Musical success, it has often been noted, is hardly a respecter of the high-minded. For composers and performers alike, the brass rings of fame and money are often not at the disposal of the noble in aspiration or even the uncommonly attractive, but rather of the attractively common.

And so it was, I am afraid, with the pianist Wladziu Valentino Liberace, who was born in West Allis, Wisconsin, in 1919, and who died in Palm Springs, California, this past February. As I write these words, the newspapers are full of stories that the pianist was indeed a victim of the dreaded disease AIDS, despite what his personal physician wrote on the death certificate.

This embarrassment to Liberace’s memory seems only a pendant to a career that thrived on another, and quite different, kind of shame. For the embarrassment of Liberace’s life was that of a success without respect, a success achieved through flouting the...

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