DeVos: What happened in Las Vegas … |

DeVos: What happened in Las Vegas …

Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

Liberace owned two Rolls Royce convertibles that he drove around Las Vegas in the 1950s with his trademark grin outshining the headlights. One Rolls was painted in patriotic stars and stripes, while the other was clad entirely in mirror tiles that had been etched in a theme of galloping horses.

Those were his everyday drivers, but his prize was a 1934 Mercedes Excalibur convertible covered completely in Austrian rhinestones. The notoriety and extravagance Las Vegas enjoys today is in no small part due to Liberace and his over-the-top flamboyance.

OK, how popular was Liberace?

Liberace could play the piano quite well in 1923 at the age of 4. By 20, he was a soloist in the Chicago Symphony. In 1983, the Guinness Book of World Records declared him the highest paid musician in the world. These figures are adjusted for inflation but his 1953 performance in Carnegie Hall earned a staggering $1.2 million, his monthly paycheck from the Las Vegas Riviera was $1.7 million and in 1986, three months before he died, he performed 18 concerts in 21 days, grossing $5.3 million dollars.

He played in my all-time favorite movie, “The Loved One.” It was the screen adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s, scathing and hysterical send-up of the business of funerals and dying. The screenplay was written by Terry Southern, himself among the funniest of the Saturday Night Live writers. Liberace is perfectly pitched as Mr. Starker, an unctuous coffin salesman. Jonathan Winters is the minister. If you don’t go to church, by all means see it. If you do go to church, don’t.

Television was in its infancy, and Liberace was a spectacle that deserved to be seen. His fame and fortune grew as outrageous as his costumes. “The Liberace Show” first aired in 1953, eventually drawing 30 million viewers twice weekly. Syndicated re-runs would be broadcast 10 times a week on more channels than “I Love Lucy.” “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” declared that Liberace was “the fastest piano player in the world,” playing 6,000 notes in two minutes. He once described himself, “I’m a one-man Disneyland.”

The ceiling of the bedroom in his Las Vegas palace was a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel. In the center, surrounded by smiling cherubs was his grinning face. His interests were varied and there was a private life as well, with an immense trove of pornography and a patent on a disappearing toilet.

Close friends knew that Liberace was gay back when gay meant light-hearted and happy. In the States, his wealth and influence made problems and rumors disappear. He was very tight with the no-nonsense mobsters that ran Las Vegas but England wasn’t so jolly. British audiences loved him but British critics tore him apart. The London Daily Press described Liberace as a “deadly, sniggering, snuggling, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.”

It was the first time Liberace was publicly branded as gay. He was outraged at their attack and swore vengeance, suing the paper. Money was no object to the highest paid performer in the world, but times were different. He was shaken by the fear of losing everything and quickly fled back to the safe haven of Las Vegas. There he attempted to distract the negative attention by taking up with Sonja Henie who had turned Olympic gold in figure skating into a very successful career in show-business. The two together became a publicity powerhouse and the world’s tabloids couldn’t get enough.

Thanks to the miracle of massive attorney fees, the London court sided with Liberace, clearing his name and awarding him $22,500, which he promptly donated to charity. Once his reputation was again secure, he dropped Sonja like a clumsy ice skater and never again sought the cover or companionship of a female.

Liberace died of AIDS at 67 on Feb. 4, 1987, at his winter home in Palm Springs, Calif.

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