Crying All The Way To The Bank
(Liberace v. the Daily Mirror and Cassandra)
By Revel Barker
Foreword by Vera Baird QC
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Law Society Gazette – Michael Cross
The Sunday Sun – Ian Robson (article)
Gentlemen Ranters – Michael Watts
The Times of Malta – Andrew Borg Cordona
Yorkshire Post – Revel Barker (article)
Brighton Argus – Adam Trimingham
The Trial of the Century
It’s the Liberace Show…!
Bizarre and hilarious… Nothing shorter than a paperback could achieve a balanced report of the brilliance of the advocacy and summing-up. – Hugh Cudlipp
A literary assassin who dips his pen in vitriol, hired by this sensational newspaper to murder reputations and hand out sensational articles on which its circulation is built. … as vicious and violent a writer as has ever been in the profession of journalism in this city of London. – Gilbert Beyfus QC
They all say that this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother-love has had the biggest reception and impact on London since Charlie Chaplin arrived at the same station, Waterloo, on September 12, 1921…
He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief and the old heave-ho.
Without doubt he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time. Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss has an answer for every situation.
Me and my shadow
By Michael Cross
It was the titanic clash between bluff, folksy 1940s British decency and glitzy, globetrotting 1950s celebrity, played out in the High Court in London. Guess who won.
In its way, the 1959 libel action by the then world’s highest-paid entertainer, Liberace (pictured), against the western world's largest-selling newspaper, the Daily Mirror, was as pivotal as the following year’s Lady Chatterley trial.
The Mirror fought the action in the confidence that its star columnist Cassandra’s assault on the ‘fruit-flavoured, mincing’ Liberace was fair comment and that any English jury would agree.
They reckoned without the jury appeal of a celeb who could fill the Albert Hall night after night, and without the mastery of his leading barrister, 73-year-old Sir Gilbert Beyfus QC. The Old Fox, with his disconcerting twitch and habit of cupping hand over bad ear, demanding damaging testimony be repeated, devastated the Mirror’s journalists.
His cross-examinations and brilliant closing speech are the highlights of Revel Barker’s account, based largely on court transcripts, and had me barking with laughter.
The Mirror went down for record damages, and, ever since, reporters and columnists have known that they face libel juries at their peril.
Today, journalists take solace from the suspicion that Liberace, who died of Aids in 1987, was perjuring himself in denying that, in Mr Justice Salmon’s terminology, he was a ‘homosexualist’. But under English libel law, the jury's verdict was surely the right one. And, 50 years on, celebs are still crying all the way to the bank.
Michael Cross is a freelance journalist and acting news editor of the Law Society Gazette
Author tells of superstar trial
By Ian Robson
It was a clash which brought a touch of glamour to the usually austere surroundings of the High Court.
On one side stood the flamboyant figure of Hollywood’s favourite pianist Liberace, on the other, a British newspaper.
Now that astonishing tale of one of the country’s most famous libel trials is being brought back to life by a former North East journalist.
Revel Barker covered the North East for the Daily Mirror in the 1960s and 1970s before becoming editorial adviser to the notorious Robert Maxwell.
Now he has published an account of the libel fight between Liberace and the Mirror columnist Cassandra 50 years ago this year.
Revel, now retired and living on the island of Gozo, Malta, put pen to paper after knowing many of the people involved through his career.
He was still at school when the trial took place and remembers following the events in newspapers of the day.
He said: “It was something everyone was talking about.
“There was very little TV in those days and people relied on newspapers to know what was happening.
“It was really funny. They had Bob Monkhouse doing an impression of Liberace in court.
“The most important thing was that, at the time, Liberace was the biggest star in the world.”
The entertainer won his libel action and was awarded what was then a record £8000 damages with costs.
At the centre of the action was a description of the pianist by Cassandra, writer William Connor, which has gone down in media and legal history.
He said Liberace was: “This deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother-love.”
He also wrote Liberace was “the summit of sex - the pinnacle of Masculine, Feminine and Neuter - everything that He, She and It can ever want”.
It was the word fruit-flavoured which was Connor’s downfall.
The phrase was taken as a reference to being gay at a time when it was illegal.
Revel said: “When I joined the Daily Mirror I met lots of people involved in the case.
“I decided to write a book, did the research, spoke to those people still alive, and got lots of background.”
As well as talking to those involved, Revel studied the court transcripts. His book is called Crying All The Way To The Bank.
He said: “I might give the impression the jury was perverse and the judge was biased towards Liberace.
“One of the women jurors was a fan who made her mind up before the case.”
It was during his time in the North East when Revel met many lifelong contacts who include Middlesbrough MP Stuart Bell, who has published many articles, and who said Cassandra did not perform well in court.
In a book review Bell said: “The author Revel Barker, a former Daily Mirror reporter in Newcastle who lived at Heddon-on-the-Wall, has captured the drama of the court room, based on a transcript of the case - Liberace full of charm and showmanship, and the uncomfortable journalist William Connor answering questions on every article he had ever written.
“There are distinguished counsel and judges and names from the past - Winifred Atwell, Charlie Kunz and even Semprini - a trip indeed down memory lane.”
Liberace’s libel victory
By Adam Trimingham (Brighton Argus)
Fifty years ago this month, one of the most sensational libel trials of the century took place in the High Court.
The plaintiff was Liberace, the American pianist, who was one of the best known entertainers in the world.
The defendants were the Daily Mirror, then the top-selling paper in Britain, and its famous columnist Cassandra, whose real name was William Connor.
Liberace took exception to an article Cassandra had written three years earlier which certainly pulled no punches.
Describing Liberace as the biggest sentimental vomit of all time, Cassandra added: “He is the summit of sex – the pinnacle of Masculine, Feminine and Neuter, Everything that He, She and It can ever want.”
And in the most quoted sentence of all, he called the pianist a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured ice-covered heap of mother love.”
Liberace, who had a fanatical female following, felt the article indicated he was a homosexual, which half a century ago was illegal in Britain. Cassandra and the Mirror admitted the piece was defamatory but claimed it was fair comment.
Now a book about this case called Crying All The Way To The Bank has been written by Brighton-based Revel Barker.
Barker, himself an old Fleet Street hand, describes how the sharp-suited solicitor David Jacobs from Hove played a pivotal role in proceedings.
Jacobs, who had a two-tone pink Bentley, three chauffeurs and a table permanently booked at the Caprice, was gay. He was also shrewd and recommended Liberace should hire Gilbert Beyfus, the top libel lawyer of the time.
Liberace was horrified when he clapped eyes on Beyfus, who was 73 and suffering from terminal cancer. With his old-fashioned mannerisms and clothes, he looked like a throwback to the Edwardian age.
On spotting the much younger Gerald Gardiner, who appeared for the defendants, Liberace said: “That’s the lawyer we should have got.”
But Beyfus scored his penultimate great victory in the court. He managed to present Liberace as a consummate professional who was also sincere and truthful.
He successfully persuaded Connor to be drawn up some blind alleys of argument which made him appear pompous.
Jacobs performed one last service for Liberace after the jury had found in his favour and the judge had awarded damages of £8,000 plus costs, when one plainly sympathetic woman juror arrived at Liberace’s hotel and asked for his autograph. Jacobs grabbed the pianist’s arm and said “Quick, run for it. If she speaks to us it could mean a new trial.”
Liberace became the world’s best paid entertainer in the 1960s and 1970s before his death in 1987, but the defendants did not do too badly either.
Cassandra continued to write his coruscating column until his death in 1967. He was also knighted. The Mirror circulation continued to rise.
But the same could not be said of Jacobs. Professionally, he reigned supreme and was known as solicitor to the stars. His clients included Lord Olivier, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Brian Epstein and The Beatles.
But privately he was not a happy man and he hanged himself in the garage of his luxury home in Hove in 1969 while being investigated by police regarding an incident in Hampstead Heath. He was only 56.
Laughter in court
By Michael Watts
I’ve just (Other Matters having intervened) finished Crying All the Way to the Bank – Revel Barker’s account of the 1959 High Court libel action by Liberace against Cassandra and the Daily Mirror.
Two criticisms must be made.
The first concerns the cover. This seemingly reproduces the notorious Mirror column by Cassandra (aka William Connor) which – three years earlier – had contained the (alleged) libel against the flamboyant pianist. Not quite.
The column on the cover begins: ‘I have to report that Mr. Liberace, like “WIND-STARKE FUNF,” is about the most that man can take.’ Eh? Curious intro – what can it mean?
Not until page 31 do we discover that it did not begin like that at all. Clearly, what has happened here is that, for the cover, the item has been doctored to fit. (Those with an eye for layout will immediately spot something amiss – the no-no of a crosshead appearing at the top of a column.)
Fair enough. Artistic licence. But an apparently more serious criticism is that this 370-page book has no index.
Were I in power, non-fiction works without indexes would be declared illegal. In this case, however, there are mitigating circs. First, doing indexes is an extremely boring and/or expensive chore. Even more mitigating, however, is the fact that in this case – apart from mentioning a sprinkling of old Fleet Street hands – 99.99% (recurring) of any index would consist of screeds of page numbers for Liberace, Cassandra and the two main counsel in the action, Mr Gilbert Beyfus QC (for Liberace) and Mr Gerald Gardiner (for Cassandra and the Daily Mirror).
Fair enough, again, then. It is a consequence of the book’s being so repetitive. In fact, this is the most repetitive book I have ever read. Possibly, even, the most repetitive book ever written.
That, surely, is a most damning criticism? Boring, boring...?
Not a bit of it. Impossible though it might seem, the very repetition involved in this impeccable record of the proceedings is its joy.
The responsibility is that of m’learned friends Beyfus and Gardiner. You lose count of, for example, the number of times they bring up Cassandra’s description of Liberace in the column’s pull-quote: ‘He is the summit of sex – the pinnacle of Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want.’
Yes, while I merely referred to the plaintiff as ‘flamboyant’, Mr Connor did not mince (oo-er missus) his words.
And it was on those words in particular, plus the epithet ‘fruit-flavoured’ – did they, or did they not, imply homosexuality – that the case largely turned. But as we all know the outcome (although perhaps we all don’t, so I won’t do a spoiler) my intention had been to read the opening bit and then skip the rest.
Certainly Revel Barker’s initial setting of the fifties scene is spot on. After that, however, it was to be skipping – or at least skimming – time.
Not so. The thing becomes compulsive. The more M’Learned Friends repeat themselves, the more the fun. Instructional, too – even for those with court reporting experience – as we have here prime examples of just how pettifogging MLFs can become. That is how they earn their crusts.
Indeed, as the pettifoggingness grows and grows (sometimes in desperation?) – and as each familiar phrase is analysed and picked apart for the umpteenth time – one greets their words as old and welcome friends. Entertaining ones too – as they provide us with more chuckles than those that occasionally produce the official ‘Laughter in Court’.
Not saying I shall read it again. (Yet?) But I’m jolly sorry to have reached the final page.
A scent of justice served
By Andrew Borg Cardona (Times of Malta)
In 1956, it was illegal to be a practising homosexual. Well, it was illegal to be a practising male homosexual, Queen Victoria's fabled naivety having caused the deletion of female homosexuality from the statute books.
In that year, Liberace had landed in London, via Southampton, to perform his particular brand of music for the masses. His general mien had inspired 'Cassandra', the pseudonymic William Connor, to pen a particularly virulent column, making it pretty clear what he thought of Liberace. Summarised, what Connor thought of Liberace was that the latter made of the former a strong contender to represent England in the projectile-vomiting stakes. There was more to Cassandra's opinion of Liberace than that, of course, and briefs were reached for and writs fired off, ending up in a jury trial in 1959, the mill of the law grinding as slow in the High Court of Justice of the Queen's Bench Division as it does in the Civil Court, First Hall of the Republic.
The jury, libels being heard by juries in England and Wales, found that the words complained of portrayed Liberace as a homosexual and that no defence in libel was to succeed, not even that the words consisted in fair comment.
Liberace was awarded £8,000 in damages (£6,000 of which were the punitive element) and costs, a spectacularly large sum in 1959, albeit one which would be ' laughed at now, though given that an average house apparently cost £2,000 in those days, it is to be assumed that the Daily Mirror's number-crunchers didn't laugh too heartily.
Actually, they probably did, because they would have covered that amount in a morning's sales, with another couple of mornings doing for their counsel and opposing counsel's well-earned fees.
The Mirror defence was that the words complained of were not susceptible of interpretation to mean that he was a homosexual. Nor was Cassandra's characterisation of him as ‘the summit of sex- the pinnacle of Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want’ liable to be interpreted that way.
Not according to the Daily Mirror, anyway. The jury, as we have seen, thought otherwise, and with a vengeance, one juror being so moved by the occasion as to tip Liberace the wink while the jury was taking its seat after considering the verdict.
These were other times. Quite apart from the illegality of seeking fulfilment of one's gay tendencies, life was much simpler then: the Daily Mirror was not one of the many red-tops that now go around exposing the foibles of celebrities, if reading is a practice that can properly be attributed to consumers of this type of media. Looking at girls with large protuberances would be a more accurate description of the activity of these specimens, really.
In those days, the Mirror was prone to wrap itself in the flag and pretend to a leadership of opinion to which it aspires not at all today. Their story, apparently told with a straight face, was that this was not a libel and there's an end to it.
The jury didn't fall for it: they confirmed, to all intents and purposes, that Liberace had been sorely wounded by a foul slur on his sexuality and proceeded to give him a large hand-out. The fact that in 1987, the old dear was to die of AIDS, which one doubts he got from sharing a dirty needle with anyone, was not - for obvious reasons - a fact brought in evidence to the jury and, frankly, it would have been irrelevant.
The fact that Liberace was quite clearly gay did not, actually, make the slur on his character any less libellous, even though many of his fans seemed to be in denial or simple ignorance of this fact.
The story of Liberace's successful action against the Daily Mirror and Cassandra is published in Revel Barker's Crying Ail The Way to the Bank... The partly Gozitan-based author spent 27 years with Mirror Newspapers and now publishes books about newspapers and journalism, apart from occasionally reacting, in print or electronically, to various sallies in the local press as the moment takes him.
The book gives a full and unrefined account of the proceedings in Court, uncluttered by an author's re-interpretation of the events. It is, in this sense, something of a valuable source .document, both for students of the history of advocacy and procedure and those who wish to get something of the flavour of the times. The Beatles, Profumo and the Swinging Sixties were still in the future and an out-and-out (though not outed, officially) homosexual could still get himself a nice little earner by coming over all hurt and offended.
Really, some things never change.
• Dr Borg-Cardona is a columnist and lawyer. His doctoral thesis, in 1979, was titled The Law of Criminal Libel: A Comparative Study.
Libel and Liberace
By Revel Barker
Fifty years ago this summer I saved money as a teenager by walking to school. The child’s day-return fare by rail from Bramley to Armley was only three-halfpence, but I was preparing for O-level maths and calculated I could save four times that amount every day by not taking the bus, instead of not taking the train.
With the money I saved I bought newspapers; morning papers cost twopence-halfpenny each.
It may be difficult to imagine, half a century on, but TV was still in its infancy; vast areas of England received only one (BBC) channel, and some entire counties could get nothing at all. People relied almost entirely for their news – and for their news pictures – on the papers. There were two thriving and competing evening papers in Leeds; even two sports papers on Saturday nights, on the street within minutes of the final whistle at Elland Road, three evening papers in Bradford and in York), two rival local dailies in Sheffield.
In the second week of June 1959 the whole country was agog with a court case being fought in the High Court in London in which the colourful and smaltzy pianist Liberace was suing the Daily Mirror and its famous columnist Cassandra for libel. And I had the morning papers containing the trial reports.
How much this insight into the world of newspapers and reporting influenced me, I can’t say. I had already decided to become a reporter and had started writing snippets of news and local gossip for my local weekly paper, the Pudsey And Stanningley News. I biked around Bramley and Rodley interviewing vicars, Townswomen’s Guild secretaries, band club officials and local printers scavenging copy for which I was paid a penny a line (the same rate Charles Dickens was paid, the previous century). But to put this in some sort of context, 30 lines produced half a crown, which – if I’d been old enough to do it – would have bought two pints of Tetley’s Mild.
I’d even had a story on the front page.
One sunny Tuesday afternoon the headmaster’s secretary had visited every classroom to read out a statement that thieves had stolen gelignite from a local quarry and that if we saw any sticks of it on the way home we should resist the temptation to play with it, because it looked like grey plasticine, and we should dial 999.
Of course we scoured the homeward route and found nothing. But before doing my homework that evening I wrote (fountain pen, best handwriting) a report and posted it to the paper, justly confident that it would be on the editor’s desk first thing next morning. My story was across two columns on Thursday morning – Schoolchildren warned of gelignite danger.
My future was guaranteed; a couple of years later I would leave school and start immediately, even before getting my O-level results, as a reporter on the Pudsey News (cable address: News, Pudsey). A year after that I’d become the youngest reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post; at 20 I’d be a reporter on the Daily Mirror – and work with many of the famous names I’d read about who had given evidence in the Liberace trial.
Memories of that sunny summer (weren’t all teenage summers sunny?) flooded back to me during this year’s long winter when I sat down to write a history of the trial. I felt it needed writing: lawyers I’d met in court over the intervening years had described it to me as the trial of the century and said the cross-examination of Cassandra by Gilbert Beyfus – the top libel man of the day – equalled that of Oscar Wilde by Edward Carson in 1895. It was, and is, still read as an example of brilliant adversarial advocacy. It also contained a lot of lessons about journalism.
In my retirement I’d become what’s apparently known as a “macro publisher”, reproducing out-of-print histories, biographies, novels and collected columns about newspapers that I thought ought to be preserved for posterity, and occasionally commissioning new ones. I could therefore publish under my own established imprint and avoid the frustration – known to all authors – of wrangling with the more conventional trade.
I’m still in contact with some of the trial’s witnesses, but I had to delve into the cuttings of the old newspapers – three pages a day in the Daily Mirror, a full broadsheet page in the Daily Telegraph, column after column in the Yorkshire Post.
The Yorkshire connection had been significant. Liberace had claimed that shortly after Cassandra’s piece had appeared – and allegedly as a result of it – somebody in the audience for his performance at Sheffield City Hall had shouted “Go home, fairy”. But Michael Rogers Ashburner, president of Sheffield students’ union, whose members had made a bit of a rag at the concert, told the court that none of his friends had shouted it. And although the paper may have been the biggest-selling daily in the western world, nobody at Sheffield University ever read it, he claimed.
The book, adapting a Liberace quote for its title, is called Crying All The Way To The Bank, and will come out on June 8 – the 50th anniversary of the trial’s opening.
In her foreword to the book the solicitor-general, Vera Baird QC, who is also MP for Redcar, describes it as “the story of a fabulous historic court battle from a different age”.
You really can’t get a better pre-publication review than that.