Elvis and Me
At Wollman rink for the Central Park Conservancy's annual skating party. 7:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday was another warm-ish, early January day in New York, sunny and mild. Last night the Central Park Conservancy held their annual skating party at the Trump-Wollman rink which is just inside the Park to the northwest of the General Sherman statue on Fifty-ninth and Fifth. More than 550 attended the long-ago traditional Central Park skating party under the bright moon above.
Terri Coppersmith, Gillian Miniter, and Liz Eliot
Lacing up and fattening up
Doug Blonsky and Gillian Miniter
Cutty McGill and daughter Bebe
Liz, Victoria, and Jonathan Eliot
Elvis and Me.

This past Sunday marked the 71st anniversary of the birth of the King
of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, who came to a tragic and untimely end twenty-nine years ago at the young age of 42. His death, which was later attributed to years of heavy prescription drug use, served to immortalize a life that was phenomenal as a public persona and conversely and utterly ordinary in real life. As a young man he’d come on the scene with a rebel’s cloak over his public influence. As a forty-something-year-old, he departed this life as a kindly yet harried victim of the bloated loneliness of a much ballyhooed hero.

The first time I saw Elvis was on television,
on the Milton Berle Show, an hour-long variety show which was telecast every Tuesday night (during the season) live over the NBC network. “Uncle Miltie” as he was known was a hugely popular clown/comedian who spoofed contemporary 50s life in skits – more than a few times got up in drag – and also featured a famous guest entertainer each week.

Elvis' hip-swivelin' performance. ©Bettman/Corbis.
I must have been fourteen or fifteen, and Elvis, at only 21, had already become famous to teens as a rock and roll swooner/crooner with his first gold record “Heartbreak Hotel.” Although it was mainly the girls in the neighborhood (as it was in the beginning with the Beatles about ten years later) who were already aware of him.

In that tame and conservative Eisenhower era, Elvis’ physical presence alone was enough for controversy: long hair (dyed black we learned much later) with sideburns, turned up collar, open shirt, he gyrated with bumps and grinds, while manically strumming on his guitar. The face was handsome/pretty with a wide broad brow, heavy bedroom eyelids, a strong Roman nose, and a thick pouty lower lip. And the voice was young and thick and manly. Seeing the famous documentary of the decomposition of the man twenty years later, it was obvious that his physical image bore a striking similarity to that of Rudolph Valentino, the most notorious male sex symbol of the previous generation – although none of us in my generation were aware of any of that.

By the time he hit the Berle show he was already much talked and written about – another scourge to teen-age-dom, already forbidden fruit in many households across America. Really, there were a lot of parents who were so revolted by his image that he was banned from being played (and listened to, if they could help it) at home. It was only many years later that this naïve bumpkin realized that there was more than a touch of racism in the forbidding, for what Elvis had done was to introduce the white man’s version of the brilliantly compelling Chuck Berry performance.

The Berle show was only his second television appearance
– the first being a summer replacement show of a then famous bandleader named Horace Heidt. I was very much into rock and roll, of course, although “Heartbreak Hotel” didn’t get to me the way it seemed to get to a lot of the girls in the neighborhood. However, on that night I first saw him, he introduced “Hound Dog” (“You ain’ nuthin’ but a ...”) with a performance unlike anything I (and millions of others) had ever seen. He took that stand up mike and with his gyrating moved it this way left, that way right, way back almost to the floor (!), way forward, flipping his greased up pompadour, shunting and groaning this way, shunting that way, and man ... the world changed, in an instant.

I’d been watching in my parents’ living room (they were nowhere around) and it got me going so much that when Elvis was finished, I was so het up I ran out the door and down the street to my friend Nancy’s house where she was already having a “conniption fit.” The next day right after school we hit the Music Shop and bought the record (with the flip side – which also became a million seller – “Don’t Be Cruel.”)

Elvis and Priscilla in 67
Although the ballyhoo machine had already got started, the appearance on Milton Berle brought Elvis to the forefront of American everyday lives. It was only a matter of time before he made his first film (“Love Me Tender”) and then made the inevitable appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show – the biggest variety show in television which aired (for more than 12 years) every Sunday night at 8 o’clock.

There was so much solemn and angry controversy about his body movements at that point that Sullivan gravely promised that they would only shoot him from the waist up. Meanwhile in the theatre audience (the same theatre where David Letterman is taped today), were hundreds of screaming girls who got the full picture. “Disgusting!” intoned the self-styled voices of public decency. “Fabulous” screamed the (mainly girl) fans.

In short time, with his career shrewdly managed by an enigmatic man known as Col. Tom Parker, the world knew all about his life and lifestyle – mainly the seven Cadillacs – including a pink one, his humble beginnings (born in Tupelo, Mississippi, son of parents on welfare – Gladys and Vernon) and his eligibility for the draft. The draft came by 1957 and much to his fans chagrin, he was inducted, locks shorn and sent to be stationed in Germany.

Many thought that was the end of the meteoric career of Elvis the Pelvis (a Broadway musical comedy starring Dick van Dyke – as his manager – summed it all up in “Bye Bye Birdie” which later, as a film, made a star out of Ann-Margret, who later starred in an Elvis vehicle “Viva Las Vegas”).

The Army, however, turned out to be just the beginning, for there in Bad Nauheim he met a very young and very pretty teen-ager named Priscilla Beaulieu (whose father was in the armed forces also). Priscilla was no more than 13 or 14 on meeting and although a relationship began then, the press treated it very delicately and quietly, hinting but never intimating (at least so that we teen-agers got the difference – 23-year-old man dating an under-age girl) the dicey truth.
Clockwise from top left: Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, outside and in; The gates to Graceland Estate in Memphis, Tennessee; The Graceland Estate.
Everybody of a certain generation has an Elvis story. As it is with fans of pop phenomena, I eventually outgrew my interest in Elvis when the Beatles, the Stones and 60s and 70s rock 'n' roll arrived on the airwaves.

About four years after his death, in the early 80s, I was living in Los Angeles valiantly attempting to develop a career as a writer when I was introduced to another writer who needed someone to write a chapter and outline for a proposed Priscilla Presley memoir tentatively titled Elvis and Me. Did you get that? “Another writer who need someone to write ....”

 
That was part of the education of living in Hollywood attempting to develop a career ... as a writer. So for a very small sum (a few hundred dollars) I was given the task of going through hundreds of pages of Priscilla Presley’s transcripts about life with her immortal husband, and coming up with something to please a publisher (and garner a fat advance for the contracted parties).

Mrs. Presley (whom I had not met at that stage – and only met her once several months later, in the company of her editor Ellis Amburn who later became a friend of mine) was, one could quickly glean from the transcripts a sensible, practical and forthright young woman in her mid to late 30s.

What her recollections revealed was her active role even as a very young girl in developing a relationship with the rock and roll idol. She knew what she wanted with the fierceness and focus of only a headstrong child. Her drive was protected by her personal stability and self-worth. Her man’s life, it turned out, was a life characterized by work buttressed by surreal fame and fortune, a man who despite his fame and fortune never really had the opportunity (or the inclination) to grow up and to learn.

The life of Elvis was almost depressingly ordinary and pedestrian with the unreal exception of his performing. He was surrounded by relatives and (mainly) male sycophants with whom he amused himself to the point of desolation with pill-popping interminable hours of leisure connected by traveling and night club and concert appearances.

Elvis in his white jumpsuit
He was a rather gentle man despite his being given to using his collection of pistols to shoot out television screens, and his bad-boy antics of wrecking motel rooms (especially if they were occupied by other performer-friends).

Their married life was, not unsurprisingly, not very sexual, for he was mainly given to extensive masturbatory titillation. And although he was hardly a virgin, most of his sexual intensity was that which was evoked (or provoked) by his image in performance. In his conduct toward women he was, in the Southern fashion, a gentleman. He loved his mama and he loved and respected his pa. His eating habits were mind-numbingly ordinary, plagued by sameness: meatloaf and potatoes night after night after night, year after year. (Liz Smith, incidentally, introduced one of his favorite desserts in her food memoir Dishing: Deep-fried Snickers Bar.)
He was in many ways a simple country boy who had been touched and maybe scarred in ways by the Big Time. Ironically, by the time he was decorated by President Nixon in the White House in the early 70s, as an example of a famous foe of drug-use, he was a gone guy from abuse himself. He had also grown glaringly out of fashion, not unlike the crooners who had come before him and complained about and disdained his rise to fame and fortune.

When he died his estate was in tatters and his record sales had plummeted. However, his shrewd and canny now ex-wife, in her role as trustee over their daughter’s inheritance, had the bright idea of turning Graceland into a tourist attraction. The result not only turned into a bonanza but also contributed greatly to a re-newed interest in the King’s recordings and increased the value of his estate to something exceeding anything in his lifetime.

The intense interest in Elvis, now revived and healthy, inspired a new book, published several weeks ago here in New York by Channel Photographics. Jeff Scott has written Elvis; The Personal Archives, conceived and designed to discover the inner man by considering his possessions and his living environment. The coffee table book mirrors the story that Priscilla Presley finally told in her highly successful Elvis And Me – the story of a entertainment and celebrity phenomenon, but really a country boy, mainly uneducated and unsophisticated (despite his worldwide fame) who ascended from his impovershed birthright to fame and fortune, all the while staying much the same. The Scott book is fascinating for its uncommonly common – according to his Southern roots – evidence of a simple man, garnished by fame but fatally sequestered by his country boy self-image.
L. to r.: Elvis having his locks shorn after his Army induction; Elvis' last Driver's License which lists his address as 3764 HWY 51 S and which was renamed Elvis Presley Blvd after his death; Interior of Elvis' 1971 Stutz Blackhawk. The first sold in the U.S. and originally ordered for Frank Sinatra.
L. to r.: Elvis' golden bedside phone; Artifacts taken from Elvis' medicine cabinet such as Hai Karate cologne and Ultra Control de Pantene hairspray; Elvis: The Personal Archives by Jeff Scott. Click to order.
L. to r.: One of the many TVs Elvis shot out, this from his Palm Springs home; Two Colt pistols, several that he owned.
L. to r.: Portrait of Elvis on leave from the Army with his original blonde hair; Photopolymer Gravure etching of Elvis' Tennessee Operator License.
A bonus check given to Elvis when he signed with RCA Victor in November 1955, age 20.



January 11, 2006, Volume VI, Number 6

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