I am a shallow person who wallows in celebrity journalism.
Recently, I picked up my copy of Entertainment Weekly with the cover story, “The Glittering Gonzo Tale of Liberace” starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
I would have devoured the story anyway, but the story of Liberace has special meaning to me. I never met Scott Thorson, the 39-years-younger-closeted lover of Liberace who wrote the 1988 memoir Behind the Candelabra, that the movie is based on, but I did spend a lovely few hours with Lee in his hotel room in Chicago.
And what fun we had.
In 1973 I was at the lowest rung on the feature writing ladder at Chicago Today, one of two daily afternoon newspapers in the city at the time. Evidently the top entertainment writers were busy interviewing bigger movie stars, because I would never have rated this high-stakes interview otherwise.
Knock-knock. The door of the hotel suite was opened by a handsome, 50-something, six-foot tall, smiling Liberace. He was dressed casually in a navy cashmere sweater over jeans. I introduced myself and he asked me to call him Lee. “Lee and Lo,” he said, “I like it.”
He complimented me on my professional-looking black suit. “Oh, I’d rather wear my new vest with fringe over jeans, but my editor would have a fit if I dressed that way. I can’t wait to see you perform, especially to see your costumes….they are so fabulous!"
I continued in this innocuous vein, asking him how he dressed as a teenager in conservative, West Allis, Wisconsin. Liberace saved the day (and the article) by responding, “I was considered a classical piano prodigy since I was 7 and played my concerts in tuxedo style.
"When I played a concert in La Crosse, Wisconsin, someone in the audience requested ‘Three Little Fishes’ as an encore, which I then played in the style of several different classical composers. So thanks to that request I had a gimmick that helped me gain attention and a eventually a chance to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“I continued taking requests, talking with the patrons, cracking jokes, and paying greater attention to staging, lighting, and presentation. To answer your question, I was always obsessed with fashion and saw I could be over the top with glitzy garments when I performed so I allowed my eccentricities to take over.”
I wanted to talk more about his costumes. Did he design them himself? How many people worked on them? Could he give me an idea of the cost? Ignoring my babbling, he stood up and took my hand.
Wow, I thought, he really likes me; maybe he’ll ask me for a date. Should I accept or will I jeopardize my journalistic values?
He led me to the bedroom. I really got flustered until he opened his closet door and winked at me. “Would you like to see the costumes I am going to wear for my shows here?” He showed me his diamond- studded vest and jacket, the big bow tie adorned with crystals and the coup d’état—his ermine cape. He let me drape it over my shoulders and I swung around the room like a diva. He even let me try on his jewelry—gold, diamonds, emeralds, all fabulous.
When not performing in costume, Lee said, he wore street clothes and was seldom recognized. Imagine, Liberace buying off the rack. “It's true,” he said. “I'm a 42 regular.”
“Just last month, my assistant and I went down to the hotel dining room for a light dinner. When we approached the entrance, the Maître D stopped us and looked down his nose at me. ‘Sorry, sir, the restaurant’s policy is that you must wear a jacket and tie. Perhaps you would like to try our coffee shop.' My assistant began to step forward to tell him who he was chastising, but I stopped him. I went to my room and slipped on one of my most outrageous outfits and returned to the dining room. As soon as the guests saw me, they began applauding. Of course, the obnoxious Maître D was speechless.
I just loved my time with Lee and wrote all about it, leaving out that I tried on his costumes. I did see his performance and was so thrilled when he came out in the ermine cape.
Liberace never changed. He was all about glitz, glamour and fame until his death in 1986 of AIDS. He never came out and no one cared. The movie may have negative things to say, but I don’t think anyone who met him will ever forget his good nature, showmanship and talent.
I did find out one unforgettable fact in my interview: Liberace spent at least $100,000 a year on costumes.