IV: The Final Years
Let Me Call You Sweetheart
In covering the final years of Liberace’s life, Darden Pyron accomplishes two last main tasks. He takes us through the last and grandest period of the Liberace performances, and he rolls up his shirtsleeves and digs into a clinical analysis of AIDS.
The last performances were the ones that turned around even the back-biting New York critics. These shows packed Radio City Music Hall for seventeen performances for two or more years running, a feat never equaled before or since. Reading Pyron’s descriptions make me absolutely positive, for the first time in over 400 pages, that I wish I had been there.
There is no question that it no longer mattered how we happen to like our Liszt and Chopin. “Mr. Showmanship” demonstrated completely his mastery of working an audience, with the hardened journalists singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” along with the blue-jean teeny boppers and blue-haired ladies. Liberace finally broke down all barriers between performer and audience. To witness such an occasion would be a rare privilege; it might not have mattered whether the performer had been Liberace, Richard Burton or Abraham Lincoln. This dispelled any lingering doubts I had, about where Mr. Liberace hung on the balance scale of humanity. He made one heck of a lot of people awfully happy, and, had I been there, I would have been one of them, singing the saccharine, hopelessly clichéd “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” right along with the rest of them.
|I suppose contemporary times dictate that no biography of Liberace can be fair and accurate without a detailed scholarly analysis of Liberace qua gay man, and Liberace qua AIDS victim. This is precisely what Liberace hated and wished to avoid. If there is cause for blame because we cannot merely review the man as entertainer, it rests not with Pyron, but in our culture’s inability to come to grips with the controversies structuring the public life of so many millions.|
Pyron is a professor of history at Florida International University, and the historian’s job must be to present the facts within the actual social, political and personal context in which they occurred. We must all grant that an objective discourse on homosexuality and AIDS in modern America are still two extraordinarily tough sells. To his credit, Pyron manages to logically present the Liberace phenomenon within this necessary framework. Still, these two areas are ones in which Pyron seemed least comfortable.
We have already discussed Pyron’s presentation of Liberace’s most closeted private life in a world that changed from Victorian to Pentagon to “Beach Blanket Babylon” within the short span of the performer’s life. We have affirmed, I hope, what Pyron tried to show, that it makes little sense to overly condemn Liberace for staying private. We’ll recall he did what so many millions of other non-celebrity gays and lesbians did over that span of time – mindful, of course, that few or none of we lesser luminaries ever had benefit of the scintillating guidance of that Bristol Book to light our personal journey to self-emancipation.
Concerning AIDS, Pyron quickly asks the same question it is natural for us all to ask: when did he contract it? In this case, turning the question around is actually the best way of answering it: given what we now know about how AIDS infects, and its frequently long-term dormancy period, and the general lack of AIDS knowledge in the early 1980’s when millions first contracted it, how is it possible for a man with Liberace’s sexual history to NOT contract it?
Pyron dutifully presents socio-political criticism from both right and left: as a queer, God was punishing him as the Bible promises to all evil-doers; as a prominent (and obviously gay) man, where was his sense of social responsibility in not acknowledging his illness publicly, and in not warning others in the community?
At times it is difficult to tell whether Pyron is merely presenting the viewpoints, or may be preferential to one or the other. I must say, in talking over the years with gay men who lived through those fearsome years of uncertainty, who were also sexually active at the time, the general feeling was, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
By the mid 1980’s, you would have thought everybody had a plaster bust of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop on the mantelpiece. “Safe sex” wasn’t just a good idea; for all but the diehard and uneducable, it was the one mantra you couldn’t live without. But, by that time, it was too late for many. The nation was in the middle of an epidemic with no known cure. “Safe sex” and even sexual monogamy transformed the lives, play and domesticity of the gay and straight communities alike.
Life and Death
Even in the sections of the biography dealing with AIDS, I recall utterly no mention of Liberace or his lovers using, discussing or even considering any kind of “safe sex” or other defensive behavior.
If expanding public awareness of this deadly threat changed social behavioral patterns, Pyron doesn’t comment directly on whether this awareness even penetrated the Liberace Neverland enclave. Thorson was never infected, but a later lover, Cary James, was. Given Liberace’s preference for clinging to Bristol’s ebullient optimism, even when faced with the “need” to face overwhelming facts to the contrary, Pyron shows us that, once again, Liberace took the path of least resistance, which meant multiple partners, which meant AIDS.
As the Epilogue winds the saga of the biography to a close, Pyron focuses on the chronology of funeral arrangements, the whitewashing and then politicizing of the death certificate (it got changed to state AIDS as the cause of death), and the inevitable clash of attorneys as the survivors circled in on the remains of the estate. There is little to review here.
Such is the sad chronology of life and death in a litigatious America.
Las Vegas Today
I would have preferred, perhaps, an instant replay of some of the good times, or a visit to the Liberace Museum, or some other celebration of the life and times of one of the most spectacular entertainment figures in American history.
Lacking that, I would like to conclude by sharing the real-life visit to Las Vegas which prompted me to agree to try reading the Pyron biography.
Easier said than done, it turned out. Here is the anecdote that motivated this review.
My partner and I traveled to Las Vegas to attend the wedding of some very good friends in the first week of August, 2005. Travel was difficult, as he was very weak from the effects of cancer and chemotherapy. We very much wanted to make this trip, which, it is still hard for me to accept or to say, was to be our last time in Las Vegas. We very much needed for this to be a memorable, wonderful trip, which, I am happy to say, it most certainly was.
The wedding and reception were planned as a “Liberace theme”. Mind you, our friends are solid, dependable, thoughtful and likeable people. I can still admit, now, to some private eye-rolling skepticism about this “theme”. Like many people, my preconceptions about this Liberace legend and his aura were barely charitable.
In the Chapel, we were joined by a Liberace “impersonator” – I’m told there are many such in Las Vegas – and he said that he would rejoin us at the dinner reception. Our good friends were married as Man and Wife soon enough, and we and our entire entourage worked our way, past the then-closed Liberace Museum, to the restaurant for the reception.
This man, this pianist who called himself “Lee”, was a dead ringer for Liberace as best as I could tell. He had the rings, the hair “do”, the costume, and the general facial appearance of the legend. He was quite creditable at the piano.
“Lee” was so memorably friendly and personable that I just assumed he was a personal friend of our host, though in fact they had never met before. Soft-spoken, he had a way of engaging each and every one of us guests in conversation in a way that made us feel as if we must have known him, somehow, for a long time. Like a graceful guest who knows exactly how to mingle without interrupting or stealing the show, he shared talk with us as individuals or small groups at each table, but we would all still strain to hear what was being said at the other tables.
He showed us his rings to admire; “after all, you paid for them”. He smiled constantly; you could see how happy he was to be there with us. He played the grand piano splendidly. He enticed a close friend of the family into playing on the piano bench with him, rekindling the years of practice she had left behind in her past, and she was quite good, and every bit as pleased with herself as we were.
I had not read the book then. I didn’t realize this is exactly how Liberace “worked” his audiences. No matter how many time “Lee” had done it all before, this was real. It was genuine. I can vouch that we all felt he was an important and memorable part of the gathering of guests at the reception. At no time did he seem intrusive, like those tiresome waiters who interrupt every few minutes on some contrived pretext. His agenda was always our agenda. We most thoroughly enjoyed the presence of this most delightful person. We were genuinely sorry when he slipped away at the end of his contacted performance, without fanfare. This felt like the wistful regret when a favorite old friend we haven’t seen in ages suddenly has to leave the party early.
Moreover, it was a wonderful wedding. I couldn’t help but notice that “Lee” brought many of us together into conversation who had never met each other before, and, but for him, might or might not have found the opportunity.
Was I so impressed with the impressions of an impersonator – a third-hand experience, as it were – that this changed my thinking about Liberace? Yes. This experience is in stark contrast with the tragedy that so many entertainers, who bring so much joy and pleasure to the lives of others, should fail so notably in bringing happiness into their own personal private lives and to those with whom they surround themselves.
In a world that ranks performers on their ability to convince the audience that they enjoy the stage (as opposed to merely putting on a good show), Liberace stands out as one who truly enjoyed what he did and truly enjoyed the happiness it brought to others.
In conclusion, I will always be glad I read Pyron’s biography of Liberace, but the bottom line is that it explained my early and positive grasp of how I, the skeptic’s skeptic, so thoroughly enjoyed “Lee” the impersonator at the Las Vegas Wedding. In the entertainment world, Liberace was a one-of-a-kind genuine article. Liberace died in 1987, but I would go back to Las Vegas just to see the impersonator in action again.
This ends my review of Darden Pyron's biography of Liberace. Following up on my wish that we might have had a replay of "some of the good times", or a visit to the Liberace Museum, I've added links to other Liberace resources in Section 6, References. In Section 5, I make good on my promise to convey my impressions of Liberace's music itself. I am no more music critic than book critic, but what would a review of Liberace's life be without mention of music, the central gemstone of his whole sparkly lifetime?
If you walk away from this review knowing more about Liberace's world than you did before, that makes this project worthwhile. If you enjoyed it, that's everything. For a guy who can't get far enough away from the lights and noise of the big city, I'm OK with Las Vegas.
Throw away the stereotypes, lose a roll of quarters in the slots, and treat yourself to some fine dining and your choice of entertainment and elegant lodgings. Take in a show. Walk the boulevard. Check out the fountain light shows in the cool of the evening. Get a room on the 20th floor and see the whole town. Ride the Manhattan Express roller coaster (picture inset) if you're brave. While you're in Las Vegas, check out Carluccio's and the Liberace Museum. Have yourself a memorable weekend!
Alex Forbes ©2006