FIU history professor Darden Asbury Pyron first got to thinking about the rhinestone-studded enigma that is Liberace while browsing at a bookstore several years ago. Pyron picked up a memoir by one of the great pianist's lovers and got completely weirded out when he flipped to a photograph in the middle. It showed the lover after having plastic surgery at Liberace's request, as the caption explained, so that the two would resemble each other. "I was thinking, what's going on?" gasps Pyron. "Not just between these two men ... but also with a society in which a plastic surgeon would agree to this."
How can someone be so obsessed with showing off that he would turn his mate into a matching accessory? And how does this guy represent us? Pyron searches for answers to those questions in Liberace: An American Boy, an unlikely scholarly work, which the author will discuss at Books & Books in stodgy Coral Gables this Thursday. He doesn't merely tell the story of one of the most celebrated entertainers of our time, but embeds it in the cultural history of the United States from World War I to the Reagan years. The book has been lauded by critics, and Pyron's reading promises to be as interesting as the text itself. The prof, who has a bald head, a goatee, and a gold earring on each ear, is about as Liberacian as they come in the world of academia. He speaks with frenetic wit and contagious joy. "[Liberace] was so perfectly American," he chortles, "and sooo queer!"
The biography traces the rise of television, which Liberace dominated in the Fifties with a show that drew more viewers than I Love Lucy, as well as the evolution of Las Vegas, where he set attendance records with his extravagant concerts. It also unpacks the psychology of homosexual identity, which Liberace struggled with all his life, never officially coming out of the closet.
Despite the book's academic grounding, it's mostly an absorbing yarn about a boy from Milwaukee who achieves the American Dream. Born to a Polish mother and an Italian father in 1919, Wladziu Valentino Liberace was deemed a musical prodigy from the time he was a tyke. He began as a classical pianist performing with major orchestras. As his star rose, he adopted the tacky flare that made critics cringe and the rest of the world swoon: the gold jump suits, the pink ostrich feathers, the diamond-encrusted rings, the flashy Rolls Royces. But underneath the flamboyance was an ambitious businessman, and even more surprisingly, a devout Catholic with conservative Midwestern values.
Readers will definitely see the Glitzy One in a new light, but Pyron offers a warning. "This is not a biography about revelations....," he says. "The most shocking thing about him is how normal he really was."