Biography of Liberace

Liberace
Photo by Anwar Hussein / Getty Images

Wladziu Valentino Liberace ( May 16, 1919 - February 4, 1987 ) was a child piano prodigy who became a star of live concerts, television, and recordings. At the height of his success, he was considered one of the world's highest-paid entertainers. His flamboyant lifestyle and stage appearances earned him the nickname "Mr. Showmanship."

Early Life

Liberace was born in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, Wisconsin.

His father was an Italian immigrant, and his mother was of Polish descent. Liberace began playing the piano at age 4, and his prodigious talent was discovered at an early age.

At age 8, Liberace met the legendary Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski backstage at a Pabst Theater concert in Milwaukee. As a teenager in the Great Depression, Liberace earned money performing in cabarets and strip clubs despite disapproval from his parents. At age 20, he performed Liszt's Second Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Pabst Theater and subsequently toured the MIdwest as a piano player.

Personal Life

Liberace often hid his private life as a gay man by allowing public stories about romantic involvement with women to gain traction. In 2011, actress Betty White, a close friend, stated that Liberace was gay and she was often used by his managers to counter homosexual rumors. In the late 1950s, he sued the U.K.

newspaper Daily Mirror for libel after it published statements implying that he was gay. He won the case in 1959 and received more than $20,000 in damages.

In 1982, Liberace's 22-year-old former chauffeur and live-in lover of five years Scott Thorson sued him for $113 million in palimony after he was fired.

Liberace continued to insist that he wasn't gay, and the case was settled out of court in 1986 with Thorson receiving $75,000, three cars, and three pet dogs. Scott Thorson later said that he agreed to settle because he knew that Liberace was dying. His book Behind the Candelabra about their relationship was adapted as an award-winning HBO film in 2013.

Music Career

In the 1940s, Liberace reworked his live performances from straight classical music to shows that included pop music. it would become a signature element of his concerts. In 1944 he made his first appearance in Las Vegas. Liberace added the iconic candelabra to his act after seeing it used as a prop in the 1945 film A Song To Remember about Frederic Chopin

Liberace was his own personal publicity machine performing from private parties to sold-out concerts. By 1954, he earned a record $138,000 (more than $1,000,000 today) for a concert at New York's Madison Square Garden. Critics panned his piano playing, but his sense of showmanship endeared Liberace to his audiences. 

In the 1960s, Liberace returned to Las Vegas and referred to himself as, "a one-man Disneyland." His live Las Vegas shows in the 1970s and 1980s often earned more than $300,000 a week.

His final stage performance took place at Radio City Music Hall in New York on November 2, 1986.

Although he recorded almost 70 albums, Liberace's record sales were relatively small compared to his celebrity. Six of his albums were certified gold for sales.

TV and Films

Liberace's first network television program, the 15-minute Liberace Show, debuted in July 1952. It didn't lead to a regular series, but a syndicated film of his local live show gave him widespread national exposure.

Liberace made guest appearances on a wide variety of other shows in the 1950s and 1960s including The Ed Sullivan Show. A new Liberace Show started on ABC daytime in 1958, but it was canceled after only six months. Liberace eagerly embraced pop culture making guest appearances both on the Monkees and Batman in the late 1960s.

In 1978, Liberace appeared on the Muppet Show, and, in 1985, he appeared on Saturday Night Live

From early in his career, Liberace was interested in earning success as an actor in addition to his musical talents. His first film appearance occurred in the 1950 movie South Sea Sinner. Warner Bros. gave him his first starring role in 1955 in the film Sincerely Yours. Despite a big budget advertising campaign, the movie was a critical and commercial failure. He never again appeared in a lead role in a film.

Death

Outside of the public eye, Liberace was tested positive for HIV by his personal physician in August 1985. More than a year before Liberace's death, his lover of seven years, Cary James Wyman, was also tested positive. He later died in 1997. Another lover named Chris Adler later came forward after Liberace died and claimed that he received the HIV virus from sex with Liberace. He died in 1990.

Liberace kept his own illness a secret until the day he died. He did not seek any medical treatment. One of Liberace's last public interviews took place on TV's Good Morning America in August 1986. During the interview, he hinted that he might be sick. Liberace died of complications of AIDS on February 4, 1987, at his home in Palm Springs, California. At first, a range of causes of death were publicized, but the Riverside County coroner performed an autopsy and declared that those close to Liberace conspired to hide the real cause of death. The coroner stated it was pneumonia as a complication of AIDS. Liberace was buried at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Legacy

Liberace achieved his fame in a fashion unique to his own personal style. His presentation of shows as a piano-playing entertainer borrowed from classical music traditions, flamboyant circus-style shows, and the intimacy of piano bars. Liberace maintained an unparalleled connection to his core audience.

Liberace is also recognized as an icon among gay entertainers. Although he fought against being labeled as homosexual during his lifetime, his sexual orientation was widely discussed and recognized.

Pop music legend Elton John has stated that Liberace was the first gay person he remembered seeing on television, and he considered Liberace to be a personal hero.

Liberace also played a key role in the development of Las Vegas as an entertainment mecca. He opened the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas in 1979. It became a key tourist attraction along with his own live shows. The proceeds from the museum benefited the Liberace Foundation of Performing and Creative Arts. After 31 years, the museum closed in 2010 due to declining admissions.