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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Liberace- Book Review- "An American Boy"

Liberace: An American Boy

Darden Asbury Pyron

This book came out in 2000, thirteen years after the performer died of AIDS at the age of 68. Pyron is a professor, and the writing style sounds like a thesis paper, with the repetition of ideas annoying. Yet the 400 plus pages have a welcome depth, and the research is thorough.

It could almost be subtitled “A Study of Gay Men in America and their Sexual Habits,” due to the graphic detail on the pickup system for gays. Anyone who has homophobia or is uneasy when the subject comes up should not read this book, or skip over those parts.

Liberace was one of the few unique megastars in the music industry, occupying a niche that has never been equaled and never will be duplicated. He sold out multiple nights at the country’s largest venues, had an extremely successful TV show, and launched many other lucrative financial activities connected to his lengthy career that almost boggle the mind.

It all started when he was born with a caul, or “under the veil,” a very rare occurrence, and babies born with the transparent birth sac surrounding their bodies are considered very special. Another aspect of his birth is similar to Elvis Presley’s, he was the only survivor of twins born that day.

The legendary pianist and showman was a story in contrasts: though a conservative Roman Catholic that disliked hippies and the liberal waves of social change, yet he cruised incessantly picking up men until the end. He scorned drug abuse, but drank quite a bit himself. Liberace disdained Elton John’s costumes as comic, yet felt his own takeoff of the elaborate outfits seen in the Catholic Church were serious.

Though Liberace had inner conflicts about his sexuality in high school, his classmates were fond of him, despite his flashy dress and effeminate manner and interests. He knew how to cook, decorate, design and make clothes, and of course, play the piano, and generously shared his talents with everyone.

When Liberace met Elvis, he welcomed him with open arms to Las Vegas, and thereafter, Elvis sent a guitar shaped bouquet of flowers every time he came to town in gratitude.

Liberace was kind to virtually everyone he met, and this drove his popularity. His stage banter was so sophisticated that the famous talk show host, Jack Parr, said Liberace was the only guest he would not ad-lib with, considering him better than himself.

The first half of the book is exhilarating as the reader learns how Liberace ascends the heights of stardom, including performances for Queen Elizabeth and multiple visits to the White House. He was driven on to stages in Rolls Royces, traveled the world with massive pianos and extraordinary costumes, and bought and decorated gaudy mansions that make Graceland look sedate.

But when the seventies came shadows began to fall, and some of his lovers and companions were tied to heavy drug use, pornography, extortion, robbery, even murder, though Liberace was largely ignorant of the activities. Like many superstars, he becomes a recluse, unable to trust anyone to like him for anything more than his money, and on occasion, bizarre. He asked his live-in lover and assistant, Scott Thorson, to have plastic surgery to look more like Liberace, which he did.

After Liberace dumps Thorson, there is a legal firestorm, and a book later appeared by Thorson that details the bizarre life they led together. Thorson descends into drug addiction and consorts with dangerous underworld figures.

Finally the bill comes due for his constant and dangerous sex with hundreds of men, and he becomes one of the first major figures to die of AIDS. This book is fascinating on a lot of levels, and if you skip past the repetition and social history lessons, it really reveals Liberace for what he was, a unique and unforgettable performer that was following a different drum at every step.

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