Lee and Me
What's he really like? Under the veneer of fame, are celebrities really just like us? Is it possible, as Oscar Levant famously questioned, "to cut through the phony tinsel to the real tinsel underneath"?
In the summer of 1966, I was asking myself these questions as I waited for Liberace, the legendary entertainer, to arrive. I was a manager at Music Fair Enterprises in Baltimore, which staged premiere musicals and live performances in a string of large-tent summer venues along the East Coast. As a recent college graduate, this was my first real job in the entertainment business. I was responsible not only for all the technical details, but also for pampering the stars by ensuring that their every need was met. Liberace had contracted to do the final eight shows of the season, and the pressure was on.
Liberace and his entourage were almost an hour late. A local orchestra was tuning up and rehearsing in the tent; I was standing outside, keeping watch for the star's arrival with our press agent and the union reps, who were getting impatient in the oppressive humidity. Finally, three shiny limos rolled up. Liberace's musicians, stage manager, and musical conductor, as well as various other members of the troupe, emerged from the cars. Then, at long last, Liberace appeared, elegantly coiffed and wearing an immaculate white linen suit and a bright floral-print sport shirt. His outfit paled in comparison to his over-the-top stage attire but was far from ordinary street wear on a hot summer afternoon. I had wondered whether I was going to see him in hot pants and knee socks, but now I assumed he was reserving those for his performance. The famous Liberace smile, which inspired an almost religious devotion among his fans, radiated confidence and charm and instantly evaporated the sticky tension.
As we queued up to greet him and shake hands, I was wondering how to address him - "Liberace," "Mr. Liberace," "Your Eminence"? As I introduced myself, he said, "Call me Lee!" With a flash of that five-mile smile, he added, "All my friends do. It's the only thing I answer to - besides 'Hey, Beautiful,' of course."
I would have been happy lingering in the glow of my new friend's charismatic presence, but I felt someone push me aside. As I turned, I saw Blossom Horowitz, a florid woman in her late fifties who was determined to take center stage in the court of The Sun Queen. She was the director of group sales and a real piece of work. Always tan and ostentatiously dressed in resplendent designer finery, she was a nouveau-riche fashion plate. She loved to flaunt what she thought was the importance of her position. In her mind, everyone but the stars was expendable and at the mercy of her every whim. With me out of the way, she marched right up to Liberace, extended her hand, and bent slightly as if expecting a European-style kiss - "Lee, you are fabulous! " she gushed. "I've been dying to meet you for years!" She introduced herself and announced, "I sold out ALL your shows," as if attracting an audience was all her doing and had nothing to do with Liberace. I peered around her beehive hairdo and dangling gold earrings to see the subtly reduced wattage in his smile, giving away the fact that he was tolerating her as a matter of professional courtesy. "If there's anything you need, you come right to me," she babbled on. "Never mind the staff and those young managers!" Her display of self-importance was even more pretentious than her outfit. She clucked on for several more insufferable moments, and then, with the audacity of the fatally clueless, she kissed Liberace on the cheek, curtsied, smiled, did a 180, attempted to swivel her hips, and strutted off trailing vapors of sickly sweet perfume.
I was appalled and embarrassed, but Lee just shrugged and said, "In show business, everyone gets to play their role. We have a great tolera