Liz Smith: My Memories of Liberace

MY THEOLOGY, briefly, is that the universe was dictated but not signed!” wrote Christopher Morley.

WONDERING why nearly every month I talk about Vanity Fair? It’s because most of you out there have stopped reading magazines and newspapers. So I’m here to encourage you and tell what you might be missing.

This magazine for October is amazing! We have the photos showing us how actors Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (big woman-loving-he-men in their private lives) can imitate or illuminate the souls of gay icons such as Liberace and his own chosen, betraying lover (I mean Scott Thorson. He finally blew the whistle on L. in a palimony lawsuit and brought down the elaborate artifice of both their lives.) In fact, the screenplay chooses hanging lights as a metaphor for those Liberace days. The film will be tellingly titled “Behind the Candelabra.”

This represents the moment when I personally knew Liberace. But I could never get him to level with me — and/or Scott. I went to visit these two in Las Vegas and was shown the museum Liberace had made for his unusual life, the ridiculous over-decorated house where they had the Sistine Chapel painted on their low ranch house ceiling and the eye-catching candelabra hanging over their coffee table at eye-level.

The ailing AIDS-afflicted Liberace, when he appeared with me on WNBC’s “Live at Five” show, was saying he was on “the watermelon diet.” He died soon after — a really lovable absurd human being, adored by millions of middle-aged women fans. And living a fable of glamour and prosperity. I can’t wait to see the movie because I lived a part of it.

THE magazine’s “The Powers That Be” is page after page of people you have seldom heard of — mostly tycoons of our Internet times. For 2012, they move Michael Bloomberg to number one and most VIP’s go up a notch, including Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes and Alec Baldwin.

More fascinating is their “Hall of Fame” which adds designers, attorneys, investment bankers and Lo! — Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” to the interesting list of  immortals (other than business owners and Wall Streeters.)

One of the best things in this October issue is the fairy tale ad for Disney Parks with Queen Latifah as “Ursula,” the sea witch from “The Little Mermaid.”

Another ad is for the magazine’s own “business journalists” and they actually show us their seldom-seen photos. (Kurt Eichenwald, Bethany McLean, William Cohan and Bryan Burrough. Evidently, they couldn’t find Michael Lewis for this sitting.)

OPINION!  I don’t want to decide my likes and dislikes of public figures because of their professed religions. So I deliberately have not paid much attention to Tom Cruise and Scientology.

He is a really big star, one who does his own physical stunts and is box office to the max. Actually, he is Hollywood’s top grosser; his net worth being $270 million a year.

I try to have the same attitude about our top pols — Barack Obama the Baptist-leaning Christian protestant … Mitt Romney the Mormon, the Roman Catholics Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.  

Thus, I will pass over Vanity Fair and Maureen Orth’s revelations about how Scientology selects girlfriends for Tom Cruise, etc.  If people are adults and over 21 and they agree to be “controlled” by their religion, they are free to do so. (If they are being controlled against their will or criminally used, then that’s another matter entirely.) But I am for proof and if there’s no proof, then freedom of choice reigns. To each his own when it comes to religion.

So, Vanity Fair stays in the mainstream as a kind of “movie magazine for adults.” It inquires into social values and high level happenings and yes, very high level gossip, questions, and fabulous photography. It’s my kind of entertainment.

THAT SAID, I can’t wait to see Tom Cruise at Christmas playing my hero, Lee Child’s vigilante “Jack Reacher.” Mr. Child’s books have a champion he dreamed up in readable novel after novel.  The latest Reacher book is titled A Wanted Man; it’s out now from Delacorte Press.

I have often wished for a Jack Reacher. This guy would have been, in the recent past, played in the movies by Clint Eastwood.  Now we will get Tom Cruise undertaking the hero in the film “Jack Reacher.”

This character, a veritable Robin Hood, shows up suddenly without luggage or credit cards or a vehicle he hasn’t commandeered.  He throws away his clothes when they get dirty and buys new cheap ones with cash, travels with only a toothbrush and never seems to need a dentist, oculist or heart doctor, subsists on hamburgers, scrambled eggs and coffee, never eats a green veggie, makes ardent love to willing women and moves on, rids towns of local despots, foils arcane pseudo-scientific plots with his brain and two fists and maybe a little borrowed fire power.  But doesn’t “carry.” Afflicts the powerful for the powerless and then stands on the highway,  thumb out.

He isn’t worrying about robots, super-villains, vampires, the undead, the supernatural, other universes or the apocalypse. Earth-bound troubles provide Reacher with enough to do.

I think Tom Cruise can carry off this character even though he doesn’t physically resemble the hero. When he does, we won’t be thinking about Scientology, or whether or not he is gay (how can he be; he isn’t any fun at all!) and I’ll bet your own private life is much happier than any movie star’s.

This column originally appeared on on 9/11/12

3 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Rho says:

    I loved Liberace.  Saw him twice,  Once at The Concord Hotel in the Borscht Belt.  Second time, at Westbury on Long Island.  He was so nice at Westbury.  A man had a heart attack, the medics came, Liberace just stood on stage and watched.  When they took the man out, he said we need to laugh, I will do my closing number.

  2. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I have been a Lee Childs/Jack Reacher fan for over a decade. I have never been a fan of Tom Cruise, not even in his “Risky Business” days. I don’t think he is sexy, adorable, funny or particularly talented. While women swooned, I yawned. I’ve always felt that he played Tom Cruise exceptionally well (I have been dragged by friends to see some of his films, by males to see others. Barf-O). The only film effort I found delightful was the completely over-the-top “Interview with the Vampire”. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (well, the first two, anyway) are fairly well written…but they are also lurid, funny, hyperbolic and ridiculous. Especially Lestat, the bratty, spoiled, snotty, gay vampire rock-star prince. It couldn’t have been much of an effort for Cruise to just be himself, with fangs and fancy dress. Near perfection.

    That was all before the Scientology. I have had very bitter personal experience with Scientology. My family was directly threatened when my father became involved with a woman who was a devotee. None of us had done anything to warrant the threats, and they continued long after he was dead. I continued to receive harassing phone calls for two years after his death (and I was the one who didn’t mind his girlfriend as long as HE was content), even though I had moved to Texas, far from her home in Chicago. I have seen two friends lives utterly destroyed, especially when they made the highly rational decision to get out.

    I don’t patronize the films of certain actors, and those who are dedicated to Scientology are on that list. In this case, Tom Cruise isn’t just physically a poor match for Reacher (6′ 5″, 250 lbs., massively built, slow moving, blonde and ice blue, and not a young man), but I can’t see how his hyperactive, quippy, yappy, egocentric personality that always shines through, in every character he’s ever played, will play as Reacher: quiet, ominous at times, taciturn, somewhat selfless, and essentially compassionate, loyal, and still.

    It’s like a brain-damaged chihuahua playing a bull-mastiff. Nope, that doesn’t work for me.

  3. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I remember Liberace on TV (cannot remember if it was his show, or another…I think this was in the 60’s). I was just a little girl then, and I was convinced that he was a woman, because he rather resembled one or two “older ladies” I knew. And because of his plucked eyebrows and make-up. Ahem.

    I adored his piano playing, and desired his clothing and jewelry. I’ve always loved flash. Later, I found him funny, but a little sad. I wondered if his life was happy, or if it had cost him way too much. I don’t really keep up with the lives of celebrities, and hearing of his death was the first time that I realized that he had AIDs.

    We’ve lost so many brilliant people to HIV/AIDs. It infuriates me that so many people still think of this as “THEIR” fault. Of “THEM”. Who knew? I remember, I had so many gay friends who, terrified, rushed to be tested…or simply vanished, afraid of the consequences (not just the disease itself) of finding out that they were infected.

    I had a pair of platform shoes when I was 20 that were covered with rhinestones and sparkled like an entire disco. My mother’s sour comment was that, combined with my vintage earrings and belt, I looked “Just like Liberace”.

    Here’s to those of us who aren’t afraid to glitter when we walk.