Scott Thorson moved to Liberace’s Las Vegas mansion in 1977, when he was a teenage hunk in the foster care system, learning that the jewel-smitten showman could love just as extravagantly as he decorated.
Touring the premises before their relationship began, Liberace pointed out some decorative highlights, which included 17 pianos, a casino, a quarry’s worth of marble and a canopied bed with an ermine spread. On the ceiling was a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel with Liberace’s face painted among the cherubs.
When Liberace and Scott Thorson became a couple, the showman, who was 40 years older, was just as excessive.
“We were at a hotel in Florida, and Liberace had the manager give us another suite, with windows that faced the beach,” said Scott Thorson, now 54.
“He knew I’d be near the water and he wanted to be able to look at me.”
Liberace even wanted Scott Thorson nearby when he worked. So for years, Scott Thorson would don a chauffeur’s costume covered in rhinestones and drive “Mr. Showmanship” on stage in a bejewelled Rolls-Royce. Scott Thorson would stop the car, then open the door for Liberace, who would emerge in a fur coat with a 16ft train.
This routine, which ran for years at the Las Vegas Hilton, is recreated in a forthcoming movie, Behind the Candelabra, which is based on Scott Thorson’s autobiography of the same name and stars Matt Damon as Thorson and Michael Douglas as Liberace.
Behind the Candelabra debuted this week in the US on HBO and opens in cinemas in the UK on June 7.
One person who might miss the movie’s debut is Scott Thorson. He is an inmate at the Washoe county jail in Reno, Nevada, and while the place has its share of amenities – including television – HBO isn’t one of them.
Scott Thorson has been held there since February, when he was charged with burglary and identity theft, after buying about $1,300 worth of computer and mobile-phone merchandise, using a credit card and license that weren’t his. He was arrested at the Ponderosa hotel, where he and a man he had just met rented a room for $33.90 a night.
“We get a lot of the dregs of Reno, a lot of prostitutes, d**g dealers,” said Eric Pyzel, a clerk at the Ponderosa, where a nearby bumper sticker reads: “Welcome To Our Country. Just Do It Legally.”
“The cops are by pretty often. So when they got here it was kind of like, OK, what is it this time?”
On a recent Friday morning at the jail, Scott Thorson was sitting in a small room of white cinder blocks, empty but for a sink and a wall-mounted dispenser of disinfectants. Two officers hovered. Not for the first time in his troubled life, he vowed to clean up.
“This experience has scared me straight,” he said, in a slightly nasal tone that sounds vaguely like Liberace.
“There comes a time when you’ve got to take responsibility. You’ve got to stop lying and face your mistakes.”
It’s hard to connect this tired and anxious man in a blue prison shirt to the beefcake grinning in photographs in the late 70s. Time, an on-off m**h addiction, several stints in prison and what he describes as stage 3 colon cancer have taken their toll. Another reason he looks different: the chin implant is gone. Scott Thorson had it removed in an attempt to reverse one of the creepier episodes in the history of plastic surgery. Early in their relationship, Liberace plucked an oil painting of himself from a room in his Las Vegas mansion and asked a visiting doctor to reshape Scott Thorson’s face to look like Liberace’s as a young man.
Liberace wanted a toy boy and a son. With s** and fatherhood disturbingly entwined, Scott Thorson wound up with a new chin, a nose job and enhanced cheekbones.
“I was 17 years old,” he said, explaining why he went along with a plan that sounds so lunatic.
“Liberace had taken me out of a situation with a father who was very abusive, a mother who was mentally ill. I did everything I possibly could to please this man.”
The two went on shopping sprees, travelled first-class and spent a lot of quality time with Liberace’s shar-peis. Scott Thorson was showered with gifts, including mink coats, an assortment of baubles and a Chevrolet Camaro. They entertained celebrities such as Debbie Reynolds and Michael Jackson.
However, it all ended abruptly in 1982. That year, Liberace had members of his retinue forcibly eject Scott Thorson from his penthouse in Los Angeles. It was a break-up caused, in part, by Scott Thorson’s d**g habit, which he says he developed trying to slim down, at Liberace’s urging, on what was called the “Hollywood diet”, a cocktail of doctor-prescribed drugs that included pharmaceutical co***ne.
Scott Thorson later sued for $113 million in palimony, ultimately losing a highly public battle fought both in court and in the tabloids. He settled in 1986 for $95,000, according to reports at the time.
There was a deathbed reconciliation before Liberace died of a disease caused by AIDS in 1987. And that is where Behind the Candelabra ends. But Scott Thorson’s life went on, and as he explained in a series of interviews, both in person and via a jail-monitored version of Skype, many of the events that followed are as strange as the ones that came before.
The trick is separating the strange from the unbelievable.
“His approach to communicating with people is always to play it in a manner that reflects best on him,” said Oliver Mading, the man Scott Thorson calls his adoptive father as well as his manager. One evening recently, Oliver Mading was sitting in the living room of his home a few miles from Reno’s downtown. Sitting nearby was his stepson, Tony Pelicone, who met Scott Thorson through a mutual friend a decade ago in Palm Springs, California.
At best, these men sounded deeply ambivalent about being enmeshed in Scott Thorson’s life.
“He’s not a bad person,” said Tony Pelicone, who has a swirl of brown-blond hair and a cigarette habit.
“He’s just twisted and kind of cutthroat.”
Oliver Mading said: “He’d sell his mother – “
“Then he gives you that smile,” said Tony Pelicone, interrupting.
The two admit that much of what they know about Scott Thorson’s biography they learned from Thorson and that, at the very least, he has an aversion to telling his life story as a coherent, easy-to-follow chronology. During interviews at the Washoe county jail, Scott Thorson was often evasive and moody, deflecting questions about his past to rage against the people who have declined to put up the $15,000 in bail he says he needs to get out of jail.
“All these people are getting rich from my story,” he fumed.
“And here I sit.”
Earlier this month, Scott Thorson pleaded guilty and asked to enter a rehabilitation programme. He could face as little as probation with a suspended prison sentence to two to 30 years and combined fines of up to $110,000.
What’s indisputable is that Scott Thorson is no longer named Scott Thorson. He is now known as Jess Marlow, a change he says occurred when he entered the federal witness protection program as the star witness in the 1989 prosecution of an infamous Los Angeles character named Eddie Nash.
Eddie Nash shows up in the book and movie as Mr. Y, described as a d**g dealer with ties to organized crime who made headlines for allegedly ordering the so-called Wonderland murders, a grisly quadruple homicide that took place two days after Nash’s home was robbed of money and drugs in 1981. (The crime is named after 8763 Wonderland Avenue, where the killings took place.)
Eddie Nash purportedly learned who had committed the robbery after his underlings beat up p**n star John Holmes, an acquaintance of Nash’s who later admitted to helping the robbers enter Nash’s home.
A fictionalized version of these events turns up in Boogie Nights, with an Eddie Nash-inspired figure played by a Speedo- and robe-wearing Alfred Molina.
Scott Thorson says that Eddie Nash became a drug source for him in the early 80s and that he later became a partner in Nash’s club business. At some point, the two fell out and, by 1988, Scott Thorson was reportedly in a Los Angeles jail for an assortment of charges. There, he says, he was offered leniency by the district attorney’s office in exchange for testifying that he happened to be at Eddie Nash’s home when thugs pummelled John Holmes – which, if true, would make Scott Thorson a kind of Zelig of the Awful. Eleven members of the jury voted to convict. One held out. Eddie Nash later admitted to bribing that lone juror, and in 2001, he struck a plea bargain in which he was sentenced to 37 months in prison for racketeering.
Now, in his early 80s, Eddie Nash is a free man. And he would like to make it clear that he and Scott Thorson were never partners.
“No, no, he worked for me,” Eddie Nash said.
“When Liberace dumped him, he had nothing. He was on the streets. So I took him in, and he worked at the house. He was good for cleaning. Because I lived with eight girls at the time. Beautiful girls. College girls. It was safe to have Thorson around because he is g*y. I had a g*y cook, too.”
Scott Thorson claims that after the trial, marshals in the federal witness protection programme moved him to Florida and gave him a new name.
“They had to keep me safe because there was a contract placed on my life by Eddie Nash,” he said during one interview.
“It started with the marshals taking me to different locations around the country for seven to 10 days, to make sure no one was following,” he said.
“Texas, Alaska, Seattle.”
It’s an intriguing narrative plot point – man forced to get a new face is later forced to take on a new identity. But the story sounds highly improbable to Bill Keefer, a former federal marshal in the witness protection programme. He has doubts because of where Scott Thorson eventually landed: at a Christian-based homeless shelter in Tallahassee, Florida, called the Haven of Rest.
“How much protection could the marshals provide a guy at a homeless shelter?” Bill Keefer asked.
At the Haven of Rest, Scott Thorson found religion. And, instead of striving for invisibility, he shared his life story in front of church congregations. He says that he became a popular evangelizer, even appearing on a Pat Robertson TV show.
“He would share his testimony about his life with Liberace,” said Danny Heaberlin, who ran Haven of Rest at the time.
“We had pictures of him with Liberace, because the story was so out there, nobody would believe it otherwise.”
Scott Thorson says an east coast mafia don gave him assurances that he needn’t worry about Eddie Nash. True or not, Scott Thorson was unable to stay on the side of the angels for long. After three years at the Haven of Rest, he says, he started using d**gs again, and in 1991, was shot in a room at a Howard Johnson hotel in Jacksonville. Local reports described the crime as a robbery committed by a crack dealer.
“They thought he was going to die,” Danny Heaberlin said, “but he kept living and living.”
While he was recovering, a life-changing event occurred: a woman from Maine named Georgianna Morrill came to visit. Scott Thorson would later claim she had seen him on TV, spreading the gospel, but that is not how Georgianna Morrill remembers it.
“I read Behind the Candelabra, and I saw the photo on the back of the book and I heard the Lord tell me to pray for this g*y,” she said, speaking from her apartment in South Portland, Maine.
“I thought, I don’t even know this man. But I’m a Christian, and, when God tells you to pray for someone, you do.”
Georgianna Morrill found Scott Thorson through a Pentecostal friend and soon after the two met, she invited him to live with her in a tiny two-storey red house in Falmouth, Maine. Scott Thorson accepted. He stayed for the next 12 years.
It was the second time that he found refuge in someone else’s life, but Falmouth was a long way from Vegas, and Georgianna Morrill was no Liberace. There were periods of domestic calm, with Scott Thorson cleaning up around the house and collecting disability payments that he was eligible for after the shooting. But Georgianna Morrill wanted to get married, despite all the evidence that the match was a terrible idea. The couple had s** once, she recalls.
“That was enough,” she said with a giggle.
He also drank a lot, and when he did he would sometimes “get stupid”, in Georgianna Morrill’s words, prompting her to call the police. Still, she held out hope that one day he would propose. And one day, he did, but with a ring with a pearl on top that she somehow knew he had purchased with a stolen credit card.
“I said to him, <<I’m looking for a diamond ring and one that you paid for yourself>>,” she said, laughing.
“He got pretty mad that I didn’t want it.”
Georgianna Morrill speaks with a note of nostalgia about those strife-ridden years. It’s a note you won’t hear when you discuss the subject with Scott Thorson.
“Horrible!” he said of his Maine phase.
“It was so boring. I hated the weather. Five feet of snow. It was too quiet. I had to get the hell out of there.”
Scott Thorson moved to Palm Springs, where he would be arrested a handful of times for stealing groceries and drug possession, among many other charges. Early in this era, he met Tony Pelicone.
“I recently learned that he came by our house to meet someone I was dating,” Tony Pelicone said.
“Later his house burned and nobody was there to pick him up. So I did, thinking he’d stay for a few days. That turned into 10 years.”
Initially, Tony Pelicone was thrilled to meet Liberace’s ex, and he introduced Scott Thorson to his mother and stepfather, Oliver Mading.
Oliver Mading, a businessman with a background in packaged foods, says he negotiated the Behind the Candelabra movie deal with the producer Jerry Weintraub while Scott Thorson was in prison on d**g charges. After his release, Scott Thorson spent his cut of the movie earnings – just under $100,000 – in about two months, mostly on cars and jewellery.
“We always knew Jess without money,” Oliver Mading said, referring to Scott Thorson by his assumed name.
“Not that $100,000 is King Midas’s trove, but Jess burned through it like a complete idiot.”
Scott Thorson says he’s now penniless because of outlays for cancer treatment. The truth is almost beside the point. An assortment of siblings and half-siblings want nothing to do with him, Oliver Mading says. His only real assets today are the intangibles that Liberace bequeathed him, most notably, a peculiar place in showbiz history as the kid that Liberace once adored and tried to remake in his image.
“There’s always been a love-hate relationship,” Scott Thorson said when asked to describe his feelings about Liberace today.
“At that time, I was so honored to be in his presence. And I didn’t want to go back to my lifestyle in the foster homes, which was pure hell.”
Their years together scarred him, he says, and partly explain the troubles that followed. But those years were also the happiest of his life. So although he removed the chin implant, he also had a tribute to Liberace tattooed on his forearm. He rolls up the sleeve of a grey thermal undershirt to reveal an inky cluster of curlicued letters and symbols. In the middle is Liberace’s name, surrounded by floating musical notes, plus the years that Liberace lived and a yellow rose.
“His favourite flower,” Scott Thorson said matter-of-factly, rolling his sleeve back down.