He said he’d always known he wasn’t like other boys, but he’d never been able to label the difference. Then, at the age of ten, he began to have crushes on male teachers. It scared the hell out of him. In the twenties and thirties, nice people from proper families didn’t talk about sex. Pregnant women stayed at home behind closed doors and children were told that storks delivered babies. Like most boys, Lee picked up his knowledge of sex out on the street. And street talk was damned ugly when it came to gays. Homosexuals were referred to as fairies, fags, queers, or perverts—and these were the nicer terms. The unprintable terms were a lot more graphic. Homosexuality was regarded as a particularly shameful form of mental illness.
Why me? Lee asked himself, feeling like a condemned man. Why am I different? He’d look at himself in the mirror, wondering if his appearance betrayed his true nature. In fact, photographs reveal that he looked more like a choirboy than a potential social outcast in those days. But realizing he was gay devastated him. He had to be crazy, sick, out of his mind, he thought, to be attracted to men. He tried ignoring his homosexuality, denying it. He tried forgetting about sex completely. But no matter how hard he tried, curiosity about the mysteries of sex, and his own sexuality, obsessed him.
In those days no one believed you could be born a homosexual. It had to be something that happened to you in early childhood, like measles or mumps; something that could be cured if the victim, helped by a competent doctor, really tried to change. Freudian theory ascribed homosexuality to a boy’s overattachment to his mother and hostility to his father. Freud believed it caused the boy to mold his personality on his mother, thereby acquiring feminine reactions and behavior. In Lee’s opinion, that set of circumstances described his own background perfectly. He recalled his mother’s love as “completely suffocating and damn near incestuous.” And his dislike for his father—after he left home—bordered on hatred. If, as the psychiatrists claimed, homosexuals were really created by the circumstances of their childhood, Lee said he had the perfect parents to blame. In the past he’d learned to keep his family’s secrets. Now he would keep his own just as carefully.
Frances would never have to confront her son’s true nature. Nor would she ever discover that Lee both hated and loved her. He continued to be her favorite. She was always touching him, kissing him, unaware that he almost gagged during those unwanted intimacies. He escaped by playing the piano. No one, including Frances herself, interrupted Lee’s practice sessions.
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In the morning he attended the Wisconsin College of Music, where he was a scholarship student, before going off to his regular public school classes. He’d be home by three, get in a few hours at the piano, have a hurried dinner, and rush back to school, where he played piano for silent movies shown in the auditorium. Lee had already started to make a local name for himself as a musical prodigy. If he couldn’t be normal, he decided to make a virtue of being different. Perhaps, he thought as he began to achieve local notoriety, some good might be gained from all those long, lonely hours spent practicing.
When he was fourteen years old, Lee was approached by a group of older musicians who had a band that worked local night spots. They were looking for a good piano player. Lee was thrilled. He saw their offer as a chance to earn some real money rather than the nickels and dimes the school paid. By then Lee was sick and tired of being poor. He wanted good clothes, his own car, a better place to live.
Frances, whom I later came to know very well, recalled being furious when Lee told her about the opportunity. She didn’t want her baby hanging around older men, playing in speakeasies or even worse places. There was no telling what went on in dives like that, she warned Lee. She had set her heart on seeing him become a great classical pianist, and great pianists didn’t get their start playing in honky-tonks.
But, as Lee later wrote in his memoirs, the Liberaces were always broke. They all worked at odd jobs to help make ends meet. When Lee argued that the family needed the money he’d be earning, Frances relented. She gave him permission to join the band on two conditions. First, he mustn’t ignore his classical studies. She expected him to practice as long and hard as he had before. Second, she didn’t want the Liberace name soiled by Lee’s appearances in saloons.
Lee began his career in saloons using the alias Walter Busterkeys. He loved the job, the free and easy atmosphere; he loved escaping his mother’s watchful eye. He remembered feeling comfortable with the band and their music from the beginning. The boy who’d cut his musical teeth on the classics discovered an insatiable appetite for popular music. His ability to play by ear served him well during the brief time he could devote to rehearsals.
When he accompanied silent movies the audience concentrated on the film rather than his music. In bars, the audience listened to the music and was intent on having fun. Lee liked that; he liked giving people pleasure. More important, Lee was enjoying himself too. The older band members became his role models. He struggled to achieve their nonchalant attitude toward liquor, cigarettes, and sex. The boozy, smoky atmosphere of the bars and honky-tonks seduced Lee completely. He was playing in a bar when he met his first adult homosexual—and, according to Lee, that man seduced him too.
Scott Thorson, born in 1958, became famous for his relationship with and lawsuit against the late entertainer Liberace and his testimony against gangster Eddie Nash. A movie drama based on Thorson's book Behind The Candelabra: My Life With Liberace will air on HBO in May, 2013. It features Matt Damon as Thorson and Michael Douglas as Liberace. It is the first movie on the Thorson-Liberace relationship and its aftermath since the 1988 Canada-US made-for-TV movie Liberace: Behind The Music where Thorson was portrayed by Michael Dolan. Behind the Candelabra is directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese with music by Academy-Award-winning composer Marvin Hamlinsch. Buy his book here.