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Liberace, King of Glitter, Dead at 67

February 5, 1987 GMT

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) _ Liberace, the glittering showman and pianist who captivated fans for four decades with an inimitable personal and musical style, died quietly at home, holding a simple rosary. He was 67.

Fans who kept a vigil at his desert home, Casa de Liberace, and friends in the entertainment community mourned the loss of the man born Wladziu Valentino Liberace on May 16, 1919, in West Allis, Wis.

″Lee was the nicest person in show business,″ said Shirley MacLaine.

″That he was a consummate artist is not really as important as my telling you he was one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known,″ said Frank Sinatra.

The entertainer known for rhinestone-studded costumes and extravagant jewelry died in quiet dignity Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by friends and family, said his publicist, Jamie James. He slipped into a coma Tuesday and never regained consciousness.

″He had the rosary wrapped around his right hand. There was no jewelry. The rosary beads were his jewelry,″ James said.

The cause of death was cardiac arrest due to congestive heart failure brought on by subacute encephalopathy, an inflammation of the brain, said Dr. Ronald Daniels.

Liberace had been gravely ill for weeks with what aides said was anemia, emphysema and heart disease. Spokesmen denied a report that he had AIDS.

Liberace was one of the nation’s most enduring entertainers, a master of pizzazz long before entertainers like Elton John combined glitter with music. As a boy, he played in speakeasies for $35 a week; he later gave command performances before royalty and earned an estimated $5 million per year.

The Guinness Book of World Records said Liberace was the highest-paid pianist in a single season, earning more than $2 million per 26-week season with a peak of $138,000 for a single night’s performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1954.

He sold 60 million records. Once in the 1950s, when a critic savaged him, Liberace retorted, ″I cried all the way to the bank.″

The candelabra that adorned his pianos became a trademark; his stage savvy earned him the title ″Mr. Showmanship.″

Fans packed houses ranging from Radio City Music Hall to the entertainment palaces of the Las Vegas Strip to see Liberace drive on stage in a mirrored Rolls-Royce, pop out of a giant pink egg in a pink feathered cloak, or soar across the stage suspended from wires.

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″The trappings are an attention-grabber,″ he said in 1984. ″But you have to back that up with ability and with music people want to hear. I think of myself as a decorative package with something good inside.″

Sometimes scorned by critics, the pianist said that he delivered substance with style.

″There aren’t too many entertainers who furnish the product I do,″ he said last year. ″They’ve come to know me for the surprise elements. My costumes. Cars. If I’d done the same thing over and over, I’d have been old hat long before now.″

The performer, who dressed conservatively offstage, said in an earlier interview, ″For me to wear a simple tuxedo on stage would be like asking Marlene Dietrich to wear a housedress.″

His mother, Frances, played piano. His father, Salvatore, played French horn with the John Phillip Sousa Band and in the Milwaukee Philharmonic.

Liberace could pick out entire melodies on the piano by the time he was 4. He was a soloist with the Chicago Symphony at 14. During the Depression, he performed with a five-piece band in strip joints and speakeasies using the name Walter Busterkeys.

He was man of gentle wit who lived quietly but relished consumption. He used 18 pianos, painted, mirrored and gilded, including instruments owned by Chopin and Gershwin. He owned hundreds more in miniature and full-size. He had dozens of antique cars and a desk owned by the last Russian czar. Three warehouses held the overflow.

The pianist, whose repertoire included light classics mixed with popular arrangements, received his first Las Vegas booking in 1943 after he inundated a hotel entertainment director with postcards praising himself. His popularity led to a 15-minute network television summer series in 1952. He had a popular syndicated series in 1953-55, a daytime show on ABC in 1958-59 and a summer show in 1969.

Liberace recently reached a new height in popularity and critical acceptance. When not doing concerts, he kept busy with plans for an expanded museum park to be centered around a piano-shaped building in Las Vegas. He also had 21 dogs, which he referred to as his children.

Rumors of ill health surfaced last fall after a tour touting the latest of his four books, ″The Wonderful Private World of Liberace,″ a full-color inventory of his possessions sprinkled with favorite recipes and homages to his mother.

The book tour followed a Radio City sellout that left him drained, said longtime friend and manager Seymour Heller. Heller blamed Liberace’s fatigue on a watermelon diet.

However, Dr. Elias Ghanem of Las Vegas, Liberace’s personal physician, denied it played a role in the performer’s death. He said Liberace went off the diet after losing weight last year.

Decades of performing began to take a toll two years ago, and the star had spent more of his time at homes in Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Hollywood, Malibu, New York and Lake Tahoe. He canceled all performances for 1987.

Liberace spent nearly four years embroiled in a lawsuit brought by his former chauffeur, Scott Thorson. Thorson, 27, originally sought $113 million, claiming he had lived with Liberace as a secretary, chauffeur, animal trainer and lover. The suit was settled out of court last year for $95,000; a judge earlier threw out Thorson’s palimony claim.

The entertainer, who maintained Thorson was merely a vengeful former employee, said at a 1973 news conference that he believed homosexuality was wrong.

″No, I’m not a homosexual,″ Liberace said. ″As I told a British court in 1959 when I won a $20,000 libel judgment against a London newspaper, my sexual feelings are the same as most people.

″I’m against the practice of homosexuality because it offends convention and society.″

Among those at his bedside when he died were his sister-in-law Dora, sister Angelina Farrell and her family, Heller, and housekeepers Gladys Luckie and Dorothy MacMahain, said Denise Collier, his spokeswoman in New York.

Angelina is the sole surviving member of the immediate family.

Her son-in-law, Don McLaughlin, said public memorial services will be held in Palm Springs on Friday at Our Lady of Solitude Roman Catholic Church and next week in Las Vegas.

Private funeral arrangements were pending at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, where Liberace’s brother and mother are entombed.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked that contributions be made to the Liberace Foundation.