This article originally appeared in the February 1968 issue of Esquire. Written by Stanley Booth, author of arguably the best book ever written about the Rolling Stones, this profile of Elvis appeared months before his famous “comeback” TV special. It contains outdated and potentially offensive descriptions of race, sex, and class. To read every Esquire story ever published, upgrade to All Access.
Between Memphis and Walls (you turn right a bit past a big sign saying Church of God pastor C.B. Brantley DRINK DR PEPPER), there is a small ranch, a hundred and sixty green and gently rolling acres, a prettier spread than you’d expect to see in the poor, bleak land of North Mississippi. The owner, at thirty-three, has been a millionaire for more than a decade. He has other, more elegant homesteads, but these days he prefers the ranch. Behind the formidable chain-link fence and the eight-foot picket walls that hide his neat red-brick house, he finds a degree of privacy to share with his pretty new wife. The privacy is also shared by twenty-two purebred horses, counting colts, and nine hired hands, counting guards. (There were twelve hands, but the number was reduced recently, so the story goes around the ranch, at the request of the owner’s wife.) Then, too, there are the continual visitors—the ones who are allowed inside (some driving Cadillacs given them by the owner as Christmas or birthday presents) and the ones who must stay outside, peering over or through the fences. At times, such as when the owner is out riding, the roadside is solidly lined with sight-seeing cars. Privacy—the privacy in which to enjoy his leisure time—is extremely valuable to the ranch’s young owner, especially since he works less than half the year. Taxes would make more work pointless; his annual income is about five million dollars.
And yet, not too many years ago, he was living in a Federal low-rent housing project, working as a truck driver, movie usher, sometimes forced to sell his blood at ten dollars a pint. Elvis Presley, a Great American Success Story.
By the ranch’s main gate, in an air-conditioned hut, sits Elvis’ Uncle Travis, a small, grinning man, with hair as black and skin as dark as an Indian’s. A straw cowboy hat rests on his knee. He wears black Western pants and a white shirt with “E.P.” mono-grammed in black Gothic script across the front. Travis likes to reminisce about the girls he has captured and ejected from his nephew’s premises. “I dragged one out from under that old pink Cadillac. She must of heard me comin’ and hid under there, and all I saw was her feet stickin’ out. I said, ‘Come on out of there,’ and she didn’t move, so I reached down, took ahold of her feet, and pulled. She had a coat of motor oil a inch thick.” Travis belches.
“How do they get in?”
“Slip in. Jump a fence just like a billygoat. If they can’t climb over, they’ll crawl under. If the gate ain’t locked they’ll drive right through. I had a carload slip past me up at Graceland. Hell, I didn’t even go after them, I just locked the damn gate. They made the circle in front of the house, come back down the drive, and when they seen they couldn’t get out, the one drivin’ says, ‘Please op’n the gate.’ I told her Yes, ma’am, soon’s the sheriff got there. Made out like I was real hot, you know. She says, ‘Please don’t call the sheriff, my mama will kill me.’ I said, ‘Not till you get out of jail, I don’t reckon.’ She like to died. Then I started laughin’, and they seen it was all right, and asked me if they could come back after while and talk. So I told them yeah, but while they was gone I got to thinkin’, why’d they have to leave, why couldn’t they just stay and talk? But one of they mamas came back with them, and she told on them. I’d scared her daughter so bad she’d peed in her pants.”
Travis pitches his head back and laughs, displaying a strong white set of uppers. Parked in the drive is a shiny red Ford Ranchero with his name, T.J. Smith, on one door under the ranch’s Circle G brand, actually a flying Circle G. I ask what the G stands for.
“Could be Graceland,” Travis says, “or it could be his mother’s name. He meant it to stand for her name.” Travis’ expression becomes serious when he speaks of Elvis’ dead mother, his own sister. “He still keeps that old pink Cadillac he bought for her. Don’t never drive it, just keeps it as a keepsake. He’s got all the cars he needs. Had a Rolls-Royce up on blocks four or five years. Bought a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of trucks and trailers right after he got this place. Money ain’t nothing to him. Ole boy from Hernando was down here the other evenin’, workin’ on the fence, and Elvis drove down in one of his new pickups to take a look. Feller says, ‘Shore do like that truck. Always wanted me one of them.’ So Elvis says, ‘You got a dollar?’ Feller says, ‘Yeah, I got one,’ and gives it to Elvis. ‘It’s your truck,’ Elvis says.”
Next Travis tells how Priscilla, the new wife, likes Elvis to take her for rides in one of his souped-up go-karts (top speed, more than a hundred miles an hour) around the driveway at Graceland, tantalizing the squealing girls outside the fence.
Then he spits. “I sit down here, keepin’ people out, seven in the mornin’ till six in the evenin’, five days a week, and I’m about wore out. I think I’ll go in the hospital for two or three weeks, take me a rest.”
“Maybe you could get a television set to watch while you’re working,” I suggest.
“Yeah, I believe I will get me one. Either that, or some funny books.”
Just outside the gate, in a rented green Impala, are two girls who have come, so they tell me, all the way from New Zealand. “Is he home?” they ask.
One sneers, one ignores. “Did you talk to him? What did he say?”
I look away, trying to select a representative quote. On the roof of the house across the road a man is kneeling behind a camera, snapping pictures of the Circle G. “Let’s ride up to Rosemark tomorrow and look at that mare,” I tell the girls.
“That’s what he said.”
“What, is that all?”
“You should have been here yesterday. He said, ‘Would somebody please bring me a Pepsi?’” Pepsi-Cola, I would have explained to the girls, is Elvis’ favorite drink, just as his favorite snack is peanut-butter-and-mashed-banana sandwiches; but the Impala roars away, leaving a cloud of dust to settle on my shoes.
Sometime ago, before I saw for myself what Elvis is like, I asked a mutual acquaintance about him. “He’s all right,” I was told. “Pretty interesting guy to talk to.”
“Really. What’s the most interesting thing he’s ever said to you?”
My friend sat and thought, pulling the hair on his chin. Finally he said, “Well, once he told me, ‘Like your beard. How long’d it take you to grow it?’ I said it took about three months, and he said, ‘I’d like to grow me one sometime, but I don’t think I could get away with it. Y’know?’ And he sort of winked.”
Another friend, whose relation to the Presley household was for a time unique, told me that Elvis is a very straight guy, who uses neither grass nor acid. In Hollywood, Elvis never goes to nightclubs or premieres. Except for work, he hardly leaves his Bel-Air mansion. “He’s afraid he wouldn’t know how to act,” says one of his oldest friends. “And he wouldn’t.”
Even in Memphis, his recreational activities have been, for a millionaire, unpretentious. In the early days at Graceland (the large, white-columned estate, rather like an antebellum funeral parlor, which Elvis bought in 1957), the big kick was roller skating. After a local rink closed for the evening, Presley and his entourage would come in, skate, eat hot dogs and drink Pepsi-Colas till dawn. When skating palled, Elvis started renting the entire Fairgrounds amusement park, where he and his friends could ride the Tilt-a-whirl, Ferris wheel, roller coaster, Dodgem cars (Elvis’ favorite), and eat hot dogs and drink Pepsis till dawn. Until quite recently, Presley has been in the habit of hiring a local movie theatre (the Memphian) and showing rented movies, emphasizing the films of actresses he has dated. The Memphian has no hot-dog facilities, but provides plenty of popcorn and, of course, Pepsis. Now that he is married and an expectant father, he does not get out so much at night, but the daytime is as glamorous, as exciting, as ever.
On a day not long ago, when Presley happened to be staying at Graceland, the house was crowded with friends and friends of friends, all waiting for old El to wake up, come downstairs, and turn them on with his presence. People were wandering from room to room, looking for action, and there was little to be found. In the basement, a large, divided room with gold records hung in frames around the walls, creating a sort of halo effect, they were shooting pool or lounging under the Pepsi-Cola signs at the soda fountain. (When Elvis likes something, he really likes it.) In the living room, boys and girls were sprawled, nearly unconscious with boredom, over the long white couches, among the deep snowy drifts of rug. One girl was standing by the enormous picture window, absently pushing one button, then another, activating an electrical traverse rod, opening and closing the red velvet drapes. On a table beside the fireplace of smoky molded glass, a pink ceramic elephant was sniffing the artificial roses. Nearby, in the music room, a thin, dark-haired boy who had been lying on the cloth-of-gold couch, watching Joel McCrea on the early movie, snapped the remote-control switch, turning off the ivory television set. He yawned, stretched, went to the white, gilt-trimmed piano, sat down on the matching stool, and began to play. He was not bad, playing a kind of limp, melancholy boogie, and soon there was an audience facing him, their backs to the door.
Then, all at once, through the use of perceptions which could only be described as extrasensory, everyone in the room knew that Elvis was there. And, stranger still, nobody moved. Everyone kept his cool. Out of the corner of one’s eye Presley could be seen, leaning against the doorway, looking like Lash La Rue in boots, black Levis, and a black silk shirt.
The piano player’s back stiffens, but he is into the bag and has to boogie his way out. “What is this, amateur night?” someone mutters. Finally—it cannot have been more than a minute—the music stops. Everyone turns toward the door. Well, I be damn. It’s Elvis. What say, boy? Elvis smiles, but does not speak. In his arms he is cradling a big blue model airplane.
A few minutes later, the word—the sensation—having passed through the house, the entire company is out on the lawn, where Presley is trying to start the plane. About half the group has graduated into the currently fashionable Western clothing, and the rest are wearing the traditional pool-hustler’s silks. They all watch intently as Elvis, kneeling over the plane, tries for the tenth time to make the tiny engine turn over; when it sputters and dies, a groan, as of one voice, rises from the crowd.
Elvis stands, mops his brow (though of course he is not perspiring), takes a thin cigar from his shirt pocket and peels away the cellophane wrapping. When he puts the cigar between his teeth a wall of flame erupts before him. Momentarily startled, he peers into the blaze of matches and lighters offered by willing hands. With a nod he designates one of the crowd, who steps forward, shaking, ignites the cigar, and then, his moment of glory, of service to the King, at an end, he retires into anonymity. “Thank ya very much,” says Elvis.
They begin to seem quite insane, the meek circle proffering worship and lights, the young ladies trembling under Cadillacs, the tourists outside, standing on the roofs of cars, waiting to be blessed by even a glimpse of this young god, this slightly plump idol, whose face grows more babyish with each passing year.
But one exaggerates. They are not insane, only mistaken, believing their dumpling god to be Elvis Presley. He is not. One remembers—indeed, one could hardly forget—Elvis Presley.
The time is the early Fifties, and the scene is dull. Dwight Eisenhower is President, Perry Como is the leading pop singer. The world has changed (it changed in 1945), but the change is not yet evident. Allen Ginsberg is a market researcher for a San Francisco securities company. William Burroughs is in N.O., cooking down codeine cough syrup. Malcolm X, paroled from Massachusetts’ Charlestown Prison, is working in a Detroit furniture store. Stokely Carmichael is skinny, insolent, and eleven years old.
It is, let us say, 1953. Fred Zinnemann rehashes the past with From Here to Eternity, and Laslo Benedek gives us, in The Wild One, a taste of the future. This is a movie with good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are the ones who roar on motorcycles into a town which is small, quiet, typically American and proceed to take it apart. Their leader, Marlon Brando, will be called an antihero. But there is no need for the prefix. He is a new, really contemporary hero: the outcast.
Soon, James Dean repeats the theme with even greater success. But Dean’s career was absurdly short. “You knew he was dead before you knew who he was,” someone said. The outcasts of America were left without a leader.
Then, one Saturday night early in 1956 on a television variety program, a white singer drawls at the camera: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to do a song now, that tells a little story, that really makes a lot of sense: ‘Awopbopaloobop—alopbamboom! Tutti-frutti! All rootie! Tutti-frutti! All rootie!’”
Though nearly all significant popular music was produced by Negroes, a white rhythm-and-blues singer was not an entirely new phenomenon. Bill Haley and the Comets had succeeded with such songs as Shake, Rattle and Roll, and Rock Around the Clock. But the pudgy Haley, in his red-plaid dinner jacket, did not project much personal appeal. This other fellow was something else.
He was not quite a hillbilly, nor yet a drugstore cowboy. He was a Southern—in that word’s meaning of the combination of rebellion and slow, sweet charm—version of the character Brando created in The Wild One. Southern high-school girls, the “nice” ones, called these boys hoods.
You saw them lounging on the hot concrete of a gas station on a Saturday afternoon, or coming out of a poolroom at three o’clock of a Monday afternoon, stopping for a second on the sidewalk as if they were looking for someone who was looking for a fight. You even see their sullen faces, with a toughness lanky enough to just miss being delicate, looking back at you out of old photographs of the Confederate Army. They were not named Tab or Rock, nor even Jim, Bill, Bob. They all had names like Leroy, Floyd, Elvis. All outcasts, with their contemporary costumes of duck-ass haircuts, greasy Levis, motorcycle boots, T-shirts for day and black leather jackets for evening wear. Even their unfashionably long sideburns (Elvis’ were furry) expressed contempt for the American dream they were too poor to be a part of.
No one waiting about Presley should forget the daring it took to be one of these boys, and to sing. A “hood” might become a mechanic or a house painter or a bus driver or even a cop, but nobody would expect him to be a singer. If he tried it at all, he would have to have some of his own crowd playing with him; he’d have to sing some old songs his own people had sung before him; and he would have to sing them in his own way, regardless of what people might say about him.
“Mama, do you think I’m vulgar on the stage?”
“Son, you’re not vulgar, but you’re puttin’ too much into your singin’. Keep that up and you won’t live to be thirty.”
“I can’t help it, Mama. I just have to jump around when I sing. But it ain’t vulgar. It’s just the way I feel. I don’t feel sexy when I’m singin’. If that was true, I’d be in some kinda institution as some kinda sex maniac.”
These days, when asked about the development of his career, Elvis either ignores the question or refers it to “my manager.” Generally speaking, his manager is the person standing closest to him at the time. This is often Alan Fortas, officially the ranch foreman, a young man only slightly less stocky than a bull, with a history of hostility to reporters. When The Beatles visited Elvis in Hollywood, Fortas, not troubling to remember their names, addressed each of them as, “Hey, Beatle!” They always answered, too; nobody wants to displease Alan.
A more voluble source of information is Dewey Phillips. During Elvis’ early career, Phillips was probably as close to him as anyone except his mother Gladys. Now retired, Phillips was then one of the most popular and influential disc jockeys in the nation. He still speaks the same hillbilly jive he used as a broadcaster.
“Nobody was picking up on the ole boy back then. He was a real bashful kid, but he liked to hang around music. They’d chase him away from the switchboard at WMPS, and he’d come hang around Q. That’s WHBQ, where I was doing my show, Red Hot and Blue, every night. Weekends, he’d come down to Sun Records—he’d cut that record, My Happiness, for his mother, paid four dollars for it himself—and Sam Phillips, president of Sun, finally gave him a session. Tried to record a ballad, but he couldn’t cut it. Sam got Bill Black, the piano player, and Scotty Moore, the guitarist, to see if they could work anything out with him.
“After a lot of tries, Elvis, Bill and Scotty fixed up a couple of old songs (That’s All Right, Mama, and Blue of Kentucky) so they sounded a little different. When Elvis began to cut loose with That’s All Right, Sam came down and recorded these son-ofaguns. One night I played the record thirty times. Fifteen times each side. When the phone calls and telegrams started to come in, I got hold of Elvis’ daddy, Vernon. He said Elvis was at a movie, down at Suzore’s number-two theatre. ‘Get him over here,’ I said. And before long Elvis came running in. ‘Sit down, I’m gone interview you,’ I said. He said, ‘Mr. Phillips, I don’t know nothing about being interviewed.’ ‘Just don’t say nothing dirty,’ I told him.
“He sat down, and I said I’d let him know when we were ready to start. I had a couple of records cued up, and while they played we talked. I asked him where he went to high school, and he said ‘Humes.’ I wanted to get that out, because a lot of people listening had thought he was colored. Finally I said, ‘All right, Elvis, thank you very much.’ ‘Aren’t you gone interview me?’ he asked. ‘I already have,’ I said. ‘The mike’s been open the whole time.’ He broke out in a cold sweat.”
According to Phillips, Elvis at this time considered himself a country singer. “Sam used to get him, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash down at Sun and play Big Bill Broonzy and Arthur Crudup records for them, trying to get them on the blues thing, because he felt like that was going to be hot. One of Elvis’ first public appearances was at a hillbilly jamboree at the downtown auditorium. Webb Pierce was there, and Carl Smith, Minnie Pearl, a whole houseful of hillbillies. Elvis was nervous, said he wanted me with him. But Sam and I were out at my house, drinking beer, or we had something going, and I missed the afternoon show. Elvis came looking for me, mad as hell. I asked him what he’d sung, and he said, ‘Old Shep and That’s How My Heartaches Begin.’ What happened? ‘Nothing.’
“So that night I went along with him, and told him to open with Good Rockin’ Tonight and not to sing any hillbilly songs. I introduced him and stayed onstage while he sang. He went into Good Rockin’, started to shake, and the place just blew apart. He was nobody, didn’t even have his name on the posters, but the people wouldn’t let him leave. When we finally went off, we walked past Webb Pierce, who had been waiting in the wings to go on. I smiled at him and he said, ‘You son of a bitch.’”
The sales of Elvis’ records enabled him to get more bookings, and Dewey Phillips bought him an old Lincoln sedan for $450 so he could play out-of-town jobs. Appearing in Nashville at a convention of the Country and Western Disc Jockeys’ Association, he was seen, “discovered,” by talent scouts for RCA Victor. In a movie-house matinee in Texarkana, he was discovered by Thomas Andrew Parker, a latter-day Barnum out of W.C. Fields by William Burroughs. A carnival orphan, he had worked in his uncle’s “Great Parker Pony Circus,” dipped candied apples, shaved ice for snow cones, operated merry-go-rounds, even put in a stretch as dog-catcher in Tampa, Florida.
Astute techniques in these businesses had enabled Parker to rise in the world to a position of some prestige. The title “Colonel” had been conferred upon him by, as he put it, “a few governors.” He was managing the careers of such big-name country entertainers as Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold. But in all his years as a promoter, he had never found so promotable a commodity as Presley.
He had seen Elvis at, for his purposes, just the right time. The demand for Elvis’ records prompted RCA to offer $35,000 for Presley, lock, stock, and tapes. Sam Phillips accepted.
“Elvis knew he was going big time,” Dewey Phillips remembers, “and he needed a manager. That was late spring of ’55. He was the hottest thing in show business, and still just a scared kid. He had got his mother and daddy a nice house, they had three Cadillacs, and no phone. He asked me to be his manager. I told him I didn’t know anything about managing. Then Colonel Parker came to town. He knew what he was doing. He didn’t talk to Elvis. He went out to the house and told Gladys what he could do for the boy. That Parker is a shrewd moo-foo, man.”
Elvis’ first appearances on network television, on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey show in January and February 1956, changed him from a regional phenomenon into a national sensation. This might not have happened, the American public might simply have shuddered and turned away, had there not been a new group among them: teen-agers, the enemy within. When the older generation, repelled by Presley’s lean, mean, sexy image, attacked him from pulpits and editorial columns, banned him from radio stations, the teen-agers liked him more than ever, and went out and bought his records. Entrepreneurs could not afford to ignore Presley. As one radio producer asked, How can you argue with the country’s number-one recording star? Reluctantly, almost unwillingly, show business accepted Elvis. Ed Sullivan, who only a couple of months before had condemned Presley as being “unfit for a family audience,” now was obliged to pay him $50,000 for three brief appearances. However, Elvis was photographed only from the waist up, and his material was diluted by the addition of a ballad, Love Me Tender, which oozed syrup.
Such attempts to make Elvis appear respectable were very offensive to the good ole boys back in Memphis. Steve Allen, involved in a ratings battle with Sullivan, booked Presley, but assured the audience that they would see only “clean family entertainment.” Elvis appeared, and sang, standing still, wearing white tie and tails, with top hat and cane, but without a guitar. Just after the show went off the air, Dewey Phillips’s telephone rang. “Hello, you bastard,” Dewey said.
“How’d you know it was me?” asked Elvis.
“You better call home and get straight, boy. What you doing in that monkey suit? Where’s your guitar?”
So when Elvis made his next hometown appearance (it was on July 4, 1956) he reassured his people. The occasion was a charity benefit and Colonel Parker had turned down paying engagements so that Elvis could be part of the show. His was the closing spot, and he was preceded by more than a hundred performers, including the orchestras of Bob Morris and Aaron Bluestein, the Admiral’s Band of Navy Memphis, a barbershop quartet called the Confederates, Charlotte Morgan’s dancing Dixie Dolls, and innumerable singers, by no means the least of which was one Helen Putnam, founder of Fat Girls Anonymous, who dedicated A Good Man Is Hard To Find to Elvis.
After nearly three hours, with the audience so bored that it was on the point of having a religious experience, Dewey Phillips, who was master of ceremonies, said, “All right. Here he is,” and there he was, his hair hanging over his forehead, a wad of gum in his jaw. He wore a black suit, black shoes, black shirt, red tie, and red socks, clothes with so much drape and flash that they created a new sartorial category, somewhere on the other side of corny. He sang all the old songs in the old way, from That’s All Right to Blue Suede Shoes to Heartbreak Hotel. He sang until he was dripping with sweat, and when at last he spoke, his words were a promise to his friends, a gift of defiance to his enemies: “I just want to tell yawl not to worry—them people in New York and Hollywood are not gone change me none.”
Then his voice became a growl, an act of rebellion: “You ain’t nothin’ but a houn’dog,” he sang, and proceeded to have sexual intercourse with the microphone.
They told me you was high-class
Well, that was just a lie—
If the police had not been there, forming a blue wall around the stage, the audience might have eaten Elvis’ body in a Eucharistic frenzy. They were his, and he was theirs, their leader: it was an incandescent moment.
And at the same time, it was a climactic one. For as he stood there, singing defiance at his natural enemies, those with power, prestige, money, the Humes High hood, the motorcycle jockey, was gone, and in his place there was a star, with power, prestige, money. A few months from now, at about three o’clock one morning, he would be standing with one of his hired companions outside the Strand Theatre on Main Street in Memphis when a couple of his high-school classmates would drive past, not going much of anywhere, just dragging Main. They would slow their car as they came alongside the Strand; they would see it was Elvis; and then, without a word, they would drive on. “A few years ago,” Elvis said, “they would have spoken to me.”
Elvis had tried to go on being himself. When Paramount offered him a movie contract with a clause forbidding him to ride motorcycles, he said, “I’d rather not make movies.” They let him keep his motorcycles. All that was really necessary was that he stop doing his thing and start doing theirs. His thing was Mystery Train, Milkcow Blues Boogie. Theirs was Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole.
Then he was drafted. The Army cut his hair, took away his fancy clothes, and Elvis let them. His country had served him well, and he was willing to serve his country. He is nothing if not fair-minded.
While he was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, Elvis moved his parents to a rented house in the nearby town of Killeen. His mother, who had been doing poorly for more than a year, worsened, and on August 8, 1958, Elvis put her on a train to Methodist Hospital in Memphis. The prognosis was grave and Elvis requested the customary special leave.
It was refused. When the doctors, at Elvis’ request, advised his command of the seriousness of his mother’s illness, they were told, in effect, “If it were anybody else, there’d be no problem. It’s standard procedure. But if we let Presley go, everybody will yell special privilege.”
Days passed, while Gladys Presley sank lower and lower. In spite of constant urging from Elvis and his doctors, the leave still was not granted. Finally, on the morning of August 12, Elvis decided that he had had enough. “If I don’t get a pass by two o’clock this afternoon,” he told the doctors, “I’ll be home tonight.”
The doctors reasoned with him, urged him to remember that he set an example for millions of other boys. But Elvis had made up his mind. A Humes High boy can be pushed only so far. The doctors could only advise the command of Elvis’ plans.
So, naturally, the pass came through. The Army is not that dumb. Elvis had the same rights as any other American boy.
Back in Memphis, Elvis fought his way through the crowds of newsmen outside the hospital. He was in his mother’s room for only a few minutes; then he came out, walked down the hall to an empty waiting room, sank into a chair, and cried.
His mother had been the one, perhaps the only one, who had told him throughout his life that even though he came from poor country people, he was just as good as anyone. His success had not surprised her, nor had it changed her. Shortly after Gladys Presley was buried, her husband and son were standing on the magnificent front steps at Graceland. “Look, Daddy,” Elvis sobbed, pointing to the chickens his mother had kept on the lawn of the hundred-thousand-dollar mansion. “Mama won’t never feed them chickens no more.”
He has never really gotten over his mother’s death. He treasured for many years and may still have, in his office at Graceland, a lighted, fully decorated, artificial Christmas tree, souvenir of the last Christmas the family spent together. He had the tree cared for all the time he was in Germany, where the Army had put him safely away.
Elvis liked Germany, and both he and his father found wives there. When his tour of duty was ended, he came out with sergeant’s stripes. The whole thing was fictionally celebrated in G.I. Blues, a happy movie with a multimillion-dollar gross. One Elvis Presley film followed another: Flaming Star, Wild in the Country, Blue Hawaii; Girls! Girls! Girls!; Kid Galahad, Follow That Dream, It Happened at the World’s Fair, Fun in Acapulco, Viva Las Vegas, Kissin’ Cousins, Roustabout, Girl Happy, Tickle Me, Harem Scarem, Frankie and Johnny, Paradise Hawaiian Style, Spinout; Easy Come, Easy Go; Double Trouble, Speedway, Clambake. They all have two things in common: none lost money, none is contingent at any point upon reality.
But this is not quite true; there is one reality which they reflect. In Fun in Acapulco, which played on television recently, Elvis walks into a bar which is full of Mexicans, all of whom have good teeth. A mariachi band is playing. Elvis comes in on the chorus, and carries away the verse. Everyone applauds. The men smile, and the girls turn on to him. They all think he’s a hell of a fellow. One expects that at any moment he may produce a model plane and lead them out onto the lawn.
Elvis has fulfilled the American dream: he is young, rich, famous, adored. Hardly a day passes in Memphis without a politician wanting to name something after him. So far nothing has been found worthy of the honor. Presley has become a young man of whom his city and his country can be truly proud.
And he may not even know whether he misses the old days, the old Elvis. At Graceland, through the powder-white living room, past the gilded piano, there is a door that looks out onto the swimming pool. If you had been standing there on a recent afternoon, you would have seen Elvis, all alone for a change, riding his motorcycle around the pool, around and around and around.