Elvis Presley had bought a house on Audubon Drive in Memphis and the day I went out to interview him, probably in June of 1956, the sky was clear and it was a hot afternoon. Gladys Presley, his mother, answered the door and asked me in, apologizing for being somewhat disordered because she and Elvis had just returned from a family funeral in Arkansas.
She said Elvis was in the shower and to go on back. I said I wasn't in any hurry and he'd probably like to finish his shower without a stranger hollering questions at him through the curtain.
Why, he wouldn't mind at all, she insisted, but I had my own ideas, even then, of good places and bad places to conduct interviews so I asked if we couldn't sit in the living room and wait for him to come out. She called to Elvis in a mighty voice that the reporter for The Commercial Appeal was in the living room and I heard some kind of response from the shower, to show he had heard her, I guessed.
His mother was fat in an agreeable reassuring way, as if prepared to cuddle pretty near any living creature that came along. It was my opinion she had not had an easy life, as the Presleys had been about as poor as you can get, but nothing had made her bitter. Her round optimistic face shone when she smiled, which was often, and I could not imagine anyone's meeting her without liking her right off.
Elvis entered the room with a large towel wrapped around him. His hair was damp. I was not much older than he but he greeted me rather as if the secretary of state had dropped in. I thought that might be because The Commercial Appeal, the paper I worked for, had a great reputation in Mississippi (where Elvis was born) ever since the Civil War, when the presses were put on railroad cars and rolled about the South ahead of the advancing Federal troops. Sometimes it was printed on wallpaper, but it kept coming out no matter what the difficulties and earned the name of Old Reliable.
Later, however, I discovered Elvis called everybody sir or ma'am if he didn't know them, and age had nothing much to do with it; neither did the venerable (or other) nature of the institution for which one worked.
I remember nothing of what he said beyond the usual things that entertainers say, where he was born (Tupelo, Miss.) and that he thought Sam Phillips was great. Phillips ran Sun Records, which got Elvis distributed to deejays and the public.
The thing I remember vividly was his pink cheeks and surprisingly fine white skin. He was young, but even so most young men are not all white and rosy as he was. He was polite but not by any means craven. I also remember his voice, which was neither high-pitched nor deep. Most men in the South pitch their voices lower than is natural, but Elvis' speaking pitch was the natural one, and higher than I expected. There was not a hint of a beard, probably because he had just shaved, but when I later met the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, who had the most beautiful skin I ever saw on a human, she reminded me of Elvis.
Not that there was anything remotely feminine about him, except his skin, and I thought and said to friends (for this was the time people were beginning to be horrified at the "vulgarity" of his music) it was great that we were turning out such wholesome-looking clear-eyed polite kids.
Sometimes people say the media made Elvis, but this is not true unless they mean the record medium. He certainly owed nothing that I could see to the press, which interested itself in Elvis in response to public adulation, not the other way round. His greatest booster was a newspaper critic, Robert Johnson, of the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The dominant paper of the region, the one I worked for, paid no attention until it began to be clear -- very clear -- that he was a phenomenon that had to be reported.
Even so, I myself never saw anything in him except a nice kid that seemed to have little kinetic control of his body when he sang, reminding me of blacks in country churches (which I had visited a few times) when the spirit seized them and they had something approaching fits.
Several times I had long talks with Phillips, who saw and heard what I did not. He knew instantly that the fusion of several kinds of popular rural music in a white performer was incredibly rare and he was certain, long before ordinary people were, that Elvis would become a sensation.
In January 1956, Elvis appeared on the Dorsey brothers' TV show, followed in July by an appearance on the Steve Allen Show. It was somewhat later that he first appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show," on a night in which four out of every five homes tuned to television watched Elvis perform.
People said he was sexy, and I never could see why they thought that. Ed Sullivan thought Elvis was vulgar or obscene and in Elvis' subsequent appearance ordered the cameras to show him from the waist up. Wiggles got him, I guess, but then Sullivan was (if I may say so) even more square than I was. I didn't drop my teeth with horror at Elvis, I just never saw anything to get excited about one way or another. But my point here is that the public made Elvis, not the press.
I knew a man who owned a liquor store down near the River (the Mississippi) that had a back room you entered by pushing back a dilapidated curtain as I recall. People said Elvis used to visit him, so I went to talk to him about it. Some people said Elvis drank himself blind there, and others hinted at orgies. The man was intelligent, sane, and said Elvis liked to drop in sometimes just to talk and be away from music business people and groupies. He didn't drink there and unless sitting in a big easy chair and talking is an orgy, there weren't any.
The fellow that cut my hair at the Peabody Hotel barbershop was a cousin of Elvis' and used to take off for the Beverly Hills Hotel when Elvis went there in later times. He told me the main thing they did was sit around, sometimes on the floor, and drink Cokes.
Once when I was in New York for the paper I got a phone call from Elsa Maxwell, a woman of exceptional curiosity; some said she was the greatest gossip of the continent, and she was famous for her parties where she probably picked up nuggets. She had been looking into some motel in Texas where, she said, Elvis had checked in and spent a night or a weekend or something with a girl. She had grilled the girl, she said, and as far as she could make out, there had not been any sex, so what about this?
Since I never had an Elvis record and, later, never saw an Elvis movie, I was hardly an expert on Elvis' sex life and I told her so. She thought it distinctly odd that I cared nothing about Elvis' private life, unless it turned out he dipped puppies in coal oil and lit them or something like that. I did tell her that as far as I knew, there was no sex gossip of any kind (I think Elsa was hoping for chickens or something) about the man.
Elvis frequently contributed to charities in Memphis. The newspaper would probably have thought Hitler was dandy if he had sent checks to the paper's approved charities, something like Children's Hospital in Washington; in any case, even square people began to speak better of him.
But what grabbed real attention was his habit of giving away Cadillacs. He gave away about 100 of them. He also helped out his buddies and, it was widely said, many other people that nobody knew about. I assumed his closest friend was a deejay named George Klein. Elvis gave him a nose job (paid for cosmetic surgery) and everybody in Memphis thought that was pretty fine of him.
Unlike many other famous performers, Elvis served as a regular GI in Germany when his number came up, and when he returned I went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to interview him again.
He was of course older and more self-assured. He still called me sir, and still looked too innocent to be real, though his skin was less striking. Probably his fans know all the details, but I was pretty sure he had voice lessons in Germany; certainly his voice had a quite new quality of sophistication.
It snowed that day and although I already had a room at the Berkshire I couldn't get to it and got one near the train station. People were lined up on the sidewalks trying to get rooms for the night rather than go home to the suburbs. It took forever to get back to the city from Fort Dix and I was cold and plumb wore out, as you might say, but dutifully phoned the Memphis paper's radio station to record comments about Elvis' return to America.
I must have said something as the station sent me quite a full disc of the broadcast. Of which I can give no details now, having thrown the record away the minute I played it because my own voice sounded as if I had a mouthful of cornmeal mush. I always held that against Elvis, not that it was his fault, but I prided myself on a standard accent and was aghast at the way I sounded on radio.
Whatever he said in my interview with him was of only routine interest, and in the general avalanche of chatter about Elvis since then it could be of no interest even if I had kept the record. Again, the thing I do remember vividly was that the nice kid had turned into a nice man.
I never saw him again until the day of his funeral when he was laid in an open coffin at Graceland, his house on the southern and unfashionable edge of Memphis. The house used to belong to friends of mine. Incredible as it now sounds, the girl who lived there, Ruth Marie, played the harp and sometimes at parties there (for teen-agers, as I was then) she would play the harp in a long dress. I never did like the house much as a house, as it tried to look considerably grander than it really is. Elvis tarted it up a good bit, to resemble my idea of a tourist home in Venice where you could register without a lot of questions asked. A lot of crimson and gold as I remember it from the day of the funeral, but then he probably wouldn't have liked my cottage any better than I liked his "mansion."
Memphis has a glorious climate, very like Washington's, but it gets warm in August. It was meant for baggy cotton seersucker suits and ceiling fans and plenty of iced tea. The day of the funeral the sky was white with heat and several billion people, by my estimate, arrived from places like Idaho.
The paper decided the night before the funeral to send me to Memphis, and our travel department said they could get me a motel room at Forrest City 40 miles away, but since no rental car could be found nearer than New Orleans or Chicago it was not clear how I would get back and forth. Fortunately, it being my city, I thought of the extremely convenient old folks home run by the Presbyterian Church, formerly a hotel much like the Hay-Adams in Washington, and so well built and insulated that once you get in you are likely to live forever. There were four people over 100 in the home when I was there. They said they didn't usually have reporters but I tried to be real nice and helpless (all true) so they let me have a room, and a friend drove me out to Graceland.
As you entered the grounds there was an ambulance for aid to people who might decide to have a heart attack, and there were maybe 40 pallets on the ground under the trees for fans who fainted with grief. The long drive was a solid line of people waiting to go into the house to view Elvis' body.
Because I was a reporter for the great Washington paper I was told I could go right in without standing in line, but that seemed to me dumb, as well as unfair, so I got at the end of the line and talked with people for the hour, perhaps, that it took to get in the house. If Shakespeare had had a great public funeral and I had been able to go, I would have gone, though I would have known that supreme artist only from his verse.
These people, at Elvis' funeral, were in much the same relationship. They had not known him, never met him, but they clearly suffered, and many were weeping. I felt like an intruder. In the South funerals are possibly more popular than they are elsewhere, but even there you would not go unless you felt extremely close to the dead person, and usually you would not go at all on the theory there would be plenty of people to make a respectable showing. I did not feel anything much at Elvis' funeral but did my best to convey an impression of the heat, the crowds, the grieving people and so on.
What I did not say was that when I got to the coffin I did feel something, a sorrow for a strawberry-cheeked kid whose life now was over, and whose life apparently was tormented at the last. I did not feel he had wasted his life, though nothing he ever did made any difference to me, one way or another. He had his innings, he was a fabulous success, he had what he wanted, and he died without having to wind up in a nursing home half out of his head and fighting for breath. He left behind him a legacy that many thought glorious and that must have meant something to him.
I hitched a ride on a truck with a farmer back to the center of Memphis and there got a cab to the Presbyterian place which, by the way, was very comfortable except they stop serving supper at 6, and you have to ring for the hall porter to come unchain the door (that's right, unchain) if you come in real late like 9:30 or 10. I tried to collect my thoughts and dictated the story by phone to The Post. In the middle of it I was disconnected, but after a few jiggles the operator came on. She was a remarkable sweet old lady who I think was earning her way through the retirement home by working the switchboard.
"Why, Mr. Mitchell," she cried, as if hearing from a long-lost friend. "I had no idea you were still talking. I didn't get a disconnect signal, but then often I don't, and I never dreamed you were still on the phone. Did you call that nice man, Tim Something or Other that came by to see you? He's from The Post, too. Such a nice young man. Been by to see you twice. You really should call him. I told him you would. Now I wonder if we can get Washington back. Let's see, now." (I could hear mysterious noises at her end, probably wires in and out to get Washington) and then her voice again:
"I think we're about to get Washington back. Now you let me know when you finish, because I probably won't get a disconnect. Mercy, you've been on the phone 47 minutes. You're going to have a terrible phone bill. Why didn't you call collect?"
And come to think of it, I don't think I ever got round to charging the paper for the call.