BBC News Magazine’s Jon Kelly discusses Behind the Candelabra, a current movie about Liberace’s six year affair with a much younger man. Throughout his life, the entertainer strained to maintain the fiction that he was heterosexual:
Most famously, he sued the Daily Mirror over an innuendo-laden article by William Connor, who wrote under the pen-name Cassandra, which described the musician as “the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love”.
Whether Connor’s phrasing (this was 1956) would be “too homophobic” for today’s newspapers as Kelly suggests, it is a marvelous bit of writing. Connor continued, calling Liberace a “superb piece of calculating candy-floss” whose popularity raised doubts about the character of the popular—largely female—mind:
There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown.
William Connor ought to have gotten a PEN award for lively expository prose. Worthy of Mencken. And—be honest—it is an accurate enough description of Liberace’s theatrical persona which appealed hugely to women.
A pianist, he brought to the popular stage the kind of exotic burlesque—equal parts vaudeville, bacchanalia, and concert—that opened in Seattle’s The Garden of Allah in 1946. America’s first gay cabaret, The Garden was a celebrated oasis for female impersonators; its Prima Donnas and Dames dressed as garishly as Liberace on TV. A drag show—more precisely, the mildly risqué hint of one—beat Tex Ritter and the Andrew Sisters. The Ed Sullivan Show was ready for Liberace.
Connor had no sympathy for Liberace’s glittering chintz and bravado: “He is the summit of sex. . . .Everything that he, she or it could ever want.” Where is the slander here? This was language used as Orwell prescribed, “as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”
Liberace won his suit by lying under oath. And he got the last word: “I cried all the way to the bank.”
• • • •
By now, camp sensibility has become mainstream. Nowhere is it more evident than in the gay marriage debate. What ought to have been taken as an exercise in camp role-playing was instead greeted with dead seriousness. This was one time we ought to have been listening to Susan Sontag: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.” She expanded:
Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. . . . What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards.
Sontag ended “Notes on Camp” with an observation that applies a certain bite to our descent into dandyisme in the name of rights:
Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.