“You never saw a more beautiful baby,” she later told me. From the time of his birth she cherished Lee more than the others. As a little boy Lee remembered being happiest sitting on her lap. Frances soon decided he’d be better off sitting on the piano bench, practicing.
“She pushed me from the beginning,” Lee recalled, with a trace of bitterness. “I never had a chance to be a kid. George was studying violin and Angie took piano lessons, but they had time to go outside and play. Mom didn’t nag them the way she nagged me. It was always, ‘Walter, come in the house this minute! You’ve got to practice.’”
The Liberaces were poor. They lived in a tiny, two-bedroom frame house and they struggled to make ends meet on the penny-ante salary Lee’s father made as a classical musician. But somehow Frances always found the money to pay for Lee’s music lessons. She was a determined, proud woman who dreamed of a better life for all her children, but especially for Lee.
Later, for publication, Lee would describe his family as “typical, all-American.” In private, after a few drinks, he would tell me a very different story, one that sounded more like the soap operas he was so fond of watching. Keeping secrets was impossible in that little house. Lee, who heard his parents arguing late at night, knew his father “played around.” But it still came as a bitter shock when Salvatore walked out on the family while Lee was in his teens and began, as Lee said, “shacking up” with a lady who played in the orchestra.
“I never forgave my father for that,” Lee confided in me. After Salvatore left home Lee, who could hold a grudge better than most people, didn’t speak to his father again until Salvatore was old and sick. Despite Lee’s enormous wealth, he would refuse to be held responsible for his father’s medical bills. That burden would be shouldered by Lee’s far less successful brother, George.
Little Lee had adored his father and tried to win his approval. All that changed after Salvatore walked out. As a teenager Lee later recalled seething with helpless rage every time he thought about the old man. He didn’t want to be compared to him in any way, let alone when it came to the one thing that made Lee feel special—his musical talent! After praying over the question of his talent and giving it a lot of thought, Lee managed to convince himself that his musical talent resulted from divine intervention rather than genetic inheritance; in short, it was a gift from God.
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After Salvatore abandoned his family to be with the woman he loved, Frances and her children were in a tough situation. First, there was barely enough income to support one household, let alone two. Second, as a devout Catholic, Frances didn’t believe in divorce. According to Lee, she couldn’t face the potential scandal, the disgrace that would follow the dissolution of her marriage. Frances didn’t want the world to know that her husband had left her for another woman. She told her four children to keep the secret from everyone: playmates, neighbors, and friends. It was Lee’s first childhood secret—but it wouldn’t be his last. From then on Lee’s life would be built on a foundation of secrets and half-truths.
One way or another, all four Liberace kids paid a price for their parents’ problems. Family members told me that Rudolph often bore the brunt of his mother’s anger. Rudy was ten years younger than Lee, barely school-age when the family broke up. In a happier household he would have been the baby and his mother’s favorite. But Frances used to look at her youngest and say, “You should never have been born. You’re an accident!”
From my own observations, all the Liberaces suffered the whiplash of their mother’s anger. She dominated them as youngsters, and she continued to dominate them as adults. On occasion, I actually saw her poke them with her cane to get their attention. Lee lavished public affection on his mother while avoiding her in private. Frances could be a sweet old lady one minute and a merciless nag the next. She frowned on cigarettes and would snatch them from Lee’s mouth as if he were a little kid behind the barn instead of a sixty-year-old superstar.
Coming from a broken home was one thing Lee and I had in common. By the time I grew up, society regarded having divorced parents and stepparents as no big deal. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in Lee’s day. His parents’ split made him feel embarrassed and ashamed. The situation was aggravated by the appearance of a new man in Frances Liberace’s life. Alexander Casadonte, who would eventually become Frances’s second husband, was an old family friend. According to an article published in the Globe, Frances began sharing her home with Casadonte shortly after Salvatore moved out. Again according to the article, she lived as Casadonte’s common-law wife for sixteen years.
When I questioned him about those years, Lee refused to discuss the man who formally became his stepfather in 1943. But other family members told me that Frances did, in fact, know Casadonte well enough, long before she legally married him, to freely borrow money from him whenever she needed to. From their reports it’s apparent that Frances did have an intimate relationship with Alexander Casadonte prior to their marriage. But his real place in the family history remains another Liberace secret. While her children were young, Frances kept up the pretense, for the sake of appearances, of maintaining her marriage to Salvatore. Lee said that she warned her children, time and again, not to discuss things that went on at home. Her furtivelifestyle would be the launching pad for Lee’s passion for secrecy. As an adult, he would never reveal what actually went on behind the closed doors of his many luxurious homes.
As youngsters the Liberace children were highly competitive rivals who didn’t get along. The scarcity of money forced Frances to choose among them. Inevitably, Lee got more than the others: better clothes, the finest music teacher, nicer birthday presents. He felt that the inequity made Angie, George, and Rudolph resent him. But being resented by his siblings was only one problem the youthful Lee faced.