This month sees the centennial of Wladziu Valentino Liberace, born in Wisconsin on May 16, 1919, a piano prodigy who, from the 1940s until his 1987 death, fashioned a startling level of musical and extra-musical fame. Combining an unabashedly self-promoting yet charmingly self-deprecating persona with a musical style turning from classical grandeur to pseudo-classical fireworks to pop-music indulgence on a dime, Liberace conquered nightclubs, then television, then Las Vegas, his accoutrements growing ever more lavish every step of the way. At one point he was possibly the highest-paid entertainer in the world.
Summarizing the opulence and paradox of Liberace’s career is difficult; one unlikely start might be his FBI file, running to nearly 600 pages, including redactions. The glamour is upfront: The vast majority of the file relates to the Valentine’s Day 1974 theft of a cache of Liberace’s jewelry from the Statler-Hilton Hotel in Dallas. The collection testifies to Liberace’s skill at self-branding, his Catholic faith, and, perhaps, the pressures of fame: a Tiffany watch and brooch emblazoned with a diamond “L,” with more diamonds spelling out his signature closing song, “I’ll Be Seeing You”; turquoise-and-silver and diamond-and-platinum crosses; a pair of gold, peanut-shaped pill containers. Liberace himself jotted a list of the losses, sketching some of the more elaborate items, finishing with his familiar, bold signature, as if the inventory was also a souvenir.
But the file also hints at more serious matters. A 1969 memo mentions Liberace’s involvement in an illegal gambling ring, for which he was nearly called before a grand jury. A note from an anonymous informant (“I am doing my duty”) makes the unlikely accusation that Liberace was “a communist and involved in the dope rackets of California.” A number of pages concern an investigation into “Compromise and Extortion of Homosexuals.” While Liberace is listed as a “victim,” the entertainer’s lifelong circumspection and denial surrounding his sexuality apparently forestalled cooperation — “little or nothing would be gained in interviewing Liberace in connection with this matter.” Such reports are buttressed by newspaper clippings reporting Liberace’s participation in a 1957 lawsuit against the tabloid magazine “Confidential,” which persistently ran stories alleging that the pianist was gay.
What there is no mention of is music. That, too, is oddly congruent with the way Liberace’s formidable, flamboyant showmanship sometimes unfairly relegated his actual playing to an afterthought. His harshest critics dismissed his technique as slapdash, empty glitter, but Liberace’s pianism was built on a connection to the virtuoso tradition. His classical training, subsumed into conspicuous pop flair, could still coax a sound or turn a phrase with an elegance and charisma that forebears like Franz Liszt, Moriz Rosenthal, or Ignace Paderewski (one of Liberace’s idols) would have recognized. Like them, Liberace leveraged substance into style, and vice versa: a modern celebrity constructed on old-fashioned lines.