I was rather sorry-not-sorry to hear that Liza Minnelli has cancelled her in-conversation appearances at the London Palladium and Sheffield City Hall this month. As you know, I have form with Liza. It all began with a late night showing of Cabaret on TV when I was a mere slip of a lad. I was absolutely enchanted by Liza’s Sally Bowles and Christopher Isherwood’s sinister Berlin underworld.
The rise of Nazism is reflected in a series of cabaret vignettes that were so damned sophisticated. The beautiful Michael York played ingenue Englishman Brian, Joel Grey was the sinister bisexual MC and Liza was the definitive divinely decadent chanteuse.
As Isherwood wrote, if the real Sally Bowles had been as sensational as Liza Minnelli there’s no way on earth that she’d be stuck in the Kit Kat club. The storyline that thrilled me as a young man was the desperately sexy menage-a-trois between Sally, Brian and the Count. The film is an ensemble piece but Liza earned her Oscar. I’ve been besotted with the woman ever since.
I met Liza only once. I was a cub reporter on the Sunday Express and persuaded my editor to send me to Las Vegas where Liza was performing at Bally’s casino. I omitted to say that I hadn’t secured an interview. Now here’s the magic. Liza’s godmother Kay Thompson was the key to Liza. She was also a recluse.
Kay was MGM’s head vocal coach in the golden era and trained many stars including Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Liza’s mother Judy Garland. She stole the musical Funny Face from its stars Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn and wrote the Eloise books about the little girl who lived at the Plaza.
By the 1990s Kay was living in Liza’s New York apartment. Even Vanity Fair couldn’t persuade her to talk for a major feature about her remarkable life. Don’t ask me how but I got Liza’s number and asked Kay if she would comment on a story I was writing about the fashion designer Halston who happened to be one of Liza’s best friends.
Kay spoke to me. She did! We had an hour on the telephone and I still have the transcription. I won’t go into details because that’s one for the memoirs. Anyway, Kay made the introduction to New York’s Queen Mother of PR Eleanor Lambert who I also spoke to and who called Liza in Las Vegas to request that she saw me albeit briefly.
Well, I checked into the old school Desert Inn (long since demolished) where Howard Hughes spent the twilight of his life. I think it belonged to Sinatra. Now here’s some more magic. The Queen of Las Vegas, Keeley Smith – consort of Louis Prima – was playing the Desert on my first night. I tell you, I felt like Peter Lawford sitting by the piano listening to Keeley and sipping a Mai Tai.
The Liza concert at Bally’s was as high energy as Liza with a Z. I was on her table right at the foot of the stage and a bottle of Champagne was sent over ‘love from Liza’. After the show, Liza’s PA escorted me to her dressing room where the band were cooling off with a bottle of Wild Turkey and I was introduced to ‘Pappy’ – Mr Bill Lavorgna – who was Liza’s bandleader as he was for Judy.
Liza literally flew into the room all taps, teeth, tits and lashes wearing a black mini dress and a furry coat she called ‘my Gorillas in the Mist’ jacket that she’d bought at the Bally’s gift shop. I started yattering about Kay and Mrs Lambert and that melted the ice. ‘Gee’, says Liza, ‘you know a lot of people kid’. Liza has this ability to make you feel like best friends within minutes and gives you her undivided attention for the entire audience.
The encounter lasted less than an hour and I tottered off into the Las Vegas night feeling like the king of the monkeys. Anyway, ever after that I kept the faith with Liza. I’ve seen her at the Royal Albert Hall, Hampton Court Palace, the Royal Festival Hall and witnessed what I consider her personal best Liza’s at the Palace at the London Coliseum. That show was such a revelation because Liza was on fire. She danced, she belted, she gave till it hurt.
But when the news broke that Liza was playing the London Palladium this month I was torn. Liza had only recently come out of rehab again and the show was to be a ninety minute conversation with Bruce Forsyhthe, a few songs from her accompanist Billy Stritch and a song or two round the piano to round the evening off. Tickets topped-out at £300.
I am not a fan of Mr Forsythe ever since he was appallingly rude to me on screen at Royal Ascot when I was doing my stuff for the BBC with Suzi Perry. I found him a monstrously egotistical cadaver who couldn’t bear to be upstaged … even by his gorgeous wife. Brucie was entirely the wrong choice. You knew it would be a platitudinous conversation with Liza trotting out the clichés she’s repeated for decades. Understandably, Liza has had to develop a rhino hyde against criticism and thus gives nothing away in interviews.
Having just seen Bette Midler giving the concert of a lifetime at the O2 aged seventy, I hadn’t the heart to see Liza Minnelli chatting to Bruce Forsythe as if the two were huddled by the fire at the Actors’ Retirement Home. I am not surprised the tickets didn’t sell. Liza will be back and hopefully next time she’ll be back in business: singing.