Publicizing the King
Everyone knows Thin Elvis versus Fat Elvis. Young Elvis versus Old. Gold Lamé versus White Rhinestone. Hungry versus Campy. Elvis By the Presleys, a loose oral history of Presley’s later career and home life, revives another dichotomy: Public Elvis versus Private Elvis. This distinction is nothing new: the division between fame and family has informed almost every work of fiction and biography about the King, as well as most academic studies on the nature of his fame and iconography. Making no pretensions of scholarship or comprehensiveness, Elvis by the Presleys promises a portrait of the private Elvis, and at times provides just that. Says Priscilla: “With all his music and movies, with all the stories surrounding his life, there may never have been a more public man than Elvis Presley. But behind the gates of Graceland, Elvis was an extremely private man who lived an extremely private life.”
A tie-in with a television special/DVD release and CD, Elvis by the Presleys collects stories from the entertainer’s closest family members—former wife Priscilla, daughter Lisa Marie, in-laws Paul and Ann Beaulieu, among others—illustrated with David Ritz’s detailed photographs of everyday objects in the Presley household: a comb, a bottle of Jovan musk aftershave, a pair of his aunt’s glasses, a box of Lisa Marie’s crayons, a prized record player (with the last record he played still lying on the turntable). All are blown up to full-page size and set against a plain white background. It’s a puzzling decision: these images of banal ephemera simultaneously humanize Elvis and canonize him, treating his possessions as holy objects.
Just as no self-respecting visitor remarks on the kitschy décor of Graceland, the book never acknowledges, aside from a few nods from Priscilla to Elvis’s growing notoriety, the blurring between the public and the private lives of the entertainer and never explicitly addresses how Elvis used both sides to manipulate people. He had a flair for grand gestures—like buying Lisa Marie a pony and riding her through the house, or buying a puppy for each member of his entourage, or renting out roller rinks and movie theatres—which, while played out in private, had the scope of public spectacle. Elvis played everything to the rafters.
There seems to be something simultaneously candid and delusional about this book. On one hand, it wants to offer something more substantial than a white washed corporate image of Elvis—an admirable aim. And occasionally it achieves its goal of presenting a nuanced portrait of the King, complete with the fascinating blemishes and disarming vulnerabilities. For instance, in a revealing account of his visit with the Beatles, Priscilla describes his mix of cockiness, fear, and envy: “Naturally he was curious about the Beatles. He respected them. Mostly he respected the way they had achieved their artistic freedom. He saw how they did whatever they liked to do… But Elvis, like all iconic entertainers, was conscious of competitors. He understood that generational idols come and go, and that, for this new generation, the Beatles were the new idols.”
On the other hand, the people who describe Elvis were so close to him that they have no sense of his scale or the scope of his actions. In fact, the King’s notoriety hinders Elvis by the Presleys: all its private intimations have long been public knowledge. Its participants readily acknowledge Elvis’s celebrity, but they hardly discuss his dubious legacy. As a result, the man seems downright sinister at times: Elvis gives teenage Priscilla uppers to keep her from falling asleep during her grade-school classes. At Graceland, he makes everyone adhere to his insomnia-addled schedule, keeping them on their toes for his sudden whims.
“There were two universes—the normal universe and the universe of Elvis,” Priscilla comments. “Once you got a taste of Elvis’s universe, you didn’t want to leave it. You realized it was a privilege to be invited in and you did all you could to stay there. That meant staying in his good graces. Nothing was more important to Elvis than loyalty.” Elvis had a man’s desires but a boy’s insecurities, which make him fascinating, if creepy.
Ultimately, by making so much of his home and family life public in readily consumable form, Elvis by the Presleys helps to further obliterate the private man, continuing a transition that’s been under way since his first number-one record. The King’s actions have long since reached the level of mythology, and even the smallest, most inconsequential details of his life have been subsumed into the common knowledge of Elvis, a man owned as much by his devoted fans as by his family. The King is dead. Long Live the King.