On November 11, 1918, headlines around, the globe trumpeted: PEACE! World War I, the war to end all wars, had come to an end. American doughboys were headed home and with them came a new sophistication, a new worldview. A popular song posed the question, “How’re you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”
There would be no keeping the boys who fought their way across Europe “down on the farm.” America was poised on the brink of an urban explosion that would be fueled by a technical revolution. Women abandoned their hobble skirts, became flappers, and emerged as a new social force. A booming economy and increased leisure time helped popularize new diversions like movies and radio. Flickering figures on a theater screen and electronically amplified voices coming from crystal tubes right in the living room pushed vaudeville to the brink of extinction. The entertainment industry would never be the same. All these events would have an effect on Liberace’s future.
His birthplace, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was a quiet backwater which didn’t respond quickly to the great events a home and abroad. Local farmers and men who worked the Great Lakes shipping trade still counted the weather more important than events overseas. The majority of the people descended from German immigrants; God-fearing, churchgoing, hardworking Lutherans who relaxed on weekends drinking the beer for which their city was famous. In the early years of the twentieth century, Milwaukee was a quiet, conservative community, an unlikely birthplace for the man who would call himself “Mr. Show Business.” Lee would never feel he belonged there.
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His birth foreshadowed the immoderate man he would become. Lee tipped the scales at more than thirteen pounds when he was born on May 16, 1919, in the suburb of West Allis. His tiny shriveled twin, an apparent victim of Lee’s greed in the womb, was stillborn. Lee’s mother, Frances, named her enormous surviving infant Wladziu for his Polish ancestors and Valentino for the era’s reigning movie idol. But he would grow up being called Wally or Walter, names he detested until, in his twenties, he anointed himself as “Liberace” (his actual surname) on stage and as “Lee” to his friends.
He was the third Liberace offspring, having been preceded by George and Angelina. Brother Rudolph wouldn’t be born for a decade. The four of them inherited their mother’s short, stocky build, her pointed chin and prominent nose. But their musical talent came from their father. Salvatore Liberace was a classical musician who played French horn with the Milwaukee symphony. Lee recalled sounds as his earliest memories—the lush music of a symphony orchestra pouring from an expensive record player counterpointed by his parents’ angry voices arguing over the family budget. Lee told me that the excitable Salvatore and the more practical Frances were ill suited to each other.
Other than music the Liberaces had no cultural interests. Lee recalled no mention of art, literature, theater, ballet, politics, world or national affairs in the household unless they were directly related to music. He would have no interest in these things as an adult. In fact, when he became a superstar, Lee would heartily disapprove of other stars, such as Ed Asner and Jane Fonda, who used their fame to champion a political cause or candidate.
Catholicism was the tie that held the Liberaces together. Frances was devoted to three things: her church, her children, and, most of all, Lee. She adored him. George and Angelina had inherited some of their father’s musical ability but Lee, who began playing the piano by ear at the age of four, was clearly a prodigy. His mother would later claim that his talent confirmed her instinctive knowledge that Lee was special.