In the recurring series Souvenir Stories, Emily Spivack asks accomplished storytellers about memorable objects they’ve brought home from their travels. Here, Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys and the author of Beautiful People and The Asylum, recalls the trip to Las Vegas where he picked up this necklace after a memorable Liberace performance.
I rented a car with a friend and drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for a long weekend to see Liberace perform at the Riviera. It was 1982, before Las Vegas had undergone its renovation. It was very hokey and twinkly, and also poignant and tragic. Tumbleweeds were blowing everywhere.
Liberace’s performance was a transcendent experience. He was unpretentious and completely insane, with an unapologetic level of theatricality so over-the-top that it defied any type of criticism. It was done with such panache and bravado—in an authentically high-kitsch, intentional environment—that you couldn’t really argue with it. It was something I bragged about nonstop to my friends in London and Los Angeles.
He had these synchronized fountains, or dancing waters as he called them, that had the effect of flying up and down in time to a Strauss waltz. The show alternated between being hilariously visual and quite boring. I remember thinking, “Oh God, is he going to play this entire concerto?” He was anxious to show people that he could really play the piano.
Surveying Liberace’s audience, you would see a million middle-aged women with their husbands, and I had the impression that none of these people, not for one moment, thought that Liberace might be gay. They were just committed Liberace fans who laughed at all of his jokes, which subsequently I heard again because I saw him perform many more times and he repeated his patter.
He’d say things like, “These buttons are worth more than my whole outfit. But I couldn’t just wear the buttons, could I? Or could I?” And, “Do you like my outfit? You should. You paid for it!” Everyone would laugh obligingly at his jokes about opulence and money.
The day after seeing him, we went to the Liberace Museum. There’s no way to describe how strange and fabulous the museum was. It was on a strip mall, off the beaten path, and basically abandoned. There were just a couple of obviously gay sons pushing their ailing mothers around the exhibit in wheelchairs. I think both women had oxygen lines on and it almost looked like when you came to the museum, they gave you one of these women to wheel around.
The museum had a stupendous array of costumes, including a 50-foot-long chinchilla cape exhibited on a mannequin that looked just like Liberace, complete with a distinctive 1950s pompadour hairdo. It had the world’s largest rhinestone revolving on a velvet cushion. And rhinestone-encrusted pianos. The place, which is unfortunately no longer there, was an incredible repository of American folk art.
Upon exiting the museum, we went to the gift shop, which had an extensive selection of knickknacks, and I saw these charm bracelets that were meant for those women being wheeled around by their sons. I bought four bracelets with charms of candelabras, severed hands playing the piano, and a little picture of Liberace inside a frame—all the iconography of Liberace—and I attached them together into a necklace.
People used to ask me if Jean Paul Gautier made my necklace. For my 60th birthday, [my husband] Jonathan said, “What can I get you?” I said, “I don’t really want anything, but I’d love to get my Liberace necklace cleaned.” It’s brass-plated and had gotten a bit grody after years of wear and tear. He took it to a jeweler and got it cleaned up.
I still wear it—like, tonight is Jonathan’s birthday and I’ll probably throw it on. And I wore it when I watched Behind the Candelabra on television. It looks great with a turtleneck or a ruffled shirt. When I’m not wearing it, I like to have it where I can see it—festooned on a white porcelain bust of a devil that Jonathan designed.