It came as a great surprise to Liberace's friends when he declared under oath that he was not a homosexual. That moment in 1959 emphasized the wondrously bizarre quality of libel law, a theatre of fantasy where public figures display their gall, mendacity and blind self-infatuation. Jeffrey Archer, the English novelist and former Tory grandee, recently went to jail because his limitless arrogance made him think he could lie his way through this labyrinth.
Liberace, like Archer, was involved in mendacious litigation, a strategy that has ruined Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Aitken and David Irving. Grounded in flagrant lies, it's insanely dangerous, but Liberace on that occasion made it work.
Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919-1987) was famous for beating romantic music to death on a piano decorated with a candelabra. He was American, but his lawsuit was English. England produces the great libel cases. Americans don't take libel as seriously as they once did, and they make it hard for public figures to sue. Canadians tend to settle out of court, with all parties sworn to carry the financial details to their graves (Canadian journalists take part in these secret negotiations, out of a passionate belief in the public's right to know about all activities except our own.)
The Liberace case reads like the script of an old English film comedy. William Conner, a columnist who huffed and puffed for the London Daily Mirror under the byline Cassandra, set it in motion when he called Liberace "this winking, sniggering, chromium- plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love." Conner's piece was as florid as a Liberace performance. Offended, Liberace sued.
He engaged a famous barrister, Gilbert Beyfus, known to connoisseurs of legal history by the title that Iain Adamson gave to his biography, The Old Fox (1963). Beyfus, 76 years old, alarmed Liberace by appearing constantly to mislay his papers, as if he were confused as to how this libel business was managed. That was, of course, a performance staged for the jury.
Beyfus claimed to be astounded that a man of Liberace's quality could be so gravely insulted by Conner, "a literary assassin." When Liberace took the stand, Beyfus asked: "Are you a homosexual?" Liberace: "No, sir." Had he ever indulged in homosexual practices? "No, sir, never in my life ... I am against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society." As Darden Asbury Pyron put it last year in his biography, Liberace: An American Boy, "The plaintiff lied."
But Liberace's performance convinced the jury. Today, the rules of disclosure might foil him; the defence could demand diaries, appointment books and letters. But in the 1950s, a brazen lie went a long way. Liberace won £8,000, a handsome sum at the time, and then returned to the gay life he had been leading for decades. When he died of AIDS, the Daily Mirror suggested his estate return the money, but I don't think that happened.
Mendacious litigation also worked for Aneurin Bevan, the hero of the Labour Party left wing. In 1957, he attended a meeting of Italian socialists in Venice, along with two colleagues, Morgan Phillips and Richard Crossman. A piece in The Spectator reported that they "puzzled the Italians by their capacity to fill themselves like tanks with whisky ... the Italians were never sure if the British delegation was sober."
John Campbell wrote in his book, Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism, that "Bevan seems to have thought that ... the opportunity to win some damages was too good to miss." The three men sued jointly, with good old Beyfus as their barrister. The biography of Beyfus says that "Bevan was committing perjury. He had been drunk." Crossman wrote that Phillips was "tiddly by midday and soaked by dinner time" throughout the conference. Crossman was also quoted as recalling that he and Bevan were "pissed as newts." Nevertheless, each of the three litigants won £2,500.
Despite these rare successes, the tragedy of Oscar Wilde should have made mendacious litigation too terrifying to contemplate. After the Marquess of Queensberry accused him of homosexual practices, Wilde brought an action for libel, inadvertently producing the evidence that led to a prosecution for homosexual offences, a two-year jail sentence, and the destruction of both his reputation and his life.
A century later, the Guardian reported that Jonathan Aitken received lavish gifts from Saudi Arabia while a cabinet minister. Aitken sued ("it has fallen to my destiny to ... cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth"). He lied under oath and eventually got 18 months. Later, David Irving ruined himself financially by bringing a libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books for accusing him (correctly) of being a Holocaust denier. Jeffrey Archer's attempt to win a libel case by forging a diary and cooking up a false alibi finally earned him some good notices ("an entertaining tale with a happily moral ending"-- The Daily Telegraph) but left him with a four-year prison sentence and a reduced reputation. He seems to have fallen from the status of rogue (which can be lovable) to cad (which can't).
What drew those men to disaster? My guess is they believed their press clippings. We journalists do them a disservice by telling them they are clever. Our flattery (sometimes concocted out of a need to make them important enough to justify an article) leads them into temptation. Seen this way, praise can be as harmful as denigration. Should praise, too, be punishable?
The idea is not new. In 1875, Anthony Trollope, in The Way We Live Now, wondered whether journalists should be sued for false praise. "No proprietor or editor was ever brought before the courts because he had attributed all but divinity to some very poor specimen of mortality." Trollope proposed that editors be called to account for inaccurately fulsome praise. That would require a new version of libel law, but would for certain make journalism more responsible. It would also, of course, create libel chill about one thousand times worse than anything imagined by fear-mongering polemicists of recent years. Perhaps it's a notion best consigned to the realm of fantasy, like Liberace's views on homosexuality.