Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub and director Steven Soderberg are making an HBO movie based upon the 1988 tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra, the story of flamboyant entertainer, Lee Liberace, as told by Scott Thorson who claims to have been Liberace’s young gay lover.
Thorson’s 242-page book sells for almost $200 on Amazon.com. The book is promoted as a “sorry, seamy tale.” According to Amazon.com, “the book is uncomfortably candid with revelations about ‘Lee’ (Liberace) who was driven to experience sexual variety with younger males.”
According to the book, when Thorson was jilted by Liberace, he filed an acrimonious suit in 1982 against the entertainer for “palimony.” It resulted in an out-of-court settlement in 1986 of $95,000 plus two cars and two pet dogs. Thorson’s book makes a reference to Catholicism on page 83: Thorson writes, “While at the Cloisters (the name for Liberace’s Palm Springs, California house), Lee (Liberace) occasionally invited gay priests to say a private mass.” While some people thought that Liberace was close to his mother, Thorson writes that Liberace never cried at the death of his mother but wept “buckets” when his poodle dog died.
While Liberace spent most of his time in Las Vegas, he stayed at his house in Palm Springs during the 1980s, where he died in 1987. The house was across the street from a parish church, Our Lady of Solitude, which is in the San Bernardino diocese.
The diocese, headed by Bishop Gerald Barnes, and under the legal advice of attorney, Wilfred Lemann, reportedly approved and facilitated a deal with Weintraub or HBO to allow Our Lady of Solitude to be used as a movie set for filming the gay-themed movie about Liberace. The Hollywood internet news site, TMZ, reported that Zsa Zsa Gabor signed a deal with Weintraub so that her house could be used, and Gabor received “about $70,000.”
Neither Bishop Barnes nor his attorney Lemann have disclosed what amount the diocese received for use of Our Lady of Solitude for two days of filming on site.
However, John Andrews, the spokesman for the diocese, stated in a September 11 phone interview that “the parish (of Our Lady of Solitude) was paid money” and that this decision was approved by the diocese. When asked if anyone in the diocese, including the bishop, was aware of the content of
this movie, Andrews replied, “Yes.” Andrews went on to say that they chose to read only the script pages involving the funeral scene.
On August 20, Soderberg’s film crew rolled an empty casket into Our Lady of Solitude and placed fake flowers by the altar. The casket served as a prop for the final scenes of the movie, scenes depicting a Requiem Mass for Liberace.
According to the Palm Springs Desert Sun and other news sources, Liberace’s body was never brought into Our Lady of Solitude church nor into any Catholic church and that there never was a Requiem Mass in Our Lady of Solitude with Liberace’s body/casket present.
According to news sources, when Liberace died at his Palm Springs house on February 4, 1987, his body was taken to Forest Lawn Mortuary in Hollywood where it was embalmed. However, the day after his death, someone contacted the Riverside County coroner to raise suspicions and Liberace’s body was brought back for autopsy. On the same day (February 6) Liberace’s body lay in the coroner’s office, a prayer and hymn memorial service was underway at Our Lady of Solitude. Shortly thereafter, the coroner held a major news conference to disclose that Liberace died from pneumonia as a complication of AIDS. The coroner released the body back to Forest Lawn for burial in Hollywood.
In his book, Scott Thorson mentioned a “commemorative service held in Palm Springs two days after he died.” That would have been the prayer service at Our Lady of Solitude on Friday February 6. Thorson refers to a “gloomy chapel” service on February 7 (a Saturday), apparently at Forest Lawn in Hollywood. It was at this location that Thorson was shunned by Liberace’s family, not at Our Lady of Solitude.
Several local Catholics in Palm Springs said they had no recollection of Liberace ever being a member of Our Lady of Solitude or ever even attending Mass there. Some parishioners did remember that Liberace held adult costume parties at his house across the street from the church, especially at Halloween.
The Liberace HBO movie is not the first time that the San Bernardino diocese has been involved with homosexual events. In 2003 Bishop Barnes hosted the convention of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries at the Palm Springs Hilton where he celebrated Mass for the group. (In 2012 the association, under the new name Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry, refused to sign an oath of personal integrity as faithful Catholics, requested by their Oakland bishop, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, presently of San Francisco.)
In 1987 Father Paul Shanley and his gay partner, Father Jack White, bought a property in the Warm Sands (gay) district of Palm Springs and operated it as gay men’s resort called the Cabana Club. The now infamous Father Shanley, who had come from the Boston archdiocese, was welcomed into the San Bernadino diocese in 1990 and celebrated Mass occasionally at Our Lady of Solitude when Father William Erstad was pastor. Shanley was eventually convicted and imprisoned for oral and anal rape of a six-year-old boy. Shanley was a founding member of the North American Man Boy Love Association which promotes sex between adult men and little boys.
Another priest who made headlines for the diocese of San Bernardino was Monsignor Peter Covas, a financial director of the diocese. Not only had Covas given $225,000 of church money to federal convict Frank Nicoletti as an “investment,” but he had bought a prominent gay men’s resort, the Palm Canyon Inn in Palm Springs under the alias of “Peter Palmer.”
Covas was twice arrested in the 1980s for public sexual misconduct. In one case, a police officer observed Covas masturbating in a porn shop video booth. The Riverside Press Enterprise reported that the diocese turned over to the police an allegation from the diocese that Covas had an intimate sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy. When Covas died in 2004, Bishop Barnes gave him a celebratory Mass of Resurrection at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral where fourth degree Knights of Columbus in full regalia, including swords, flanked Covas’s casket. The eulogist, Monsignor John Ryan lauded Covas as once “the face of the Catholic Church…”
Behind the Candelabra is scheduled for release in January 2013. Michael Douglas portrays Liberace and Matt Damon is Thorson. Presumably, the San Bernardino diocese will be acknowledged in the film credits.
For additional information, read the television transcript of Larry King’s interview with Scott Thorson regarding Behind the Candelabra: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0208/12/lkl.00.html