Peter Pan killed by melons

November 3, 2000

Bill Schwarz surveys the life of America's first celebrity of the small screen.

Liberace (LIBER-AH-CHEE, as his early publicity had it) was perhaps the first television cele-brity. He moulded his public and private selves in order to conform to the requirements of the medium, and in so doing anticipated an entire generation of TV celebs who now populate, with noisy fanfares, our own public world. He was both cold war icon and portent.

The Liberace Show was first shown on a local Los Angeles TV station in February 1952, transmitted at a time which required no competition from the network channels. By this stage in his career Liberace had already anointed himself patron saint of easy-listening. His show comprised him playing tunes on his oversize grand piano. The programme was classy in a strictly high camp manner. He dressed in white tails. Having seen a movie about Chopin, he borrowed the idea of the candelabra, which became a kind of logo for him. His female fans (and not them alone) relished his suave, "continental" masculinity. Mom was part of his programme, as was his elder brother. The mere mention, on an early show, that another brother was lonesome as a GI in Korea resulted in a cascade of letters from potential female admirers. If Liberace was domesticating high culture, he was at the same time aestheticising the domestic mores of Middle America - the perverse Betty Crocker of suburban musical taste.

One and a half million viewers in Los Angeles watched each of his shows, which quickly gained sponsorship from a local bank. At the end of its run in 1953 he signed a deal with an independent production company for 177 further programmes, which were to be syndicated throughout the US. From TV and public appearances alone he was, in the mid-1950s, making $1 million a year.

Wladziu Valentino Liberace was born poor in Wisconsin. The piano, cooking and fabrics were his youthful pleasures: showbiz offered deliverance from a dispossessed immigrant destiny. When wealth came his way, so too did a piano-shaped swimming-pool in his new Californian home. The plot, thereafter, was predictable: highs and lows, fortunes and losses; labyrinthine lawsuits against those who wanted his money or impugned his sexuality. Celebration of being him, in public and in private, drove Liberace himself, his entourage and the entertainments he fronted. Among those close to him there were the usual casualties of greed, drugs and liquor. In the summer of 1985 Liberace discovered he had Aids. This coincided with the news that Rock Hudson was similarly afflicted; he and Rock Hudson (it seems) had had a fling some time back in the 1950s.

Although by this time Liberace was a deal more relaxed in public about his own homosexual passions, and more generally about homosexuals, he still preferred it to be known that he was suffering a nutrition deficiency deriving from a diet too exclusively dependent on watermelon. Less than two years later he was dead.

When private lives are fashioned for the celebrity medium of television and for its attendant imperatives - appearance in the gossip mags, chatting about matters of state at the White House, preparing the next cook-book - writing a biography presents something of a challenge. Conventionally, either one goes with the spin, and concludes that what one sees is what there is. Or, in a bid to break the mirage, one can dish the dirt. Either way, pay-off comes by matching image to biographical truth.

Darden Asbury Pyron is a professional historian based at Florida International University. He writes in a style with which British readers will be most familiar from Time magazine, combined with the breathless hyperbole that showbiz biographies require - a strategy, one assumes, sanctioned by the University of Chicago Press. Maybe it was the reputation of his publishing house that prompted Pyron to interpolate his various readings of Greek mythology, and that suggested to him the need to make the parallel between Liberace's own accomplishments as a writer of autobiography and the rather better known endeavours of Benjamin Franklin. There are other occasional oddities of this sort. But faced with the dilemmas presented by his celebrity subject, Pyron wisely refrains from closing his arguments too conclusively.

On the one hand he offers an image of "the Wisconsin boy", who essentially remains unchanged throughout. From this angle, Liberace represented the "deepest longings" of all those Americans who led lives more humdrum than his. It was he, rather than smart-arse East Coast intellectuals, who knew what was what. This is the figure who loved children and was kind to the disabled. It is this same rootsy guy who paid to have his maid's teeth capped when she accompanied him to a party at the White House. Here image and reality are one. As the 400-plus pages conclude - and here the author advances more contemporary myths - Liberace was Peter Pan all the time.

On the other hand, on the way, Pyron cannot resist sleuthing around for the real (that is, the profane) Liberace. There are plenty of jilted lovers and professional pals shabbily treated who have stories to tell. Maybe, when we hear them, we decide Mr Showbiz was not such a nice guy after all. (In his last years he prevailed upon his much younger lover to undergo cosmetic surgery in order to resemble the object of his affections: which suggests, perhaps, an egoism monstrous even by the standards of the West Coast super-rich.) But in the case of Pyron's Liberace the profane leads to one place only: sex.

The difficulty here is that, hearsay aside, there is very little historical evidence of what did or did not happen, at least for the early part of his career. Liberace's erotic pleasures are recorded in anatomical detail, though the veracity of the suppositions on which they are based remains opaque. For key moments in the biography speculation about what others were doing has to suffice. ("If the weather was pleasant, a shirt might rise... Trousers and underpants might fall at the desire or request of one party or the other...") Yet without the sex, there is only one other story left: the one fashioned for the TV screen.

Pyron is cool-headed in recognising the dilemma that confronts him. Realising that neither the celestial nor the profane quite works, he devises his own summation, suggesting at one point that Liberace "effected a nearly unique combination of sincerity and artifice", a nifty tactic to avoid deciding which it is to be, though perhaps a moderately disappointing reflection on some seven or eight years of historical scholarship.

But he has a larger theme in mind, which is revealed in the subtitle of the book, "An American boy". He introduces it thus: "It seemed that his homosexuality encouraged his campy artificiality; the campiness, in turn, encouraged the caricature, in life and art, of the American dream. The anomalies, then, became the very sources of his representativeness." This suggests, I think, the welcome insight that maybe image and reality work as one, with unexpected, paradoxical results. If this argument had been followed with greater resolution, the competing claims of "sincerity" and "artifice" might not have appeared so irresolvable and a more pithy conclusion might have presented itself. Pyron quotes John Waters - the creator of the unimaginably transgressive Divine, who starred in Waters's movie Pink Flamingos - who says this of Liberace: "I'm convinced he's so all American that he's gone over the edge." In this reading, though, the pathology lies not in Liberace, but in the civilisation he graced: in America itself.

Bill Schwarz is reader in communications and cultural studies, Goldsmiths College, London.

Liberace: An American Boy

Author - Darden Asbury Pyron
ISBN - 0 226 68667 1
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.50
Pages - 494

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