If this were a movie, the camera would approach the wrought-iron fence from the shopping plaza across the street, where a dozen stores sell mementos to the fallen king of youth and rebellion. It would pause for a beat at the gates, conjuring up the opening glimpses of Xanadu in "Citizen Kane," and then continue trekking up the long black macadam drive to the four white colonial columns that flank the entrance to Graceland. . .
. . . Whose stately gray stone walls are being buffeted by the remainder of last autumn's fallen leaves. Ominous clouds are low and dark, and a damp, hot, eerie wind has whipped in from the Mississippi Delta to the south. The sepulchral silence is broken occasionally by two disparate groups of visitors.
Separated from the Memphis manor house by chains and guards are the faithful. They speak in muted tones as they file past an eternal flame and the grave of Elvis Aron Presley, who, like Kane, looms larger in death than in life.
Inside the compound are the interlopers. Two camera crews chatter noisily, frustrated by the clouds and changing light levels as they try to film two black Stutz Bearhawks and a flamingo-pink 1955 Cadillac that once belonged to the singer. They would not be here were he alive, for he avoided the press religiously, and granted access to this haven only to family, close friends and the occasional fan who happened to be standing at the gates when a serendipitous moment struck.
But now, for the first time in history, to focus attention on a new film called "This Is Elvis," a docudrama authorized by the estate, members of the media have been escorted through the gates to see the racks of cloths that once drapped his larger-than-life figure, the reams of correspondence from presidents and commonfolk alike, the guitar that, grinding against his body, symbolized everything parents in the '50s feared their children would become: cocky, slick, brash, tough, black-leather-clad, motorcycle-straddling, stiletto-shoed.
The wind howls stronger. Next to the side entrance of the house a black circular wrought-iron planter is filled with green, yellow and pink terra cotta flower pots. The plants are long dead, but like much of Graceland -- the white garden furniture, the John Deere tractor, the fluted green Fiberglas carport, an old black Chevy van, the singer's palomino, Rising Sun -- the place hangs in suspended animation.
As if to remind the interlopers of their status, the clouds dip deeper and the wind gusts with a ferocious blast that hurls the planter into the wall and sends a shower of shattered pottery across the walkway and onto a decaying black plastic Bicentennial doormat that announces WELCOME.
Graceland has lured millions of the faithful and the curious alike since the 14-acre estate was bought by the singer a quarter century ago. His death at age 42 on Aug. 16, 1977, prompted this recollection by Bruce Springsteen:
"When we played Memphis, we decided we wanted to get something to eat after the show. We told the cab driver, take us someplace quiet. He said, 'Are you guys celebrities?' Yeah. So he said he'd take us out along the highway, by Elvis' house. I said, 'You gotta take me to Elvis' house.' He says, 'Okay. Do you mind if I call the dispatcher and tell him where we're going?' So he calls the guy, says, 'We got some celebrities here. We got . . .' and he shoves the mike in my face so I say, 'Bruce Springsteen.' They didn't know who I was, but they were pretendin' to know, you know? He told the dispatcher we were going to Elvis' house; he was crackin' up because the dispatcher thought we were gonna drink coffee with Elvis.
"When we get to the gate I looked through. It was 3 a.m., but all the lights in the house were on. I said, 'I gotta go see if he's home.' So I climbed over and started up the driveway; it's a long walk 'cause the house is set way back. And I was almost at the front door, getting ready to knock, when I see this guy looking at me from the trees. He says, 'Hey, come here a minute.' I said, 'Is Elvis here? He said no, he was in Lake Tahoe or somewhere. Well, now I'm pullin' out all the cheap shots I can think of -- you know, I was on [the cover of] Time, I play guitar, Elvis is my hero -- all the things I never say to anybody. Because I figure I've gotta get a message through.But he just said, 'Yeah sure. Why don't you let me walk you down to the gate. You gotta get out of here.' He thought I was just another crazy fan -- which I was."
High noon, and inside the house it is dark as the hour of the wolf. The white quilted curtains block the light as effectively as the aluminium foil his road crew used to cover the windows of hotel rooms whenever he was on the road. It was not that he hated the sun -- and in fact he loved to vacation in Hawaii. It was, Jerry Esposito, the friend who found him dead in the huge mirrored bathroom upstairs, just that he couldn't go out by day because of . . . the fans. They adored him. They idolized him. They fantasized about him. They wanted him, if just a small part, one moment's touch. He needed a fortress. And so he lived by night, and slept by day, and didn't like the rays of the sun intruding on those few hours when he could regress to the early days before fame, living in tiny homes in Tupelo, Miss., and later in Memphis. Until he was 8 years old he slept with his mother, Gladys. It was sweet surrender. And now he could get it only by day. . .
The dining room. Even in the dark an assault of red, white and gilt. An old television sits beneath a window, flanked by two huge glass cases that hold stone urns -- an inanimate, unholy jungle. Dozens of ceramic monkeys. One of them crouches in the corner of the case, as if waiting to pounce on uninvited visitors. Glass figures of watchful birds sit nearby. A crystal fish leaps out from one of the cases, shattering the strange symmetry. A black marble floor beneath the table is surrounded by red shag carpeting. Planters are filled with dried flowers of indeterminate origin and potted ferns from another era.
Into the den, and even less light. Whatever iniquity may have dwelled within is masked by darkness. More figures of monkeys, in wood and ceramic, two of them frozen in a visage of utter horror. An out-of-sync Polynesian motif here, Trader Vic's gone awry. Brown leather couches perched on green and black carpeting that extends up the walls to the ceiling. A bed-sized elliptical coffee table of petrified wood sits behind the control unit of an Advent VideoBeam projection TV system. The curved silver screen is starkly silent. Antique gold lighting fixtures on the wall have blue bulbs that flicker inside as if candles burning, votives to some unknown, unseen force.
Up the stairs. Still dark. Footfalls dulled and absorbed by thick white carpeting. White walls with black leather insets. The mirrored death room where the King fell. The bedroom with two mute television screens mounted in the ceiling above the bed. Next door his office, the desk still covered with toys and gadgets. Seemingly untouched, as if to move it would be defiling the material of history, of biography. Clues to the man, emanating an aura of solitude in death, echoing a solitude of life.
The racquetball court he built behind the house. It gleams with an untarnished, pristine luster, endless layers of varnish covering other transparent layers: looking through a glass onion.
When he had completed it, he could find no friend to play with him, and he added to his staff an employe whose sole responsibility was to play racquetball when summoned.
Such are the perks of a king.
He didn't make us scream anymore, but he was present in our lives like a touchstone, a subtle balm we hardly knew existed until we missed it, suddenly, as the sun went down last night. . . Marion Clark, writing in The Washington Post, the day after Presley's death.
Rummaging through the baggage of a decedent's life always provokes a sharp sense of voyeurism and violation -- a fascinated pity, a mind racing to yield the key to life only fathomable in death. My own unease at Graceland was brought on by a story I had written on Sept. 26, 1974, announcing that Elvis would perform before a sold-out crowd of 14.500 fans at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House on the night of the 27th. "Sadly," I wrote, "The Pelvis has turned into The Paunch."
At the concert, Presley sang five songs. Then he turned his profile to the faithful and asked, "Does this look like a paunch to you?" Cheers. "Well," he said, ever the polite Southern gentleman, "tell that to Mr. Tom Zito at The Washington Post." Pandemonium. I ran out of the hall, convinced I was about to be lynched. . .
. . . And now, seven years later in Elvis' trophy room, a monument to the King and his admirers, I remove from a black case the same Gibson J-200 guitar he was strumming on stage that night. An index card with a typed list of songs -- starting with 1) "That's Alright Mama" and ending with 16) "Can't Help Falling in Love" -- is still taped to the top of the sound box. I strum the guitar -- The King's Guitar. It has gone badly out of tune in the past four years, but there is still an unmistakable resonance of instant melancholy. I am painfully aware that if the rightful owner were around right now, he would have good reason to dip into his collection of guns -- some of which he used to blow out television screens when he saw something that bothered him -- and train one of them on me. s
Of course, we journalists can hide behind his death now, and sit here with the blessing of the Estate and the ubiquitous Colonel, who was always the pragmatist, a man who knew then how to help create a legend and who knows now how to keep a legend going. Someone involved with the film quotes the Colonel: "I owned 25 percent of Elvis alive, and I own 25 percent of him dead." And apparently if this entails letting a bit of the legend now go under the media microscope, then so be it. . .
. . . Particularly right here in the trophy room, where all the paradoxes of the King collide in an intersection of unchecked tangents. Hanging next to gold records are fans' notes. A framed 10-cent check from Reader's Digest -- a compueterized subscription solicitation mailed to millions of Americans -- is stuck between a letter from Richard Nixon thanking Elvis for a phone call and a letter bestowing on the King honorary fire chief status in the city of Alexandria, Va.
It is a huge room -- 50 by 100 feet, probably the largest in the house -- which was added on in 1966 when the resident developed a fascination for slot-car racing and had no place big enough to set up his new toy. Typically, there are no windows, and the only clue to human habitation is a Pepsi dispenser stuck behind a bar in a far corner. The slot cars have long since given way to signposts collected from the road of life: shipping trunks marked "Leisure Suits VIII" and "Personal items -- always BRING OFF PLANE"; an Honorable Discharge Certificate from the Army; dozens of oil portraits mailed in by fans; a letter on the stationery of the Kang Rhee Institute from karate instructor Robert Wiles, thanking the King for a watch; a ceramic hound dog; a letter from J. Edgar Hoover, regretting that he can't schedule a meeting with the singer; drawers filled with every letter and telegram he ever received, sent by president Johnson, Carter and Kennedy, Egil Krogh Jr., Hedda Hooper, Sen. Howard Baker and the great sea of faceless admirers, a 40-foot-long rack of bejeweled stage garments; a TV presented by RCA Records long, long ago on the occasion of the sale of his 50 millionth record (now it is closer to 300 million); drawers stuffed with scrapbooks mailed by devout fans; and another drawer filled with hundreds of sympathy telegrams sent to his father after his death, signed by the likes of the Eddie Cochran family, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Danny Thomas, Liberace, B. B. King, Little Richard, the Ku Klux Klan chapter of New York and Frank Corrente, president of Hollywood's Cadillac Corner:
"Our firm would like to express it sympathy and condolences," it reads. "We would like to add we specialize in exotic and luxury cars. If we can be of assistance in liquidation or complete purchase. . ."
Outside, it is raining gently. And Delta Mae Biggs, an aunt who now lives at Graceland, is sweeping up the broken remnants of flower pots from the fallen planter. Edmund, her hound dog, is yelping. She throws the pieces into a brown paper bag from the Kroger supermarket chain, and tosses it into a trash can.