Prompted by a garish poster touting HBO’s imminent release of the Steven Soderburgh-directed movie “Behind the Candelabra” featuring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon and a Bichon Frisé, each decked out in cosmetics and white fur, I read Scott Thorson’s tell-all tale of the same name detailing the seduction, delusion and ultimate rejection engineered upon him by Liberace – Mr. Showmanship. Such material is not normally my cup of absinthe, but I decided to dive into the dumpster after recalling the many times in the 1960s, accompanied by my grandmother, that I watched Liberace perform on TV. At the time, it never occurred to me as a ten-year-old that Liberace might prefer boys to girls, and I’m quite certain my blue-haired grandmother, like most of Liberace’s ardent fans, harbored no such suspicions that the man was gay. In retrospect that seems incredible, but I suppose the state of homosexuality in the 1960s was so closeted and paranoid that most straight people at the time considered it less common than Albinism.
I read “Behind the Candelabra” mainly to understand how Liberace managed to maintain the illusion among his socially-conservative fan-base that he was a virile heterosexual when twice nightly he swished across the stage looking like the Queen of England, dressed in a fur cape with a sixteen-foot train, sporting diamond rings on each finger and a hairpiece of wavy hair fit for Elizabeth I. To kick off each act, Scott Thorson and other pretty boys before and after him would chauffeur Liberace on stage in a jewel-encrusted Roll-Royce, and after Lee pranced around for awhile, would arrive in a different tricked-out automobile to chauffeur the fur coat off-stage. Liberace would exclaim that his custom made fox fur was the only coat in the world that had its own limousine. The audience would go wild for the whole fey affair.
Although Gays at that time – who probably outnumbered Albinos 1000 to one – had developed protective networks in which to consort with one another under the radar, I believe the real explanation of how Liberace was mostly able to hide in plain sight was his audience’s inability or unwillingness to grasp the notion that this talented, wealthy man who could have anything he wanted would choose a life loving other men. Truly a head-exploding concept for most senior citizens coming in from Kansas to visit mid-Century Las Vegas. Certainly my admiring grandmother would have needed a tongue depressor and a hit of Thorazine had someone convinced her Liberace played for the other team.
Back to the book: Thorson relays very little in the way of lascivious behavior with his doting benefactor Lee (who comes across as an monogamous, eccentric and somewhat jealous father-figure), preferring to focus more on the quantity and quality of the material items Lee bestowed upon his lover whom he addressed as “Boober.” (If that isn’t bad enough, Thorson’s pet name for Liberace was “BooberLoober.”) Given Thorson’s penurious upbringing it’s no wonder the constant flow of upscale gifts from Liberace would dominate his narrative.
When you pick up a book like this you expect a hatchet job, and although the first 80 percent covers mostly happy times between the lovers and happily drops lots of A-list names, sure enough after Liberace takes up with younger beefcake and instructs his legal entourage to boot Thorson from his master’s penthouse in Vegas, out come Scotty’s claws. The book descends into a one-sided pity-party for poor Thorson who instead of accepting a decent settlement to walk away, defies his own lawyer’s advice and takes after Liberace – a man who is making $150K a week, and has 50 years experience in spending lavishly to get what he wants. Needless to say, Thorson gets the shit end of the stick, but not until after Liberace succumbs to AIDS at a time when many people believed the insidious disease was sent by God to punish the abominable sodomists.
The amazing thing is that early in the tale Thorson encounters the man he will soon replace in Lee’s life – a man to whom he assigns the alias “Jerry O’Rourke” – and watches as Lee treats Jerry like yesterday’s Moo Goo Gai Pan. While Jerry is out one day Liberace has his servants neatly pack up the man’s belongings and stack them ignominiously outside the entrance to the estate. Thorson witnesses this callous behavior yet seems oblivious to the near-certainty that he will suffer the same demise. So after receiving gifts from Lee of several cars, fur coats, diamond rings, a house and show dogs, Thorson chose to give Liberace a candelabra in the behind instead of a hale and hearty handshake.