Note to readers: Just a few months before his Feb. 4, 1987 death, Liberace appeared in Dallas to promote his book The Wonderful Private World of Liberace. He continued to live the fiction of his heterosexuality throughout an entertaining, quotable press conference. As HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra nears its Sunday, May 26th premiere, here’s a look at how he was back in mid-fall, 1986. This article was originally published on Nov. 17th of that year.
By ED BARK
Vladziu Valentino Liberace, who broke into show business using the name Walter Busterkeys, is dragging on a filterless cigarette, wearing a black leather jacket, but not looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One.
He has four rings on his fingers, but no bells on his toes. The immaculately white teeth are obviously capped, the hairpiece is a dead give-away and the 67-year-old face is unlined, save for a pair of designer creases in the forehead. The voice is firmer than fey.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asks. “I’m a strange smoker. I quit for six months and then I start in again. I figure that way at least I cut down to half. But I can quit any time I want.”
A small collection of reporters is unresponsive, leading Liberace to press on.
“Tonight I’ll be reunited with four of my dogs,” he says. “They’re coming in from Palm Springs to meet me at the airport.”
His other 22 dogs remain in Las Vegas. Some of them, he says, are Chinese fighting dogs; they attack strangers, so they don’t travel particularly well. Liberace also has a West Highland Terrier, “which we call my West Highland Terrorist.”
He is in town to promote his new book, The Wonderful Private World of Liberace, by Liberace. It’s a lavish, 224-page, oversized volume, loaded with pictures of the author and his surroundings, and retailing for $29.95.
“As much as people think they know me,” he says, “they really don’t. They don’t really know Liberace the person, and this is what this book is all about.”
Chapter 3 is something of a revelation. Titled “I Lost My Virginity at Sixteen,” it details his deflowering at the hands of a nightclub blues singer named Miss Bea Haven. The chapter seems somewhat out of sync with the rest of the book, which includes long discourses on Liberace’s dogs, housekeepers, houses, his sainted mother, Frances, and cooking. In Chapter 9, readers are shown how to make Liberace Sticky Buns. “Believe me, there’ll be none left over,” he writes.
“The fact that I lost my virginity at 16, I don’t think is all that sinful,” Liberace says, noting that other, gamier reminiscences were excised by the book’s publisher, Harper & Row. “I think sooner or later you have to lose your virginity. Otherwise I’d be some kind of freak.”
Liberace’s publicist for the day says that he once romanced figure skater Sonja Henie, who left him and “broke his heart.” Save for the misbehavin’ Miss Bea Haven, the book is mum on the author’s sex life.
Liberace, who punctuates his speech with “ya knows,” has been a nationally known figure since 1952, when The Liberace Show premiered on NBC. Lately, he has been breaking attendance records at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and playing Vegas regularly. He has endured because he is a genuine original. Show business has many flamboyant entertainers, but they can’t hold a candle, or a candelabra, to Liberace.
“I was fortunate to come along at a time when I had no competition,” he says. “Now people are pitted against each other to create a competitive atmosphere that didn’t exist when I was on TV. People accepted me for what I was and didn’t say, ‘Ah, I don’t like him, let’s turn on that other fella who does the same thing.’ There was nobody that did the same thing.”
On the piano player front, only Elton John comes even close. But Liberace describes John as “bizarre, where I have never been bizarre. With him, the headdresses and the glasses and all of that, you really have to be told who it is. But with me, there’s no question.”
Liberace has been the subject of two other authorized books, Liberace Cooks and Liberace.
“I try to beat them to the punch,” he says of Kitty Kelley-type bios. “Those books are exposes, and I think they’re very devastating. But I will admit, I enjoy reading them, like I enjoy reading the rags. When I go to the market, I’ll buy the rags, The Enquirer and all that. It’s kind of fun . . . It’s gotten to the point where you can tell who’s hot and who’s not. All of a sudden, you start reading every week about Vanna White, and this one and that one. Then all of a sudden they’re replaced by other people who suddenly make some kind of an impression. For a while it was Michael Jackson. Then it was Prince. It’s always tinged with a little scandalous material.”
Liberace disapproves of entertainers who bring their scandals onstage with them.
“If I’m sitting in an audience, and I pay $25 or $30 for a ticket, I don’t want to hear that ‘Thanks for giving me another chance’ talk. I want to be entertained by that person’s talent. It’s amazing how many of them say, “I’m straight now and I’m doing well’ and so forth. I really think it’s asking for sympathy, to be understood. I don’t think it enhances their talent any . . . I think I would like to be remembered for making people happy and bringing some comfort and joy into their lives without preaching or getting on any soapbox or anything.”
Today’s audiences, he adds, are “quick to forgive. Years ago, if you made a boo-boo of any kind at all, you had to live with it for the rest of your life. I don’t think that exists anymore.”
Liberace’s book pictures him with several of today’s trendier personalities, including Cyndi Lauper, Rick James and “my young friend” Michael Jackson, for whom he planned to cook a “real Southern soul-food meal” until learning Jackson was a vegeterian. He fell back on a vegetarian dish smothered with a packaged Hollandaise sauce. Michael reportedly loved it.
He has been offered, he says, a part as himself on Miami Vice, but declined because, “If I’m going to play myself, then I’m not really adding to my prestige.” Cast him as a district attorney or a “sidekick to Don Johnson” and he’d be on the set tomorrow, Liberace says.
He’ll probably endure for as long as there’s a flounce in his step. At this stage of his career, overstaying his welcome has become a principal concern. Lucille Ball comes to mind.
“She had so much going for her already with the old I Love Lucy series,” he says. “I’ve watched her new show (Life With Lucy) a few times and I think she still has the know-how and the ability. But I look at her now and I think, ‘If that was my mother up there, would I like it? Would I want her to do pratfalls and things like that?’ I think her series should have a little more dignity to it, because she is a respected 75-year-old woman. And I don’t think she can do at 75 what she did 35 years ago.
“I think George Burns is a one-of-a-kind octogenarian,” he adds. “I saw him do a show in Vegas just recently, and he was very sharp and he didn’t miss a cue, didn’t miss a joke. But when he walked off that stage, he was an old, old man. Took those tiny little steps.
“I don’t ever want to be caught in that same situation. I want to bounce off.”
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