Beyond the Valley of the Rhinestones
My life with Liberace.
I am having mood swings. The imminent closure of the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas is working my last fashion nerve. It's like somebody is threatening to step on a sequined kitten or throw a handful of crystal-encrusted cuff links into a cracked old toilet bowl. What kind of world are we living in where gloriously tacky showbiz memorabilia is so undervalued that somebody—some heartless brute!—would permit all those chinchilla capes and bejeweled Bentleys to be dumped—sob!—into a grim cold storage locker? That's no way to treat a deceased style icon!
My connection to Liberace goes long and, if you'll pardon the expression, deep.
England, 1959. Liberace successfully sues the London Daily Mirror for calling him, among other things, "a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love." (Never has an insult been longer or in greater need of an acronym.) Having been similarly accused in my gritty schoolyard at the time, I experienced a distinct twinge of solidarity with the beleaguered entertainer. I suspected that I too might be a DWSSCSLQGFMIHOML.
The late 1970s. Giddy with anticipation, I take my seat in the Grand Ballroom of the Rivierain Las Vegas, where Liberace is performing nightly. Color me underwhelmed. I am shocked at the monumental turgidity of his gruesome piano-playing and lousy repartee. It is impossible to believe that a.) Lib was ever, as legend would have it, the highest paid performer in the world, and b.) that he was ever able to convince anyone on earth that he was anything other than a DWSSCSLQGFMIHOML.
And yet, by the end of the show, I am completely and utterly in Lib's thrall. His total lack of irony makes for a ferociously compelling spectacle. Liberace MEANS it! With his white minks and bejeweled everythings, he is the most blithely flamboyant dude to walk the planet since Louis XIV. He boldly annihilates all those conventional American notions of jock/nerd masculine attire. He is the un-Ralph Lauren, the anti-WASP, a gorgeous paean to the utter pointlessness of good taste. He is FUN.
Radio City Music Hall, 1986. Liberace is flown high above the stage, a la Mary Poppins, in a massive, violet-hued, ostrich-trimmed cape. The cable riggers are unable to spin him around to face his adoring fans. He flails geriatrically like a jellyfish. The wire operators give up and fly him ignominiously offstage. Five painful minutes later, he walks onstage and offers up the same dismal-yet-endearing patter I heard 10 years earlier at the Riviera: The diamond buttons are worth more than the whole outfit. But I couldn't just wear the buttons—or could I?You know that bank I used to cry all the way to? I bought it.
During the finale of the concert I rush the stage. I am accompanied by a gal-pal named Henny Garfunkel. Henny is an old-school downtown fashion eccentric. She wears her hair in a strange vertical funnel-shape. Her lips are clownishly overpainted. Lib suddenly spots Henny in the crowd of grizzled, more conventional admirers. He flinches and recoils. Three months later he is dead. To this day Henny insists that she killed Liberace.
1990. I return to Las Vegas and pay my respects at the Liberace Museum, drinking in the array of fur-trimmed costumes and tchotchkes, which includes—drumroll!—the world's largest rhinestone. The museum is empty with the exception of two gay men who are pushing their respective mothers around in wheelchairs. Both women have oxygen tanks and the accompanying plastic tubing. These hauntingly similar couples seem unaware of each other. If you were a Martian viewing this scene, you would assume that this was a museum for gay men, where, upon arrival, the ticket lady offers you not a talking guide plus headphones, but an old lady in a wheelchair with respiratory problems.
I am worried. This chilling vision does not augur well for the posthumous life of my fallen idol. Siegfried and Roy and their giant pussies are stealing Lib's glam-schlock thunder. Unlike Elvis, Liberace has no rich archive of music and movies with which to recruit new adherents. I fear that the Liberace legacy may well be mincing its way to oblivion.
1998. My Jonny and I acquire a spunky little terrier. We name him Liberace in a desperate attempt to counteract the diminishing interest in Mr. Showmanship. I sit our Libby down on his cushion and explain to him that people today are too stupid to understand the stylish camp majesty of his namesake and that he, our pooch, is performing a very important cultural function by keeping the name alive. He pees on my leg.
Spring 2010. Dinner with Jerry Weintraub. The mega-producer and former pal of Liberace tells me that he is in the throes of producing a biopic focusing on the tawdry shenanigans of Mr. Showmanship and his one-time chauffeur Scott Thorson. (Snag yourself a copy of Scott's sizzling tell-all, titled Behind the Candelabra.) Matt Damon and Michael Douglas are set to play Scott and Liberace, respectively. Soderbergh will direct. I feel a surge of optimism about the Lib legacy. There is hope.
Fall 2010. Hopes dashed. First the museum announces its closure. And then, more tragically, Michael Douglas' cancer diagnosis puts the film project on ice. Let us pray for a positive outcome so that Mr. Douglas, and Lib's memory, can thrive in the coming years.
P.S.: In the age of Gaga and Adam Lambert it seems unthinkable that we can't find someone capable of picking up Liberace's sequined baton. There has to be somebody out there with the requisite guts and panache. Caution: You may need to head east to find the appropriate lack of irony. For inspiration check out one-namer Azis, the current gypsy pop sensation from Bulgaria.
And please, dump your he-might-just-be-the-next-Liberace suggestions on the comments page.
Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.(Photo by Roxanne Lowit.)