The New York Times
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Soon after moving into Liberace’s gaudy Las Vegas mansion in 1977, Scott Thorson, then a teenage hunk in the foster care system, learned that the jewel-smitten showman could love just as extravagantly as he decorated. Touring the premises before their relationship began, Liberace pointed out some highlights, including 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 the pair became a couple, Liberace, who was 40 years older, was just as excessive. He couldn’t bear to let Thorson out of his sight.
“We were at a hotel in Florida, and Liberace had the manager give us another suite, with windows that faced the beach,” said Thorson, now 54. “He knew I’d be near the water, and he wanted to be able to look at me.”
Liberace even wanted Thorson nearby when he worked. So for years, Thorson would don a chauffeur’s costume covered in rhinestones and drive “Mr. Showmanship” on stage in a bejeweled Rolls-Royce. Thorson would put the car in park, then open the door for Liberace, who would emerge in a fur coat with a 16-foot train.
If you missed this routine, which ran for years at the Las Vegas Hilton, you can catch a re-enactment in an upcoming HBO movie, “Behind the Candelabra,” which is based on Thorson’s autobiography of the same name.
One person who might miss the movie’s debut May 26 is Thorson. He is an inmate at the Washoe County jail, and although the place has its share of amenities — including television — HBO isn’t one of them.
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 cellphone merchandise using a credit card and license that weren’t his.
On a recent Friday morning at the jail, Thorson was sitting in a small room of white cinder blocks. Not for the first time in his troubled life, he vowed to clean up.
“This experience has scared me straight,” he said. “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 worn and anxious man in a blue prison shirt to the beefcake grinning in photographs in the late 1970s. Time, an on-and-off meth 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. 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 Thorson’s face to look like Liberace’s as a young man.
Liberace wanted a boy toy and a son. With sex and fatherhood disturbingly twined, 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 the plan. “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, traveled first class and spent a lot of quality time with Liberace’s shar-peis. Thorson was showered with gifts, including mink coats, an assortment of baubles and a Camaro. They entertained celebrities such as Debbie Reynolds and Michael Jackson.
Thorson's time with Liberace ended abruptly in 1982. That year, Liberace had members of his retinue forcibly eject Thorson from his penthouse in Los Angeles. It was a breakup caused, in part, by Thorson’s drug 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 cocaine.
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 the book version of “Behind the Candelabra” ends. But 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 Thorson calls his adoptive father as well as his manager.
On a recent evening, Mading was sitting in the living room of his home a few miles from downtown Reno. Sitting nearby was his stepson, Tony Pelicone, who met Thorson through a mutual friend a decade ago in Palm Springs, Calif.
At best, these men sounded deeply ambivalent about being enmeshed in Thorson’s life.
“He’s not a bad person,” said Pelicone, who has a swirl of brown-blond hair and a cigarette habit. “He’s just twisted and kind of cutthroat.”
Mading: “He’d sell his mother ...”
“Then he gives you that smile,” said Pelicone, interrupting.
The two admit that much of what they know about 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, 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.”
Last week, he pleaded guilty and asked to enter a rehabilitation program. 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 Thorson 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.
Nash shows up in the book and movie as Mr. Y., described as a drug 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.
Nash purportedly learned who had committed the robbery after his underlings beat up porn 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 a Nash-inspired figure played by a Speedo- and robe-wearing Alfred Molina.
Thorson says that 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, 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 Nash’s home when thugs pummeled John Holmes. Eleven members of the jury voted to convict. One held out. 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, Nash is a free man. And he would like to make it clear that he and Thorson were never partners.
“No, no, he worked for me,” Nash said on the telephone. “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 gay. I had a gay cook, too.”
Thorson claims that after the trial, marshals in the federal witness protection program 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.”
The story sounds highly improbable to Bill Keefer, a former federal marshal in the witness protection program. He has doubts because of where Thorson eventually landed: at a Christian-based homeless shelter in Tallahassee, Fla., called the Haven of Rest.
“How much protection could the marshals provide a guy at a homeless shelter?” Keefer asked.
At the Haven of Rest, 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.
After three years at the Haven of Rest, he says, he started using drugs again, and in 1991, he was shot in a room at a Howard Johnson’s hotel in Jacksonville. Local reports described the crime as a robbery committed by a crack dealer.
While he was recovering, a life-changing event occurred: a woman from Maine named Georgianna Morrill came to visit. Thorson would later claim she had seen him on TV, spreading the gospel, but that is not how 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 guy,” 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.”
She found Thorson through a Pentecostal friend, and soon after the two met, she invited him to live with her in a tiny, two-story, red house in Falmouth, Maine.
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 Las Vegas, and Morrill was no Liberace. There were periods of domestic calm, with Thorson cleaning up around the house and collecting disability checks that he was eligible for after the shooting. But Morrill wanted to get married, despite all evidence that the match was a terrible idea. The couple had sex once, she recalls.
“That was enough,” she said with a giggle.
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 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.”
Thorson then 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,” 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.”
Pelicone was thrilled to meet Liberace’s ex, and he introduced Thorson to his mother and stepfather, Oliver Mading.
Mading says he negotiated the “Behind the Candelabra” movie deal with producer Jerry Weintraub while Thorson was in prison on drug charges. After his release, Thorson spent his cut of the movie earnings — just under $100,000 — in about two months, mostly on cars and jewelry.
“We always knew Jess without money,” Mading said, referring to Thorson by his assumed name. “Not that $100,000 is King Midas’ trove, but Jess burned through it like a complete idiot.”
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, 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 whom Liberace once adored and tried to remake in his image.
“There’s always been a love-hate relationship,” 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 partially 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 gray 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 favorite flower,” Thorson said matter-of-factly, rolling his sleeve back down.