Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Liberace

Just a few years ago during a visit to Las Vegas I was astonished to learn that a gay twenty-something violinist in our group had never heard of Liberace (pronounced Libber-AH-chee). We hoofed it over to the Liberace museum (since closed), where a fabulous collection of costumes, bejeweled pianos and automobiles, all of dubious taste, was displayed in a strip mall once owned by the pianist. The docents played it straight – no mention was made of the gay scandals and controversies that littered the last years of the entertainer’s life.

Liberace (1919-1987) was a classically trained pianist who was bullied while in his early teens growing up in Wisconsin. He had a speech impediment and shunned athletic activity for a fondness for playing the piano and cooking. At the age of twenty he played Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for which he received strong reviews. However, it was his experience playing popular music during the Depression years that put money in his pocket, and he soon became addicted to the luxuries those gigs afforded. He decided to abandon a career as a serious concert pianist and instead focused on the entertainment aspects of his performances.

He hit his stride in the 1950s, becoming an entertainment phenomenon through wildly popular television appearances, night club performances and recordings. For the next twenty years he was the highest paid entertainer in the world. Throughout the 1970s and early 80s he was earning $300,000 a week in Las Vegas. He typically spoke to the audience and even sang while sporting ever more over-the-top costumes and jewelry. His piano performances, which were highly embellished and shortened versions of classical standards (he called it classical music with the boring parts left out), became secondary to the glitz and outrageous props, and pop tunes became increasingly important elements of his repertoire. Liberace’s signature prop was a candelabra placed atop whatever piano he was playing. Liberace once stated, "I don't give concerts, I put on a show."

His private life was as flamboyant as his stage presence. He collected homes that he furnished in his favored Baroque and Rococo style, with gaudy accessories crowding every horizontal surface.


Liberace denied that he was gay his entire life, even as he was dying of AIDS. A much younger Scott Thorson (above left), who was employed as a “chauffeur/assistant”, was Liberace’s lover for a number of years. Liberace lavished the young man with gifts of luxury cars and costly jewelry. In 1982 24-year-old Thorson sued 63-year-old Liberace for palimony, an act that fueled a tabloid scandal. Thorson, who had undergone plastic surgery to look more like a younger Liberace (is this sick, or what?), had been cast aside for a teenaged male; Thorson himself had been seduced by Liberace when he was sixteen. The suit was ultimately settled out of court for a paltry $95,000 cash payment to Thorson, without Liberace admitting guilt. Thorson later admitted that being dismissed in 1982 may have saved his life, since Liberace was HIV-positive and symptomatic from 1985. In a 2011 interview, actress and close friend Betty White confirmed that Liberace was gay, and that she often served as a beard to counter rumors of his homosexuality.

The melodrama that marked Liberace’s last years is being revived in  HBO Films’ upcoming biopic titled “Behind the Candelabra.” Michael Douglas will portray the tortured closeted gay entertainer Liberace in his first post-cancer role;  Mr. Douglas received a stage 4 throat cancer diagnosis in 2010. The biopic, which will air in 2013, is being scripted by Richard LaGravenese and will be directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Rob Lowe will play Liberace’s plastic surgeon, and Scott Bakula will play the choreographer who introduced Liberace to his much younger longtime partner Scott Thorson, a pivotal role to be played by Matt Damon. They complete a cast that includes Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s manager and Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother Frances. Cheyenne Jackson has just this week joined the cast, but is not yet at liberty to announce which role he will play. Marvin Hamlish will provide the score.

Production of the film, which is based on Scott Thorson’s 1988 book “Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace,” will begin next month in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Palm Springs, where Liberace maintained homes.

A typical stage costume for Liberace's flamboyant performances. This sequins and fur trimmed caped number is from a Christmas show.

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