Liberace: An American Boy

"An entertaining and rewarding biography of the pianist and entertainer whose fans' adoration was equaled only by his critics' loathing.…Pyron tells an immensely entertaining story that should be fascinating and pleasurable to anyone with an interest in American popular culture."—Kirkus Reviews

"Nothing less than a social and cultural history of the United States from the end of the First World War to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, with a pair of flashy fingers holding it all together. Far from feeling too long, the book reads like a miracle of compression.…This is a wonderful book, what biography ought to be and so seldom is."—Kathryn Hughes, Daily Telegraph

"[Pyron] achieves what many readers might consider impossible: a persuasive case for Liberace's life and times as the embodiment of an important cultural moment."—Publishers Weekly

"Pyron uses pianist Liberace to explore the bundle of contradictions embedded in the American dream.…Fascinating, thoughtful, exhaustive, and well-written, this book will serve as the standard biography of a complex icon of American popular culture. Highly recommended for general readers, music fans, and social historians."—Library Journal, starred review

"Pyron intended something significantly larger than a celebratory outing, and he uses Liberace as a catalyst for reflection 'on the nature of twentieth-century American culture.' His engrossing study of a complex performer is also the story of being gay and visible in postwar show-biz.…Sympathetic without being smarmy, it is certainly the deepest study to date of a showman who as enigmatic as a person as he was as a performer."—Booklist

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Liberace links:

The Liberace Foundation website, including the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.

Bob's World of Liberace an outstanding Liberace fan site.

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All magazine covers are courtesy of Bob's World of Liberace.

An excerpt from
An American Boy
Darden Asbury Pyron

The Days of the Understated Suit

Liberace's successful lawsuit against the London tabloid, the Daily Mirror, was a critical moment in his career. It also provides a vivid picture of the closeted world of the 1950s. This excerpt is from Chapter Nine: "You Can Be Sure If It's Westinghouse."

The Daily Mirror had run the Cassandra article the day after Liberace's arrival in London on September 26, 1956. With the counsel of his lawyer, John Jacobs, Liberace had decided to sue by the middle of the next month. The trial was scheduled and rescheduled—chiefly because of the showman's performance calendar—until the contending parties finally agreed to a June 1959 date. That spring, the Queen Mary carried Liberace to his legal rendezvous. In contrast to his memories of the pleasures of his earlier crossing, however, this time he remembered mostly his distress. His apprehensions multiplied as he arrived in London. He reconstructed his actual emotions with difficulty afterward, he said, but "plain, simple, ordinary fear is what I think I felt," he related. "I had a secret feeling I was about to get clobbered." As he described it, "I find it difficult to put into words how I felt that Monday, June 8, 1959, as I sat in an English courtroom, Queen's Bench Number Four, surrounded by black-robed, white-wigged gentlemen, and prepared to hear myself vilified, as well as defended, and waited to find out whether I'd done the right thing or the wrong one in following the insistence of my conscience and the confirmation of my attorney."

TV Stage Not coincidental to the case itself, Liberace was in the middle of his hiatus from glitz, and he wore an understated suit, as if to convince the court that he was normal. It brought no comfort. The courtroom also overflowed with curious and loyal fans, mostly women, including Lady Salmon, wife of the presiding judge, Sir Cyril Salmon. This was cold comfort, too. Fans could not sway the proceedings; moreover, the court had impaneled a jury of ten men and only two women. He expected little from the males. Then, too, journalists swarmed like flies to offal. Experience had taught him to hope for nothing good from this quarter. The trial confirmed his suspicions. Newspapers all over Great Britain—and the United States, too, for that matter—tarted up the most sensational elements of the trial. The first days' testimony produced such headlines as "LIBERACE CALLED THE 'SUMMIT OF SEX,'" "NEWSPAPER SUED OVER 'SUMMIT OF SEX,'" and "I'M NOT A SEX APPEAL ARTIST" from the Brits; while even the staid New York Times headlined its one version of the trial with "Liberace Denies He Is Homosexual."

Nothing comforted him. His Australian tour had demonstrated his chauvinistic—if innocent—Americanism, and English law and custom unsettled him. He really wanted an American lawyer, and he seemed perplexed at the failure of the British court to allow John Jacobs to defend him. Moreover, the sight of his British attorney, Gilbert Beyfus, recommended by Jacobs, dismayed him. If known in London as "The Fox," Beyfus, at age seventy-six, looked to Liberace like "a toothless old lion," like a Counselor Bumble right out of Dickens. "I watched him fumbling with papers, creating an atmosphere of confusion," the pianist fretted. "He acted like a man who suddenly found himself in a perfectly strange place with grave responsibilities he knew nothing about. My heart sank. I knew then and there that I didn't have a prayer."

Hollywood Confidential He underestimated his counsel. Indeed, the Fox opened well by linking William Conner's diatribe against the American showman to a pattern of smearing Englishmen: his screed had besmirched even the royal family. Conner's slander of Liberace was only the tip of the iceberg that constituted this venal, reckless journalist, Beyfus proclaimed. He called Conner "a literary assassin who dips his pen in vitriol, hired by this sensational newspaper to murder reputations and hand out sensational articles on which its circulation is built." It was the same charge that John Jacobs had used in suing Hollywood Confidential two years before. Through Liberace, the English court had the chance to redress all these transgressions. "Here's a piano player," Beyfus declaimed, "giving these people a chance to fight back."

Beyfus began the proceedings proper by reading into the record the entire Cassandra article, titled "Yearn-Strength Five." "'Windstarke Fuenf' is the most deadly concoction of alcohol that the 'Haus Vaterland' can produce," William Conner—alias Cassandra—had begun.

I have to report that Mr. Liberace, like "Windstarke Fuenf" is about the most that man can take. But he is not a drink. He is Yearning Windstrength Five. He is the summit of sex—Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want.

I have spoken to sad but kindly men on this newspaper who have met every celebrity arriving from the United States for the past thirty years. They all say that this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, 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.

This appalling man—and I use the word appalling in no other than its true sense of terrifying—has hit this country in a way that is as violent as Churchill receiving the cheers on V-E Day. He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief, and the old heave-ho. Without doubt, he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time.

Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss has an answer for every situation. Nobody since Aimee Semple MacPherson has purveyed a bigger, richer and more varied slag-heap of lilac-covered hokum. Nobody anywhere ever made so much money out of high speed piano playing with the ghost of Chopin gibbering at every note.

There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle-aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown.

Rave While the trial took many ducks and turns, one phrase in the article dominated the proceedings from both sides. This was Conner's identification of the pianist as "the summit of sex—Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want." One witness testified that Conner himself assumed that the case would rotate on this axis. According to the testimony of Dail Betty Ambler, who visited Conner's home soon after the writ was served in October 1956, the journalist himself had brought up the case and the phrase. "He laughed about it and said it was going to be a bit of fun," she testified. He continued that "it was a libel for which Liberace would get a lot of money from the Daily Mirror. She reported that the libel, Conner had said, lay in the 'He, She or It' phrase." If Conner could smirk about his language, it horrified the pianist. It named the nightmares from his childhood. "I prayed I'd never seen that, never heard it and that I'd never hear it again. That was the passage that decided me to sue. That was the one I was afraid would haunt me all my life."

The trial did rotate on the phrase. The defendants argued that Conner had intended it as a statement of the pianist's sex appeal in general. They calculated all their evidence and witnesses to this end, to prove the "sexiness" of Liberace's act. The plaintiffs countered this strategy by affirming the basis of Liberace's appeal to family and traditional values. They also leapt onto the phrase's challenge to Liberace's masculinity or maleness. This actually seemed to be what Conner had in mind when he told his visitor that the libel lay in this usage. If central to Beyfus's general strategy, however, it was Liberace's own compelling reason for bringing the suit in the first place. "I had put myself on the block of public opinion in defense of one of the three most important things in a man's life . . . ," he testified, "perhaps all of them. They are Life itself. Manhood. And Freedom." He elaborated: "Naturally my life, as such, was not at stake. But the attack on me had threatened my mother's health and so, her life. And, perhaps the quality of my life had been put in jeopardy. Certainly my manhood had been seriously attacked and with it my freedom . . . freedom from harassment, freedom from embarrassment and most importantly, freedom to work at my profession." The issue for the pianist could be summarized in part in his own, formal testimony when he declared, "This is the most improper article that has ever been written about me. It has been widely quoted in all parts of the world and has been reproduced exactly as it appeared in the Daily Mirror. One paper had the headline, IS LIBERACE A MAN."

Hush-Hush "Is Liberace a Man." He was citing, of course, the headline that had appeared two years before, in May 1957. It was beside the point, of course, that Hush-Hush had said that the British were only preparing to answer questions "which have bothered Americans for years." It was true: Americans had been voicing their curiosity about Liberace's sexuality for some time and had been discussing it in print since at least August 1954, two years before Cassandra's harangue appeared, and three years before the publication of the Hush-Hush headline. Well before William Conner attacked Liberace's reputation, the American media—scandal sheets and even mainstream press—had described him as a sissy, a mama's boy, and even a homosexual. The salacious article, "'Mad About the Boy,'" makes no reference to the London Daily Mirror. It was not necessary. American writers saw the same thing William Conner did, whether or not they knew the Englishman's piece.

Was Liberace a man? Perhaps Hush-Hush really got the Cassandra article better than William Conner had, himself. The idea, of course, was that Liberace was homosexual and that homosexuals were not men—not real men, not natural men—not Men. That was the issue for Liberace.

What does it mean to be a man? Was a homosexual not a man, but some "third sex," some subspecies? Did lusting after other men obviate Liberace's manhood? How, indeed, was manhood different from sex or from a man's sexual proclivity for other men? Popular culture had the answers. Hollywood Confidential offered the reply in the very edition that had exposed Liberace. The full-page ad for the International Correspondence School had instructed readers in what men were—and weren't. The boy striding cheerfully down the road to job, success, and money (after having completed the course on repairing appliances, of course) caricatures every element of manliness—except the purely sexual. This boy is in the process of overtaking "the genius"—the perfect representation of homosexuality, however ill disguised: the lagger represents the fop, the dandy, the aristocratically pretentious, monocled fruit, the loser posturing on the wayside toward the manly world of work, achievement, and ambition.

Liberace and Queen Elizabeth II
Liberace and Queen Elizabeth II, following a royal command performance. Courtesy of the Liberace Foundation, Las Vegas, NV.
Lee Liberace presumed the same connections. Ideologically and culturally, he defaulted to the social definitions of maleness and to the asexual identification of that category with work, achievement, control, public authority. If homosexuals were not men, according to this definition, his commitment to the public definitions of masculinity required his public repudiation of homosexuality. The logic was infallible. Conner's essay, he declared, had "cost me many years of my professional career by implying that I am a homosexual. . . . It has caused untold agonies and embarrassment and has made me the subject of ridicule." Twenty years later, while he had by then loosened the gendered categories, the showman still assumed an inevitable relationship between masculinity, aggression, and livelihood, on the one hand, versus homosexuality, passivity, and ineffectualness on the other. "In 1956, people were destroyed by that accusation. It hurt me. People stayed away from my shows in droves. I went from the top to the bottom in a very short time, and I had to fight for my life."

The showman Liberace was not singular in associating work, competition, and success with masculinity. Nor was he eccentric, singular, or paranoid in acknowledging the threat to livelihood with charges of deviant sexuality. Beyond the aristocratic enclaves of Manhattan's Upper East Side, this was the same motive that drove many if not most gay professionals: homosexual exposure equaled professional, economic ruin. It was what prompted the actor Anthony Perkins into "deep closet maneuvers to hide the fact of his boyfriends and male lovers" even abroad, where no one recognized the Psycho star. "'You couldn't be too careful in those days,'" Perkins's manager, gay himself, agreed. "In those days," recalled another member of this demimonde, "if you had sex with a man, that put you in a category from which you could not deviate. You were a fruitcake, and destined to be that all your life." Thus, too, reminisced another gay actor: "We lived in fear of an exposë, or even one small remark, a veiled suggestion that someone was homosexual. Such a remark would have caused an earthquake at the Studio." George Cukor, one of Hollywood's most famous—and barely closeted—gay men, put it another way: "In those days you had to be very virile or they thought you were degenerate." Getting caught out threatened ruin. Rock Hudson's behavior mirrored Perkins's. "He always had two phone lines when he lived with someone, and made sure his roommate never answered his phone. He was careful not to be photographed with a man. On the set, if he met someone, they would exchange phone numbers with the stealth and caution of spies passing nuclear secrets. Rock would wait until one in the morning to make the call. If it was all right, he would drive to the person's house, park two blocks away, look around furtively and then run to the door."

TV People Denying one's homosexuality, then, equaled defending one's manly prerogatives of earning a living. Liberace managed it like George Cukor, Anthony Perkins, and Rock Hudson. In denying his homosexuality, he confirmed his career. Beyond this, he intended the Daily Mirror case to resolve the matter permanently once and for all. He had beaten Confidential's claims of his homosexual adventure the year before, but he had done so on a technicality—that in one, only one, of the three encounters with the handsome young press agent, he was not where the scandal sheet said he was. He wanted to kill, now and forever, the claims that he was homosexual. Far away from America, where he had "tricked around," the London courtroom offered a nearly perfect place to make his argument. He phrased it succinctly: "On my word of God, on my mother's health, which is so dear to me, this article only means one thing, that I am a homosexual, and that is why I am in this court." He determined that he would use the Daily Mirror case to confound permanently the exposing of his private desires. Thus, it was Beyfus and Liberace who decided to make the trial hinge on homosexuality, per se.

Gerald Gardiner, the Mirror's counselor, actually objected to the plaintiff's introduction of the issue. "There is no suggestion and never has been anything of the kind," Gardiner remonstrated when Beyfus first raised the matter of homosexuality on the trial's first day. Indeed, Gardiner dismissed the issue as a red herring, or worse. The performer, he sniffed, "had a bee in his bonnet" about the issue. The plaintiff insisted on the argument. The pianist himself testified for six hours in two days of testimony, and early on in the questioning Beyfus charged into the breech of his sexual identity and preference, despite the defense's protests. "Are you a homosexual?" Beyfus queried him. "No, sir," the pianist replied simply. He did not leave the issue at that. Beyfus continued the line of questioning. "Have you ever indulged in homosexual practices?" Again, the showman answered simply and directly: "No, sir, never in my life." He did not stop even there. On he plunged. "I am against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society," he finished.

The plaintiff lied. The question remains, however, what to do with his deception.

• • •

The jury of ten men and two women found in his favor on June 18. He won twenty-two thousand dollars, and the defendants were required to pay court costs as well. This constituted the largest settlement of any libel case in British history. It was the very verdict that Oscar Wilde had sought two generations before, and on similar grounds. Wilde had lied as flagrantly as Liberace, of course, but Wilde lost. The American entertainer redeemed that judgment. And, the showman determined, his name was cleared. Publicly and officially, he could proceed with his life. He won more than the specific verdict, too. The case proved that he would go to very great lengths indeed to fight charges of sexual deviancy. His will was obdurate and his pockets deep, as his contentious ex-lover would discover twenty-five years later.

Photo Souvenir 1958
A souvenir photo from 1958. Courtesy of Bob's World of Liberace.
While his willingness to resort to litigation chilled discussion of his sexuality, the American press, almost inadvertently, joined the campaign as well. David Ehrenstein has chronicled journalists' complicity in a conspiracy of silence about homosexuality before the seventies, even after. If homosexuality did not know what to call itself, the straight world hardly knew what to call it, beyond epithets, either. Namelessness actually protected gay men on the prowl in Liberace's time. The discussion of sex, and especially of illicit sex, was the stuff of scandalmongers, but Ehrenstein has also allowed as how even the scandal rags hardly knew what to do with the topic. The exposé that outed Liberace in 1957 was anomalous. "In fact, for all their supposed sophistication," wrote Ehrenstein, "the 'scandal' rags were painfully naíve when it came to same-sex matters, running such decidedly unshocking stuff as 'Whoops! Why Those Gay Boys Just Love Bette, Joan, Tallulah and Judy!' in the July 1964 issue of Inside Story." Mainstream media demonstrated some of the same obscurity in regard to the Cassandra trial. While some papers, notably the New York Times, headlined the plaintiff's formal assertion—"Liberace denies he is homosexual,"—most avoided the specific terminology. The majority of broadcasters rejected the term in describing the case. Critics noted that two New York City stations employed the word "homosexual," but that most newsmen resorted to euphemisms.

Publicly and officially, Liberace was not a homosexual. Privately, he continued the pattern that had characterized his life for close to twenty years. That pattern, however, like his testimony to the British court, was full of contradictions and impossibilities.


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 223-9, 233-4 of Liberace: An American Boy by Darden Asbury Pyron, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2000 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Darden Asbury Pyron
Liberace: An American Boy
©2000, 512 pages, 48 halftones
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-68667-1
Paper $18.00 ISBN: 0-226-68669-8

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Liberace.

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