MEMPHIS, AUG. 14 -- Lucy de Barbin has gunmetal eyes, a gamine smile and poise an airport X-ray couldn't cut through.
"I don't worry about what the public thinks," says de Barbin. "I'm a believer in a person being strong."
De Barbin is the Woman Who Would Not Be Queen.
Her recent book "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" details a secret quarter-century relationship with Elvis Presley, a sporadic but spiritually binding affair that produced a daughter -- Los Angeles real estate agent and sometime model Desire'e Presley -- and in de Barbin's eyes makes her the King's true widow.
But unlike Wallis Simpson, the last great American Other Woman, de Barbin refused to let Presley risk his throne for the woman he loved. For the sake of the children -- her own small ones from a disastrous first marriage, Presley's legitimate daughter Lisa Marie, and Desire'e herself -- de Barbin bound her teen-aged lover to a vow of silence that was barely cracked until this year.
"I was so afraid of what was going to happen" if it got out, she says. "I thought if one person found out, everybody would know."
De Barbin even kept the secret of Desire'e's paternity from Presley himself, and only hinted to him when they last spoke, a few days before his death in 1977.
"I just said things like, 'I have a wonderful secret to tell you' and 'Her name is Desire'e,' " things like that. And he said, 'I hope what I'm thinking is true.' "
De Barbin's Presley is a flawed, and perhaps for that very reason, more appealing person; a deeply religious man, acutely aware of his social shortcomings and with a free-handed generosity that betrayed his need to try to buy love.
"I don't want to use the word 'insecure'; he was very conscious" of himself, says de Barbin, now a dress designer in Dallas.
"He knew I didn't like him to give me material things because that puts a price on everything. That's why I loved that poem: I knew he probably sat around for weeks trying to work it out." It came, as such things often did, with an "insurance" envelope of money with which de Barbin was supposed to buy herself a gift.
De Barbin's story was given a boost Thursday when New York graphologist Charles Hamilton, who helped expose the forged Hitler diaries (but who certified Clifford Irving's work as Howard Hughes') became the fourth handwriting expert to verify a poem sent by Presley to de Barbin as a Christmas gift in 1973.
The poem says in part, "I know my Desire'e is the greatest treasure."
The "Desire'e" of the poem is the mother, not the daughter. De Barbin, a French-speaking New Orleans native, says Presley gave her that nickname after she had seen the Marlon Brando-Jean Simmons movie that portrays Desire'e as Napoleon's first and never-forgotten love.
"He used to think he couldn't sing very well," she says, suddenly flashing a wide and unguarded smile. "And he wanted to curl his hair up when he was 18, get a perm! He used to say his hair was always in his face ... I said, 'I love it when it falls in your face.' After that, he was always doing like that" -- she tosses her head "to get it to fall down."
De Barbin's book has raised a storm among the Presley following, been denounced by Graceland officials, and been embraced by the more romantic-minded fans, who see in de Barbin's anonymous white knight (she called him El Lancelot) the Elvis Lover of their dreams.
"They have been so supportive," says de Barbin, who has stayed away from Graceland because "I'm not welcome ... and I don't want to disrupt" the fans' devotion.
De Barbin, who last visited Memphis in 1985 when she and her daughter went to visit Elvis' Uncle Vester Presley, says she will not go to the grave site or join the candlelight vigil Saturday night, although "I can participate by praying for him." She says she had not even intended to come here for the 10th anniversary of Elvis' death.
But the French translation of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?," which is called "Elvis Mon Amour," has just been issued, and Parisian television wanted de Barbin live by satellite. It had to be this weekend, in Memphis.
Elvis is so very much alive to his fans that they continue to send him love notes -- chalk and ball-point graffiti scrawled onto the stone fence in front of Graceland mansion.
"Elvis Lives!" proclaims a bold heart-shaped insignia, and several different signs -- apparently fresh -- are inscribed, "Elvis in Excess." "This may be erased, but the memory of you will never be gone," swears the Evans family of Cedarsburg, Wis.
Every irregular stone plot of the fence is filled with messages from all over the world: "Le Quebec Aime Elvis," "Creepin' Cats -- Bernie and Ernie from Oberhausen, Germany," "Tu Nous Manque Profondement ... Paris, France," and "England has the Queen, but USA has the King."
The volume of such love notes forces Graceland officials to sandblast the wall at least once a year. But there are repeat offenders: "Elvis: They scraped the wall to stop my pen, But the Jailhouse Poet strikes again!"
Only two messages from overdosed observers are visible: a virulent obscenity, ineffectually chalked out, and a half-hearted, "Elvis Who?"
The rumors of Elvis' immortality continue to run through Memphis. One story is that Presley housed a terminally ill man in his mansion, had plastic surgery and escaped to an island hideaway to live in anonymous luxury.
A voluble street person downtown swears that Presley is the Second Savior, and that Judgment Day is coming (this should boost sales of Presley's gospel albums).
And a T-shirt that pictures Elvis and the Memphis Mafia eating around a long table, captioned "The Last Supper," is the subject of heated debate, and even hotter bidding: One woman sold the one off her back for $85.
But if Elvis is alive in Memphis, as far as popularity is concerned, ex-wife Priscilla is dead. At the 50's-style club called Studebaker's in trendy Overton Square, the number of entrants in the annual Priscilla Presley look-alike contest had shrunk from eight last year to three this year -- and that's counting the waitress.
According to de Barbin's book, she and Elvis always met in secret, often booking rooms under aliases (Elvis was especially fond of "John Carpenter," the name of the ghetto doctor he played in "Change of Habit").
Although the posher hotels, like the ones in Beverly Hills, made their playing hide-and-seek more fun, there were a few seedy motels along the way.
De Barbin was not present, so far as is known, when Presley lay down on the battered white sheets from a Texas overnighter that were auctioned off this morning, but for the bottom sheet and the pillowcase, Chicagoan Walt Schicker paid $210. It will go into his display case at home, alongside the white scarf and guitar pick also said to have been actually used by Elvis.
The sheets were the only "personal" items at the annual charity auction. There is no imprint visible on the pillow