Video Vault | Liberace and the Mob
LAS VEGAS (KSNV News3LV) —
If you were to play a word association game with legendary showroom entertainer Liberace, you might up with "talented" or "flamboyant." The word "mob" probably wouldn't be in there. But Liberace actually did have some brushes with wiseguys over the years.
By the mid-1950s, the pianist was earning $750 a week at the Last Frontier on the Las Vegas Strip, when he got an offer from across the street that he couldn't refuse.
"He was offered at the opening of the Riviera, $50,000 a week," says the Liberace Foundation's Jonathon Warren.
The Riviera was mobbed up from the day it opened on April 20, 1955, and was soon managed by former Flamingo boss Gus Greenbaum, who would later be murdered - along with his wife - in a mob hit.
With other new hotels coming for customers, top entertainment was part of the mob management strategy.
"So they were determined to fill the rooms, and they figured if they could get this guy in with all this money and the show he could put on, they would get the crowds in the hotel and thereby in the casino," Warren said.
Las Vegas wiseguys were happy with Liberace, putting butts in the seats of the showroom. But in 1965, trouble came from a different faction.
"The mob in New York - through a series of its agents across the country - had gathered significant intel on high profile gay men who were closeted," Warren said. "And they were blackmailing them in order to not tell the world that they were actually gay."
In an era where being openly gay could be a career-killer, Liberace paid the money. Then he got an unexpected break courtesy of the FBI, as detailed in recently available redacted documents, released after a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
"This was discovered when a criminal was busted in New York who actually kidnapping somebody. And in a negotiation for his own hide, he rolled over on that racket."
Nine years later while on tour in Dallas, Liberace's traveling jewelry collection - including a monographed Tiffany watch - was stolen.
A couple of months after that, the collection is recovered when Chicago jeweler/fence Adolph Lewin was arrested with the goods in his possession.
"The FBI learns about him from this phone call because they're tapping the telephone of the man who calls him from Las Vegas," Warren said.
In that conversation, Lewin offered the watch to a man named Herbie Levin for $15,000.
Liberace later admitted to the FBI that he had wildly over-inflated the value of the watch, which was really worth about $5,000. This was reminiscent of a 1957 incident when his brother, George, was mugged and his violin taken.
"And the violin when it was stolen from him was reported in the press as being with $1,500. Returned to him four days later it was suddenly worth $25,000," Warren said. "This is the kind of hustle the Liberace brothers were very adept at putting on with the press."
These stories and more are fleshed out in much more detail at The Mob Museum on Tuesday, Feb. 9, in a Wiseguy Speaker Series segment called "Liberace and the Mob."