Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 24 November 2016

Both are showmen with a taste for flamboyant luxury; both pursued fame for its own sake

Long life | 24 November 2016
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Do you remember Liberace? Yes, of course you do. Who could forget him? The Wisconsin-born son of a poor Italian immigrant, Liberace turned a natural talent for playing the piano into a vehicle for achieving celebrity and wealth. As a child, he was regarded as something of a musical prodigy, but he wasn’t tempted by success as a concert pianist. He sought and achieved stardom by transforming himself into a bizarre showman, extravagantly dressed in lace and velvet, bejewelled with enormous rings, playing an equally bejewelled grand piano with a candelabra placed on it, and engaging in constant joking banter with the audience.

He himself said, ‘I don’t give concerts, I put on a show,’ and most serious music critics took a dim view of these events. After one Liberace performance in the Carnegie Hall, a critic wrote, ‘It’s almost all showmanship topped by whipped cream and cherries,’ while another accused him of lacking respect for the great composers: ‘Liberace recreates — if that is the word — each composition in his own image. When it is too difficult, he simplifies it. When it is too simple, he complicates it.’ But Liberace was undismayed by bad reviews and responded famously that he ‘cried all the way to the bank’.

Liberace died of Aids in 1987 at the age of 67, having achieved all the fame and riches he wanted. But perhaps, if he were still alive today, he might have aspired to an even higher peak of celebrity, the presidency of the United States. As a conservative with a fervent belief in capitalism, he might even have had a chance of success. For somebody very similar to him has just shown that such an implausible thing can be achieved. It has only just occurred to me, but Liberace and Donald Trump have a lot in common.

The most obvious thing is their taste for flamboyant luxury. ‘Too much of a good thing is wonderful,’ was Liberace’s motto, but it could just as well be Trump’s. Donald’s triplex home in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue may reflect his greater wealth in its grandiosity, but its décor and furnishings are strikingly similar to those of Liberace’s former house in Las Vegas. In both there is a proliferation of gold paint, chandeliers, candelabra, swirling frescoes and classical motifs. The president-elect may well find the White House depressingly restrained by comparison. At the same time, Liberace and Trump were both starstruck by people more glamorous than themselves. Liberace was certainly fascinated by royalty, and the British government clearly believes that Trump is too; for it is hoping that an invitation to stay with the Queen at Windsor Castle will be enough to save the ‘special relationship’ during the period of his presidency. There is also a similarity between the ways they have been popularly regarded. Despite his self-indulgence and obsession with luxury, Liberace was accepted by fellow Midwesterners as one of them; and Trump’s flaunting of his billions of dollars doesn’t deter people from regarding him as their champion against a selfish, wealthy elite.

Sexual impropriety also failed to dent the popularity of either of them, though each faced a different potential threat in this department. While Trump seemed to boast openly about assaulting women, Liberace lied about his homosexuality. Liberace won a libel action against the Daily Mirror when its columnist Cassandra (William Connor) wrote words that, in a London court’s judgment, suggested he was homosexual (which in fact he was). Writing in 1956, Cassandra called Liberace ‘a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love’. Nobody suggests that Trump is anything other than sexually straight, but there is nevertheless something camp about him, especially in the gesture in which he makes an ‘o’ with his thumb and forefinger like someone threading a needle. Trump and Liberace also look similar with their square faces and hair worn like helmets.

But the greatest thing they share is the pursuit of fame for its own sake. Just as Liberace would never have achieved celebrity as a straightforward pianist, Trump wouldn’t have done so simply by becoming a successful property developer. It was his relentless promotion of the Trump brand, attaching his name to all his buildings and projects, and even more his television career in the American version of The Apprentice, that did it for him; and without this celebrity he would never have won the greatest prize.