cover image Liberace: An American Boy

Liberace: An American Boy

Darden Asbury Pyron. University of Chicago Press, $27.5 (512pp) ISBN 978-0-226-68667-7

""Don't be misled by this flamboyant exterior. Underneath I remain the same--a simple boy from Milwaukee."" Thus spake Liberace in one of his more modest moments. Even as a child, Liberace was well liked and, well, bigger than life; when he came to a high school party dressed as Greta Garbo, he received no flak from classmates. Born Walter Liberace in 1919, the pianist and entertainer began playing clubs in the 1930s, and by the early '40s began cultivating the extravagant performance style (e.g., a Strauss waltz version of ""Home on the Range"") and the unrestrained costumes for which he became famous. He soon became a cultural icon who attracted adoration from middle-brow, usually female audiences as well as overt antagonism, often fueled by homophobia. In this absorbing and insightful biography, Pyron (Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture) charts more than the life of the performer; he uses that life to reflect on how artifice, camp, gender, homosexuality, gay sensibility and homophobia shape American popular culture. Drawing on Liberace's autobiography, other biographies, queer theory, reviews, scandal sheet accounts of his private life and court records (Liberace was always suing or being sued), the book makes an original contribution in its complex examination of the intersection of homosexuality with private lives and public culture. Pyron's interests are far-ranging and illuminating--from the influence of a Roman Catholic sensibility on Liberace and gay culture to the aesthetics of television and the social importance of self-improvement books in the 1950s. Finally, he achieves what many readers might consider impossible: a persuasive case for Liberace's life and times as the embodiment of an important cultural moment. (July)