What's With The Thousands Of Female Liberace Fans Who Call The Hennaed, Perfumed, Sequin-Jacketed Piano Player The Ideal American Man?


By John Cullen

The caption reads:

"Lover" Liberace bussed actress Joanne Dru, wins her in "Sincerely yours." In real life lack of interest in the opposite sex raises interesting questions.


Richard Killian, the New York correspondent for London's lively Daily Express, was one of a vast TV audience watching Ed Murrow interview Liberace on his "Person To Person" TV show recently. Outraged at what he saw and heard, Kilian sat down and dashed off a scathing dispatch, which the Daily Express printed on its front page under the headline: "Astonishing Broadcast on U.S. Television; Liberace Links Name With Princess." Kilian told the paper's readers: "The paunchy 35-year-old piano thumper (as several critics have labeled him) made his presumptuous and distasteful remarks as he showed millions of televiewers around his garish, piano-strewn house in Sherman Oaks, Calif., near Los Angeles. "Murrow, sitting in a New York studio, asked: 'Have you given much thought to getting married and eventually settling down?'

Said Liberace: 'Well, actually I haven't. I've given a lot of thought to marriage, but I don't believe in getting married just for the sake of getting married.' "He furrowed his massive brow into what he may think is a look of sincerity and said: 'I want to find a perfect mate and settle down. In fact, I was reading about lovely young Princess Margaret, and she's looking for her dream mate too.' Liberace blushed, looked down shyly at his feet 'I hope she finds him some day' he added.

"Murrow: Have you ever met the princess?

"Liberace: Not as yet. But I have great hopes of meeting her when I go to England next season. I'm going to give a concert in London, and I'd like to meet her very much because we have a lot in common. We have the same tastes in theater and music. Besides she's pretty and single,' he added with the toothy shyness of a teenager.' "Liberace is famous for his white fur coat, his perfumes, his sequin-covered suits, and his fetish for pianos. There are 190 real and toy ones in his house. "Today Edward Murrow said he would not comment on Liberace's remarks on Princess Margaret. 'He doesn't want to get involved,' his spokesman said. "Liberace himself was too busy with other matters to do any explaining."

Kilian's loyal wrath at the use of the British royal family in a cheap publicity stunt was understandable, but he might just as well have curbed his temper. Those who have followed Liberace's career closely long ago came to the realization that women will probably never play an important part in his emotional life - with the exception of his mother, of course. Not that women are excluded from Liberace's outward life. Far from it, as Richard Kilian found to his distress. Although Kilian's blast at their hero was published in a foreign newspaper, hundreds of women wrote protesting letters. Despite the thousands of women fawn over him, besiege him at public appearances and even follow him across the country, despite the few publicity-stunt "romances," Liberace has never been seriously linked with any woman in a romantic way

On the other hand, his extreme devotion to "Mom," as he insists on calling his mother, has intrigued even those people who do not generally go along with the theories of Sigmund Freud. Why hasn't Liberace become interested in women? Why doesn't he want to get married? It is certainly not for lack of opportunity. Many women send him valuable gifts "to bind our love." On St. Valentines Day he has gotten as many as 27,000 cards. When he appears in public women often run up to him and gush "I love you." Liberace's press agents like to call him the "Casanova of the keyboards." And this "Casanova" - who never makes any conquests and doesn't seem to desire any - is referred to in the most extravagant terms by his frustrated feminine followers. "He is just like a divine figure," said one woman. "Someone who is so far apart from anything that is worldly or bad." Another said: "He makes us feel good all over. He is the impeccable man we would like our sons and husbands to be." At one of Liberace's concerts a girl reporter asked one of "The Masters" fanatically devoted fans what she saw in him. "I love his playing, his love for his mother, and his reverence for God," said the woman. "To my mind he represents what the American home used to represent: stability, refinement and culture." The awed reporter assured her readers: "The lady was perfectly serious."

There can be little doubt that Liberace's female followers would, almost literally, do anything for their idol. (But their safe; no great sacrifice is likely to ever be asked of them.) In there devotion to him they show the same savagery that one normally finds in a lover. There letters of protest to Kilian was typical. For example, John Crosby the noted radio-TV columnist for the New York Herald, devoted an article to Liberace. The tone of the piece can be seen from the opening: "Well, radio had Tony Wans and survived. I confidently predict that television will survive Liberace, too. These are just growing pains, kiddies." He questioned weather Liberace's women followers deserved to be called "people," or weather a special designation should be applied to them to distinguish them from the human race. He suggested they be called "plips." He also said the women's vote of confidence in Liberace as a pianist might seriously question their ability to vote on anything, and raised some doubts about the wisdom of the 19th amendment, to the Constitution (which gave women the right to vote). Months later Crosby began to dig his way out from under the tons of indignant mail he received from "The Great One's" petticoat army. At another time Ben Gross, radio-Tv critic for the New York Daily news, made the mistake of questioning what women could possibly see in the pianist ham with the toothpaste-ad smile. Some typical replies: "Anybody who would write such a thing should have his teeth knocked out, and if I ever meet you, that's what I'm going to do!" "You could understand if you didn't have the brains of a moron and if you wasn't the biggest dope on earth." "If I had my way you'd be deported to Russia, where you belong!"

But there can be no doubt that if Liberace wanted romance, he'd just have to let it be known. He doesn't. Not that he doesn't talk about love and marriage (always on an ethereal, sexless, non-physical level, of course). He has even gone so far as to advise men on how to win their gals. Sing to her, he says. "I have yet to meet the woman who can resist a man when he sings to her," says Liberace. Yet there's no evidence that he ever showed any real desire to lower the resistance of any woman.

Then there was the time he bared his secret judgment of women. "Mature women are best," he said. The people who had been pointing the finger at him as an advocate of "Momism" nodded their heads knowingly, and the frustrated elderly women who adore him adored him even more. The usual absence of women in Liberace's life has caused him to protest, possibly too much, at some of the speculation it has aroused. More than once he has insisted that he was interested - privately. "It's bad taste," he has said, "to flaunt the affairs of the heart in public - but the truth is that I was engaged to 3 different women during the last 8 years. And jealously ruined each engagement. "None of my fiancee's was willing to accept the fact that there were so many women among my fans. And you know how important it is for an entertainer in my class to have a loyal following among the women." He was, as you might expect, unwilling to name the 3 women he claimed to be engaged to. He said he's still looking for the woman who could bring the proper inspiration into his life. "And when I find that woman," he said, "you can be sure I will taker her for a wife."

Not long ago he was asked: "Many of your fans fall in love with you, don't they?" "Yes," he sighed, "I'm afraid so. Sometimes women who are laboring under the illusion that I belong solely to them arrive at my house, and there is nothing for me to do but have them taken away." The picture this conjured up - the front lawn covered with prostrate bodies of imploring females, Liberace regally ordering them "taken away" with a sweeping gesture _ was one to take away the breath of the most down-to-earth person. At one time all the speculation about Liberace and women began accumulating to an alarming degree. Then, just at the most propitious time, rumors of a Liberace romance began to circulate. In fact, the stories appeared with such well-planned timing that some suspicious souls harbored ridiculous doubts that the "romance" might have been planned and carried out by a press agent. Absurd wasn't it? First, a few columnists informed their readers that Liberace had finally been seen in public with a woman! The girl: Joanne Rio, 23, slim, pretty, black-haired and curvy (35-23-34). She's the daughter of Eddie Rio, a singer who became West Coast head of the American Guild Of variety Artists (AGVA) in 1946. Joanne, a dancer at the Moulin Rouge night club in California, had appeared on Liberace's show. The romance developed by fits and starts. At first Liberace said: "we're not engaged." Then he explained: "I'm not ready to get married now. There are too many things I want to do. I want to play in Europe and make movies. My kind of schedule wouldn't leave any time for marriage. And Joanne said: "The question of marriage hasn't been discussed. We are very fond of each other, but it hasn't any more serious than that. Lee (as Liberace's friends like to refer to him) is a busy man, and I have my career too." Then things became thoroughly confused.

One reputable reporter wrote that Liberace had said he hoped to marry Joanne after another year's work "if she loves me enough to wait for me." And Joanne was quoted as saying: "Liberace is a perfect all-around man any woman would be thrilled to be with. If it's God's will that Lee and I get married, then we will. I'm leaving everything in God's hands." God was not heard from, but Liberace was. He claimed the reporter got him all wrong. "there isn't a word of truth to the report that I am engaged," he said. "I was misquoted and I am very embarrassed for Joanne, who is a lovely girl and an understanding friend." That would seem to have cleared up matters, but it didn't. First thing you know, Joanne broke into print with 3 newspaper articles telling of her romance with the man she claimed to have met in church (where else). Liberace criticized the articles and Joanne called in the reporters to announce that the romance was off. "That made me angry," she said. "He saw the articles and approved them before they were printed. So did his manager." Then Joanne let the cat out of the bag. Remember those suspicions that the romance had been cooked up by a press agent? It was just as suspected, "just a lot of publicity and I got caught right in the middle of it," Joanne complained. "It's ridiculous for people to say we were engaged. We never were. It was just a lot of publicity." There have been no more phony "romances" since that fiasco, although Liberace's name still pops up in gossip columns in connection with women from time to time. These have included ice skater Sonya Henie and actress Dorothy Malone.

Only recently one Broadway columnist reported: "Liberace and Jane Dulo a duet." People tried to find out something about Jane Dulo. There was nothing in print about her as far as they could find out. She was just a mystery to most New York reporters. This time nobody got excited. Once burned, twice warned. There was one aftermath to the highly publicized "romance." that was a somewhat catty comment attributed to Liberace. "When I get married," he said, "I want to be the aggressor and court the girl myself." Will he? Many people doubt it. They believe the whole pattern of Liberace's life provides a negative answer to that question. What he is today was foreshadowed by the kind of life he has led in the past.

Wladziu Valentino Liberace was borne in West Allis, Wisc., near Milwaukee, on May 16, 1919, the son of Samuel Liberace, a French horn player of Italian descent, and his wife, now Mrs. Frances Casadonte, 63, a strong-willed woman of Polish ancestry. When Liberace was still a small child his parents separated. He has remarked that he had little contact with his father until recent years. the parental separation must have been a bitter one; last year when Liberace's mother petitioned a California court to change her name back to Liberace, the father, whom she had divorced in 1941, announce that he would appose the petition. She then dropped the action. She had acquired the name Casadonte by her 1943 marriage to a man of that name who had died two years later. Of his childhood, Liberace says frankly: "All the kids laughed at me, the way I talked." His father had an Italian accent, his mother a Polish one, and his was a strange mixture of the two. "When I was 2," he says,, "I got pneumonia. It hit me so hard that I was always a sickly child. The boys of my neighborhood always outwrestled me and outran me. Later they bullied me and I remember sneaking home through alleys to escape them." At 4 he began to play the piano by ear. At 7 he was taking lessons. "When the neighborhood gang heard me practicing," he says, "they'd come to our yard and yell: 'Sissy, sissy, sissy!'" Just recently a Hearst syndicate writer, preparing a series of articles on Liberace, wrote that younger people find him "silly and sissy-like."

A nasty word, "sissy," and one that followed him all his life. Even the fabulous amount of money he earns from TV, concert appearances and record sales these days is small compensation for the misery implicit in that one epithet. In high school, as he himself has testified, he convinced school authorities that they should start a cooking class for boys, which he proudly joined. Not long ago, it was written, he protested about a critic: "He said I sewed when I was a boy. People read this and get the wrong idea. It's an innuendo that I am odd." But it was Liberace's own "Mom" who disclosed that as a child he preferred to sew rather than "roughhouse" with other boys.

Bereft of a father's strong support, cut of from masculine companionship of playmates of his own age, reared by a powerful and perhaps domineering mother - is it a wonder Liberace grew into the curly-haired, dimpled, simpering, lisping advocate of "Momism" that he is today? Many men who grow up in such a pattern become adults of rare imagination, talent, cultivation and good taste. liberace would like to think of himself as embodying these characteristics. One of his spokesmen once said he was "a sensitive, considerate person who shrinks from displays of vulgarity and crudity." Nonsense! Considerate he may be. But would a sensitive person invite the kind of "innuendo" - as he puts it - that his public behavior has given rise to As for "vulgarity and crudity," no one who has seen or read about his flamboyant costumes, the fantastic rococo "elegance" of his $80.000 house, his frequent public allusions to money, his "jokes about the bathroom" (as one critic put it), would give liberace a very high rating on those counts.

Is he just a fad, doomed to a brief life as a public favorite? There are some signs that point to such a theory. Liberace's new TV series started March 15. before that he was off the air waves for some time. And his first starring movie, Sincerely Yours," was a box-office flop. Still, there were enough hard-core followers left to make life miserable for English correspondent Richard Kilian, who dared suggest that Liberace's TV bid for Princess Margaret's hand was not in the best of taste. They may be "plips," but they're diehards!


BACK TO 1956