The first thing you notice about Graceland, once you get inside, is its size. No, it’s not big; quite the reverse. The “mansion” where Elvis Aaron Presley spent the last 20 years of his life is surprisingly poky and claustrophobic. The ceilings are low, the hallways are narrow and there’s not much natural light. Sure, it’s superficially grand on the outside, with its columned portico, reminiscent of the antebellum plantation houses for which the American South is famous. But you soon realise its splendour is skin-deep, and you wonder whether the house’s mean interior proportions say something about the humble origins of the man who owned it.
My wife and I have come on a sunny morning in May. It’s early, but already the vast car park is filling up and queues are forming at the sprawling complex at 3765 Elvis Presley Boulevard where Graceland visitors buy their tickets. Fans can watch Elvis movies, view Elvis memorabilia, buy Elvis souvenirs and even admire Lisa Marie, the four-engined Convair jet airliner Presley bought in 1975 and named after his daughter. But to see Graceland they must board a shuttle bus that takes them across the street to where the house stands amid trees on a low grassy hill.
Graceland was built on what was then the outskirts of Memphis in 1939 for local doctor Thomas Moore. When Presley bought it in March 1957, he was just 22 but had already had six No 1 hits and had made his first film (Love Me Tender). Today, depending on which survey you believe, Graceland is either the second or third most-visited house in the US (the White House tops the list). It’s here that Presley held court with his retinue of sycophantic minders known as the Memphis Mafia, here that he brought his young bride Priscilla in 1967, here that he binged on prescription drugs and fatty food and here that he collapsed and died in 1977. He is buried in a courtyard garden at the rear of Graceland, along with his parents, Gladys and Vernon, and his grandmother Minnie Mae Presley (who outlived all of them, dying in 1980).
A BIZARRE MISH-MASH
Visitors to Graceland are denied the ghoulish satisfaction of seeing the upstairs bathroom where Presley died in undignified circumstances, sprawled on the floor. That part of the house is sealed off “as a mark of respect”. But there’s plenty more to gawk at. Presley’s biographer, Albert Goldman, famously described the interior of Graceland as resembling a turn-of-the-century New Orleans bordello, but if anything he was being charitable. The decor is a bizarre mish-mash that varies wildly from one room to the next, as if the designer had run amok after ingesting mind-altering drugs.
The common factor is its garish tastelessness. Blue and gold velvet drapes, stained-glass peacocks and patterned mirrors dominate in the formal part of the house, which looks as if Liberace might have had a hand in its design. But it’s in the rooms where Presley and his hangers-on spent their leisure hours that the real tackiness kicks in. In fact it’s beyond tacky, almost commanding admiration for its weirdness.
The TV room is a nightmarish vision in bright yellow and black. In the billiard room, the ornate pattern on the Tiffany-style lampshades is replicated in a pleated fabric that covers the walls and ceiling, creating a tent-like effect. The Jungle Room is a riot of fake fur, heavy carved wooden furniture and thick green shagpile carpet, which also covers the walls and ceiling, set off by an indoor waterfall. You get the picture.
By comparison, the kitchen is a model of restraint. According to the commentary on my headphones, this was the busiest room in the house. Food was always cooking and the TV was switched on 24 hours a day. Presley was a frequent visitor to the kitchen at all hours and had a particular fondness for peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches – the so-called Elvis sandwich. But it’s the claustrophobic effect – the dimly lit rooms, narrow hallways and cramped staircases – that’s most striking, particularly when you’ve visited Presley’s birthplace the day before. In a strange way, it all makes sense.
Presley was born in a two-roomed wooden house built by Vernon Presley in East Tupelo, Mississippi. The house is in the traditional southern style known as a shotgun shack, so named because shotgun pellets fired through the front door would exit harmlessly through the door at the rear. The Presleys were part of a large local clan, many of whom spelt their name as Pressley (which is how many Americans still pronounce it). The family were poor and their circumstances were not helped when Vernon was sent to prison in 1938 for forgery. (Unhappy with the price received for a pig he had sold, he doctored the cheque.) In 1939, the house and family car were repossessed.
The house survives today as a tourist attraction, although it looks a good deal more spick and span than the crude shack it would have been when the Presleys lived there. It’s the centrepiece of a small cluster of buildings set among gardens on a leafy hillside in a quiet residential area. The Assembly of God church that Elvis began attending in 1937, originally a block away, has been relocated and stands near the house. To one side is a carport housing a 1939 Plymouth – the same model of car Vernon Presley drove when the family moved to Memphis in 1948 looking for a brighter future.
We visited on a drizzly Sunday morning. Although the house reportedly attracts a million visitors a year, we wandered around alone. A timeline on a wall recorded the milestones in Presley’s childhood: the tornado that the family survived in 1936; the acquisition in 1940 of a radio, powered by a car battery, that enabled them to listen to the Grand Ole Opry; the 1945 Mississippi and Alabama Fair and Dairy Show where the 10-year-old Presley sang Old Shep.
We learnt that Gladys bought Presley his first guitar for his birthday in 1946. It cost $7 at the Tupelo Hardware Store, which is still in business at 114 West Main St. Elvis wanted a .22 rifle but Gladys didn’t like the idea, so the salesman, FL Bobo, suggested the guitar, instead. Rev Frank Smith, who taught young Presley a few chords, said his voice was a gift from God. As a tourist site, Presley’s birthplace is far removed from Graceland. It’s low key, free of glitz and respectful to the memory of the humble, polite Tupelo boy who was remembered for coming to school in clothes that didn’t fit.
To see where Presley came from is to gain some understanding of the house Presley chose to live in after he became the King of Rock’n’Roll. He wanted a place that made an emphatic statement about his wealth and success. Graceland did that, with its impressive facade and commanding location.
But he might have felt uncomfortable with a truly grand house of sweeping staircases and generously proportioned rooms with high ceilings. That might have been too far removed from his lowly beginnings. A house whose confined living spaces forced its occupants into close proximity may have fulfilled an urge for a folksy warmth and intimacy of the type Presley had known in childhood. At least, that’s my theory.
Back at Graceland, we join the queue to view the four Presley graves. Elvis and his mother were originally interred in a public cemetery, but their graves were relocated as a precaution against grave robbers and souvenir hunters. Elvis’s epitaph reads: “He was a precious gift from God we cherished and loved dearly.”
The people filing past are quiet and reverent. I half-expect a grief-stricken fan to hurl herself on the grave, but no one does.