Exactly 23 years ago, the flamboyant showman lost the battle to hide his sexuality — and keep his death from becoming a circus
Twenty-three years ago, on Feb. 4, 1987, Vladziu Valentino Liberace had his final curtain call. According to the original death certificate, signed by his personal physician, Dr. Ronald Daniels, the cause was cardiac arrest.
However, the county medical examiner ordered an autopsy, which concluded that America’s beloved Mr. Showmanship had died of cytomegalovirus pneumonia — due to the AIDS virus. His estate’s executors filed a libel suit against the coroner’s office. They lost.
Combating rumors about the star’s declining health, Daniels had told the press that his patient was on a “watermelon diet” and suffered from emphysema and anemia. It was later revealed that, two years prior to his passing, Liberace had tested positive on an “anemia” test — for HIV.
After the diagnosis, “Lee and I made a pact never to tell another soul about our AIDS,” his lover, Cary James, would confess. “His worst fear was that his fans would find out he was gay.”
Only a month before the diagnosis, another Liberace lover, Rock Hudson, died of the disease. The pianist was terrified that, should his condition be revealed, he would be subject to the same media circus. Moreover, a devout Catholic whose fondest memory was his meeting with Pope Pius XII, he feared excommunication.
On his deathbed, the star confided to another former lover, Scott Thorson, that he would take his secret with him “to the grave” because, “I don’t want to be remembered as an old queen who died of AIDS.”
Thorson had filed a $113 million palimony lawsuit against him in 1982. “By trying to conceal his AIDS rather than going public as Rock Hudson had done, I felt Lee had set the entire gay movement back a decade,“ his stage assistant later wrote in his memoir "Behind the Candelabra."
Others echoed the sentiment.
Congressman Henry Waxman, on "Good Morning America," expressed his regret that the star had concealed his condition, unlike Hudson, whose confession he asserted “had been a great benefit to educating the public.”
The feature article for that week’s U.S. News and World Report was: “AIDS: How Wide the Cover-up?”
Meanwhile, Ted Koppel weighed in with his "Nightline" discussion: “Why Liberace did not reveal his gay lifestyle.”
“In a homophobic society … being secretly gay while burdened with public celebrity can be sheer hell,” Thorson went on to write. “Poor Lee. He’d spent a lifetime denying his own homosexuality in public, fighting the papers, the tabloids.”
In 1956, the showman had sued the U.K.’s Daily Mirror for depicting him as “a scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love." Soon afterward, he took on Confidential for its headline "Why Liberace's Theme Song Should Be 'Mad About the Boy!'"
The star won both libel suits, inspiring his famous quip: “I laughed all the way to the bank!”
Liberace had a brief affair with Rock Hudson in 1952 when the latter filmed "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" Later when Confidential threatened to out the heartthrob actor, he married his agent’s secretary. Using the same m.o., Lee dated actresses Mae West and Joanne Rio, as well as skater Sonja Henje.
After Hudson was diagnosed with HIV in 1984, his doctors announced that he had inoperable liver cancer. Later, while hospitalized in Paris, the actor revealed that he had AIDS. But he attributed the infection to a blood transfusion administered during a heart bypass operation.
Following his ex-lover’s death, keeping his own homosexuality a secret became an “almost intolerable burden” for Liberace, recalled Thorson. The closest the star had ever come to an admission was when, in 1982, he teased an interviewer: “With a name like Liberace, which stands for freedom, anything that has the letters L-I-B in it I’m for, and that includes gay lib.”
When, a few years later, his health began to visibly deteriorate and rumors were rekindled, Mr. Showmanship told reporters, “Let me assure you, I’ve never felt better in my life!”
Indeed, in spite of alarming weight loss and ravaged lungs, he staged miraculous swan-song performances at Radio City only months before his demise. Then he appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on Christmas Day, 1986. Then he took to bed and began to pray like he had in 1963.
This was when Liberace had first laid on his deathbed. His kidneys had shut down from an accidental inhalation of cleaning fluid. His condition was hopeless, the doctors told him. A priest had already given him final unction. Finally, a ghostly nun appeared at his bedside, urging him to pray to St. Anthony. He obeyed and miraculously recovered.
“He had always attributed his recovery to his faith in God,” recalled his last lover, Cary James.
Though his faith had not declined 24 years later, the seemingly unstoppable showman was not blessed with a second coming.
No sooner had the news of his passing been announced than his Palm Spring estate was overrun by gawkers, drive-bys and paparazzi. “It was the very disaster Liberace had dreaded,” wrote his biographer, Darden Asbury Pyron.
The coroner’s office fueled the fire with its announcement of the star’s real cause of death, exposing the cover-up. Now his family, facing its own nightmare in his wake, could do nothing but helplessly deny the tragic reality.
“He did not die of AIDS,” insisted his sister, Angelina, “the doctors killed him.”
She even insisted her brother was not gay. But in saying so, she expressed the undeniable greater truth about the star who called himself “a one-man Disneyland.”
“Lee was just unique,” his grieving sister declared. “He’s so unlike the rest of us. He doesn’t much care for the real world.”
Four years later, AIDS claimed another unique entertainer and Liberace fan, Freddie Mercury. Queen’s flamboyant frontman had also been the subject of a jaundiced, public death watch. The day before his demise, he told his friends that, unlike Lee, he would reveal his condition.
On Nov. 23, 1991, the star released this statement: “Following the enormous conjecture in the press over the last two weeks, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV-positive and have AIDS … The time has come now for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth and I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.”
The next Easter, Queen’s surviving members staged the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness. Watched by 1 billion people worldwide, the memorial included performances by Elton John, David Bowie and George Michael. And surely that evening these stars felt the spirit of their idol and mentor, the immortal Mr. Showmanship himself, smiling down upon them.