In 1956, wearing loud perfume for a man - and especiallly one of the blindingly bright, sparkling kind like Liberace was - was thought to be a sure give-away of his homosexuality which he tried to conceal from public knowledge at all costs all his existence despite giving out all the easy, contradictory visual cues to make doubt his professed standard sexual orientation.
Actress Betty White who was his confidante and "beard" de service, confirmed in an interview only in 2011 that Liberace was indeed gay. But the fact remains that the King of pastiche and Kitsch did not wish that piece of information to float its way to the headlines or be debated in public.
In 1959, he however engaged in a libel suit to counteract the claim that he was less than straight, a thought, which as it turns out, dawned upon a journalist like a semi-confirmation as he was smelling his heavy perfume-wearing in an airport in Paris. It alluded to his gayness and was felt to be a give-away and code-word for his actual erotic preferences. Better still, we see Liberace balk when he reads about himself being described as being "fruit-flavored" thought to be an implicit reference to his homosexuality in a newspaper article of the day...
This "insult" was based on use of gay slang in which "fruit" or "fruitcake" is a code name for gay. It originally was used to designate prostitutes. And as we know, to call a man a woman is wanting to slap him in the face for his lack of manhood. Fruits are soft, sweet - and real men are hard and seriously unsweetened.
Is that perception that passé? Jumping to olfactory equivalents, one can note that recently, fruity perfumes for men have made an inroad but are not considered the most masculine of accords (see also Calvin Klein Man.)
What we actually know of Liberace's perfume tastes is transcribed by the man himself in his book, The Wonderful Private World of Liberace. In it, he writes that a "Frenchman" had concocted a her-and-him duo of scents for him,
"This Liberace scent was blended of secret elements signifying the glitz and glamour, as well as the homespun quality signified by my love of cooking and decorating. It's no secret that they've locked it away in a Swiss vault. They're going to start production in the very near future."
The result of the confrontation between parties is involuntarily hilarious as opinions about Liberace's gayness intersects with 1950s stereotypes about perfume-wearing by men in a court document.
Those perceptions however are less than anecdotal. Today, many men who wear perfume - no, make that rather who simply pronounce the word "perfume" in a conversation - are afraid of appearing to be batting for the other team.
Interjecting "perfume", the p-word in the course of a conversation between men, is often followed by a quick and official reassessment of one's virility as being anything but of the non-gay variety.
This is why in American parlance, the word "cologne" is used as a term with a masculine gender connnotation as opposed to its classic usage in Europe where it defines the unisex genre of the Eau de Cologne or Kölnisch wasser.
Thought to be a gift from Liberace to Reg Livermore - Sterling-mounted crystal perfume bottles
"Cologne" has become the safer word to use by men who want to avoid bringing up suspiscions of effeminate wafts around the word "perfume," when it appears in the average male discourse, the American male especially who still holds lofty ideals of rough masculinity. It reassuringly and conveniently establishes secure, protective frontiers between straighthood and gayhood when fragrance-wearing is seen as slightly threatening.
Back in 1956, columnist for the Daily Mirror Sir William Neil Connor, known under the pseudonym of "Cassandra", penned a portrait of Liberace which reflected the artist's unmitigated art of exhuberance, saying that Liberace was,
"...the summit of sex--the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want... a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love,"
Liberace took it ill. He absolutely hated to be called "fruity-flavoured" as impugning his manhood in an oblique manner, in public, and decided to take the matter to court.
The Associated Press reported in 1959 that the incident had all started with a perfume worn by Liberace in Paris, which was so strong as to overcome the smell of an antiseptic he had been administered for a bee sting.
Here are excerpts from the exchanges:
"A witness in Liberace's libel suit testified today the American entertainer's perfume - or toilet water - was more powerful than the antiseptic applied to a wasp sting. [•••]
Peter Stephens, chief of the Mirror's Paris bureau testified Liberace had a highly cosmetic smell about him when they met at Le Bourget airport in September 1956.
Liberace had just been stung by a wasp and the airport first-aid station had applied a powerful odorous antiseptic to the wound. Stephens said he could still smell what he took to be perfume and asked Liberace what kind he was wearing.
"Mr. Liberace," Stephens testified "said it was American toilet water."
"Was the perfume noticeable," asked Neville Faulks, one of the Mirror's lawyers.
"Very. In fact it overpowered the antiseptic."
"Was there any further discussion of perfume?"
"Yes, Mr. Liberace told me he had heard they made very good perfume in France and he intended to buy some."
On cross examination Liberace's chief counsel, Gilbert Beyrus, asked Stephens:
"Most men who have wives, mothers or daughters are expected to buy perfume for them when in Paris?"
"But you immediately assumed the worst and thought he was going to buy perfume for himself?"
"That was the impression I got."
Both the Mirror and columinist Connor - whose pen name is Cassandra - have denied they intended to imply that Liberace was a homosexual.
The Connor column which led to the libel suit described the pianist as "fruit-flavored" and "the pinnacle of sex - masculine, feminine, and neuter."
The whole incident gave Liberace the opportunity to coin a bon mot "What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank" he wrote in a telegram to the newspaper. He ended up winning the suit because, in particular, the key term "fruit-flavored" was thought to be too revealing of an anti-homosexual slandering stance.
Photos: odetoawe.com; locallygrownnorthfield.org