Father, did you have sex with Liberace? Now there's a question a boy should never have to ask. I bet few of the people who have been packing out Liberace's Suit, a West End play about the twinkling, fur-clad superstar of Fifties pianoforte, ever put that kind of poser to their pa. But I have.
It became inevitable once he began, belatedly, to tell me the stories of his life. He was ill, you see, and wanted to get certain things off his chest. I was hungry to hear, to understand him and myself better, but I didn't expect what was coming. The tales of bombs and poverty were gruelling, but buried among the dusty, fragmented memories was a little jewel of an encounter, sharp as the pin of a diamanté brooch.
"Did I ever tell you about what happened with Liberace?"
"Liberace. No? Oh well, perhaps I had better not..."
He's a tease, my dad. But even so, I could tell he had just started something that he really regretted. He did not want to talk about it. No way. Which just made me all the more determined.
"Go on, Dad."
"No. Forget it. Move on."
Hours later there was another little hint. A day later, another. Now that he'd started, he could not stop. He was either building up to a big confession or having me on. The information came slowly, in pieces, but after a while it could be assembled into a narrative.
When Liberace arrived in Britain in 1956, to an ecstatic welcome from the crowds at Southampton docks, my father - Arthur - was 15 years old. He was not long into his first proper job, as a shop boy with Dunn's, the hatters in the Strand. He was done up like a kipper every day in his first-ever suit, with a hat on and a chin still sore from shaving. You had to be smart to work at Dunn's, which was hard when you had only one set of good clothes and went back to live in squalor with your parents every night.
On the bus to work of a morning, the teenager struggled to forget the poverty and stress of his home life and become a salesman presentable enough to serve the wealthy, powerful and famous at the shop next to the Savoy Hotel. He was already confused and exhausted by the stress of living two lives when the boss asked him to run an errand that would expand the boy's horizons to breaking point.
"Take this parcel to the Savoy, Arthur," he said. "Deliver it to the suite occupied by the gentleman who goes by the name of Mr Liberace."
Liberace? He was big news, Daddio. Arthur had seen him on a newsreel, arriving for a three-week residency at the London Palladium. The announcer called him "the well-known American leader of fashion," adding: "By the way, Liberace also plays the piano." He certainly did, with flair and panache and great big candelabra on the top. Played anything from Rachmaninov to Tin Pan Alley and made whatever came out of that gleaming grand sound like a multi-tiered wedding cake dusted with icing sugar. Good-looking bloke, too. "No male attraction has devastated the opposing sex in these terms since Rudolph Valentino," said Variety magazine, reporting that Liberace had received 27,000 Valentine cards.
But not everybody was convinced. "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," wrote Cassandra in the Daily Mirror. "He is the summit of sex - the pinnacle of masculine, feminine and neuter. Everything that he, she and it can ever want."
Cassandra was a journalistic star of his times, but Liberace was even bigger. He took exception to being called "the biggest sentimental vomit of all time" and "this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love". Cassandra called him a few other things besides, and implied that he was gay. True enough, but there were some things you couldn't be seen to be in 1956 unless you wanted to be locked up or forcibly subjected to hormone treatment.
So Liberace sued Cassandra. My father might have been called as a witness, if he had been willing to talk about his encounter with the great man. But he didn't tell anyone about it then. He never mentioned the meeting to anyone at all for nearly 50 years, when he blurted it out to me and then shut up. He would say no more. So all I can do now is imagine him, a gawky young man awkward under the gaze of the Savoy commissionaires, walking through the lobby under the chandeliers and going up in the lift.
In my mind I see him knocking on the door of the hotel suite, his head bowed and his cheeks flushing. The door opens. The perfume is smothering, it tickles his nose. The curtains are drawn. The artiste is not in the room, but other members of his entourage are. What did the man say on the newsreel, in those arch, deliberate tones? "His brother and wife, his arranger and wife, his violinist and wife, his manager and wife. Liberace. And his mother." They're ordinary enough looking people, smiling and showing Arthur where to put the package: on a table by a vase of lilies. His reflection looks up from the table surface.
The most extraordinary man Arthur has ever seen is watching him straighten up. The expensive pinstripe suit is sober enough, but the star also has a diamanté tie-pin, hair fluffed up in a bouffant, and the mouth of a medieval king about to enjoy a feast.
"Good morning, my friend."
The others have gone from the room. Liberace speaks through a smile, as though something is funny.
"And what is your name?"
Arthur stutters out the answer. He doesn't know where to put his hands. The artiste flicks both of his behind him, to tuck in the tail of that beautifully tailored jacket, and he eases down on to a small, red leather sofa, occupying slightly more than half of it. He gestures to the space beside him. "Won't you come and join me for a moment?"
What happens next? I don't know. My father won't tell me and I can't imagine any more. For some reason I have a mental block. Am I horrified by the utterly unexpected idea that my dad might have had a quickie with a man who could fill Carnegie Hall? Or absolutely delighted?
Ambiguity was Liberace's friend, his defence against dangerous times. The pianist who once took to the stage in a shocking pink coat made from llama skins decorated with sequins never admitted he was gay, and he sued Cassandra for insinuating it.
The case drives the plot of Liberace's Suit, a play by TK Light (starring this country's own flamboyant ivory-tickler Bobby Crush), which has just finished a sold-out run at the Jermyn Street Theatre. The trial was a sensation, a fabulous confrontation between the Establishment and the most dazzling and absurd of all the young American peacocks who were stealing the hearts of British children.
"Are you a homosexual?" Liberace was asked in court.
"No, sir," he replied.
"Have you ever indulged in homosexual practices?"
"No, sir. Never in my life. I am against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society."
He said that under oath. The truth of his life, we now know, was somewhat different. And, almost 50 years later, my father insinuated with a smile that Liberace had indeed made certain proposals guaranteed to offend the convention of his day.
I didn't know then that Dad was keeping his mouth shut because his memories of that period were hard. Something had happened in that summer of 1956 to send him spiralling into a crippling depression. Whatever happened in the hotel suite (or didn't) may have been the catalyst. He wouldn't say. The smile was to cover nervousness and embarrassment. Just like Liberace, he was using ambiguity as self-protection.
But I had no idea about any of that. I was only at the beginning of a series of conversations with my father and grandfather that would slowly yield family secrets - stories about who the Moretons were and where we came from and the demons we had to wrestle - tales it became my mission to cajole, charm or bully out of the people who knew before it was too late, before they were no longer there to tell. My dad was not going to be around for ever. The future without him scared me, and there were things I needed to know in order to survive.
But for the moment I had no idea how serious it would all become. So I banged on with the innuendo, nudging and winking and cajoling my father, assuming the drama queen was milking the moment for all it was worth. Teasing his son. Until, frustrated, I shouted at him like a petulant toddler: "Tell me what happened!"
No chance. Instead he looked at me and gave an answer, the truth of which it would take me years yet to understand.
"There's a lot of things you don't know about me, mate."
'My Father was a Hero' is published by Viking (£16.99)Reuse content