On June 17, 1959, an English jury awarded celebrity pianist Liberace £8000 damages over a newspaper article that suggested he was homosexual. As Liberace exited the court, he recited a much-rehearsed catchphrase to reporters, “I cried all the way to the bank!”
Liberace was not alone among 20th-century entertainers in cashing in on an overblown camp stage persona to hide his sexuality in plain sight. But he was the best at it. For a while, his income from concerts, records, TV shows, movies and ads made him the world’s highest-paid entertainer.
Although best known as a pianist, it was showmanship that drew audiences to Liberace. He sang, danced, and cracked jokes dressed in ridiculously extravagant costumes and made audiences feel he was their friend. In contrast to the traditionally sombre and earnest manner of television piano players, he gazed straight at the camera — breaking the fourth wall — and chatting to the viewers at home.
Liberace balanced all the high camp schmaltz with truckloads of old-fashioned apple pie wholesomeness. His elderly mum sat in the front row or even on the stage with him and his violinist brother often led the orchestra. Constant references to his relentless search for a girl just like his dear old mum banished any lingering curiosity about his sexuality.
Of course, many saw through the carefully constructed veneer. But human decency constrained public discussion in an era when homosexuality remained illegal.
He, she and it…
Human decency did not constrain English journalist William Connor, a columnist who wrote for the Daily Mirror under the penname Cassandra. In a 1956 column, he outed Liberace by implying the showman was gay in sentences that sagged under the weight of piled cliché and stereotype.
“The pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want… Deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.”
Scott Thorson, Liberace’s lover for five years from 1977, wrote later that Liberace thought allowing those aspersions to go unanswered would destroy his career.
“He imagined himself stripped of his fame, success, wealth, and power — all the things he’d worked so hard to achieve. He burned with impotent rage for days. In Vegas, where he had connections, he’d have known exactly how to handle the situation. He’d have used his influence, his power, or his dangerous friends. But in London, he felt helpless. So he struck back in the only way he could. He sued.”
Liberace’s five and a half hours on the stand were a triumph. First, he lied.
Never in my life
“Have you ever indulged in homosexual practices?”
“No sir. Never in my life.”
Good on him! His sex life was no one’s business and why open himself to criminal prosecution under an unjust law?
Beyond that, Liberace charmed the jury in the face of defence efforts to besmirch his character that wreaked of desperation.
Gerald Gardiner QC, for the Daily Mirror, asked about a song Liberace once sang about ‘Gloria of the Waldorf Astoria who was willing and thrilling’.
“Willing to do what?” the learned counsel asked.
“I don’t know,” replied Liberace with a smirk, causing the courtroom to erupt in laughter, “I never knew either.”
Mr Gardiner came on all indignant about promo material listing the pianist’s birthdate as 1920 instead of 1919. Liberace dismissed that as a rounding error, again prompting laughter.
William Connor, by contrast, was a terrible witness.
He whined, complaining of ‘the flamboyant nature of [Liberace’s] appearance’ and accused the pianist of ‘prostituting’ love, affection and friendship for commercial gain.
“There are various degrees of love. There is sexual love which provides its own immediate pleasures but there is something much more tender and important, the love of a mother and her child… When I see this on the stage of the London Palladium by a 40-year-old man in company with his mother, whom he may well love, I regard that as profane and wrong.”
Connor then compared fans waiting to meet Liberace at Waterloo railway station to crowds at Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies.
“I am always suspicious of people gathered together in large numbers.”
What a f_cking nutter!
According to the Evening Standard, a crowd of around 500 “cheering, shouting, waving women besieged Liberace as he left the High Court…. There were excited shouts of ‘Well done’ and ‘Jolly Good’.”
Years later, following Liberace’s death from AIDS, the Daily Mirror asked on its front page, “Can we have our money back, please?”
The paper had already got its money back.
Another reporter testified at the trial that when she visited Connor for a different story, she asked him off the record why the paper printed the obvious libel.
“They think it will be worth it for a week’s publicity.”
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