Before there was "Behind the Candelabra," the upcoming HBO movie starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson, there was "Behind the Candelabra," the book, a 1988 tell-all written by Thorson about his years-long relationship with the late piano-playing superstar.
The book, which had been out of print until its May 14 paperback, digital, and audiobook re-release from Tantor Media, is the basis for director Steven Soderbergh's HBO film and is a must-read for celebrity watchers and, of course, anyone else interested in Liberace and his blinged-out lifestyle.
Here, 12 of the juiciest nuggets from the can't-put-it-down book:
1. Michael Douglas isn't the only member of his family with a connection to Liberace. Thorson writes that because of the rumors (despite Liberace's steadfast denials) that Liberace had died of AIDS, most of his fellow celebrities stayed away from a public memorial service held after his February 4, 1987, death. Only two famous names paid their respects at the service, Thorson writes: Liberace's Palm Springs neighbors Charlene Tilton, Ewing niece Lucy on "Dallas," and Kirk Douglas, Michael's Oscar-nominated father.
2. Liberace's lush hair was one of his trademarks, but Thorson says the entertainer was actually almost completely bald. He was so afraid of anyone finding out about his hair situation that he refused to go swimming, even in any of the pools at his various homes.
3. In Liberace's 1986 autobiography "The Wonderful Private World of Liberace," he wrote that he lost his virginity at age 16 to a (female) stripper. Thorson writes that Liberace told him his first sexual encounter was actually with a football player from the Green Bay Packers.
4. In 1963, during a performance at a Holiday Inn in Pittsburgh, Liberace nearly died, Thorson writes, after a chemical used to clean his outrageous costumes was absorbed through his pores. Liberace was hospitalized, with both his kidneys shutting down and doctors skeptical that even a dialysis treatment would save him. Liberace, fearing death was at hand, went on a shopping spree, buying fur coats and jewelry from Tiffany & Co. When a second dialysis treatment miraculously saved him, Thorson says Liberace, who'd felt guilt about being gay, took it as a sign that "he wouldn't have been spared if being gay was the sin Catholic dogma held it to be. He believed he'd been saved because God … looked on him with special favor."
5. Liberace had a major collection of pornography, Thorson writes, and it was often a source of fights between the two throughout their relationship. Liberace also had impotence problems and got a silicone implant that made him semierect all the time.
6. Liberace, Thorson writes, introduced Barbra Streisand to Las Vegas and gave her a major career boost when he invited her to perform as part of his act for a month at the Riviera in 1963. The hotel's entertainment director was less than impressed with Babs's looks, Thorson writes, but audiences loved her, and after Liberace also took her to perform at the Sahara in Tahoe, she got the career-changing offer to star in "Funny Girl" on Broadway.
7. Thorson writes that Liberace fans loved to buy various branded tchotchkes at his shows, and sales of the trinkets -- jewelry, pillboxes, signed photos, piano books, and so on -- often brought in as much as $20,000 a week. Liberace called the cash "funny money" and didn't report the earnings to the IRS.
8. Debbie Reynolds, a friend of Liberace who plays his mother in the HBO movie, used to share a manager, Seymour Heller, with Liberace, until she and Heller had a falling-out. One night, Thorson writes, Reynolds was so upset at having run into Heller that she ended up at Liberace's house, where a gripe session about Heller turned into a fun evening with Reynolds sitting on the kitchen floor, drinking wine with Liberace and Thorson until the next morning. Other celebrities Thorson writes about in the book include Michael Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Lena Horne, Tony Orlando, Larry Gatlin, Dom De Luise, Charo, and Shirley MacLaine.
9. Liberace hired Thorson to be his companion just a couple of weeks after meeting him, but the performer already had two other male companions living with him, including one who had been paid by Liberace to leave his wife and children to live with the star in Las Vegas. In the HBO movie, Douglas is seen telling Thorson he wants to be his "father, brother, lover, best friend," and he was serious about the father part, at least for a time -- Thorson, who had grown up in and out of various foster homes in California, writes that Liberace had talked about adopting him.
10. Liberace was engaged to two women during his lifetime, Thorson writes. He got hitched to a Vegas dancer named JoAnn Del Rio in 1953, when he was anxious to squash gay rumors. Then, after he filed a lawsuit against the London Daily Mirror newspaper in 1956 for writing about him as a "giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love," he became engaged to Olympic figure skating gold medalist Sonja Henie. That engagement was also short-lived, but Liberace did win approximately $22,000 in the lawsuit against the London paper.
11. Liberace's sexuality wasn't the first big secret in his life. His father, Sam, walked out on his family when Liberace was a teen. Mrs. Liberace, a proud Catholic woman too ashamed to have people know her domestic details, made her children lie to friends, family, schoolmates, and neighbors about the fact that her husband had left her for other women. Thorson also writes that Mrs. Liberace (Frances) was one tough mama, "a sweet old lady one minute and a merciless nag the next," which prompted Liberace (real name: Walter Liberace, known to his friends as "Lee") to shower her with affection in public but keep her at a comfortable distance in private. Thorson even says that when Frances died in 1980, Liberace didn't shed a tear, but he cried "buckets" when his poodle, Babyboy, died a few months later.
12. Thorson and Liberace's relationship ended badly and bitterly, even aside from the famous 1982 palimony suit. Thorson writes that on the day Liberace performed at the Oscar ceremony in 1982, a career highlight they both had planned to celebrate, Thorson was instead dumped by Liberace. The star had his employees throw Thorson out of Liberace's Los Angeles penthouse, with his belongings packed in garbage bags. Liberace's people had even hired Thorson's estranged half-brother to help them kick the then-22-year-old out of the 62-year-old superstar's apartment.
"Behind the Candelabra" by Scott Thorson (with Alex Thorleifson) is available from Tantor Media and Tantor.com.
"Behind the Candelabra," the movie, premieres on HBO on May 26 at 9 PM.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Scott Thorson
- Michael Douglas