Elvis Presley left the building — not to mention this earthly realm — nearly 40 years ago, but his music and his memory remain relevant, thanks in part to the books published by those who were part of his inner circle. In honor of the80th anniversary of Elvis’ birth, four of the women who knew Presley well offer their memories of the man behind the movies and music.
HIS FIANCÉE, GINGER ALDEN
By Ken Sharp
WHILE ELVIS IS KNOWN from Tibet to Tulsa and all points in between, few people knew the private Elvis Presley, the man behind Graceland’s closed doors. His closest confidantes were a fiercely loyal cadre of friends known as “The Memphis Mafia,” who protected him from the world, while former wife, Priscilla Presley, and longtime girlfriend, Linda Thompson, bore witness to the man behind the myth.
Add Ginger Alden to that exclusive list. She spent the last nine months of Presley’s life by his side before his death on Aug. 16, 1977, at the age of 42. Her New York Times best-selling book, “Elvis & Ginger,” is not a sleazy tell-all, but a clear-eyed chronicle of their courtship — she was 22 years his junior — revealing heretofore unknown details about the final year of “The King’s” life, while setting the record straight about their relationship.
GOLDMINE: Why did you wait so long to write a book about your time spent with Elvis? What makes this the right time?
GINGER ALDEN: Well, I had gone forward with my life when Elvis had passed away. I’d written down a lot of my memories; it was my own personal thing just to hold on to. I didn’t want to forget anything about that special time. I wrote down so many things, exact statements that were said. I moved forward with my life; I began to work. I worked for 15 years, and in the course of that time, there were a lot of books coming out, just swirling things about our relationship and about the last year of Elvis’ life ... I got married and I had my son. It was difficult not to put out a book sooner. I thought that I wanted the truth out there about our relationship, but I knew it was going to be a very emotional journey for me. It was going to take a lot of time to put that together, and I didn’t want to take that time away from my son. I only had one son, and I raised him. So when he turned 20 years old and went away to college, that’s when I sat down and wrote the book, which took me about two years to put all of my memories together.
GM: What I like about your book is it puts me into that world; I feel as a reader you’ve brought me there with you.
GA: It’s funny, because I didn’t want to write from the perspective of the age I am now. Looking back in retrospect, I wantedto put the reader there, and I hope I did because you don’t lose those feelings. When I went back and I was looking at my notes, some things you’ll just never ever forget. It left such an impact on me; I’d just turned 20. Just stepping through that front door again of Graceland — it looked different from the inside. It was decorated in this plush red and some people called it gaudy, but it left quite an impression on me at the time. For me and my sisters, the evening we first went to Graceland, for us growing up in Memphis, it was like being invited into the White House and meeting the president. Some may think that sounds silly. But I had driven past Graceland numerous times going to a shopping mall and was like, “Wow, I wonder if Elvis is home now?” Just growing up in Memphis, I was proud that he shared my hometown.
GM: In terms of your age, there was a 22-year gap between you and Elvis. Explain why you connected so strongly.
GA: I grew up in a musical family; a lot of people may not know this. My mother played the guitar, mandolin and piano. Her father had been a minister in a small church years and years earlier. When I grew up, she played a lot of gospel music; we played a lot of music on the stereo in our house and a lot of Elvis’ gospel albums. I loved singing, and my sister, Terry, was a great pianist. I remember standing numerous times behind my mom and singing a lot of these gospel songs. So the very first night I actually met Elvis, in November ’76, we were invited to his home and he played the piano for my sisters and me. I was like, “Wow, this is Elvis and I’m in awe, but this just seems so comfortable.” There was just a comfortable feeling there and spiritual interest. I found the books he was reading interesting. He was on such a spiritual quest in his life when I met him. We both loved Southern food — hamburgers.
GM: I heard he liked Krystal burgers.
GA: (Laughs.) You know, I don’t remember him eating a Krystal burger, but we did eat McDonald’s. And not every day, his housekeeper, Lottie, would prepare a special homemade burger for him that Elvis called “Lottie burgers.” She would steam the buns in butter. Once, he did send out for McDonald’s with my family, but we both liked good Southern food.
GM: So the age difference was not a factor?
GA: No. I never looked at our age difference as being an issue at all. The only time I felt like Elvis was more kind of a fatherly figure is he loved teaching; he loved showing me new things. And that was when we were reading and he would point out passages. I felt like I was with an interesting teacher. But I never looked at our age difference; Elvis could be like a big kid in many ways. I was extremely, extremely shy, but he was getting involved with my family. My sisters and I always joked and cut up with one another. My older sister, Rosemary, hit it off with Elvis, and they would joke at times, or the way he would joke with his band on stage so there was a connection there. I was pretty shy, so I couldn’t pinpoint it. You’d have to ask Elvis, you know — “Why me?” Why did he single me out?” But I feel we did connect and there was strong love between us.
GM: Before you met him, you first saw Elvis play live for the first time in Memphis.
GA: I first saw Elvis play live I think on July 5, 1976, in Memphis. My sister was Miss Tennessee in 1976, and she had been given some tickets for Elvis’ concert but she couldn’t go; she had some other thing she had to do as Miss Tennessee, so she gave the tickets to me, my mother and my sister, Rosemary. I’d never seen Elvis live before, and it was great. I wrote about it in the book — when he first walked out, all of a sudden I’m hearing this voice live that I’d only heard on record or on the radio or on television and it was very exciting. Who knew that this would be, unfortunately, his last hometown appearance? But yeah, we were there that night.
GM: From seeing him live in Memphis and now being out on tour accompanying Elvis, what was it like to be thrust in the eye of the hurricane?
GA: Well, it was like running next to a fast-moving train and jumping on. There was no slowing down. It was exciting. It wasn’t necessarily tiring for me. All of a sudden I was visiting places I’d never been, but you didn’t really get to see them — you’re on the road, and you’re in a car and you’re in a hotel room. You’re on this roll, but it was an amazing time. Elvis loved performing. There are so, so many things written about how The Colonel pushed him too hard and he wanted to stop, but I never sensed that from Elvis. In fact, a couple of weeks before he passed away, I remember he turned to me and at one point said, “I’ve been off too long.”Performing was in his blood. He loved to perform, and he loved to be onstage.
GM: Speaking of The Colonel: CharacterizeElvis’ relationship with him.
GA: I felt their relationship was mainly business. I didn’t get to know him well. We never got to speak much in private. I remember being in Palm Springs with Elvis, and The Colonel’s wife, Marie, was ill, and Elvis wanted to go and say hi to her, so we went to her home. The Colonel certainly never spent any time talking much with me; it was usually just a brief hello. I sensed Elvis’ relationship with The Colonel was mainly centered around business.
GM: What kind of music would Elvis play around Graceland?
GA: I loved Elton John and Led Zeppelin and enjoyed listening to them, but Elvis turned me on to Mario Lanza, opera, Brook Benton. He usually had the radio playing in his bedroom; I think it was comforting for him. He would always tell me, “Music is the universal language.” Sometimes when we were talking to one another, if he was trying to get a point across, he’d nod his head if there were some words that were matching up to what he wanted to teach me. There might be some lyrics to a song that was playing on the radio or a record, and he would nod toward it and say, “Listen, they’re talking to you.”
GM: In the book you mention Elvis speaking about how music is everywhere, even in the sound of the crickets outside.
GA:He really felt there was music in everything. There were various times when we sat on his front porch and he was just in tune to so much around him. It was such an important part of his life. Unfortunately for us, there just wasn’t time. I did write about a funny incident in the book. Elvis appreciated all kinds of music, but he didn’t care for heavy metal. I wrote about a screeching guitar solo playing once on the radio when he stood up to head off toward the bathroom at Graceland, and he said something like, “I’ll break your GD fingers!” (Laughs) He didn’t care for that. I can’t remember the song, but it was just some screeching, heavy-metal guitar.
GM: Being a fan of Led Zeppelin and Elton John, did you ever play that music for Elvis?
GA: No, I didn’t. It would have been interesting to see what he thought about that music.
GM: Was there a song on the radio that was your song?
GA: When we were sitting in bed once he wanted to sing with me a song called “Since I Met You Baby,” and I was extremely shy back then. But I did love singing, so we sang together and I was like, “Wow, if I can sing with Elvis, maybe I can sing in front of anyone!” But we sang that song a few times. I loved so many of his songs. There was a song called “Trying to Get to You” that for some reason I latched onto, and I liked when he would sing that during his shows. But he had so many great songs.
GM: Did he ever play any of his music at Graceland?
GA: No, I don’t recall that. But he would sing and perform. There was an organ in his office, and many times he would sit down and play that. But no, I don’t recall him ever playing his own music.
GM: Some uninformed people may view Elvis as a very simple person, but he was the opposite. He was intelligent, complicated and thoughtful — someone who had unending thirst for knowledge and spirituality.
GA: He was on such a spiritual quest. We spent so many hours reading. Even on the road, he would bring a dictionary and have someone ask him how to spell the word and what the meaning was. He always wanted to better himself in that respect.
GA: Yeah, self-educate. And I thought that was a wonderful, wonderful quality about him.
GM: Can you recall which books were the most important to him at that time?
GA: From my understanding, his hairdresser, Larry Geller, had given him a lot of these books back in the 1960s. There was a place called the Self Realization Fellowship in California, and I believe Elvis was a member. This was before I met him, back in the ’60s. These books were “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, “The Impersonal Life” and “Autobiography of Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda. They’re fascinating, wild books to delve into, and I was intrigued by it. Did I understand them? No. But I was trying.
GM: Elvis tried to teach you about them?
GA: Oh yeah. He loved that. We read through those books; I would ask questions. It would have taken years to gain an understanding of those books, and again, he had been studying them since the ’60s. It was very important to him, so I was there for him but may not have always understood it. But I sat by his side and we read. I was trying to grasp it all at the time.
GM: Elvis was on a quest toward enlightenment. From what I’ve read, he was constantly questioning why he was chosen to be Elvis Presley. Did you ever discuss that with him?
GA: I think Elvis was always trying to understand why he had become as popular as he had. I think he was touched and he tried to reach people through his music and bring them happiness. I wrote in the book about how he wanted to do more serious films. There was a script he had called “The Mission.” It paralleled his life of bringing happiness to others. He said one day he’d hope to do it. I went into the attic with him one day and we browsed through a box and looked for it but didn’t find it, and he came back downstairs. I wish he would have told me more about it. It would have been so wonderful to see him do a film like this.
GM: There were a lot of pressure bearing down on Elvis near the end of his life, and one of those pressures concerned “Elvis-What Happened,” the tell-all book written by former members of the “Memphis Mafia” — Red and Sonny West and Dave Hebler — and tabloid journalist Steve Dunleavy, which came out a few weeks before Elvis’ death. Reportedly he was able to access an early copy. Did Elvis ever speak about this book and share his feelings?
GA: From my own personal experience, I had no idea who they were. I’d never heard their names before. It was late in the summer of ’77 before Elvis mentioned it to me one night. It hurt him deeply. I didn’t fully understand. I had no idea what was in the book, and I never read it, and I still have no desire to because I knew it hurt him. But he seemed to have come to a place that evening when he talked to me about it. He said, “Ginger, if something’s ever said about you that’s untrue, kill it and get it behind you.” You know, a lot of people have this vision of Elvis sitting in his room and being depressed all the time. But that wasn’t what I witnessed at all. There were many fun times up there. He was human, and he had good days and he had bad days. He didn’t say any more to me about the book after that one night, but, of course, I can see how that would have hurt him. He had to go out and face people about the book, but I felt he was ready to.
GM: A lot of activity in the book in regard to Elvis at Graceland happens in the bedroom, where Elvis spent most of his time reading and being at peace.
GA: He was on the road, and we weren’t home for very long, and then he’d be back on the road. You think back to all the years he’d been on the road and all the time spent in hotel rooms. Upstairs at Graceland in his bedroom was his sanctuary. His daughter’s room was up there; he had everything up there. He’d call downstairs and the maid would bring up food. His grandmother lived downstairs, and his aunt lived downstairs. But he felt the most comfortable upstairs. He’d play the organ in his office. He’d watch television. People would come up and visit. I think for him it wasn’t a negative by any means; it was just where he felt comfortable. It was almost like his office. Or, he’d step into his bathroom and he’d say, “Step into my office.” But it was definitely a sanctuary for him.
GM: Speaking of the Memphis Mafia, what was your relationship like with them? Were they wary of you?
GA: Everybody was nice, and I never had a problem with anyone. Elvis had asked me to move into Graceland, and I know a lot of women think this is crazy, but it wasn’t my way at the time. Yes, I stayed with him. But it just wasn’t something that I believed in at the time, and he said he respected me for that. But every day I would go up there. Some days I’d stay at Graceland for two or three days and then go back home, and maybe they didn’t understand that. There was a lot of swirling speculation that came out after Elvis passed away. I had to write, unfortunately, about a few incidents that happened in our relationship because of a dependency on sleep medication, which Elvis did have, and it caused mood swings. Those mood swings were few and far between, which tend to be escalated in tabloids and all that stuff, and I think that’s unfair. I thought, “This was not Elvis every single day,” and unfortunately those things are pulled out by the tabloids. I wanted to make it clear to his fans that 98 percent of the time Elvis was in a great mood. But, yes, there were things that happened. There were more health issues that Elvis had that I was unaware of. He had colon problems. I knew Elvis had glaucoma and high blood pressure. He never sat around and said, “I really don’t feel good.” No one ever said to me that he was ill and shouldn’t be traveling. So when Elvis passed away, I was boggled when I saw interviews coming from certain people around him saying, “Oh, we thought he was gonna pass away at any time.” I was like, “He was playing football in Hawaii.” There are a lot of questions I have and many things I didn’t understand, but that was my experience with Elvis, and I didn’t sense that. But getting back to the Memphis Mafia — I didn’t get to know the Memphis Mafia really well, and I think that was a big part of it. Elvis was spending time with me and my family, and I think that was a difficult thing for a lot of the guys around him. When we were in Palm Springs, Elvis was basically staying in his bedroom with me and my sister, and he was introducing her. They’d known him for years, and they were not getting to know me. Maybe they felt this was a little bit of pulling away from them. I wanted to write the book and hope some of them would understand things better. But when Elvis passed away, they all turned on each other, too, which shocked me. So many of them pounced on each other that I removed myself from it.
GM: Elvis always rose to a challenge, but it seemed like the last years of his life were devoid of such challenges. Did Elvis ever speak about the state of his career, which at that point was him on a perpetual exhausting series of one-nighters?
GA: He definitely wanted to do more films. I was watching a movie with him once, one of his — it was either “Girl Happy” or “Double Trouble” — and he said, “Same script, just different location.” People said he never watched any of his films, but he watched it briefly, and sure enough, he changed the channel. He would have loved to have done more serious films, and I definitely sensed that after he made that comment to me.
GM: What were the lessons Elvis taught you during your nine months together?
GA: Well, what Elvis said about “killing it and getting it behind you” when people say negative things about you or learning how to bow out gracefully. I’ve had to ignore some things said or written about me and move forward, and I’ll be forever grateful for that advice. I didn’t read a lot of Elvis books, but there’d be this person saying this or this person saying that about me, and then biographers pick it up. Then the next thing you know, it’s steamrolled and it’s complete lies and tales. It’s like, “Who started this?” I used to hear things like, “Ginger hated touring,” and I never felt like that. So that was even more the reason to write a factual account of our days together, and I was able to do it in a chronological order. We had a whirlwind love but it wasn’t a long, long time for the two of us.
GM: If you could see Elvis again and were only able to ask him one question for which you’d like an answer, what would you ask him and why?
GA: I would probably talk more with Elvis about soul mates, because he was introducing me to the idea of soul mates in the beginning of our relationship, and I’ve come to a place where I do believe you can have more than one soul mate. I’ve been happily married since 1991 to a wonderful man, and I have a beautiful son. But there was a deep connection between Elvis and I, and I probably would have wanted to delve more into the soul mate thing with him that we were talking about at the time.
GM: Finally, is there a moment in your life with Elvis that you’d like to relive one more time?
GA: Wow. It would have to be when Elvis and I became engaged. He took my hand and walked me in his bathroom and had me sit in a chair and got on bended knee and said many beautiful things to me and presented me with my engagement ring.
HIS GIRLFRIEND, ANITA WOOD
By Ken Sharp
ELVIS PRESLEY never lacked for female companionship. From 1957 to 1962, Tennessee-born Anita Wood was his steady girlfriend. Along with Presley’s future wife, Priscilla, and longtime girlfriend, Linda Thompson, Wood gave Presley one of the most enduring relationships in his life. She was there during his ’50s heyday to witness his meteoric rise and spent time on the sets of such films as “Wild in the Country,” “Flaming Star” and “Kid Galahad.” Wood also helped Elvis cope with the untimely death of his mother, Gladys, and was present for his induction into the U.S. Army in 1958. The book, “Once Upon a Time: Elvis and Anita — Memoirs of My Mother,” penned by Wood’s daughter, Jonnita Brewer Barrett, chronicles that relationship and provides a candid look at key moments in Presley’s career. Through the years, Wood has rarely consented to give interviews about her relationship with The King of Rock ’n’ Roll. She made an exception for Goldmine.
GOLDMINE: In 1956, you were asked at the Miss Madison County Pageant, “If Elvis asked you for a date, would you go?” And you responded, “I don’t think I’d care to date Elvis, although I do admire his music.”What changed your mind?
ANITA WOOD: (Laughs.) Well, first off, I met him, and that changed my mind. I just wasn’t into his kind of music. My family was very strict. I’d played his music on my radio show, but it wasn’t my favorite kind of music at the time. But when I met him, I changed my mind about him. He wasn’t at all like I thought he’d be.
GM: How did you first come to meet Elvis?
AW: I met Elvis in 1957, just after he bought Graceland. I was on the Memphis TV show “Top 10 Dance Party” with Wink Martindale, and a couple of Elvis’ friends worked at the station, like George Klein. One Saturday, Elvis was watching the show and had his friend, Lamar Fike, call me after the show was over and told me Elvis would like to have a date with me that night. I said, “I’m sorry, but I already have a date.” (Laughs.) Lamar threw a fit. “Are you crazy? Are you nuts?! You’re turning down a date with Elvis Presley!” I said, “I’m so sorry, but my date wouldn’t appreciate if I did that to him.” I thought I’d never hear from him again, but a couple of weeks later he called back and said Elvis wanted to take me out, and I was free that night, so I agreed. I told him he could pick me up at Mrs. Patty’s, an older lady’s home where I was living at that time. So he comes over to pick me up, and he sent George Klein to the door and Mrs. Patty said, “No, if he wants to go out with Anita, he needs to come up here to the door himself and meet me and come in.” She was a wonderful person, but very old-fashioned. Elvis didn’t normally do that, but he did for me. (Laughs.) He charmed Mrs. Patty. He was so very attractive. I’d seen photos of him and on TV, so I knew he was handsome. He was the best-looking man I’d seen before or after. He was really nice, very friendly and acted like a gentleman. He won over Mrs. Patty pretty quickly. (Laughs.) She told him, “You must have her home at a reasonable hour.” She said all the things that a normal parent would have said to someone picking up their daughter on her first date. We went riding around Memphis in his big, black Cadillac limousine, stopped by Krystal hamburgers, and Elvis and the guys in the car ordered dozens of them and ate every one of them. I wasn’t with Elvis alone; all these friends of his were in the back seat. We clicked immediately. He was very nice looking — that was the first thing that caught my attention — and he also dressed really nicely and wore some clothes he’d worn in the movie he made right before I met him. But Elvis had a really good heart and was so nice and polite and also very funny. We were all laughing and having a good time. We hit it off right away.
GM: You knew Elvis’ parents, Gladys and Vernon, very well.
AW: I thought the world of his parents and grandma (Minnie Mae). I really loved Mr. and Mrs. Presley. His mother was easier to know and talk to than Mr. Presley. He was more standoffish and very businesslike. She was just so loving and kind and concerned all the time about Elvis. They were really close. Elvis was really close to his mother and loved her so much. There were many nights we’d go into their room and talk with them. They would baby talk with each other and she would hug him. She was just his life. You’ve very, very close to your parents in the South. Back then, it was more so than it is now. She’d lost a twin at birth (Jesse Garon), so she was extremely close and protective of him, and he appreciated that and just loved his mother. I cannot tell what kind of relationship they had because there really are no words for it. She was nice to me and she loved the fact that we were going together. She encouraged our relationship. She wanted us to get married and have a little boy. She said she could just picture him walking up the driveway and wished Elvis would slow down in his career and start a family. Elvis was well aware of how worried she was about him all the time and he’d try and calm her down. He’d say, “I’ll call you every day when I’m gone.” He was well aware of her love and devotion to him, and it was reciprocated. He brought out his parents for the film, “Loving You,” and they appear in the film during a scene where he’s performing in front of a crowd. They didn’t like to fly, and he didn’t like to fly either; he’d much prefer to travel by train. Knowing how much he hated to fly, I’m surprised he bought a plane later in life.
GM: You were especially close to Elvis’ mother. What would you talk about?
AW: A lot of times she’d tell me about their homes and how poor they were and how difficult it was for them. Mr. Presley went to prison for a time, as well. She spoke about how rough it was when they moved to Memphis, living in Lauderdale Court. She was always sad and concerned that they didn’t have enough money to give him more. She’d tell me, “Now ’Nita, I want you to always take care of him.” I said, “Oh, yes, I will.” Back then, he wasn’t doing hard drugs and didn’t drink. He was a really good person, a funny one at that, sometimes with a foul mouth. (Laughs.) He said words I’d never heard of. (Laughs.)
GM: What were some of your favorite things to do with Elvis while together in Memphis?
AW: We loved to go roller skating, went to the Memphian Theater to watch movies time after time; often we’d spend the whole night watching films. We had a lot of fun at the amusement park, too. He’d invite everyone down at the gate at Graceland to come along, too.
GM: He was very appreciative of his fans.
AW: Oh, yes. He kept in touch with many fans. He’d invite fans waiting by the gate up to the house many, many nights. If fans were waiting by the gate and we were going out, he’d invite them to come along. There always were a lot of people at the gate. He was able to have his space when we went out on his motorcycle and wasn’t recognized until he stopped at a stoplight, and they’d go crazy. We would also get in his old panel truck from his days working for Crown Electric and ride all over Memphis, and nobody would ever recognize us. But when we went over places in the daytime, people would recognize him and ask for his autograph and want to talk to him. And he was always gracious and took time to spend with his fans.
GM: Can you recall what music you’d listen to on the radio and at home?
AW: If a song of his came on the radio that he really liked, like “Don’t,’” we’d listen to it. He really loved that song and liked the way they recorded it. We listened to the music of the time. Some of our favorites were “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwards and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” He liked The Platters, Nat King Cole and Fats Domino. He also liked LaVern Baker, too. She had some really good hits that he liked. He loved gospel music, and we’d listen to that sometimes. We’d sing together a lot. We sang songs like “Who’s Sorry Now” by Connie Francis and “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You).” He told me in one of the letters that he wrote to me while in the Army that our song now was “Please Love Me Forever” by Tommy Edwards.
GM: You mentioned that “Don’t” was one of his favorites.
AW: Yes. For Elvis, of his material, he preferred his slower songs like “It’s Now or Never.” He also really liked “I’ll Be Home Again;” he liked “Little Sister.” People would send demos to him, and we’d go upstairs at Graceland, and he’d invite me in to listen. He’d listen and listen and listen. Sometimes he’d ask my advice; “Little, do you like this song?” He’d say, “If we did this, this is how it would sound,” and he’d sing along. The songs that he picked were wonderful. I remember hearing him play the demo of “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” and “Little Sister.” For him to want to record it, the song had to really mean something to him. If he didn’t connect with the lyric or music, then he wouldn’t want to do it. Every song that he did — except the ones that he sang in the movies, which were assigned to him, which he had to do — he connected with. Having said that, I remember he really liked that movie song, “Young and Beautiful” from Jailhouse Rock.
GM: How do you think Elvis handled his newfound fame?
AW: I think he handled it very well. In a way, I wish he never had it because that is what killed him in the long run. The main reason he was doing what he was doing was to make money so he could take care of his mom and dad. He did so much for them — bought a smaller house for them first on Audubon Drive and then Graceland.
GM: Did you ever get an inkling that his mother wished success of that magnitude did not happen, as it took him away from her?
AW: Oh yeah, sure. His parents were happy for him to be successful, make a great deal of money and be famous. But I think his mother would have been happy had he not became successful on that level, and I feel the same way. I think that all the money that Elvis made led to his demise, because he could buy and afford anything he wanted.
GM: Seeing Elvis live for a homecoming show in Tupelo was the first time you witnessed him in concert.
AW: I wish I hadn’t even gone, because he put me onstage with him and the other performers. When he was asked by a newspaper reporter if he found the one right girl, he looked over at me, and I looked down, and he said, “No, I haven’t found the right one.” Then he walked over to where I was and baby talked in my ear and said, “Now you know that’s not the truth.” He was my first love, and I believed everything he said. Seeing him perform live for the first time was very exciting. There were lots of people there, and they were all crazy over him. Seeing my boyfriend up there, transforming into a different person, was something I just had to accept. That came along with the territory of dating Elvis Presley. I didn’t think of Elvis Presley as a big star when I met him and dated him. He was just a guy I fell in love with.
GM: Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, is a polarizing figure. What’s your take on him?
AW: My word, he had a tremendous hold over Elvis! He made sure Elvis was making a lot of money, and that was important to him at the time. He pulled all the strings. The Colonel controlled everything. He controlled our relationship tremendously. Mrs. Presley kept telling me that the Colonel made all the decisions pertaining to Elvis’ career. I’m sure it was in his contract that whatever the Colonel told him to do he had to do. He wouldn’t let us tell anyone we were dating or cared for each other. We always had to be labeled as “just friends.” He didn’t want me smiling in photographs with Elvis; often time I’d turn away and act like I wasn’t with him. I had to act like we were just friends. I didn’t like The Colonel at all, and Elvis knew I didn’t like him.
GM: Why was he worried about you becoming known as Elvis’ steady girlfriend?
AW: He thought it would hurt his career. He felt if the girls that were his fans knew that Elvis was only dating one girl they’d lose interest, but that wasn’t true at all – that’s so silly. He’d set up Elvis to have his photo taken with various starlets and different girls in publicity pictures. He didn’t want Elvis linked to one person. Elvis told me in person and in his letters, “Little, I know that you don’t like it, but we have to do what the Colonel says.”
GM: Where did the nickname “Little” come from?
AW: Elvis gave me the nickname of “Little” because I was little. (Laughs.) I was about 5’2” and had small feet. I think Elvis had a foot fetish because would always talk about my little “sooties” (laughs). I was like a little Barbie doll.
GM: What was the reaction when Elvis’ induction notice came in?
AW: Oh my gosh! That was a very sad time. His mother was just beside herself and didn’t want him to go. He said, “No mama, I’m going.” They wanted him to be given special treatment, and he said, “No, I want to be a regular soldier, and I don’t want any special treatment.” It was just horrible. I remember sitting around that day for so long looking at that induction letter, thinking he was gonna be gone. His mother was crying. We were all shocked and unhappy about it.
GM: You visited Elvis while he was stationed in Ft. Hood, Texas, and he made you a promise.
AW: We were sitting in the backyard of the sergeant’s house where I was staying. He was just himself. He had a wonderful tan, and his hair was now kind of blonde-ish; he wasn’t dyeing it black. He told me, “Little, when I come back from the Army, we’ll get married. Don’t you ever forget that. When I get married it’ll be you,” and that’s what I believed.
GM: Elvis brought his family out to Texas to live off base; he needed his family around him.
AW: Yes. First, they stayed in a trailer way out in the boondocks, and then he rented a house for them. I’d come and visit, as well. Elvis would sing “From a Jack to a King” with his dad. He’d sing all kinds of songs but never any of his. He got to eat all of his favorite food. He was very particular about what he ate. Elvis liked plain food. He liked purple hull peas, Colonial rolls, sauerkraut, fried bacon as crisp as you could fry it and sliced tomatoes. That was his meal pretty much every night.
GM: The loss of Gladys was perhaps the lowest moment in Elvis’ life. Did her passing take you by surprise?
AW: I didn’t know she was that sick. I had heard that she was not feeling well. But of course, I was out with her in Texas and didn’t know the extent of her sickness. Undoubtedly she was a lot sicker than any of us thought. When I got the call from Elvis in the early hours of the morning that his mother had passed away, I was totally surprised. I was in New York with my mother. I had to do a show that night, “The Andy Williams Show.” Right after the show, I got on a plane and flew straight to Memphis to be with him. When I came up to the house, he and his daddy were sitting on the front steps by the big porcelain lions. They were crying and so forlorn. Oh, Lord, it was so horrible. We all cried and cried. It was so awful. At that time, I didn’t have anyone who had passed away that was close to me, so it was difficult to really understand what he was going through. And with my father passing away in the ’70s, now I can truly understand the depth of his sadness. There was a viewing, and they had a glass cover over her casket. Elvis stayed there a lot. The funeral itself was so sad. It was hard for everybody. I think the passing of his mother hit him even harder while stationed in Germany. Of course, he took his dad, grandmother and some of his friends with him, like Lamar Fike and Red West, so that helped him cope. In a way, I’m glad he was in the Army when this happened, so he could keep his body and mind occupied. He couldn’t just sit around and mope; that kept him very busy.
GM: How did Elvis change with loss of his mother? In what ways was he different when she was alive?
AW: Oh my goodness, there was a world of change. Once, when we were in Killeen, Texas, while Elvis was in the Army — they’d rented a house, he and his daddy after his mother passed away. On my first trip out there, it was unbelievable to see how many people were there. People I’d never seen in my life that he didn’t even know. Grandma was telling me all this stuff, too. Elvis and his dad were just so sad and forlorn that they really didn’t care about anything. They just had to live one day at a time. Before his mother passed away, he was much more fun-loving and free. For a while afterward, he was very, very different. It’s like he didn’t have that much emotion. Later on, he started doing his baby talk again and acting more like his mother, but he was never again as loving as he was when his mother was around. He lost a big piece of himself when she passed away. They didn’t have an abnormal relationship at all; they were just very close as mother and son. Because she lost the twin at birth and couldn’t have any more children, she just grew terribly attached to him.
GM: Many surmise that Elvis’ life would have gone differently had his mother still been alive. Your thoughts?
AW: I don’t think he would have gotten into drugs or any of that. He got into all of that because of feeling sad, feeling alone, trying to deal with the pressures of fame and missing her – just trying to get away from life and the pressures of life. If she was alive, I don’t think he would have gotten into all of that. Mr. Presley was aware of the drugs, but he didn’t have that much of an influence over him like his mother. Elvis would really listen to this mom.
GM: Elvis surrounded himself with male friends. Why do you think he needed that constant companionship?
AW: I don’t really know why. In a way, it was frustrating for me because there were times I wanted to be alone with my boyfriend, so that could be hard. But it also opened my eyes that maybe marriage to this man would not be so good because his friends are around all the time! I liked them, but there were very few times we were totally alone, and that’s the way it would always be.
GM: Elvis enters the Army and is away for 18 months. How much contact did you have while he was in the service?
AW: He rarely wrote letters, but he wrote some to me while he was in the Army. He talked about what Army life was like and that he was lonesome and how much he missed me. He told me that he loved me and when he got married, it would be to me. They were wonderful, and I treasured every one of them. When he was in Germany, I’d speak to him about once a week. He tried to be up when he talked to me on the phone; sometimes he was sick with laryngitis or tonsillitis. He had that a lot when he was in the field on maneuvers and wasn’t happy about that. I think he enjoyed the Army to some extent. He was surrounded by a lot of regular people, so he could more normal in the Army than anywhere else. He was just a regular — but very good-looking — guy. (Laughs.)
GM: Why didn’t you fly to Germany and visit him?
AW: We spoke about it. I got all my shots and my passport, and the Colonel put a stop to it. Elvis told me the Colonel said it would be horrendous for me to come over because it would ruin his career. The Colonel said if I came over to Germany, the press would say we were engaged or married and that would hurt his career. He told me he reluctantly had to go along with it, so I didn’t get to go.
GM: Did he express worries that going into the Army and being away from music for almost two years would cost him his career?
AW: Yes. He was worried if he was gone from the public eye for that long, he would be lost and forgotten. But little did he know The Colonel made sure that would not happen. (Laughs.) All the people that showed up at the train station when he went off to Germany helped him, as well as all the people that were there to greet him upon his return. In Germany, he got a lot of attention from fans, so he was reassured in that way, too. But in the back of his mind it was always a concern of his.
GM: Did you have any inkling while Elvis was in the service that you might not be his only love interest? Were you aware of Priscilla at that point?
AW: Well, yeah. I’d seen her picture in some of the magazines. I mentioned it to him and he assured me there was nothing going on. He said she was the daughter of an Air Force officer. He said she was only 14 years old and just a fan. She was also there when he left from Germany. Because she was so young, I didn’t think I had much to worry about it. Things returned to normal when Elvis returned from the Army, and we remained together until 1962.
GM: In 1960, Elvis returned from the Army. How had he changed? Being back at Graceland without his mom must have been bittersweet for him.
AW: Yeah, kinda. Mr. Presley had married Dee, and it was just a whole different ballgame all the way around. Grandma was still there, and I still loved her to death. When he came out of the Army, he had changed a little bit. But in many ways, he was still the same good-hearted guy.
GM: Elvis had an unusual pet at Graceland in the early ’60s, a chimpanzee named “Scatter.”
AW: (Laughs.) He was the meanest thing you’d ever seen in this world. He bit some of the guys. Elvis had me walk by him one time, and his cage was in a room off the hall, and he reached up and grabbed my skirt and was trying to pull it up. Elvis laughed so hard; he thought that was funny. (Laughs.)
GM: What led to your breakup in 1962?
AW: I was at Graceland and had been upstairs. Elvis was in the kitchen talking with his dad, Alan Fortas and Lamar (Fike). I was coming down the back stairs and he said something like, “I’m having a hard time making up my mind between the two of them,” meaning me and Priscilla. When he said that, I knew exactly what he was talking about. I proceeded on down the stairs and told him immediately, “That’s one decision you won’t have to make because I’m gonna make it for you. I’m leaving!” And that was it. It was hard and difficult.
GM: Seven years later, you met up with Elvis in Las Vegas.
AW: Before the show, some of his guys saw me in the lobby, and they said, “I know Elvis would love to see you tonight; why don’t to come to the show?” I was in Vegas because my husband was there. So I went to the show with a friend of mine. They put me right up front, and, of course, he spoke to me and sang to me a lot from the stage; “Hey, Little.” And he still looked good. (Laughs.) Then he sent word that he wanted to see me backstage. We talked for over an hour by ourselves, and it was a good talk. Both of us were nervous. He held my hand, and his hand was wet and cold — and so was mine.(Laughs.) He was telling me how he was doing and then he said, “Little, do you think we did the right thing?” He was referring to when we broke up. I had to think a minute and then said, “If we hadn’t done this, Elvis, I wouldn’t have my two children, and you wouldn’t have Lisa, and that’s very important.” He said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He also said, “If my wife knew you were here right now she’d be just turning flips.” (Laughs.) That was the last time I saw him. The last time I spoke to him was when my father died in ’73. At that time, I noticed he was slurring his words and he was barely making sense. That’s when he made me write down this poem to help calm me down and asked me to repeat it to him. Part of it reads, “Where does love go when it leaves us, the question will always remain. For we can never know the answer, until we find love again.” He said, “Read this whenever you’re feeling lonely.”
GM: As the mythology builds around Elvis, as each day passes, we lose a sense of who he really was. Describe the essence and character of Elvis the man.
AW: He loved his family and his fans. He was a good friend and a good boyfriend for the five years that I dated him. He was a very unusual person. He had an intellect. He was really smart. He was a deep thinker. He had a photographic memory; he’d remember things that he just read one time. He had sayings that he would quote from famous people like General MacArthur, “I shall return.” I still think about Elvis. Doing the book stirred up a lot of memories. GM
HIS COLLEAGUE, WANDA JACKSON
By Bruce Sylvester
A FOUNDING MOTHER of rockabilly, Oklahoma-born Wanda Jackson had already made the country Top 10 at age 17 when her manager, Bob Neal, sent her on a 1955 tour and including his rising young star, Elvis Presley. She and Presley (then 20) were a natural match.
“He gave me his ring and asked me to be his girl. I still have it,” Jackson says.
He also urged her to try singing rockabilly — a good idea, given her sexy growl and talent for spoofing danger. (Check “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine.”) Jackson found her signature song, “Let’s Have a Party,” in Presley’s film “Loving You.”
Today she’s revered by younger Americana artists; Jack White and Justin Townes Earle produced her most recent CDs.
Several times over the years, she’s talked with Goldmine about her relationship with Presley.
“When we met, my heart kind of skipped a beat. I’d never seen a picture of him. He was a handsome guy, to say the least. He was dressed kind of strange. I think it was a yellow coat. I’d never seen a guy wear yellow like that. When I saw his pink Cadillac, I thought, ‘My goodness, this guy is different.’ He had the long sideburns and everything. We struck it off right from the beginning.
“Our dating was different from most people’s because the only time we could date was when we were on tour. If we got into town early enough, we’d take in a matinee movie and maybe have supper together.
“He was such a gentleman; [my parents] thought the world of him. Daddy thought it was just terrible the way everybody was practically crucifying him for the way he dressed and the way he moved. Daddy said, ‘He’s just a genius young man. He’s one of a kind. Why don’t they leave him alone?’ Each generation has to have their own little niche or stamp or something.They want something new and fresh.”
Presley’s rock topped the singles lists back then. Jackson’s rarely charted but now sell well on reissue albums.
“I think the public is finally ready to hear it from a woman. Without realizing it, I was blazing a trail for the ones who’ve come along since. I was just doing my thing.”
HIS CO-STAR, DOLORES HART
By Bruce Sylvester
DOLORES HART HAD THE HONOR of giving Elvis Presley his first on-screen kiss.
But when Presley asked Hart out on a date off camera? She turned him down. “It was only because we were working. To be at work, I had to be up at 5:30 to be at the sets at 6:30 for makeup and hair. I said, ‘Elvis, I can’t go out. I have to be in bed at 7. I’m just a little kid. Ask me after this film is over.’ He never did,” she recalls.
Given the path her career ultimately took, that may have been for the best. Like something out of the movies in which she had starred, Hart walked away from the fame and fortune of show business for the contemplative life of a cloistered nun at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, where she eventually became prioress, developed a community arts program and became the abbey’s in-house carpenter, building upon the skills her grandfather taught her when she was a girl. She shares her story in “The Ear Of The Heart: An Actress’ Journey From Hollywood To Holy Vows” (Ignatius Press), which she co-authored with her late friend, Richard DeNeut.
Born Dolores Marie Hicks on Oct. 20, 1938, in Chicago, Hart discovered Catholicism after her non-Catholic grandparents (who helped to raise her) enrolled her in a parochial school because it was safer route for her to walk there than to the public school. In her teens, she adopted Hart as a stage name, which she used throughout her acting career, which included roles alongside Anthony Quinn (1957’s “Wild Is The Wind”), Montgomery Clift (1958’s Lonelyhearts”), Connie Francis (1960’s “Where The Boys Are”),Robert Wagner (1961’s “Sail A Crooked Ship”), Donald Plaisance (1962’s “Lisa”) and a Tony nomination for her role in the Broadway production of “The Pleasure of His Company.”
Her big break came starring opposite Elvis as Susan Jessup in 1957’s “Loving You.”
“When I first met Elvis, I was still in school. Hal Kanter [‘Loving You’ director] asked us to come into the office [before shooting]. I met Liz Scott and Wendell Corey, and I thought, ‘Oh, these are real movie stars.’ Then he said, ‘This is Elvis Presley,’ and I said, ‘And what do you do?’ And he roared with laughter. He thought I was joking,
but I really didn’t know. Afterward, when I told him I’d been serious, he was delighted. He said, ‘Well, that just goes to show you that there’s a million Chinese who couldn’t care less what you do.’ ”
Hart reunited on screen with Presley in 1958’s “King Creole,” but it was the beginning of the end of her show business career. She entered the Abbey of Regina Laudisin 1963 and has been there ever since. While her decision to enter the cloistered life inevitably bothered some Hollywood types. Presley, however, phoned her a message of support.
“He was a good friend. He was a religious man. When we were doing ‘King Creole,’ sometimes we had to wait in a hotel room. We couldn’t leave, since the street was filled with kids. And inevitably he’d say, ‘Now, Miss Dolores (he always called me that), ‘What do you think of this?’ And he’d open the Gideon’s Bible anywhere, read a passage and ask me my impression. Or he’d give me the Bible and say, ‘You open it and let me try.’ He enjoyed and appreciated it so deeply.
“One time in the car, I heard someone call him ‘The King,’ and he turned around and said, ‘No. There’s one king, Jesus Christ.’ ”