre.

He was camp before the word came into widespread use, and his fans couldn't get enough. Even rumors of his homosexuality, circulated regularly and widely, didn't seem to matter. "I talked to the viewers as if they were my friends, my next-door neighbors," he was wont to say. "My family became everyone's family ..." So it was.

Still, the psychology behind Liberace's success in postwar America remains an intriguing subject, and biographer Darden Asbury Pyron has addressed the task head-on. His "Liberace: An American Boy" (University of Chicago Press, $27.50) is lavish in its detail, and at a length -- a massive 482-page, with notes -- perhaps not quite warranted by its subject.

Growing up in the industrial Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, Wladziu Valentino Liberace showed every sign of having inherited musical talent from his Italian-born father, an able but frequently unemployed french horn player. Though a certain staginess and preciousness of manner inevitably drew taunts, there is ample evidence that he was accepted, even well-liked, by schoolmates.

Not long out of high school, he appeared as soloist with the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock, and toured as a concert pianist -- all while playing more or less regularly with dance bands. Before long he was mixing his two fields of operation, blending classical and popular items in much the manner of Alec Templeton, the blind British pianist who achieved world renown in the 1930s and '40s.

All the while, biographer Pyron tells us, he was engaged in a tortuous -- and often tortured -- quest for definition of his sexual identity. And it is here that this large, dense biography runs aground. Pyron seems determined to "out" his subject as thoroughly as possible, and that leads him into lengthy digressions on such not-always-relevant subjects as the New York gay scene of the 1940s, modern implications of Greek mythology and the growth of the AIDS epidemic.

More suspect still is an apparent capacity for syllogistic association backed by slender documentation. He'll declare that, "no public evidence whatsoever survives about [Liberace's] sex life between 1947 and 1953," and that in the late 1940s the pianist bought a house in North Hollywood, not far from Santa Monica. He'll then describe the Santa Monica gay scene in scrupulous detail, concluding that, "Even if he never confessed it publicly, this was Liberace's world after 1946."

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