Steven Soderbergh’s highly anticipated Liberace biopic “Behind The Candelabra” will air on HBO this Sunday after receiving rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this week. Starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, the film is adapted from “Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace,” by Scott Thorson with Alex Thorleifson, newly re-published by Tantor Media with a new
afterword written by Thorson. You can buy the book here, but Indiewire has the complete first chapter below.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.