Liberace, that is, the Steven Soderbergh biopic, Behind the Candelabra, scored big for HBO this weekend, attracting 3.5 million viewers for it’s two consecutive screenings on Sunday, making it the most-watched HBO movie since Something the Lord Made in 2004.
We at the Swamp wondered if there was some untapped material from inside the Beltway that might have been overlooked by the filmmakers. We found that “Lee” did meet a few presidents in his time, and may have embellished the stories a bit in his autobiography. And there was even a very short-lived Washington scandal.
Liberace wrote in The Wonderful Private World of Liberace,that he met “three of our greatest presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan.” And he claims that, “the very first time I was invited to play at the White House was for President Truman.”
We hate to quibble, but contrary to his recounting, the historical record makes it seem unlikely that he ever performed in the Truman White House.
An authoritative book on musical performances at the executive mansion by Elise K. Kirk, Music at the White House, says the White House was inundated with requests from fans and fan clubs that Liberace be invited to perform. However, Kirk confirmed to TIME that she encountered no evidence of a White House performance.
The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum also failed to find documents that confirmed the story, and while they don’t completely rule out the possibility, the archivist says that it’s highly unlikely since there would certainly be some record such as the invitation, acceptance, arrangements, schedules, press accounts, etc.
In addition, Randy Sowell, archivist of the Truman Library says the White House underwent a major renovation from late-1948 until early 1952 and “no social events could be held there during that period.” President Truman was president from 1945 to January 1953.
Liberace certainly did meet President Truman, himself a fairly accomplished pianist, in 1950 at the White House News Photographers Association dinner. That dinner, however, was held at the Statler Hotel near the White House. President Truman was the guest of honor at the event, and handed out awards to photographers at the annual event that featured Jack Benny as master of ceremonies presiding over a show starring Liberace, Jo Stafford and Dorothy Lamour.
According to Liberace’s autobiography, in 1985 he was asked to play a concert at the Reagan White House, but the president’s surgery for colon cancer forced a cancellation. However, the best the Ronald Reagan Library and Foundation could come up with was a recommendation that he be invited, but not given an official invitation or any follow-up. They did find a photograph of the Reagan’s posing with an elaborate chocolate carved piano that was sent as a get-well gift by the superstar pianist.
Liberace performed for President Eisenhower at both the 1953 and 1955 White House News Photographers Association dinners. An incident following the 1955 dinner got Liberace in hot water with the White House, according to archivist Christopher Abraham at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas. The contretemps and quick resolution is thoroughly documented at the Library.
An overzealous press agent at the Hotel Riviera, apparently unschooled in Washington etiquette, issued a press release declaring that Liberace used the occasion as a “free” preview of his upcoming shows for the president, and that Eisenhower had acted “as a sounding board for a new routine,” leaving the impression that the act had the president’s stamp of approval.
Shortly afterwards, White House Press Secretary James Hagerty, fired off an angry letter expressing his shock that the artist appeared to be claiming he had an endorsement from Ike.
“This,” wrote Hagerty, “is the first time that I have ever known a performer at a dinner for the President to permit his press agent to single out his own act and to seek to create the impression that this one act, above all, received any kind of special commendation from the President.”
The event faded fast once a representative of Liberace’s assured Hagerty that Liberace had not orchestrated the release, and had in fact been hospitalized in New York at the time. Liberace also personally wrote to Hagerty, proclaiming his innocence in the matter:
“I am naturally incensed that my name has been linked with anything that could possibly be interpreted as derogatory or in the slightest bit detrimental to the dignity of our President of the United States, Mr. Eisenhower.”
“Mr. Showmanship” put to rest any idea that he would try out untested material before such a prestigious audience:
“The statement in the release that I presented a new routine before the President is utterly ridiculous! This routine has been done by me in many concerts throughout the United States and I can assure you that any time I have appeared or hope to appear before the President of the United States, I will do an act that I am sure will be entertaining…”
Fuming press secretaries and injured artists aside, it doesn’t appear that Behind the Candelabra missed an opportunity for a great cinematic moment in the Capital city.