By Michael Joseph Gross
Originally published on Advocate.com October 11 2010 3:00 AM ET
The younger of two doormen, who looks to be about 25, Latino, and straight, recognizes the woman on the sidewalk instantly. “Damn, she looks good,” he says to his colleague before welcoming Liza Minnelli into the marble lobby of the Hotel Plaza Athenee, a few blocks from her home on New York’s Upper East Side.
Wearing a deep red silk Chinese-style shirt, black trousers and flats, a small gold cross on a chain around her neck, and diamond earrings almost half the size of her eyes, Minnelli does look good. Incredibly so, when you tally up the struggles of her 64 years—the well-known litany of marriages, addictions, and constant comebacks—whose collective wear on her seemed clear during her disastrous June appearance on HSN to promote the Liza Collection, a line of sequined clothing and sparkly jewelry. She was repetitive, slurring, and spacy: One fan called in to express her admiration for Minnelli, saying, “You’re truly a mentor for me,” and Minnelli responded, bizarrely, “You’re my mentor too.” Video of the show went viral; some speculated that Minnelli might have fallen off the wagon. Combined with her over-the-top Sex and the City 2 cameo, in which she sang “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” it seemed that Minnelli might be sliding into clownish irrelevance. And yet somehow this same person greets me today in a manner that suggests otherwise. Sharp, calm, and articulate, she’ll later explain the discrepancy by saying of the HSN debacle, “I was tired! They’d had me working too hard, and we shot that segment very late, and I was just tired.”
The most striking thing about Minnelli’s appearance, though, is that she’s come to look almost chillingly like her mother. There’s always been a resemblance, but time has etched Minnelli’s features with a precise quality of Judy Garland’s that also helps to clarify one key difference between the public images of the two. Garland, even when she was a mess, was always indelibly Judy. No matter how needy or awestruck, her facial expressions had a pointed quality that telegraphed the determination and persistence that brought Dorothy home. Liza Minnelli’s face, by contrast, has always radiated an energy of concentrated force but vague direction. The lacquered features and loose mannerisms sit in tension, like a Kabuki mask surrounded by a haze of free-flowing giggles, gulps, and gazes. At the center of it all, always, are the eyes, innocent and hungry, expressing an openness to the world so extreme as to be dangerous. (It’s the quality that made us love Sally Bowles and also made us fear for her.)
The face I meet has hardened, in a good way. In a private room of the hotel’s restaurant, she orders high tea for the table (a friend of Liza’s—who asks not to be identified for this story—and Liza’s publicist are with us). Then she orders a Coke for herself before turning to me, her eyes focused and her mouth set strong, to talk about her new album. Confessions is a collection of standards recorded with one of her longtime collaborators, pianist and arranger Billy Stritch. Reflective, wry, and even wise, this album is one of her best. The voice, deep and rich as an aged single malt, has a generous, even forgiving quality, especially in songs that make gentle fun of the singer’s reputation for excess, like the title track (“I never had a taste for wine / For wine can’t compare with gin”). “This Heart of Mine” deploys her vintage, veering vocal mannerisms to the verge of self-parody, before landing, catlike, on a precise ending.
Best and most affecting of all is “I Got Lost in His Arms,” in which the lyrics dive headlong into romance but the voice is halting, even mournful, as if the singer were trying to warn her own heart that love may not be worth the trouble. If a single song could stand as an autobiography, this might be Liza’s. Does this quality reflect something that Minnelli has learned about romance over the course of a lifetime that has included four marriages? (Her husbands were singer and songwriter Peter Allen, producer Jack Haley Jr., sculptor Mark Gero, and producer David Gest.) She answers, “I think everybody goes through it, and I think it’s absolutely grand when you’re going through it, and then you get your head broken and you get your heart broken and it’s all that up-and-down stuff, and for me, in my life, I’m quite happy that it’s gone. Now I have my work and my puppies and my home. And that’s enough.” 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!” Leaving aside gay Hollywood and her mother’s gay following, there were at least two central facts about her family that might have given the young Liza a clue that some men loved men. I ask, “In your family, was there ever any discussion of your grandfather [Frank Gumm, Judy Garland’s father] being gay?”
“No, it was none of my business.”
“So you didn’t discuss it?”
“It was none of my business.”
“How about your father?”
Her eyebrows scrunch: “But he wasn’t…” Her voice trails off into a silence that stretches until it’s clear she’s not going to break it.
I say, “Your dad wasn’t gay?”
Breezily, she answers, “Well, honey, he was married four times. And you should have seen the pictures he painted of naked women!”
Minnelli’s first marriage, from 1967 to 1974, was to a gay man: Peter Allen, a former protégé of her mother’s, whose pop hits included “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” and “I Honestly Love You” and whose life inspired the musical The Boy From Oz.
When I ask Minnelli if she knew Allen was gay when she married him, she says, “No, no, of course I didn’t.” How did she find out? “Oh, well, you know, people say things, and somebody said, ‘I think he’s…’ And I asked him about it, and he said that yes, there was that, but that he loved me. And I loved him, and we decided to try it, and we got married, and we tried so hard, but then it didn’t work. But we stayed close, always, always, and of course I was with him at the end.” Allen died of AIDS complications in 1992.
Minnelli says she first became aware of AIDS when she invited Rock Hudson to be her date for a charity dinner. “When he showed up he looked so ill, something was wrong, but of course you can’t say, ‘You look bad.’ But then I began to hear more about the disease, and I called Elizabeth Taylor, and I said, ‘Elizabeth, something is wrong. Something is happening, and people are not talking about it enough, and we have to do something.’ And so we did, and that helped lead to amfAR [the American Foundation for AIDS Research]. And then it became a movement.”
This was not, of course, the first time that a member of her family was associated with a great leap forward in the gay movement. The Stonewall riots took place in the early morning hours of the day after Judy Garland’s funeral, and though most historians deny any causal relationship between the events, the idea of a connection remains part of the Stonewall legend. When I ask Minnelli what she thinks of that story, she says, “You know, I never even heard about it until years later,” and her friend speaks up for the first time since we all sat down. She asks, “What’s Stonewall?”
To me, Minnelli says, “Tell her what Stonewall is.”
I say, “You tell her.”
This is Liza Minnelli’s version of the birth of the gay rights movement: “Well, Stonewall was a bar for gay people, downtown, and I think it might even still be there. And just after my mother died all these people had gathered there, including some drag queens, and I think they were listening to her songs on the jukebox, and they were sad. And then the police came and told them to get out, and they said, ‘No, we are listening to our music,’ and it meant a lot to them, my mother’s music. But the police said, ‘Get out,’ and they said, ‘No!’ And this was the first time, ever, that they said, ‘No!’ And there was a fight, and it was in the newspapers, so people finally knew about this struggle. And that”—here, Minnelli pauses for effect, raises her right hand from her lap, and traces an arc—a rainbow?—in the air—“was how the movement began.”
After a beat she adds, “Or so the story goes. Nobody knows if it’s true. But it’s what I heard. I was in the middle of all the preparations for the funeral, and somebody said, ‘This has happened, and it’s so exciting,’ and I was so proud, and I thought, well, something good can come of this too.”
The careful reader will have noticed at least two problems in the preceding section. Problem number 1 is that Minnelli first said that she did not know Allen was gay when she married him, and then she said she did. Problem number 2 is that Minnelli first said that she didn’t hear about Stonewall until years later, and then she said she heard about it as it happened.
In neither case did I ask her to square the statements. And though it would be easy to speculate, it’s hard to know what to make of the discrepancies, except to say that each contradiction gives a glimpse of how even the most intimate aspects of a star’s life can become infused with legend. Even odder evidence of this fact comes when I circle back to the most difficult question of the interview, the one she dodged at the start. “Both you and your mother had repeated romantic involvements with men who had active sex lives with other men—”
“—and with women.”
“Yes, but you both married men who were primarily gay. Do you think there is any connection between your romantic attraction to gay men and your mother’s?”
“I never thought about it.”
“No. Why would I think about it?”
“It’s a very unusual situation.”
“Oh, is it?”
“I’ve never heard of or known another mother and daughter who both were involved with gay men. It’s—I don’t see how you could argue that it’s not a very unusual situation.”
Sitting up very straight, in an almost imperious tone, she says, “We are a very unusual family. We are the only family in which mother, father, and daughter…have all…won…Oscars!” As she says the three words “mother,” “father,” and “daughter,” she consecutively raises her index, middle, and ring fingers.
We both laugh (though I’m not sure why), there’s a short, dramatic silence, and then her attention seems to drift, and she says, without any real transition, “And, you know, the best thing of all—the very best thing!—is when I make my parents proud. That’s—oh, that’s the best thing.”
She speaks in the present tense. Her father died more than 20 years ago; her mother, more than 40.
As we finish our conversation, Minnelli says, “I’m sorry I wasn’t dreary enough for you.”
“Do you really think I wanted you to be dreary?”
“Yes,” she says, “I think you wanted to talk about pain and darkness and suffering and difficulty, and I think I disappointed you, because I see the glass as half full, and I want to talk about what’s happy and positive, because that’s what life is about.”
I say that I don’t want her to leave the conversation with the impression that I wanted her to be dreary. I didn’t mean to upset her or bring her down. I say that, even though she might not have spent much time thinking about it, she has played a powerful symbolic role in a lot of people’s lives, my own included. There were generations of kids in little towns in the middle of nowhere who listened to “New York, New York” or “Cabaret” or “Over the Rainbow,” using these songs as totems for imagining themselves escaping to someplace far away—a feeling that in time they would discover had included a mute sense of wanting to find a place where they would have the freedom to be gay. The fact that so many of us, at such a young age (in many cases long before we ever consciously understood that we had same-sex desires), made the same connection between this longing and her music (and her mother’s music) strikes me as being meaningful. Because she is in the unique position of being her and has, I’m sure, heard countless stories from people who have shared this response to her music, I imagined that she would have some thoughts about it. And because she and her mother shared an affinity for gay men as both friends and lovers, I thought this might be a connection that she’d pondered too.
She listens to all of this and says, “That makes sense. I understand. And I’m glad you said it. And, honey, I wish I had more to say about it, but I don’t.”
The next week in a conversation with composer John Kander, who has known Minnelli since she was 18, I tell him how surprised I was that she had given so little thought to these topics, and he says, “Every performer, if she’s good, will make you in the audience feel as if you know her. And the fact is, all you know is performance…. To a lot of people, Liza is a symbol. What she is to me, besides being somebody I love, is an immense talent. What other people choose to make of her—what the audience sees is what the audience needs to see. And what she really is and what all great performers are is a combination of supreme talent, discipline, hard work, self-criticism, all sorts of prosaic things that the people who watch her don’t like to deal with because it’s too boring.”
So if Liza’s never really thought about you, don’t take it personally. Her job isn’t to think about you. Her job is to make a self for you to think about. In fact, if she spent her time thinking about you, there would be no her for you to know. Instead of wondering what Liza thinks about her gay audience, wonder, How did she make that self—and how, in spite of everything, has she kept it?
How has she sailed through so many storms that would sink most of the rest of us? How does she get out of bed every day, go to work, and make something new when she knows how many people have written her off? How does she ask you to take her seriously again and buy her new album when she must know that the last time you saw her, she looked like a Xanax cautionary tale on HSN?
One could argue that Liza Minnelli, as a supreme mistress of the strange art of celebrity survival, is actually more relevant than ever—in a time when increasing numbers of people are leading ever more inescapably and broadly public lives. As Facebook, YouTube, and other websites soak up our histories and cement our reputations, more people will be forced to ask themselves, How do I keep going when I can never escape the crazy things I’ve done or the bad things people say about me? And given the chance, you’d probably ask Liza, “How do you do it?”
“The only thing to remember in situations like these,” she responds, “is that it’s all lu-dicrous!” And, she might have added, if you can do right by your mom and dad or by whoever has loved you best, that’s probably all that counts.