Wollman rink for the Central
Park Conservancy's annual skating party.
7:00 PM. Photo: JH.
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
Coppersmith, Gillian Miniter, and Liz Eliot
up and fattening up
Blonsky and Gillian Miniter
McGill and daughter Bebe
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
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.
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 Beatlesabout ten years later) who were already aware
In that tame and conservative Eisenhower era,
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
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
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.”)
and Priscilla in 67
Although the ballyhoo machine had already got started, the
appearance on Milton Berle brought Elvis to the forefront of American
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.
from top left: Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi,
outside and in; The gates to Graceland Estate in Memphis, Tennessee;
The Graceland Estate.
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
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
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
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.
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.
to r.: One
of the many TVs Elvis shot out, this from his Palm Springs
home; Two Colt pistols, several that he
to r.: Portrait
of Elvis on leave from the Army with his original blonde
hair; Photopolymer Gravure etching of Elvis' Tennessee Operator
bonus check given to Elvis when he signed with RCA Victor in
November 1955, age 20.