In a quick round-up last year for my Robert Elms Show slot of pop stars who had had their collars felt – shooting racing pigeons? The Clash. Covering a BA flight attendant in yoghurt? Peter Buck of REM – I came across a bizarre and almost forgotten libel case. In 1956 staggeringly successful American piano player Liberace successfully sued the Daily Mirror for implying that he was a homosexual.
Now granted, the 1956 Liberace was not the flamboyant, camp-as-Pontins, star-spangled red-white-and-blue hot pants, full length minks and rhinestones Las Vegas Liberace we all remember from the 70s and 80s, who frankly couldn’t have possibly been anything but homosexual. No, flamboyance in 1956 was a white suit and a gold leaf piano with a glass lid. But still and all, it’s a pretty astonishing tale. And what’s more he won.
The Daily Mirror of 26 September 1956 carried a column which described Liberace as ‘the summit of sex – the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter, everything that he she or it can ever want … this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love… He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief and the old heave-ho. Without doubt he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time.’
And so it continued. For several more paragraphs.
Liberace and his specially imported Cadillac-with-the-piano motif had arrived the day before by ocean liner at Southampton to be greeted by 3,000 fans lining the dock. There were thousands more at Waterloo to meet his private train, The Liberace Express, and they threw so much confetti that afterwards the place was ankle-deep. It took mounted police and dogs to get his car through the crowds and on to the Savoy. The Mirror’s review then was not of his show, but merely of his arrival. He had yet to play a note on his golden piano.
When copies of the Mirror were delivered to his Savoy suite, he was so shocked he almost fainted. His dear mum’s reaction was even worse. After finding the copy her dutiful son had attempted to hide, she read the offending article and had an attack of the vapours and a doctor had to be summoned. No one upsets Liberace’s mum and gets away with it. He decided to sue.
The trial didn’t take place till June 1959 because of Liberace’s busy performance schedule. His Dickensian QC, Mr Gilbert Beyfus, at 76 the oldest practicing barrister on the London circuit, looked like ‘a toothless old lion’, according to Liberace’s own account, apparently fumbling with papers and forgetting his half-moon glasses when they were atop his head the whole time. Ah, but he was lulling the Mirror into a false sense of security (he wasn’t called ‘The Fox’ for nothing). The Mirror didn’t know what had hit them. A sober-suited Liberace spent six hours in the witness-box, defending his reputation and shedding a tear when recounting his sainted mother’s earlier distress. He denied outright and point-blank that he was homosexual, adding that he was ‘against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society’.
The Mirror countered with some feeble retort like their columnist had merely been exercising his right to free speech right to find Liberace so nauseating and was entitled to write about it. The jury didn’t have to agree with what he had written, they just had to agree he had the right to say it. They didn’t agree, as it happened, because after 3½ hours of deliberation – less time than Liberace had spent on the stand – the jury of 10 men and two women found the Daily Mirror guilty and awarded him a then-record £8,000 in damages, plus costs for both sides estimated at over £27,000. That’s nearly £2 million in today’s money.
Leaving court Liberace issued a statement saying he was delighted that his reputation had been vindicated by a British jury. He later quipped that he had cried all the way to the bank. Actually he cried all the way to the Chiswick Empire, where he played his show there that night as scheduled, to a three minute standing ovation before he’d even started
For the rest of his life no one dared inquire about his sexuality, even after his assistant-slash-lover wrote a tell-all book. He still denied everything, although perhaps by that point I’m sure nobody cared or at the very least was terribly surprised.
Liberace died of AIDS-related pneumonia in February 1987 and even in death tried to remain in the closet. The coroner who conducted the autopsy stated that there had been a deliberate attempt to hide the actual cause of death on the original death certificate. The Daily Mirror’s headline was ‘How About A Refund?’ They’re still waiting.