Hollywoodland | Sex Files Feb 26 2014
SLINGS AND ARROWS
Liberace is finally forced to take up arms against the tabloids.


A long while ago we shared the cover of a 1956 Whisper featuring George Sanders. The same issue had an article on Liberace, and we’re returning to that today as part of our look at mid-century tabloid attitudes toward gay culture. In general of course, the tabloids were brutally insulting, using overt as well as coded language to get intimations of homosexuality across. Theoretically, when dealing with public figures they had to be somewhat cautious, but both Rave and Inside had in 1954 written stories insinuating that Liberace was gay, and in 1955 Suppressed and Private Lives did the same. In Whisper, a journalist writing under the name Sylvia Tremaine refers to Liberace as a “creature,” labels his speech as “simpering,” and describes his move to television this way: “From there it was just a brief flutter to a local TV program.”

You’ll notice there’s deniability in all those words—Whisper could claim there was nothing defamatory in the language. Ridiculous, of course. Clearly the magazine was calling Liberace gay, and only a fool would claim otherwise, but defamation had not occurred to an extent that would stand up in court. Thus we see the joy of coded language. The same occurs in the U.S. today in certain media outlets with language directed at African Americans. The disparagement is clear, but deniable. Or for a cinematic example of coding, consider the Maltese Falcon and how the character of Joel Cairo is announced by flute trills on the soundtrack. Clear, and yet deniable. But in its Liberace article Whisper then throws deniability out the window with this: “Hollywood snickerers are wondering, in fact, if all the male hormones earmarked for the Liberace boys weren’t hogged by George, leaving Lee with only his nimble fingers.” That goes a bit beyond code, wouldn’t you say?

Liberace did not sue, and the tabloids simply built momentum. Later in 1956 Britain’s Daily Mirror called him a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” Robert Harrison’s Confidential piled on in 1957. It published a three-part tale of Liberace attacking a hapless press agent. A sample from that hit piece: “Fatso plumped onto the couch alongside his young guest, and before you could say Gorgeous George, the pair were [wrestling]. In a matter of moments, it turned into a boxing bout, too, with the press agent throwing desperate lefts and rights at Liberace. The latter, his determination stiffening, merely clung tighter. The floor show reached its climax when Dimples, by sheer weight, pinned his victim’s shoulders to the mat and mewed into his face: 'Gee, you’re cute when you’re mad!'”
 
Liberace’s lawyer John Jacobs filed lawsuits against both Daily Mirror and Confidential, demanding a whopping twenty million dollars from the latter. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $174 million in today's terms. You can almost imagine Robert Harrison spitting up his coffee when he heard the settlement demand. Equally you can imagine Liberace’s reluctance to dignify the article, but Confidential at the time had readership in the millions. Something had to be done. It had become open season on his private life. Even the press photo below toyed with him. Thedescriptive text, written for newspaper staff, is meant to simply get across the basic facts of the photos and is typically pretty dry stuff. But this describes Liberace as "the curly-haired pianist"  and says his walk is "jaunty." Clear, but deniable.
 
In the end, Liberace received $40,000 from Confidential and $53,000 from the Daily Mirror, substantial sums for the time. In addition to his legal victories, the constraints against tabloid journalism were becoming more defined. Of course, Liberace had won the cases by perjuring himself in court about being gay. In 1987 when he died of complications related to AIDS, Daily Mirror refused to show an iota of deference or respect and published a piece referring to the 1950s settlement. It was headlined: Any Chance of a Refund?

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