Liza Fesses Up
BY Michael Joseph Gross
October 11 2010 4:00 AM ET
She traces the album’s genesis back to the parties that centered on the piano in the living room where her mother and father, film director Vincente Minnelli, entertained the top tier of old Hollywood. She’s continued this family tradition with gatherings around the piano in her own house, where friends like Tony Bennett and Michael Feinstein “and some that might surprise you, like Janet Jackson,” sometimes gather to sing. Minnelli says the album’s intimate, emotional tone expresses the casual mood of these impromptu soirees. She recorded most of the album at her house while recovering from knee replacement surgery, an ordeal that hasn’t slowed her. When I ask if she’s doing a lot of physical therapy, she corrects me: “Not physical therapy—dance class! Because that’s what I am, darling. I’m a dancer!”
This article, like almost every celebrity profile, records a transaction. In return for the chance to discuss her work, a performer subjects herself to personal questions—which, in this case, will concentrate on Minnelli’s relationships with gay men. It’s a difficult topic, fraught with clichés. The air of Sisyphean struggle with tragedy and suffering that hangs over both Garland’s and Minnelli’s reputations has to do in no small part with their connection with gay audiences—and their romantic relationships with gay men.
At first, seeming taken aback by this line of questions, Minnelli deflects: “I don’t know what gay people see in my music. I really haven’t thought about it. I think they see what everyone else sees in my music.” In interviews sometimes the best way to cut through dissembling is to go straight to the hardest question, so I try that. But after I ask why Minnelli thinks she and her mother both married gay men, she stares at me, blinking, for a long moment, and then pulls the emergency brake: “I have to go to the john.”
When she returns I shift to what seems like an easier question. Thinking about those parties around the piano she described, where some of the guests, like MGM’s musical director Roger Edens, were gay, it strikes me that Minnelli was surrounded by gay people from a very early age. Yet when I ask how she first became aware of the fact of homosexuality, she says, “I didn’t really know about it until I was 18, until I lived here,” in New York. She tells a story about Fred Ebb (the lyricist who, with composer John Kander, wrote “Cabaret,” “Liza With a Z,” and many of the other songs that have become her signatures), who once mentioned that he was going to see a group of lesbians whom he called “the Demonic Eight.” Minnelli gasps: “And I said, ‘There are eight of them?’ I could not believe there were eight lesbians! In the world!”
Really? This hardly seems plausible. When she was 15, Minnelli attended her mother’s legendary 1961 concerts at Carnegie Hall, where there were so many gay men in the audience that major publications like Time took note—in an era when many newspapers and magazines kept a strict silence about gay people’s existence. But Minnelli stands by her claim. “Honestly and truly, I swear to you!”