Liberace’s Lawrenceville Miracle

How the singer’s life was saved at a Pittsburgh hospital after a bizarre health scare in 1963.




Photo courtesy of HBO
 

 

The recent HBO film Behind the Candelabra, a biopic of the legendary pianist and entertainer Liberace, includes an odd anecdote about a medical scare and a mysterious nun. The brief scene is like nothing else in the movie.

The sequence doesn’t quite do justice to the tale. What’s more, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese neglected to mention that this bizarre chapter in Liberace’s life occurred in Pittsburgh.

Liberace was booked to play now-defunct Monroeville nightclub The Holiday House on Nov. 22, 1963. That show — and nearly every performance scheduled that evening nationwide — was abruptly canceled after news broke about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Liberace would begin his run at The Holiday House the next night.

On the morning of Nov. 23, Liberace noticed that he needed to have a few of his flamboyant costumes dry-cleaned. He asked hotel staff to send the outfits away, but they refused; there wasn’t enough time before curtain, and Pittsburgh was experiencing a bad blizzard. Frustrated, Liberace instead requested that a bottle of dry-cleaning fluid be delivered to his room.

The star spent the afternoon cleaning his suits by hand. When he took the stage that night, he was dizzy. “By the time I got through my first number,” he later recalled, “everything began going in circles ... I had never felt so terrible in my life. I rushed offstage.” The cleaning fluid contained carbon tetrachloride, a toxic chemical later banned for use in most household products. Using it in an unventilated room had nearly killed Liberace.

At the former St. Francis General Hospital in Lawrenceville, doctors diagnosed the performer with renal failure. Physicians began hemodialysis — a relatively new procedure back in 1963 — but advised Liberace to settle his affairs. “It’s a bewildering piece of news to be given,” he wrote in Liberace: An Autobiography. “It takes a while for it to sink in.” A priest administered last rites.

A few nights later, Liberace later recalled, “a nun I’d never seen before came into my room and sat next to my bed and said softly, ‘St. Anthony has performed many miracles. Pray to him.’” Liberace took the advice to heart and began to pray. Then he began to recover.

When searching later for the mysterious nun, he couldn’t find anyone matching her description. According to one account, Liberace described her as wearing a white habit. A member of the staff replied in confusion, “But we have no sisters with white habits at St. Francis.” Liberace believed that the spectral nun could have been a visiting angel.

The performer reflected often on the incident, going so far as to build a shrine to St. Anthony in his Palm Springs, Calif., home. “Maybe I was heavily sedated,” he later wrote. “Perhaps I was hallucinating in the fever of crisis. Whatever it was, that sister will always live in my heart. She was the herald of what I choose to believe was another miracle of St. Anthony.”

*

Rick Sebak is on vacation this month, but he’ll return in our next issue.

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

For a city only two centuries old, Pittsburgh has amassed a surprising amount of history. To assemble this collection of 50 of the region’s most fascinating historical artifacts, we hunted through museums, archives and private collections. We also looked for things many of us might pass each day without appreciating their significance.
The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

Tracing the story of the chain back to its roots — which, surprisingly, are not in Pittsburgh.
In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

After making films focused on Pittsburgh, Sokolow is rising through the ranks of U.S. women documentarians.
Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Salem’s offers accessible and delicious meals for Pittsburghers of all stripes.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Pittsburghers Get Less Robocalls Than The National Average

Pittsburghers Get Less Robocalls Than The National Average

Next time you get a call from a telemarketer, just be thankful you don’t live in Atlanta.
Four Pittsburgh Chefs Honored on James Beard Long List

Four Pittsburgh Chefs Honored on James Beard Long List

The four are semifinalists for James Beard Foundation Awards, considered the most prestigious of the nation's culinary honors.
Is Pittsburgh About to Become the Next Detroit?

Is Pittsburgh About to Become the Next Detroit?

No offense to the motor city, but auto companies are eyeing the steel city to develop the next generation of driverless vehicles.
Even the Penguins Helped to ‘Shear Da Beard’ This Year

Even the Penguins Helped to ‘Shear Da Beard’ This Year

A who’s-who of Pittsburgh legends were on hand Monday night to help shave what may be Pittsburgh’s most famous beard.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

For a city only two centuries old, Pittsburgh has amassed a surprising amount of history. To assemble this collection of 50 of the region’s most fascinating historical artifacts, we hunted through museums, archives and private collections. We also looked for things many of us might pass each day without appreciating their significance.
The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

Tracing the story of the chain back to its roots — which, surprisingly, are not in Pittsburgh.
In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

After making films focused on Pittsburgh, Sokolow is rising through the ranks of U.S. women documentarians.
Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Salem’s offers accessible and delicious meals for Pittsburghers of all stripes.
Pittsburgh Penguins Share Tips for Parenting on Ice

Pittsburgh Penguins Share Tips for Parenting on Ice

In a year when youth-hockey participation is expected to increase, Pittsburgh Penguins players weigh in on the role of the hockey parent.
Face the Frost: Go Daytripping on Winter Hikes in Pittsburgh

Face the Frost: Go Daytripping on Winter Hikes in Pittsburgh

There’s a magical, snowy landscape right in your backyard.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Pittsburghers Get Less Robocalls Than The National Average

Pittsburghers Get Less Robocalls Than The National Average

Next time you get a call from a telemarketer, just be thankful you don’t live in Atlanta.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Union Standard Will Open This Weekend

Union Standard Will Open This Weekend

The highly anticipated restaurant from Derek Stevens opens is located in the Union Trust building Downtown.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Social House 7 Is Okay ... But There's This Really Weird Thing About It

Social House 7 Is Okay ... But There's This Really Weird Thing About It

While it's not among Downtown's best, Social House 7 is a fine place for a drink and a bite — but we're stuck on a bizarre element of the décor.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Love Affair Between Pittsburgh & Keisel is a Two-Way Street

Love Affair Between Pittsburgh & Keisel is a Two-Way Street

Where else but Pittsburgh would a football player, two years removed from his playing days, be able to raise about $85,000 in one night for the staging of an event that involves the gathering of a crowd to watch a man shave?

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Check out the chic decor from Pittsburgh-based artist and designer Janice Nelson.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Great Wall Crumbles, Fist Fight Whiffs

Great Wall Crumbles, Fist Fight Whiffs

Reviews of "The Great Wall" and "Fist Fight," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Our Favorite Unique Centerpiece (That’s Not Flowers)

Our Favorite Unique Centerpiece (That’s Not Flowers)

This couple’s centerpiece from our Real Pittsburgh Weddings shines brighter than the traditional table bouquet.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
The Candle Lab Ready To Make Its Debut in Lawrenceville

The Candle Lab Ready To Make Its Debut in Lawrenceville

The Columbus-based store, where you can customize your own candle fragrance, is expected to open in March.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at ‘Fences’

Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at ‘Fences’

An art director from Warner Bros. Studios will visit La Roche College to talk about the Oscar-nominated film with ties to Pittsburgh.

Comments