My Liberace Story
Liberace is hot again, thanks to that new HBO movie which, were he not already dead, would have killed him. Never did a man go to such lengths to look and act gay on stage but become so outraged and litigious when anyone suggested he might be any less straight than Duke Wayne offstage. I hope the film doesn't dwell so much on his sex life that his showmanship goes unmentioned. Lots of people out there play the piano as well or better but no one else was ever so colorful and good at grabbing the audience's attention.
This feels like a good time to tell my Liberace story. Yes, I have one. I was never in the same room with the man, not even with him on a stage and me in the audience but we did have a phone conversation I will never forget. Let me take you back to that day…
It was somewhere around 1979. I was in the office of a TV producer and it will become relevant to the story that this producer was gay. Very gay. Or maybe I should say very obviously gay. If one believed the gossip, he was also very prolific in his gayness. Years later, another writer who worked for the guy would suggest that at his funeral, they'll play, "It's Raining Men."
I was talking with this producer and for some reason, he mentioned that Liberace was a very good friend of his. I told him that I'd always found Liberace interesting…and that some day, after he was gone, someone could make a great bio-pic about the guy. I did not have the whole Scott Thorson relationship in mind because it was not then public knowledge, nor were the details of any of the entertainer's relationships. I was thinking of his rise to fame and all the struggles and I added, "Of course, they'd have to tell the story about Liberace and the cleaning fluid."
The producer said, "What's that about Liberace and cleaning fluid?"
I said, "You're a friend of his and you don't know about Liberace and the cleaning fluid?" The producer shook his head. He knew nothing of Liberace and cleaning fluid. I proceeded to tell him about his friend Liberace and the cleaning fluid…
The day John F. Kennedy was murdered, Liberace was playing a hotel in Pennsylvania. He was, like most of America, shocked and grief-stricken and depressed…and he decided to cancel his show for the evening. He so informed his staff, including his dresser, and they all went off to drink or watch the news or stare off into space or anything else people did that day. Then the hotel owner threatened a lawsuit if there was no performance that evening.
Liberace agreed to go on and tried to round up his staff. He found all but his dresser who, alas, had the only key to wherever they were storing Liberace's outfits. Thus, there was no fresh, sparkly outfit for the star to wear on stage for the commanded performance. There was, however, the outfit he'd worn the previous night…though there were a few stains on it. No problem, Liberace thought. He went out and bought a big bottle of dry cleaning fluid, took it back to his hotel and cleaned the stains off. Then, tired, he decided to lie down and take a nap. The open bottle of dry cleaning fluid and the just-cleaned garments were on a table by the bed. As he slept, he inhaled their fumes and pretty much destroyed his kidneys.
An hour or two later, he awoke, deathly ill. He didn't know at first what it was but an ambulance was called and soon, he was in an emergency room where doctors declared he was a goner. He was given the last rites and told to get his affairs in order…which he did over the next day or two by ordering expensive gifts for all his friends, effectively giving away much of his fortune.
The press reported Liberace was near death but it didn't get much attention. It was, after all, the day Kennedy was killed…so the story of Liberace's near-certain death ran in newspapers on page G-39 when it ran at all. One or two newspapers even reported that he'd died. But of course he didn't die. He defied all the doctors' predictions and eventually walked out of that hospital and back to even greater stardom. His story (and I think a few lawsuits) had much to do with the fact that such chemicals now carry warning labels and are handled with much more care.
So I finished telling the producer the story about Liberace and the cleaning fluid. He was astonished — that it happened and that he'd never heard that about his good friend. On an impulse, he shouted to his secretary, "Get me Liberace on the phone!" — which still strikes me as just about the most show-businessy thing anyone ever said in my presence. Moments later, his secretary buzzed to announce, "Liberace on Line Two," and the producer picked up the phone and said, "Lee?"
They chatted briefly and then the producer said, "I'm sitting here with a wonderful young man named Mark Evanier who's writing the show we're doing now. He's a tremendous fan of yours. You might call him an expert on your career." This was all a tremendous exaggeration. "He just told me the most amazing story about you and some cleaning fluid."
Liberace was astonished and impressed. The producer put the call on the speakerphone in time for me to hear, "— barely reported by anyone. I can't believe your young man knows about that." He then proceeded to tell the whole story and it was very melodramatic — sad in ways, uplifting in others. He was just finishing it as the producer was called out of his office on a matter.
He told Liberace, "Lee, I have to duck out for a moment to put out a fire. Here, I'll let you talk to Mark directly." Then he switched off the speakerphone and I picked up the call as he did indeed duck out.
Liberace said to me, "I'm so impressed that you knew about the cleaning fluid. I guess you are a real fan of mine."
I wasn't really but I said, "Well, you've sure got a lot of them." Which was true. I was never particularly among their order but I didn't mention that part.
"Tell me," he said. "Do you ever get to Las Vegas? I live there, you know. And I play 40 weeks a year at Caesars Palace." I told him I was in Vegas every few months and he said, "Well, next time you know you're coming, you must come to see my show. I'll arrange for you to be comped and to get a seat in the front row. My personal guest."
"That would be very nice," I said.
"Oh, and you absolutely must come backstage so I can meet you in person. You sound like a very nice young man and if you're working for our friend, you must be a superb writer."
You didn't have to be Tolstoy to work for this producer. You didn't even have to be Jacqueline Susann…but I said, "Thanks…and of course, I'd be honored to meet you after the show."
"Great. I'll give you my assistant's number and when you're going to be in town, you call and we'll set it up. Oh, and you know, if you're a fan of mine, I ought to have you out to the house. You can see my collection of pianos, my jewels, my cars. I just bought one of the rarest models of Rolls Royce in the world…oh and you being an expert on me, I'm sure you know about my swimming pool shaped like a piano."
It was all sounding like it would consume more of my life than I wanted to devote to Liberace. In fact, the call may have already exceeded that limit…but I said, "Sounds fascinating." He asked me where I stayed in Vegas and I told him, "Usually at the Frontier."
"Oh, that place is such a dump," he moaned. "Listen, why don't you just stay with me? You'll have plenty of time to get to know me and we could take a Jacuzzi together and —"
And I didn't hear what came next because a thought suddenly blasted its way into my brain. It went something like this…
"Liberace is hitting on me."
Maybe I should have realized it sooner but I'd never had a man hit on me. In '79, I'd never even had a woman hit on me. And I'm not sure I've ever heard of anyone of any sexual preference seriously hit on anyone without seeing them, though I suppose it happens. Obviously, the fact that the very gay producer had introduced me as a "wonderful young man," coupled with my alleged interest in Liberace, had led Mr. Candelabra to an erroneous assumption.
As I got my attention back to the conversation, I heard him mentioning something about massages and playing a private concert just for me. I decided I had to end this quickly so I said, "Mr. Liberace, this all sounds wonderful…"
"Lee. Call me Lee, please. All my friends do."
"Okay, Lee. Well, this all sounds wonderful. Would it be all right if I brought my girl friend along?"
"My girl friend. Oh, you'll like her. Hey, did you ever work with Spike Jones?"
"Well, she's his niece. She's an actress. She's on The Young and the Restless. Okay if I bring her along?"
Liberace said, "Yeah, sure. Well, call my assistant and oh — I'm sorry. I have to run. My other line is ringing." And he hung up without giving me the assistant's name or number, not that I would ever need that information.
About then, the producer walked back in and caught me chuckling. He asked, "Did he invite you for a Jacuzzi?" I nodded yes and he added, "I would have gone just to see if he wears the sequins into the tub."