Imagine it. The year is 1957. Just a few years ago, you were a poor boy from the wrong side of a small town in Mississippi – now you’re the world’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll star.
Millions of fans are keeling over with desire for you. You only have to stand still and wiggle one little finger for the audience to go nuts, so much so that the police recently warned you not to move during your show. Last year, ending a concert in Jacksonville, you said: “Girls, I’ll see you all backstage.” What followed was a riot, in which your clothes were ripped from your back.
In a moment of rare candour, you confess to your current “best girl” that being on stage is like making love, but better. But how do you actually make love? How do you forge a relationship with one woman, your best girl, rather than thousands? This was the problem Elvis Presley faced.
It is also a problem largely side-stepped by Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic Elvis (starring Austin Butler giving the best impersonation of the musician to date). The film focuses instead on the singer’s ascent, meticulously crafted by his greedy, conniving manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, who encourages Elvis to appear single for marketing purposes. His wife, Priscilla Beaulieu, remains a peripheral character, loyal to her husband despite his constant infidelities. In fact, the film portrays a rather sanitised version of his relationship with Priscilla. The reality was that his behaviour was much more disturbing – as were most of his relationships with women.
Even before he started school, Elvis was the man of his house. In 1938, when he was three years old, his father was sent to jail for forging a cheque. From that period on, Elvis, who was an only child, called his adoring mother, Gladys, “Baby” and was deeply solicitous to her needs.
His Aunt Lillian remembered that, as a young teenager, Elvis would sing on the steps of his apartment block in Memphis. “He’d get out there at night with the girls [from the block] and he just sang his head off. He’d rather have a whole bunch of girls around him than the boys – he didn’t care a thing about the boys.”
Elvis had learnt the rewards of paying close attention to the opposite sex and his womanising began early in his career. Jimmy Snow, the country singer who roomed with him on tour in 1955, remembered Elvis bringing as many as three girls a night back to their hotel. While staying in the Beverly Wilshire for the filming of Jailhouse Rock in 1958, the agent Byron Raphael remembers Elvis complimenting him on his wife, Carolyn: “That’s the kind of girl I been looking for,” he said. “There must be a hundred girls outside the gate. Why don’t you see if you can find me another Carolyn? In fact, take care of business for me.” In other words, select a girl and bring her to his suite.
Elvis’s entourage – popularly known as the Memphis Mafia – often had to “take care of business” in this way and all knew the singer’s preference for young brunettes with pretty eyes and round behinds. Between 1958 and 1968, when Elvis’s career was focused on Hollywood movies, they would bring a selection to his hotel most nights, so he could take his pick.
While all this was going on, Elvis always had one “best girl” – virginal, devoted and domesticated – waiting at home. The precedent was set by Dixie Locke, who was his steady girlfriend when he first became famous. When he was on the road, Dixie often slept in Elvis’s bed in the family home and would accompany Gladys shopping while waiting around for the King’s return.
The pattern was repeated with his subsequent “steadies”: Barbara Hearn, Anita Wood, and then, of course, Priscilla. All were promised marriage on the condition they keep themselves “pure”, tolerate his behaviour with other women, fashion themselves to his ideal image, and basically obliterate any trace of their core selves.
With Priscilla this bargain seems to have been particularly extreme in a way Luhrmann’s film overlooks. The Priscilla in Elvis is loved (in a limited way) for being herself. “I never met anyone like you,” Elvis says. But a little research into the story suggests a rather different picture. She was only 14 to his 24 when they met in the summer of 1959 in Germany, where Elvis was doing his national service and Priscilla was living with her step-father, a US Army captain.
Elvis had form with teenage girls: there had been, among others, the three 14 year-olds who used to visit his Audubon Drive house in Memphis for pyjama parties, where they would have their hair washed and dried and then be given kissing lessons by the then 21-year-old King.
One of them, Frances Forbes, remembers, “Elvis was always kissing, and it was a good kiss, a real good one.” Then there was the president of the Elvis Presley fan-club, Kay Wheeler, who was 17 when she visited Elvis in his hotel after a show at the Louisiana Hayride. “He threw me against the wall and started grinding his pelvis, pushing on me… I wanted moonlight and roses. It was one of the biggest let downs of my life,” she later reflected.
Elvis’s abuse of his powerful position with such girls is disquieting, to say the least. Many aspects of the Priscilla-Elvis romance are similarly unsettling, and similarly glossed over in the movie – as is his predilection for dry humping and voyeurism over intercourse, and an apparent loathing of oral sex.
Priscilla’s parents let her travel alone from Germany, aged 17, to spend two weeks with Elvis in his Los Angeles home in 1962. He took her on a road trip to Vegas to stay at the Sahara Hotel, and gave her uppers and downers so she could keep up with his up-all-night-sleep-all-day routine. That same year she came for Christmas at Graceland and ended up knocked out for two days when he gave her a couple of his sleeping tablets.
The next year, though she hadn’t yet finished school, Priscilla moved in to Graceland, where she spent most of her time waiting for Elvis to tire of messing around with the guys, or to come home from filming. He criticised her constantly: don’t slump; don’t wear chipped nail polish; don’t frown – you’ll get wrinkles; don’t eat tuna because I hate the way it smells. He also gave her a small pearl-handled derringer to keep in her bra.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Elvis didn’t manage to have any meaningful relationships with women, aside from his mother, whose early death in 1958 almost undid him. Girls were everywhere, but women – independent grown-ups with a sense of who they were and who could have provided proper, emotional support – were absent from his life.
And so the King’s womanising continued, right through his divorce from Priscilla and until his death.
Elvis lovingly recreates an extraordinary scene from the 1970 concert documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, in which he leaves the stage and walks through the audience, kissing as he goes. Without any security presence, he neither hurries nor dawdles, but moves at a brisk pace through the aisles, oozing sweat and sex appeal. He must kiss at least 20 different women, yet with each kiss there is something tender: often, he cups a woman’s face in both hands and holds her gaze for a moment longer than strictly necessary before moving on to the next fan.
But it’s hard to spend your life making love to audiences and have anything left for individuals, or perhaps even for yourself, as Luhrmann’s film suggests. Towards the end, Tom Hanks’s Colonel Parker states that “love” killed Elvis. Not drugs, not the machinations of his avaricious manager, not the pressures of being the world’s first global rock star, but love for music and – by extension – love for his fans.
- Elvis is in cinemas now; Bethan Roberts’s novel about Elvis and his mother, Graceland, is published by Vintage
The Telegraph, London