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Monday, Nov. 22, 2010

Liberace: A Simple Boy From Milwaukee

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Wladziu Valentino Liberace’s entrance into the world foreshadowed a career renowned for dramatic entrances. On May 16, 1919, in West Allis, Frances Zuchowski, a Polish-speaking young woman from Menasha, and her husband, Salvatore Liberace, a professional French horn player from Italy, gave birth to twins. One child died at birth, while the other weighed an astonishing 13 pounds and arrived with a caul, the transparent membrane of the birth sac that in many cultures serves as an omen that the child will be gifted.

Salvatore’s unwavering commitment to art and music compelled him to invest a great deal of time and money exposing Wally, as Liberace was then known, and his siblings to music. Like many Polish immigrants at the time, Wally’s mother was traditional, conservative and religious, and she deeply resented both the time and money her husband devoted to the children’s musical training. According to Liberace: An American Boy, an exhaustive biography by Darden Pyron, the couple’s antithetical values were the source of constant conflict in the Liberace home, and often manifested in physical violence.

Wally began playing piano at the age of 4. To increase his exposure to music, his father took him to concerts in Milwaukee and allowed him to play records on the Victrola. But Salvatore was also a demanding taskmaster and an unforgiving perfectionist. It wasn’t long before Wally’s prodigious talent was evident.

In his early teens, Liberace had a speech impediment. This, coupled with his fondness for cooking and music and his avoidance of sports, meant fodder for his peers. He was constantly taunted and mocked. This alienation strengthened his focus and, under the guidance of his longtime music teacher, Florence Kelly, Liberace’s musical talent became finely honed. Encouraged by his older brother George, Liberace began playing popular ragtime tunes in theaters, on local radio, at weddings and in cabarets and strip clubs to earn money. At 20, he was invited to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when it visited the Pabst Theater in 1940.

Liberace got his big break in 1944 when he played Las Vegas. His handsome, boyish looks and energetic interaction with the audience had a significant effect on women. They would go to the concerts while their male counterparts went gambling. It wasn’t long before the casinos realized that Liberace was good for business, and paid him handsomely in return. According to Pyron, Liberace’s goal was to reach larger audiences as a headliner and a television, movie and recording star. He began to make his act more flamboyant—and as the highest-paid entertainer in the world, he could afford to do it. Before long, he was a pop culture superstar, the Lady Gaga of his time.

Liberace publicly ignored his homosexuality throughout his life, even fighting and settling libel cases that put his sexual orientation in question. His domestic partner of five years, Scott Thorson, sued Liberace for palimony and wrote a tell-all book called Behind the Candelabra,which Steven Soderbergh is currently developing as a movie. When Liberace died at the age of 67, his meticulously crafted public persona was finally stripped away in the morgue. Before a horde of journalists, the coroner gave a press conference that revealed Liberace had died of complications due to AIDS. His body is entombed in the Forest Lawn cemetery in Los Angeles.

But even when he was living in California, Liberace never forgot his Midwest roots. “Don’t be misled by this flamboyant exterior,” the artist once said. “Underneath I remain the same—a simple boy from Milwaukee.”