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Liberace’s Vision of the Universe

By and
Photography Cris Alexander

Published April 10, 2017

This story is part of a collection celebrating the best—and wildest—Warhol conversations from the Interview archives.

Liberace is bigger than life: star of stage, screen and Vegas. One of the great­est TV stars of all time. Owner of the world’s most opulent male wardrobe, col­lector of furs, pianos, gems, cars, an­tiques and real estate. Restaurateur, interior designer, museum curator (The Liberace Museum). A legend in his own time. Like Einstein, the name Liberace conveys more than a man, it conveys a vision of the universe.

Lee is the life-size Liberace. That’s what his many friends call him and he’s a friendly guy. He arrived at the Interview offices for lunch wearing a conservative glen plaid suit and black tassel loafers. (Under an extraordinary fur coat.) Except for a striking diamond-encrusted gold Louis XIV sunburst pin in his tie, he looked like a regular businessman. But after all he is a businessman; Liberace is big busi­ness. But he’s also a fun guy.

Before being interviewed, Liberace signed autographs for his interviewers. Glenn O’Brien asked for an autograph on a Liberace’s Greatest Hits album. John Sex, a young performer greatly inspired by the Liberace style, brought a copy of Liberace: An Autobiography for his hand. Andy Warhol asked him to “tag” his down jacket. Liberace accommodated everyone with his piano- and candelabra-festooned signature.

 

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GLENN O’ BRIEN: Has your autograph evolved over the years?

LIBERACE: It has changed. It’s interest­ing to look back and see exactly how it has changed. I used to do my L differently. A lot of people used to think it was an S, and when I did my television series a lot of the kids thought I was “Silver Ace.” It’s kind of a fascinating name, Silver Ace. They were shocked when they found out I wasn’t Silver Ace.

O’BRIEN: I remember kids calling you “Liber Ace.”

LIBERACE: That was very common. Then I used to do a candelabra in my autograph. Then it evolved to what it is today.

O’BRIEN: Is Liberace your real name?

LIBERACE: My family name, yes.

O’BRIEN: I looked in the New York telephone book to see if there were any other Liber­aces and there aren’t. Is it an uncommon name?

LIBERACE: Let’s say the name is ac­counted for. In Philadelphia there are Lib­eraces. There are a few in Italy on my father’s side. I visited the town that my father is from and I found eight Liberaces in the phone book.

O’BRIEN: Did you ever have a stage name?

LIBERACE: Well, I was given a very pe­culiar name for, a very short period of time. I was chosen to be a soloist with the Chicago Symphony and at the same I was very popular on a radio program called The Fitch Bandwagon, which featured the big band sound. They asked.me to please not use my real name on the Fitch Band­wagon. At that time the director of the Chicago Symphony was a musical purist and he thought it was detrimental to the reputation of the orchestra to have a dance-band pianist playing with the or­chestra. So they gave me the name Walter Buster Keys.

[SEX and Andy Warhol arrive for lunch.]

LIBERACE: Oh my God! I love it! [Noting John Sex’s blond vertical ponytail cum-sculptural head piece.]

ANDY WARHOL: Hi, Lee. We brought you a new weirdo. John’s been dying to meet you.

SEX: I’m your biggest fan.

LIBERACE: Thank you… John! That is wild.

SEX: Well, you’re the inspiration.

LIBERACE: Isn’t that marvelous? I love it.

SEX: We saw you three times at Radio City, and I brought 35 people to see you. I said, “You have to pay. No guest list.”

LIBERACE: Is that right?

SEX: I’ll bring 100 people next time. It was the best show I ever saw.

LIBERACE: I really had a ball planning the new show. When they booked me back they said, “Just do the same thing.” And I said, “No, I’ve got to do better.”

SEX: I saw David Bowie at Radio City in 1973 and he came down from the ceiling on a big mirrored platform.

LIBERACE: How about coming out of a huge Faberge egg?…

SEX: Coming down from the ceiling is pretty wild because it takes a long time and Radio City has the best lights.

LIBERACE: I wanted to fly, you know. In Vegas I’ve flown with a cable. But Sandy Duncan has actually done it at Radio City.

SEX: But how can you compare Sandy Duncan with Liberace?

LIBERACE: Let me tell you, she’s a lot more graceful. The first time I flew, the fellow who hooked me with the harness was the same one who did Mary Martin, Debbie Reynolds and Sandy Duncan. And the first time they hoisted me I looked like a 500-pound piece of beef hanging there. It was just awful. I just sort of hung there. Debbie Reynolds had flown and she told me what to do. She said, “It’s an attitude. You’ve got to say, `I’m gonna fly’ and you will.” I thought, “Oh, she’s a little weird.” But strangely enough it worked. I struck the pose. It’s all in how you arch your back. They only have one wire. A lot of shows have used two wires and it’s very easy, you can do all kinds of tricks. But with one wire it’s hard. If you arch your back, though, you look graceful.

SEX: Someone told me that you’re moving to New York.

LIBERACE: Yes, I am. The last time I was here I negotiated for a penthouse in a new building. There was only one apartment per floor, which I loved, good security and all. And I was on the top floor, the 36th. I was very excited about it. In the meantime, they decided to turn this building into a 100-suite residential hotel. They’ve indicated that they still wouldn’t mind if I had the penthouse on the top, but I don’t like the idea of living in a hotel.

WARHOL: I like the Trump Tower.

LIBERACE: I’m having a shopping tour with Donald Trump today. They have shown me places there. They’ve shown me one there that has a view on all sides. Everybody said, “Trump Tower? Oh, no.” But I like living in the hub of activity.

SEX: I could get you a place in my building, an East Village flat.

LIBERACE: I looked at one last night that was fabulous. I have a friend searching for me and he said, “I shouldn’t even let you look at this, it’s so fabulous.” If it was my only residence I would say, “Go for it,” but I have other homes. I’ll only be spending a few weeks a year here in New York.

WARHOL: Lee, you look so normal today.

SEX: Well, he can’t wear his great outfits on the street.

LIBERACE: No, you’ve got to pay to see them. Anyway, I was intrigued, so I said show it to me. I went to look at it last night. It’s probably going to be written up as the most famous penthouse in New York. It’s on Park Avenue. It’s still under construction, but it’s so incredible. It’s five million dollars. They took a pre-war building, enforced it with girders and they actually built two apartments on top of the building.

WARHOL: You should see John’s act. He sings with a python and Leo Ford, who jerks off at the same time.

SEX: Hey, don’t tell him that.

LIBERACE: Oh, my God! It’s a family show.

O’BRIEN: John does do a great version of the theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. You can dance to it.

SEX: She’s one of my inspirations, too.

LIBERACE: Yeah, I like her.

SEX: I know that your new house isn’t going to be high-tech. You’re not really into high-tech, are you?

LIBERACE: I like a mixture of the old and new. I’m into both. I think some of the modem things are fantastic. For ex­ample, I have antique cabinets. They look like credenzas, and you press a button and a TV comes up. I hate to look at a televi­sion. I like things that are hidden. Televi­sions, toilets, anything like that … I used to wear just a dazzling costume. Now the costume matches the piano and the piano matches the car, and the sets have to match and the Rockettes have to match. There’s a total look that I’m going for now. In my finale I wear a Black Dia­mond mink coat with Austrian rhinestones and concert grand piano that’s all rhinestones. Then I have the car that comes out and that’s all rhinestones. As I said, it’s a total look.

SEX: Your last show was like magic. At the end, with the whole audience singing … A lot of ladies are so crazy for you.

WARHOL: But all the young kids are really crazy for you, too.

LIBERACE: One night the Wall Street Journal was there and instead of review­ing the show, which they don’t usually do, they talked to people in the lobby. They talked to the high society people, they talked to the punk rockers and they got all these mixed but all very exciting reactions. I was very surprised. People always say, “Stay out of New York; they’ll kill you.”

SEX: The women went wild. When you were talking about your costume and explain­ing what kind of rhinestones you had on your jacket, the lady behind me yelled out, “What kind of rhinestones do you have on your zipper?” She said, “He could put his shoes under my bed any­time.” They wanted you so bad. You’re a sex symbol.

LIBERACE: I want to be a sex symbol like Cary Grant when I’m 80. Isn’t that incredible?

O’BRIEN: Were you ever chased down the street by fans or had them try to tear your clothes off?

LIBERACE: Well, not really. People rec­ognize me, but I’m a fast walker. And most people know I’ve been around for a long time, so they expect me to look old. So they’re not absolutely sure it’s me. People always ask, “By any chance are you… ?” And I say, “Yes, I am. How do you do? Have a nice day.” And I’m a block away already.

O’BRIEN: If you dress conservatively like you are today…

LIBERACE: They’re not sure. I separate the performer from the private citizen because it works for me. That gives the surprise element to my show. It doesn’t change my playing. But if in a business suit they would think I was crazy. It’s like putting Marlene Dietrich in a housedress.

WARHOL: Down on the Lower East everybody sells their stuff on the street now. John threw out some outfits the other day and later he went out and they were selling them up the block.

LIBERACE: One of these days I’m going to have a warehouse sale. I never know anything anyway.

O’BRIEN: Where was the house you lived in when you appeared on Person to Person years ago? I remember it had a swimming pool shaped like a piano.

LIBERACE: That was in the Valley. I sold it it in 1968. I sold that house to Kirk Kerkorian and he only kept it a short time. He sold it to people who raised nine kids in that house. It’s amazing how well kept it is. It’s still on the tours. I pity anybody who lives there. You have people ringing the doorbell. “Can we look at the pool?”

SEX: Where’s your home base?

LIBERACE: Las Vegas. I’m a Nevada resident primarily for tax reasons. I have a shopping center and a museum and a restaurant and all that in Vegas. But my fun homes, my relaxation homes, are in Palm Springs, Malibu, Lake Tahoe and L.A. You’d like the L.A. home. It’s an office building. I bought the office building and had a block-long penthouse put on top of it with a swimming pool. Red Skelton lived there when he was doing the CBS series, and it hadn’t been touched for 17 years. It was Danish modern, which is not one of my favorite periods in design. I saved the handles and the knobs on the doors—all the things that I thought were attractive. But I’m not really into blond furniture. But blond hair is nice.

SEX: You should show that film that you show before your concert on VH1, the adult MTV.

LIBERACE: They want to put it on. I said, “But it’s Tchaikovsky. They said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.”

SEX: It’s fast moving—it’s a tongue-in-cheek, day-in-the-life-of. It’s all exaggerated. It’s what your fans would imagine your life is like. Liberace taking a bubble bath. Then coming down the stairs followed by his adoring dogs…

LIBERACE: Everything is shaped like a piano. Even the pool has piano keys around it.

SEX: The you finally jump in the Rolls-Royce, it takes off and all of a sudden the screen goes up and the Rolls-Royce drives onto the stage. It’s perfect.

LIBERACE: Yes, they approached me about showing it. I thought it wasn’t long enough. It’s only three and a half minutes. Wouldn’t that be funny if it became a popular thing like Thriller?

WARHOL: Why haven’t you made any other movies?

LIBERACE: Nobody ever asked me.

SEX: We’re going to see your first movie on Friday, Sincerely Yours.

LIBERACE: It’s a tearjerker. Take a Kleenex. Actually, my role in that movie was done by George Arliss some 30 years before. It was a fun experience. The movie didn’t do well at the box office, though. It was at the height of my televi­sion exposure, and they were thinking, “Let’s take the hot people off the TV and make them movie stars.” They tried it with Lucille Ball and The Long, Long Trailer bombed. They did it with me. Bomb. The movie did well in Europe, though. I started making money on the film when it played there. They said, “You’re big in Egypt.” But it’s funny how Europeans will latch on to something. In fact, on the strength of that movie, which was done in ’56, I did a European tour two years ago. It’s phenomenal.

O’BRIEN: Did you ever see President Rea­gan’s nightclub act?

LIBERACE: No, but I was playing the same hotel at the time. There were only two hotels on the strip when I first played Vegas in 1944. One was the Last Frontier, which was very western. They had a “Ramona” room and everybody was dressed like Ramona and the cocktail girls were in cowgirl outfits. The next hotel to come up was the Flamingo. That was sup­posed to be the most glamorous new hotel in Vegas and it was going to put all the others to shame. I was at the Last Frontier doing my show, and it didn’t have a back­stage or curtains. You kind of had to walk through the audience to make your en­trances. And every time I came off for what I call a false exit, because I know I’m going back on stage there, some guy would grab me. “I wanna talk to you. I want you to go to the Flamingo.” I didn’t know who he was, and I told the entertainment director, Maxine Lewis, who was the sister-in-law of William Powell, “There’s some guy who grabs me every time I come off to take a bow. Now he wants to take me to the Flamingo. I don’t know if I want to go. I don’t know this guy. Who is he?” So she called me back and she said, “You’d better go. That’s Bugsy Siegel and he owns the Flamingo.” So I went. They had a big limousine waiting. It was like a scene out of a movie. “Give the kid anything he wants.” He said, “This is where you be­long. This is class. You belong in this atmosphere.” He was murdered two weeks later in Beverly Hills. But I thought he was very nice. He was a good-looking guy—very debonair and suave. He wanted to create a masterpiece at the Flamingo and he did. But I’ve got to tell you the funniest story about the Last Frontier. The first time I played there was in 1944. At that time I did my own rehear­sal. I was also the conductor. I gave the light cues. I did everything because I didn’t have the people. So I started my rehearsal with the orchestra and I see this guy in sneakers sitting by the light booth, which was very makeshift. You had to climb up a little ladder to this platform right in the room. So I walked up to this fellow and asked if he was the light man, and he said yes. So I started giving him my light cues. “When I do `Clair de lune’ give a nice blue wash,” you know. So he’s writing it all down. And Maxine came in and said, “Oh, have you met Howard Hughes?”

SEX: Did he do your lights?

LIBERACE: Every time he saw me after that he said, “How are the lights?” He was visible in those days. But talk about dressing down. You never would suspect that he was anybody. He wore sneakers and sport shirts. But he would walk around. He was very visible. It wasn’t until later that he became a recluse, afraid to come out, that somebody would slap him with a lawsuit. It’s unbelievable. And it’s true, when you become famous, peo­ple will always find some reason to sue you. It’s amazing.

SEX: I felt sorry for Elvis, because he was so isolated.

LIBERACE: A lot of it was self-inflicted. I knew him very well. He always felt somebody was after him. When you have that kind of a fear, that kind of an attitude, you attract people who want to do you harm. Have you ever noticed that? Years ago when I started doing TV and making appearances in big arenas, the place would put security guys up there and I said, “Please don’t do that. It’s very dis­tracting to see ten cops in front of the stage. Everybody’s looking at the officers instead of me. I don’t want that.” I also found that people will dare to break a bar­ricade. If they have a barricade, some­body will always try to jump over it. I’ve found that the more open I am, the better. One time when I played Australia I had a death threat, and they tried to keep it from me, but I found out. They had all this security backstage, outside the dressing room. I said, “What happens when I walk into the spotlight. I’m a target. So I really don’t need all this. You guys can go out and sit in the audience. I think you’d be a lot more useful there.” If somebody really wants to do you in nothing will stop them. It’s proven by Kennedy, the Pope and Reagan. I don’t live in that kind of fear. If you handle it amusingly, you don’t offend people. I’ll tell you who else is very much like that—Dolly Parton. I adore this woman. She’s so much fun. We were having dinner in my restaurant, and a guy came up to her while she’s eating and said, “Oh, excuse me for interrupt­ing, Dolly, but I just want you to know that I’m from Tennessee.” And she looked at him with a lovely smile on her face and said, “Who gives a shit?” He loved it. Bette Midler is the same way. She can say four-letter words and make you love it. Another one was Belle Barth. Remember Belle Barth? Belle Barth was probably the raunchiest lady who ever went on stage in terms of language, but she was clever Belle Barth was playing in Vegas at the Sierra Hotel lounge and she said to me, “When are you going to bring your mother in to see my show?” I thought, “Oh, God!” And she said, “You know, I met your mother when you were in Florida and she’s such a sweet lady. I’m sure she would love it if you brought her to see my show.” Well, I took my mother to see her show and she heard words she didn’t know existed. And my mother said, “Isn’t she cute? She’s so naughty, but she’s so cute.” I used to love Belle Barth. At the end of her show, after she did all her encores, the curtain would come down and while she was still on the microphone she’d say, “I don’t give a fuck what anybody says. That was a great show.” The people would walk out laughing.

SEX: Do you ever play the Catskills circuit anymore?

LIBERACE: Yeah, once in a while. They keep asking me to come back.

SEX: But you didn’t start your career up there?

LIBERACE: No. Years ago in my strug­gling early days in New York, I used to do the Concord and all. Now, of course, it’s big money, those places. There’s a little war going on up there now between Mrs. Brown’s and the Concord. The Concord pays more than Mrs. Brown, but I like Mrs. Brown. She’s so sweet. I’ve got to tell Andy, when I first played New York in the early ’40s, there were so many fun places that were proving grounds, and places where you could learn your craft. You didn’t get paid a lot of money, but you were learning. There aren’t that many places like that now. There’s a few, Freddy’s and a few others. But one of the places I played was called Spivey’s Roof. That was on 57th Street and Lexington Avenue, and Spivey was sort of a female Dwight Fiske. She was a big heavyset woman and she sang risqué songs. And probably the only thing you might have ever seen her in was the movie Mame. She was the matriarch who belched. At that time she was very chic and manly—like a fabulous-looking dyke. And she sang these marvelous songs that were so cleverly written, like “I Brought Culture to Buffalo” and “I’m In Love With An Acrobat.” “The Madame’s Lament” was one of her big numbers. She was very clever, but she always surrounded herself with new talent. They had a group that played there for months and months called the Reviewers, and guess who was in the Reviewers? Judy Holliday, Imogene Coca, Adolph Green and Betty Comden. All in one act. From there I went to the Ruban Bleu. That was a step up. Herbert Jacoby was the entrepreneur of that one. He put on a phony French accent that was very grand. Ella Fitzgerald was on a bill with me there when she was a little wisp of a girl. These were the places in New York that were like universities for performers. The other one was the Blue Angel. Carol Burnett got her start there … She had one piece of material … one song: “I’m In Love With John Foster Dulles.” That was her whole act. I also worked with another very clever lady at the Ruban Bleu. She wore headdresses with lights in them. June Havoc, Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister. A very fun lady. Very talented. She had a big nose and she had it fixed and it mined her career. It would be like Barbra Streisand getting a cute little button nose. I introduced Barbra to Vegas, you know. I loved her remark when she did the Coconut Grove in L.A. years ago. She invited me to the opening, and her opening line—at the Coconut Grove you hardly have anyone in front of you, everyone has a profile–was, “Oh, if I had known it was this kind of place I’d have had my nose fixed.”

O’BRIEN: I know you advised Elvis about his clothes. Did he come to you or did you approach him and tell him he had to do something about the way he was dressed?

LIBERACE: Elvis’ first time in Vegas, I opened the Riviera Hotel. It was a brand new hotel. It was called “a new high in the sky.” It was nine stories high. Big deal. Elvis was booked with Freddie Martin’s Orchestra in the Frontier, which was by then called the New Frontier. Freddie Martin at that time was a much bigger star than Elvis Presley. He had just made the recording of Tonight We Love. He popularized the concerto. Elvis was the opening act. He had four guys with him. So opening night Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, knew my manager and he asked me to come over between shows and take some pictures with Elvis. So we switched jackets and it’s a really famous picture. I’m playing guitar and Elvis is playing piano. After that he asked me about things.

O’BRIEN: You look like you’re in great shape. Do you work out?

LIBERACE: I walk a lot. I’m an energetic walker. I don’t believe in jogging, but I walk a lot. I walk in New York. It’s much faster than a limo. I don’t walk in L.A. I do in Malibu. I do the beach.

O’BRIEN: What do you do with your old outfits? Do you put them in the Liberace Museum?

LIBERACE: Yes.

O’BRIEN: What about your houses? Do you ever redecorate or do you just get new houses?

LIBERACE: I love to take houses that are ready to become parking lots and do them. My home in Palm Springs that’s in the National Register was going to be a parking lot. It really looked like Death of a Salesman. It was decadent. Formerly it had been a nice restaurant, turned into hotel, turned into a motel, and then finally hippies just went in and crapped on the floors and took baths in the swimming pool. I came along and I saved it. It’s my favorite house of all. It’s like bringing’ somebody back to life. I feel very alive when I’m in this house. It’s almost re­ligious. It’s right across the street from a Catholic church and a Jewish synagogue and a golf course. I kept as much of the original architecture as I could. The tiles that were missing I had copied. It’s called the Cloisters. I have a shrine to St Anthony in it. But it’s a fun place. It’s not somber. I have a Rudolph Valentino room and a Gloria Vanderbilt room. She gave me a collage that’s so fabulous I did the whole room around it. It’s all about St. Anthony. Gloria got the lace handkerchief that my mother carried when she was married. She really did a lot of research to do this. Then I have all the memorabilia of Rudolph Valentino because I was, named after him. My middle name is Valentino and my kid brother was Rudolph. U have his bed, I have a lot of things that belonged to him. I have the cups that Pola Negri and he had made for their wedding, They were supposed to get married before he died. I have all these kind of fun things. The master bedroom is like a shrine to Napoleon. What motivated that is that somebody did a portrait of me at Napoleon. It’s kind of fun. It’s my fun house. My manager called me once during one of my vacations and said, “I have a fantastic offer for you. Just hear me out. Don’t say no yet.” And it was fantastic offer but I said, “Seymour, I’d love to do it, but I really can’t. My orchid trees are in bloom. I never leave when my orchid trees are in bloom. He thought it was crazy, but I am very into certain things. If a dog is sick I won’t work. I had two poodles for 18 years that were inseparable. One was blind and had no teeth and the other one was like his wife. They slept with me. They were so smart. The one developed all of these senses because he couldn’t see. I was his seeing eye person. I was so devoted to that dog. I could walk into a room on tiptoe and that dog would know I was there. He’d stand liked statue until I’d pick him up. I always told’ everybody in my organization, “If any­thing ever happens to Baby Boy don’t tell me before a show.” They died just a few days apart recently. They told me after the show. I felt so bad about it. I almost cancelled a performance.

O’BRIEN: What’s your favorite place to go shopping?

LIBERACE: I guess like most people I’m a bargain-hunter. I love a bargain. I found out there’s two prices on every­thing. There’s the Rodeo Drive price and there’s the same merchandise down the street. When I was in Greece I had the good fortune to be driven around by Onassis’ chauffeur. Onassis was out of the country at the time and the driver took me to all the places where he used to take Jackie and him shopping. And I did find some marvelous bargains, icons and things, in Athens. The Chauffeur was bilingual and we became very friendly. He would take me to all the restaurants that the Onassises liked to go to. Each one was famous for something. But before we would get to the restaurant we would always stop at some little house, a very ordinary little house, but immaculate; and there would be a couple in that house, like a maid and a manservant. I would say, “Why are we stopping here?” and he said, “Mr. Onassis doesn’t like to use public washrooms.” So whenever he found a restaurant that he liked he would buy a house close by just to wash up, and after dinner you’d go and have coffee or ouzo or something and wash up again. I asked how many of these places he had and the chauffeur said about 37. That’s rich. All these people did was wait for somebody to drop in and wash up.

THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1985 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

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Read more stories from the Celebrating Warhol collection.