- Forster and Liberace; or, The Invert's Tale
Five years ago, reading in the E. M. Forster papers in the King's College Archive Centre at Cambridge, I came across a scrap of manuscript from the late 1950s, composed when the British novelist was almost eighty. The catalogue title was "Notes on the Future of Civilisation."1 Even in old age Forster remained a notably public figure, commenting on nuclear proliferation, British policy toward India, post-war suburban planning, and the role of the arts in society. Until 1959 he reviewed books for the BBC magazine the Listener, where his close friend J. R. Ackerley served as literary editor. So when I opened the manuscript, I did not expect Forster's thoughts on the future of civilization to concern Liberace. But here was the American showman, described in Forster's spidery hand—Liberace and his "horrid" piano. Forster described "[f]emale teenagers" touching Liberace's clothes "as if they were the hem of the garments of Christ. Take care they don't tear you to pieces."2 The old man was clearly fascinated and repelled by the pianist, who first played concerts in Britain in the summer of 1956.
Until I saw them on the page together, Forster and Liberace seemed to occupy wholly separate conceptual spaces. Forster, the Edwardian, the buttoned-up Englishman, published his last novel A Passage to India in 1924, when Liberace was just five. Wladziu Valentino Liberace, the self-styled "simple boy from Milwaukee," by this time had perfected his extravagant persona—the white fur coat over the dazzling, rhinestone-encrusted white tie and tails, the towering candelabrum as a camp homage to Chopin, and the swimming pool in the shape of a grand piano.3 But here were their lives momentarily intertwined. [End Page 551]
The thread of this queer narrative led me to the discovery of a political turn in Forster's private life. Forster collected a vast archive of his gay life, which he hid with exquisite caution, recorded with exacting precision, and deliberately preserved for gay posterity. There is no record that the two men ever met. But the Liberace allusion in Forster's private musing opens a new chapter in Forster's long, queer, modern life. For Liberace was legible to Forster and his friends. And Liberace's actions offered a concrete vision of "the future of civilisation" for these gay men.
Everything about Liberace's first international tour was designed to magnify his celebrity. Already a fixture on BBC television, he played Paris and Monaco; with his mother and brother, he attended a special audience with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican. He sailed to England aboard the luxurious Queen Mary and commissioned his own private train—"The Liberace Special"—to transport him from Southampton to Waterloo station. He drew fans from all social classes—selling out the Royal Albert Hall, the huge vaudeville-palace of the Palladium, and elegant supper clubs. Everywhere he faced a melee of fans. The Metropolitan Police had to lay on a whole separate squad for his protection. The music critics were less awful than one might expect. Despite the "circus-turn and the fancy-dress parade," some reviewers had to admit that Liberace had mastered a florid version of the Romantic repertoire (LAA, 193, 190).
In coming to England Liberace appeared to be recapitulating the successful ascendency to stardom he had begun in the United States. But the tour was a deliberate escape, designed to distract from a welter of accusations that the thirty-nine-year-old entertainer was not only homosexual, but also a predatory seducer of young straight men. A series of tabloid stories suggesting he was "Mad about the Boy" and the failure of his first film had cut into his ticket sales.4
Forster could have told Liberace that post-war London was not the refuge he imagined it might be. For gay men, the Blitz had been a time of remarkable freedom—paradoxically, despite the heightened atmosphere of security, so much could be hidden in a blackout. Forster, and many of his friends—who were a generation younger—cruised the streets of the city. Then...