Liberace | The Raving Queen | 14246
In 1959, after a six-day hearing, during which Liberace denied being homosexual or ever having taken part in homosexual acts, seeking damages after publication of an offending article in October 1956, the jury found for him and he was awarded a then-record £8,000 in damages (about £500,000 in today’s money).
Liberace walked out of the court, in a somewhat ordinary looking and very smart new suit, declaring that he was “crying all way to the bank”, after newspaper columnist William Connor, who wrote under the byline Cassandra, had implied that he might possibly be homosexual.
Liberace had one man to thank – British solicitor David Jacobs.
David Jacobs was a show business solicitor who had planned Liberace’s strategy in his libel case against the Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra. He recommended that Liberace should hire Gilbert Beyfus, a lawyer who was 73 years old and suffering from terminal cancer. Liberace was horrified and suggested they go for a younger man. But Jacobs was adamant, and Beyfus was able to persuade the jury that Liberace was of unimpeachable moral character, not the “luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother-love…” that Cassandra had accused him of being.
“Cassandra” had continued: “He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief, and the old heave-ho. Without doubt, he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time. Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss has an answer for every situation. Nobody since Aimee Semple MacPherson has purveyed a bigger, richer and more varied slag-heap of lilac-covered hokum. Nobody anywhere ever made so much money out of high speed piano playing with the ghost of Chopin gibbering at every note. There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle-aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown.”
What had really given offence to Liberace, though was one of the first sentences in the article: Connor identified Liberace as “the summit of sex — Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want.” The case centred on that key phrase, but in the end the jury’s decision centred largely on whether Connor knowingly used the term “fruit”, which was American slang for a “homosexualist” (to use the description favoured throughout the case (the word “gay” was not in use by the general public at the time).
Los Angeles Times | 14247
Beyfus’ address to the court was worthy of “Rumpole of the Bailey”. The slander of Liberace was only the tip of the iceberg that constituted this venal, reckless journalist, Beyfus proclaimed. He called Connor “a literary assassin who dips his pen in vitriol, hired by this sensational newspaper to murder reputations and hand out sensational articles on which its circulation is built.” Through Liberace, the English court had the chance to redress all these transgressions. “Here’s a piano player,” Beyfus declaimed, “giving these people a chance to fight back.”
Liberace Leaving the Law Courts: British Pathe News | 14248
David Jacobs was the leading showbusiness lawyer in Britain. His list of clients included Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Brian Epstein. He acted in the Profumo case and for John Vassall, the Admiralty civil servant who was convicted of spying for the Russians after being blackmailed over his homosexuality.
Jacobs was homosexual at a time when homosexual acts between men were illegal, and when to be gay was to be part of a necessarily secretive, subterranean world in which prominent figures in showbusiness, society and politics would inevitably have known each other, so it was no wonder his clients preferred to keep their sexual preferences secret: Brian Epstein, Gilbert Harding, Lionel Bart and Larry Parnes.
Epstein and Jacobs were close friends. They had much in common: both came from families in the furniture business – Jacobs’s grandfather had founded Times Furnishings. Both were habitual users of uppers and downers. Epstein was a frequent visitor to Hove. He trusted Jacobs on all matters.
In August 1967 Epstein was found by his housekeeper, dead from of an overdose of sleeping pills. Jacobs quickly arrived. Peter Brown, of Epstein’s staff, remembers arriving shortly afterwards. “The street was full of reporters and David was holding court, bossing everyone and generally taking charge of things. David and I then had to go and identify the body in the mortuary. It still horrifies me to think about it.”
In September 1967 Jacobs was involved in a case in which a Hungarian interior decorator was found half-naked, nailed to a cross on Hampstead Heath. Three men were charged with grievous bodily harm. Jacobs represented them in court. Two of the men were unemployed; the third was another interior decorator.
On December 15, 1968, Jacobs was found hanged by a rope from a beam in the garage of his home in Hove. A coroner returned a verdict of suicide.
The verdict remains controversial to this day. Shortly after Jacobs’s death, Peter Maddock visited the playwright Robin Maugham, a close friend of Jacobs, at his home in Hove. Maugham had something to show him. It was a Christmas card from Jacobs. “All love and best wishes for the New Year. David.” It had been posted two days before his death. “Does a man planning to take his own life write Christmas cards?” wondered Maddock.
Liberace died, aged 67, in 1987, of an Aids-related illness.
Guardian – Roy Greenslade
University of Chicago Press – an excerpt, Liberace, an American boy, by Darden Asbury Pyron
Daily Telegraph – the mystery of David Jacobs
Video: British Pathe News: Liberace leaving the law courts