Cover image for Liberace : an American boy
Liberace : an American boy
Pyron, Darden Asbury.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xvi, 494 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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Format :


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Material Type
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ML417.L67 P97 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
ML417.L67 P97 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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More people watched his nationally syndicated television show between 1953 and 1955 than followed "I Love Lucy." Even a decade after his death, the attendance records he set at Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl, and Radio City Music Hall still stand. Arguably the most popular entertainer of the twentieth century, this very public figure nonetheless kept more than a few secrets. Darden Asbury Pyron, author of the acclaimed and bestselling "Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell," leads us through the life of America's foremost showman with his fresh, provocative, and definitive portrait of Liberace, an American boy.
Liberace's career follows the trajectory of the classic American dream. Born in the Midwest to Polish-Italian immigrant parents, he was a child prodigy who, by the age of twenty, had performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Abandoning the concert stage for the lucrative and glittery world of nightclubs, celebrities, and television, Liberace became America's most popular entertainer. While wildly successful and good natured outwardly, Liberace, Pyron reveals, was a complicated man whose political, social, and religious conservativism existed side-by-side with a lifetime of secretive homosexuality. Even so, his swishy persona belied an inner life of ferocious aggression and ambition. Pyron relates this private man to his public persona and places this remarkable life in the rapidly changing cultural landscape of twentieth-century America.
Pyron presents Liberace's life as a metaphor, for both good and ill, of American culture, with its shopping malls and insatiable hunger for celebrity. In this fascinating biography, Pyron complicates and celebrates our image of the man for whom the streets were paved with gold lame.
"An entertaining and rewarding biography of the pianist and entertainer whose fans' adoration was equaled only by his critics' loathing. . . . Pyron] persuasively argues that Liberace, thoroughly and rigorously trained, was a genuine musician as well as a brilliant showman. . . . A]n immensely entertaining story that should be fascinating and pleasurable to anyone with an interest in American popular culture." "Kirkus Reviews"
"This is a wonderful book, what biography ought to be and so seldom is." Kathryn Hughes, "Daily Telegraph"
" A]bsorbing and insightful. . . . 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." "Publishers Weekly"
"Liberace, coming on top of his amazing life of Margaret Mitchell, Southern Daughter, puts Darden Pyron in the very first rank of American biographers. His books are as exciting as the lives of his subjects." Tom Wolfe
"Fascinating, thoughtful, exhaustive, and well-written, this book will serve as the standard biography of a complex icon of American popular culture." "Library Journal""

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Pyron says his book on the glittering pop pianist provoked the question, "What does a dead, closeted queen . . . have to say to contemporary gay men?" from prospective publishers who refused it. Fortunately, Pyron persevered to bring us his view of Liberace as "a kind of emblem of modern America, overflowing with both the virtues and the vices of the contemporary national character," whose "homosexuality encouraged his campy artificiality" while "the campiness . . . encouraged the caricature, in life and art, of the American dream." Pyron intended something significantly larger than a celebratory outing, and he uses Liberace as a catalyst for reflection "on the nature of twentieth-century American culture." His engrossing study of a complex performer is also the story of being gay and visible in postwar showbiz, and it intriguingly complements recent books about Liberace's coevals in Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack. Sympathetic without being smarmy, it is certainly the deepest study to date of a showman who was as enigmatic as a person as he was as a performer. --Mike Tribby

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Don't be misled by this flamboyant exterior. Underneath I remain the sameÄa 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 illuminatingÄfrom 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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Pyron (history, Florida International Univ.; Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell, LJ 6/15/91) uses pianist Liberace (1919-87) to explore the bundle of contradictions embedded in the American dream. On one hand, he casts his subject as a good-hearted, rags-to-riches Midwestern-conservative musical prodigy who attained the pinnacle of show business through a self-deprecating, innocent, sunny, family-oriented persona. At the same time, the entertainer's alienation, dysfunctional family, unbridled ambition, and extravagant self-indulgence are revealed. Besides covering Liberace's upbringing by a volatile Italian-born father and a taciturn, entrepreneurial Polish-born mother in Milwaukee, his career ups and downs, and his charismatic performances, Pyron tackles his homosexuality, from his introduction to gay culture by a member of the Green Bay Packers to a steady string of one-time lovers. Fascinating, thoughtful, exhaustive, and well written, this book will serve as the standard biography of a complex icon of American popular culture. Highly recommended for general readers, music fans, and social historians.DDave Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Author of the well-received Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell (CH, May'92), Pyron (history, Florida International Univ.) applies an arsenal of scholarly discussion of gender to Liberace in this probing biography. On stage and on television, Liberace attracted a mass following that certainly rivaled Elvis Presley's--and Pyron is right to stress the affinity between the two performers (demonstrated in a photograph). Their flamboyance--Liberace's beaded and feathered costumes outdid Elvis's gaudy jumpsuits--made them examples of "American boys" out to shine. Pyron does not discount the dark side of Liberace's ambition, his ruthless quest to be famous. Liberace's distinction is that he domesticated camp--making the idea of self-parody and exhibition so delightful and endearing that mass audiences did not consider that Liberace was gay. But then Liberace himself found it difficult to acknowledge his homosexuality, so that his denial of his own identity ironically mirrored his audience's desire to be deluded and entertained. Pyron's preface contains a frank discussion of how a biographer deals with equivocal sources and his subject's self-mythologizing. Accessible to all readers, this volume is recommended for large collections of 20th-century US popular music and culture. ; Bernard M. Baruch College, CUNY

Table of Contents

1 Wisconsin Rhythm and Blues
2 The Great Escape
3 Sows' Ears/Silk Purses
4 Chico and Chopin
5 The Successful Unknown
6 Lucky Channel 13
7 Music for a Mama's Boy
8 The Shoals of Fame
9 You Can Be Sure If It's Westinghouse
10 Getting Back
11 Trompe l'Oeil
12 An Image in the Water
13 The Garden of Earthly Pleasures
14 Peter Pan
15 Et Lux Perpetua