An entertaining and rewarding biography of the pianist and entertainer whose fans’ adoration was equaled only by his critics’ loathing.
“I cried all the way to the bank,” was Wladziu Valentino Liberace’s response to his many detractors. Historian Pyron (Southern Daughter, 1991) admits his initial reluctance taking on Liberace’s biography, but he came to respect the pianist as he learned more about him. He persuasively argues that Liberace, thoroughly and rigorously trained, was a genuine musician as well a brilliant showman. His early conventional concerts usually received favorable notices, and many critics were enthusiastic. From his youth, however, Liberace had always preferred entertainment to recitals: thus his costumes and sets grew increasingly extravagant and he added popular music to his programs. This vulgarization, along with his frequently professed conservative midwestern values, proved too much for the high priests of 1950s Modernism. Led by the likes of Howard Taubman of the New York Times, critics lambasted Liberace wherever he appeared in reviews that were breathtakingly virulent. Many of his attackers, in those pre-Stonewall days, made astonishingly nasty allusions to his effeminate nature. Liberace, much liked by those who worked with him, took the broadsides mostly benignly, although he did sue and collect from the loathsome William “Cassandra” Connor (Britain’s answer to Westbrook Pegler) for a particularly vicious bit of homo-baiting. Pyron points out that, in the mid-1950s, for Liberace to have come out of the closet would have meant a certain end to his career: he thus did as much as he could (including lying under oath) to hide his proclivities. When simply narrating this uniquely American story, Pyron does a fine job, but he has an annoying tendency to make far-fetched allusions (e.g., to the ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, as well as the Antinomian and Arminian heresies). In addition, Pyron is not terribly well-versed in classical music—and this leads to such gaffes as referring to pianist Earl Wilde as a jazz musician.
Never mind, the flaws are minor and can be disregarded. Pyron tells an immensely entertaining story that should be fascinating and pleasurable to anyone with an interest in American popular culture. (50 photographs, unseen)