On This Gay Day: Liberace died in 1987 of an AIDS related illness

Liberace denied he was gay and kept his HIV status a secret

Liberace died on this day in 1987, the musician had been diagnosed with HIV in 1985 but did not publicly disclose his diagnosis.

Władziu Valentino Liberace was born in Wisconsin, USA, in 1919. His parents were immigrants, his father hailing from Italy, while his mother was Polish. Known professionally by his last name,  Liberace came to prominence in nightclubs in the 1940’s playing a mix of pop and classical music.

Over the years his performances and costumes became more outlandish, his signature was a candelabra on the end of piano. By the 1950’s he was a household name and breaking records in Las Vegas. His television show was broadcast around the world and saw him receiving up to 10,000 fan letters each week.  A young Elton John became fascinated by the performer and cites him as a major influence.

His success continued through the 1960’s and 70’s and he sold millions of records around the world.

In the 1956 Liberace sued a British newspaper for suggesting that he was homosexual. In court the musician denied he was gay, and he won substantial damages from the newspaper.

Prior to the case being heard in court Liberace sent a telegram to the journalist who has described him as an “eadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.”

In the telegram Liberace wrote “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.” He repeated the line to reporters outside the court.

Despite his claims in court, the piano man was indeed in a series of same sex relationships. In 1982 Scott Thorson, his former chauffer sued the musician for palimony after he was fired from him job. The case was settled out of court and later formed the basis of the film Behind the Candelabra with Matt Damon playing the role of Thorson and Michael Douglas portraying Liberace.

In 1985 Liberace was diagnosed as being HIV positive. The performer kept his illness a secret from everyone except his closest confidantes and did not seek medical treatment.

Initially his personal physician announced that his death was due to anemia, attributed to a watermelon diet, emphysema and heart disease. The Las Vegas coroner however insisted on an autopsy and announced that Liberace has died of AIDS related pneumonia.

Also on this Day

In 1987 Randy Shilts‘ groundbreaking book And The Band Played On was published. It chronicles the spread and discovery of AIDS from 1980 to 1985, and documents the government in fighting and indifference that hampered the initial response to the pandemic. Shilts held of on getting tested for HIV so he would not be biased in his reporting. After the book was published he discovered he was HIV positive, he died in 1994.

Author Patricia Highsmith died on this day in 1995 aged 74.

Actor John Mahony died on this day in 2018, the actor is remembered for his long running role as the cantankerous Martin Crane in TV series Frasier. Mahony had a memorable role in the gay drama The Heartbreak Club and also played an ageing drag queen in an episode of the TV show E.R. 

Back in 2016 as Australia debated marriage equality lobby group The Marriage Alliance came under fire for releasing a campaign that showed a woman with a rainbow noose around her neck.

Labor MP Tim Watts raised concern in federal parliament over the image, mental health groups labeled it inappropriate, and the Advertising Standards Board later found it contravened their standards.

OIP Staff, image of Liberace by Allan Warren, published via a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 license. 

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