Liberace: An American Boy

Liberace: An American Boy

by Darden Asbury Pyron


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Tuesday, May 11


More people watched his nationally syndicated television show between 1953 and 1955 than followed I Love Lucy. Even a decade after his death, the attendance records he set at Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl, and Radio City Music Hall still stand. Arguably the most popular entertainer of the twentieth century, this very public figure nonetheless kept more than a few secrets. Darden Asbury Pyron, author of the acclaimed and bestselling Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell, leads us through the life of America's foremost showman with his fresh, provocative, and definitive portrait of Liberace, an American boy.

Liberace's career follows the trajectory of the classic American dream. Born in the Midwest to Polish-Italian immigrant parents, he was a child prodigy who, by the age of twenty, had performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Abandoning the concert stage for the lucrative and glittery world of nightclubs, celebrities, and television, Liberace became America's most popular entertainer. While wildly successful and good natured outwardly, Liberace, Pyron reveals, was a complicated man whose political, social, and religious conservativism existed side-by-side with a lifetime of secretive homosexuality. Even so, his swishy persona belied an inner life of ferocious aggression and ambition. Pyron relates this private man to his public persona and places this remarkable life in the rapidly changing cultural landscape of twentieth-century America.

Pyron presents Liberace's life as a metaphor, for both good and ill, of American culture, with its shopping malls and insatiable hunger for celebrity. In this fascinating biography, Pyron complicates and celebrates our image of the man for whom the streets were paved with gold lamé.

"An entertaining and rewarding biography of the pianist and entertainer whose fans' adoration was equaled only by his critics' loathing. . . . [Pyron] persuasively argues that Liberace, thoroughly and rigorously trained, was a genuine musician as well as a brilliant showman. . . . [A]n immensely entertaining story that should be fascinating and pleasurable to anyone with an interest in American popular culture."—Kirkus Reviews

"This is a wonderful book, what biography ought to be and so seldom is."—Kathryn Hughes, Daily Telegraph

"[A]bsorbing and insightful. . . . Pyron's interests are far-ranging and illuminating-from the influence of a Roman Catholic sensibility on Liberace and gay culture to the aesthetics of television and the social importance of self-improvement books in the 1950s. Finally, he 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

"Liberace, coming on top of his amazing life of Margaret Mitchell, Southern Daughter, puts Darden Pyron in the very first rank of American biographers. His books are as exciting as the lives of his subjects."—Tom Wolfe

"Fascinating, thoughtful, exhaustive, and well-written, this book will serve as the standard biography of a complex icon of American popular culture."—Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226686691
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/28/2001
Edition description: 1
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Darden Asbury Pyron teaches history at Florida International University in Miami. He is the author of the national bestseller Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell and editor of Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture.

Read an Excerpt

Liberace: An American Boy

By Darden Asbury Pyron

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-68667-1

Chapter One

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 fearis 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."

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
"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."

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

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

"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.

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

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 expose, 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."

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.


Excerpted from Liberace: An American Boy
by Darden Asbury Pyron
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1: Wisconsin Rhythm and Blues
2: The Great Escape
3: Sows' Ears/Silk Purses
4: Chico and Chopin
5: The Successful Unknown
6: Lucky Channel 13
7: Music for a Mama's Boy
8: The Shoals of Fame
9: You Can Be Sure If It’s Westinghouse
10: Getting Back
11: Trompe l'Oeil
12: An Image in the Water
13: The Garden of Earthly Pleasures
14: Peter Pan
15: Et Lux Perpetua

Customer Reviews