Magazine article The Spectator

Down Market All the Way to the Bank

Magazine article The Spectator

Down Market All the Way to the Bank

Article excerpt


by Darden Asbury Pyron

University of Chicago Press, 19.50, pp. 494

The life of Liberace was one of those which give the impression of having been assembled from a kit of ready-made components. There was the insecure childhood, complete with feckless, remote father and doting, manipulative mother. There was the dismally unpromising social context, in this case a `lunch-bucket' suburb of Milwaukee, where the star's family compensated for the bleakness of the Depression by icing the reject cookies Mrs Liberace brought home from her work in a food factory, after a failed attempt at running a grocery store from her living-room. There was the statutory period of unhappiness at school, with young Wladziu Valentino Liberace, otherwise known as Lee, dressed in his brother's cast-offs, mocked both for his girly lisp and for his skills as a cook and a dressmaker. There were the primitive auguries of genius, when the three-year-old played `Yes, We Have No Bananas' by ear on the battered upright. And there was the artistic breakthrough, in this case a concert at which, for an encore, a voice from the audience suggested that the demure, classically trained soloist play the hit tune `Three Little Fishes' in the style of Bach. Liberace obliged, went on downmarket and never looked back.

His success as a showman depended on a carefully studied conservatism. The allAmerican boy, who only went abroad once (with disastrous repercussions), was not a diehard Republican for nothing. Television, still gifted with novelty value, honed the act to perfection, complete with the signature candelabra, those candyfloss costumes with their weird amalgam of the shaman and the chorus girl, the almost menacing obtrusiveness of that gleaming dentistry and lacquered toupee, and Lee's singing voice, an imperfectly focused whine which became somehow more endearing precisely because he wasn't Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. Indispensable to the whole knickerbocker glory was his peculiar constituency, patrons of polyester, blue-rinse and home-sales cosmetics, whose eagerness for a touch of his hands suggested expectations of the numinous he was perfectly willing to provide.

The plausible implication running throughout Darden Asbury Pyron's biography is that this context of harmless if somewhat sterile excess was designed as Liberace's riposte both to the early deprivations amid which he grew up and to the father who had failed to take him seriously enough at a formative age. …

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