A SEQUIN OF EVENTS
Wladziu Valentino Liberace Remembered
May 16, 1919 – February 4, 1987

Liberace

If one can judge a person by the company he keeps, then Liberace should indeed be remembered as a kind and gentle soul, and one who made this world a better place to live in because he lived in it. I know, because some of the most unforgettable people and heartwarming experiences of my life are set like jewels along a parapet of memories spanning just four years, during which time I had been invited not only by the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts to play a celebration in honor of the man who almost single-handedly made the piano a house-hold instrument, but also as guest of his remaining family and friends in Palm Springs, where on three separate occasions I stayed in Le Petite Cloister - Liberace’s mother’s home – a villa in itself adjoining a sprawling expanse of secluded Spanish-style luxury known as Casa de los Cloisters, what America’s 60 Minutes dubbed “the most famous house in the world” – Liberace’s Palm Springs home.

From my diary of that time: May 12, 1992: Here I am, 30,000 feet in the air. Turbulence. Most people on this flight, CO164 to Honolulu are American. The gentleman opposite is reading a book on rhyming words for would-be poets. His nails are covered in clear polish. On the other side is a guitarist with tablatures – shouldn’t he be the one with polished nails? – and to my left, a fellow disheveled and asleep. Close to Honolulu. Exhausted. Light refreshments: fruit, date cupcake, orange juice and coffee. Why pepper? Thoughts turn to The Wiggles and the music to be recorded for them on my return in three weeks. Mozart and children – the child Mozart whispering magic into the ears of children. The goal is to promote active listening.
Honolulu Airport – iced coffee in cans and chocolate coated macadamia nuts. My flight to LAX leaves at 8.00 am from Gate 25. The man seated next to me is going to Las Vegas for the Firefighter’s Games. I think of Liberace wearing his famous flame suit. Flight 2 to LA, seated near door – seat 16A. My “would-be” poet is also on this flight. It is now 5.30 pm. LA to Vegas departs at 5.50 pm. It must be about 11.30 am on Wednesday in Sydney. Today is yesterday’s tomorrow. On my arrival in Las Vegas I will be met by my friends Pauline and Bob Lachance. How good it will be to see them again after so long.

I had first met Pauline and Bob in 1989. Pauline was President of the Liberace Fan Club as well as being archivist for the Liberace Museum and steadfastly dedicated to preserving and promoting in a professional manner the memory of Liberace as it should be. Vince Fronza, one of Liberace’s closest friends and confidantes, and someone who became one of mine, had once told me that Liberace had said to him how much he liked Pauline – that he sensed there was an innate goodness about her. This is true. Coupled with a generosity of spirit hard to match, Pauline’s and Bob’s
efforts to ensure my stay with them was pleasurable were never failing. If they themselves are a reflection of the spirit of the man honored, then yes, Liberace was indeed a kind and gentle soul. Not long after my arrival in Las Vegas, I met up with another dear friend, Linda Claussen. In recent years, she has become such a loyal and loving friend that I feel blessed by her presence in my life these many miles away. Together we were allowed access to the Liberace Museum so that I could practice before its doors were opened to the public.

From my diary :Thursday May 14th 1992- Linda drove me to the Museum this morning to practice. The mirrored Baldwin piano has deteriorated since when I last played it in 1989. The costumes are quite extraordinary. There is the famous black diamond mink cape lined with 40,000 Austrian rhinestones and valued at over $800,000.00. There is also the Czar Nicholas desk on which the Franco-Russian Alliance was signed. In World War 11 the Germans shot it full of holes to try and find hidden treasure. I can’t quite dismiss any of this as kitsch as others so readily do – like Liberace, it’s the real thing.

There have been many who have dismissed Liberace all too casually, relegating his life’s achievements to a premature oblivion usually reserved the likes of aged rock stars and second-rate club acts. Not so, one Andy Warhol, who met Liberace on December 6th 1984. From the Andy Warhol diaries:

But he (Liberace) arrived and he was wonderful. He walked in like a butterball because of the big fat coat he was wearing, but he’s very normal, nothing like his show-business personality, which explains why he’s so big, because if he were really that kind of person, he’d be too crazy to make it.

I rather like that. It peaks behind the myth to meet the man.

From my diary: Friday, May 15th - Met David Lomascola. He’s very gifted. He is presently completing his Master’s Degree in Music at UNLV where a Steinway grand was made available to me on which to practice, but David’s own preparation of Chopin’s Etude in F Major, Op. 10 No. 8 stole from me my thoughts for anything I was doing and I listened intently. Articulate. Impressive. Real. He knows what to do and how to do it. Later caught up with my dear Gladys Luckie, Liberace’s housekeeper and second mother, and later with Seymour Heller, Liberace’s manager. I am never quite at home with managers.

Since then, although I have not maintained regular contact with David Lomascola, I have been aware of his fine achievements, not only in keeping the legacy of Liberace alive through the exacting preparation and performance of his arrangements, but as a musician of the highest order, idealistic, artistic and true. Under his hands, the inexpressible can indeed be expressed, unlike many of the amateur impersonators who will always remain something less than second best. Like Liberace, the sound-scape of David’s skillfulness is built on foundations of real and earnest study whereby music truly becomes a manifestation of human spirit – something much more than mere pleasantry or superficial dallying.

From my diary: May 16th – Liberace’s birthday. My performance went well. Seymour Heller came to hear me play. In his gravel voice he leant towards the piano and said : “You’re a real artist my friend!”

Later that evening, Linda and I were treated to dinner and a show by Seymour. Seymour’s latest “find” welcomed me to Vegas from the stage. But one of my fondest memories was dinner with Gladys Luckie – how lucky can you get! I am not at all surprised Liberace referred to her as his second “mom” – it felt like she had become mine too! She nick-named me her “Zombie-Baby”, so little sleep did I get during my visits to Las Vegas. I had become her very own walking dead. It has been said that the truly generous are the truly wise – a sentiment most fitting this reserved and gracious lady. For many years, and from these many miles away, I have thought of her often. One night she taught me to play Keno. I lost $25.00! Over dinner I listened to her every word weave its way through memories uncommon of her life with Liberace and the many associations stemming there from. As you or I would recount to anyone the history of our lives, so she, without affectation or even a hint of the vanity of common- place name-droppers, spoke of her associations with Tony Orlando, Michael and Latoya Jackson, even Elvis Presley. History has recorded that she has prepared meals for some of the world’s most famous and respected people – from Phyllis Diller and Debbie Reynolds to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11. She once told me that Liberace couldn’t tell the difference between pork or veal when she crumbed it.In my copy of her own cookbook she has written : Dearest Phillip (Zombie), enjoy with love! Gladys.

Sometime during the late nineties, Steve Bowden, a fellow musician and friend of mine was travelling to the States. When he told me he was going to Las Vegas, I phoned Gladys from Australia to ask if he could visit with her. She told me to tell him to contact her once he touched down in Las Vegas : “We’ll have a party!” she said. A meeting was indeed arranged for what I assumed would be with just my friend, but my friend’s travelling companions were included, arriving unannounced. Unperturbed and as if expected, Gladys indulged them heartily in one of the most memorable afternoons of their lives. She not only met with them, but she entertained them with talk and an afternoon tea only she could provide in the close confines and luxury of the home Liberace gave her.

From Las Vegas I went to Palm Springs where I stayed in Liberace’s mother’s home – a rambling villa in itself known as Le Petite Cloister. The invitation to stay there was extended me by Vince Fronza who was one of Liberace’s closest friends and confidantes, and who without effort, quickly became one of mine to shine as a guiding light in my life. Le Petite Cloister as it was somewhat inversely called, adjoined Liberace’s villa known as Casa de los Cloisters. Le Petite Cloister was like a five star hotel and then some. Seven bedrooms each with their own en-suite, I chose a different room in which to sleep each night. So rambling was it, that for the first couple of days during my stay, Vince would have to “coo-ee” his way around the house in order to find me. The entrance to Le Petite Cloister appears opposite the epilogue in Liberace’s book “The Things I Love”.

At the time of my visit to Palm Springs in 1990, Casa de los Cloisters had been closed and the now famous “hole in the wall” which served as a private passage way through which Liberace could pass unseen from the main villa to the smaller one had been sealed. Vince suggested one morning I climb the walls and spend some time wandering through the Cloister’s gardens. This I did. To my surprise, I noticed most of the doors – large French window affairs on the swimming pool’s side of the house – were ajar. I went in. Carpets were stained from the rain and leaves strewn black and wet throughout the main lounge area. Chandeliers still adorned every room. The armoire photographed in “The Things I Love” was still there, as were the orange towels seen in the photograph. The main bathroom, deliciously cool and reverberant, featured mirrored walls, a white Carrara marble statue and Baccarat crystal. It was a cloister in The Cloisters – what once was surely an Aladdin’s cave. Further on I found the famous Chapel to St. Anthony. Except for the stained glass windows, little else remained to remind one of the sacred. I have a wooden plaque retrieved from there on which is carved the words: “I will never forget you, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” and shows the open hands of Christ. From the armoire itself I have a small broken redwood case which opens out to feature the Warsaw monument to Chopin sculpted by Clesinger in a lighter polished veneer. Two treasures from the things Liberace loved that I now love.

Most desolate of all was the room in which Liberace died. Contrary to popular belief, and based on what Vince told me, he did not die in the master bedroom but in the front room of the house because he preferred the light. Ironically, had any member of the press put their cameras to the seemingly transparent doors at the front of the house (what one assumes in photographs to be the garage), they probably would have been able to photograph the dying Liberace. Indeed, Vince had told me that one photographer had cornered him and offered him $300,000.00 if he’d let him in to photograph the dying Liberace. Vince was incensed, understandably. My own dealings with two mainstream journalists of questionable penmanship, who in 2005 wrote articles about my involvement with the children’s entertainment group The Wiggles - articles which appeared during the immediate weeks following the death of my mother when my grief known to both was crippling enough, to be divided up and then scattered abroad to other colleagues of their ilk - has taught me that the virtues of honesty and integrity are few and far between in this sometimes less than factual and more often than not deliberately manipulative and steeped towards the sensational type profession. Some journalists will never let truth get in the way of what could be a better story! Suffice to say, I did not launch what was said to be a scathing attack on the children's entertainment group The Wiggles - the journalists did.

I spent most of the morning exploring the grounds of Liberace’s villa. As in need of repair as it then was, I could well understand why Liberace chose this of all his homes in which to surrender his spirit to the eternal.

Anyone would feel at home there. It was a small piece of heaven on earth:

Down the dark future, through long generations,
The echoing sounds grow fainter and then cease,
And like a bell with solemn sweet vibrations,
I hear once more the voice of Christ say “Peace”.

Shortly after, Stefan Hemming saved the house and restored it tastefully, keeping much of the existing fixtures and furniture.

During the final months of Liberace’s life, Vince and a very close-knit entourage of friends took Liberace on a sabbatical to the Pokonos Mountains. Vince told me Liberace had said it was one of his dreams to see some deer. One morning, on waking, Liberace gazed out the window to see a deer nearby. Dreams can indeed come true. Trust me! I was shown a video of this time away. During the journey there, as ill as he was and so near to death, Liberace appeared to be in good spirits, even telling a joke or two. He was reserved and as gentle as ever.

Vince told me that during the final weeks of Liberace’s life, he would have to stand Liberace on his own feet in order to walk him, so weak was he, and that he would never allow him to see him cry. I also met Norma Gerber, the nurse dubbed “Nightingale” who was brought in to care for Liberace during the final stages of his decline. Vince told me that after first meeting Liberace- a meeting lasting no more than ten minutes - Nightingale came out and said: “I think I’ve fallen in love!” Like all whose lives had been touched by Liberace, Nightingale was no less enamoured. Over dinner one night I mentioned to her how I had seen her on Australia’s televised coverage of Liberace’s death touch his covered body as it was removed from The Cloisters. “Oh, you saw that?” she asked. “I’m so glad – I wanted the world to know I loved him.”

I remember well the day Vince and I visited Liberace’s tomb at Forest Lawn. I watched as Vince took out his Rosary - a Rosary once belonging to Liberace - kneel down and silently pray. His sense of loss washed over me like a wave of reverence for his private friend the world unknowingly knew as “Mr. Showmanship” – the legendary Liberace. Now when I watch any performance video of Liberace the showman, I see Liberace the man – that kind and gentle soul who more than most made the world a better place to live in, not only because he lived in it, but because of his inexhaustible good nature towards others less fortunate than he : “lives of great men remind us we can all make our lives sublime, and departing leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”

From my diary : Tuesday June 3rd- It’s 11.00 am – I leave this afternoon for home. Preoccupations with The Wiggles. Can I exhume the spirit that fathered our first recording when that spirit’s waned? For them to expect the same of me when it’s not the same is to ask more of me than I’d ask of anyone – more of me than they themselves would give. 7.05 pm: LAX – Vince saw me off from Palm Springs where my leaving for home felt like leaving home. Ten days of sun-drenched splendour in the Palm Springs home of Liberace, well spent in the company of the kindest people.
8.05 pm: I board Flight 1 to Honolulu where I’ll change planes for Sydney. Vince has given me a pair of diamond stud earrings for my most extraordinary mother. Perhaps there are no coincidences after all – the passenger next to me is Roger Williams’s neighbour – the pianist/arranger Vince and I passed several days ago on Palm Canyon Drive.

On returning to Australia, I received the following note from Vince:

“We managed a visit to Lee’s grave and I touched that part if the mausoleum where his body is, spoke softly telling him of meeting you, and that we know he arranged it.”

To this day, the warmth and friendship extended me by all, be they Liberace’s family, his friends or his fans has continued with just as much focus and fervour as of yore. I feel blessed.