Graceland: Palace fit for The King

Chandeliers and shag-pile abound, but for all its gaudy excess, there are good reasons why Graceland, Elvis Presley's home for 22 years, has become a rock'n'roll shrine, writes Harold Evans. Photographs by Sheva Fruitman
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You're all shook up. You have been driving the backroads through the gritty Lil' Abner mountain country of West Tennessee. It's hot and dusty. If you keep the windows of your '53 Plymouth up, you fry. If you keep them down, you asphyxiate. You pull up in a place called Clinton, go into the Main Street diner and run into a wall of suspicion from the counter clutchers - men in blue overalls with hard eyes - and a witch who will not hear your plea for a 7UP. The local thugs have just burned down the black Baptist church. It is 1957, three years since the Supreme Court ruled that blacks should go to school with whites. Clinton doesn't want strangers with funny accents poking their noses into its affairs.

You flee the town, fiddle with the AM channels, get through the static of hot gospelers and hair restorers, and there's this terrific rock'n'roll number by that kid from Memphis. "Heartbreak Hotel". Play it again, Elvis. Four years out of high school, he's a national sensation. Not so much for the voice or the guitar; it's what he did while singing "Hound Dog" on Milton Berle's television show. He moved his hips. Uh, Uh. His hips, backwards and forwards. Now Ed Sullivan has just had him on his national show to reassure a troubled nation. "I wanted to say to Elvis and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy." Ed's cameras shot the decent boy from the waist up.

Coming into Memphis from the hill country in 1957, you take in the jazz on Beale Street, and friendlier folk than those in Clinton direct you to the house Elvis has just that spring bought for $100,000 - a phenomenal sum, it seems, but half of it earned by the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show alone. Money is never going to be a problem. In his lifetime and after, he gives much away. Elvis told his beloved Mom (Gladys) and Pop (Vernon), when they moved from a two-roomer in Tupelo, Mississippi, that one day he would make a lot of money and they'd all live in the finest house in town. All his dreams came true at 22, and he has kept his word.

In 1957, you see the house very much as it is in 1999, a pillared, colonial-style mansion landscaped behind iron gates - not imposing by the standards of federal architecture, but pretty, unthreatening. If you are cunning enough to have borrowed a flashy motorbike that Elvis might fancy racing round the grounds, you are invited in for a beer and no-to-low-stakes poker. And you will be there till dawn, watching movies, hearing Elvis's grandiose plans for the house.

Graceland. It sounds like an artful PR man's invention. In fact, the conservative Elvis just kept the name given to the estate by the family that built the house in 1939. It is the embodiment of his American dream, as he himself represented the American dream for millions of others.

It breaks Elvis's heart that a year after moving into Graceland he leaves its possibilities for the chow lines and latrines of the 32nd Tank Battalion in Bad Nauheim, Germany. But what energy and imagination - what money! - Sergeant Presley pours into his mansion when he comes home for good. The Meditation Garden with the statue of Jesus, the electric car track (soon replaced), the chandeliers, the riding stables and paddock, the pool, the shooting gallery. And the racquet ball building where, in the middle of the night on August 16 1977, he fooled around playing dodge ball, sang Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and went into Graceland for the last time, dead on his bathroom floor at 44 years old.

If you had been really clued up in 1957, you might have guessed that the music and personality that was so diverting in 1957 would live on: one billion records sold, an 80ft hallway in the house lined with gold and platinum albums, and singles - more than any other artist in history. Only now, though, looking back, is it possible to see how much more there was to all this than dollars and showbiz. As his biographer Peter Guralnik noted, Elvis has become a battleground for competing ethnographic claims, but Presley's genius lay in encompassing every strand of the US musical tradition. His music was more open, more generous, more democratic than the politically-correct multiculturalists of today. He was no politician, but he blurred and challenged the social and racial barriers of the time. America itself has journeyed from exclusion to inclusion, from enmity to generosity, from hatred and despair to hope and happiness - from towns like Clinton to Graceland.

The visitors

They come from everywhere, 700,000 a year, making Graceland one of the five most visited homes in America. Trying to typecast the crowds is futile. They are all classes and ages, but more than half are under 35. They can't hope for the excitement of the days when Elvis, seeing fans at the gate, would appear on his horse Rising Sun. He'd pose, sign and occasionally throw in a line or two from a song.

The staircase (opposite page) was the place where his entourage could sit and watch the entrance hall, which Elvis used as an arena for his karate stunts.

Elvis's grave

There were tears of joy in Elvis's eyes when he first saw the completed Meditation Garden in 1966, designed as a private retreat with a central fountain, stained glass, landscaping and walkways. He never expressed any intention to be buried here, but his father, Vernon, had the bodies of Elvis and Elvis's mother, Gladys, moved to the Garden because the crowds were creating too much turmoil at Forest Hill Cemetery, their previous resting place. In 1979, Vernon himself joined them and, in 1980, Elvis's paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae, was buried next to Elvis.

Wall-to-wall glitz

Graceland's exterior is in the style of an antebellum Southern mansion, but inside you step into the glitzy America of the Sixties and Seventies. Elvis spent his money on cobalt-blue draperies hung on push-button electric traverse rods, mirrored ceilings, stained glass, deep-white carpets, a soda fountain, TVs in every room including the bathrooms, an ivory grand piano and a jukebox wired for sound throughout the house. He was proud to tell visitors that there had been talk of Khruschev coming to see Graceland on his visit to the US, "to see how in America a fellow can start out with nothing and, you know, make good".

In the pool room, the table still has a rip inflicted by a clumsy friend. The walls and ceilings are completely covered in red, orange, blue, gold and green cotton fabrics.

Garments and guns

Vernon questioned the bills from the tailors, but the costumes on display in the trophy building adjacent to the main house remind one how often they were show-stoppers in themselves: the gold suit, the black leather, the white silk from his Aloha From Hawaii TV show, the "mod rebel" outfit. And his original army uniform. There's also his eighth-degree black belt in karate, and a gigantic display of gold and platinum records.

The bullet marks (on target, above left) are still there where Elvis and the guys practised with his many guns. They'd shoot fireworks at each other and play football here, too.

Cars and kindness

Elvis's impulse to generosity - he'd give away a Cadillac on the spur of the moment - are in the auto museum, 22 of them ranged down a tree- lined "highway". Here are his famous 1955 pink Cadillac and the red MG he drove in the movie Blue Hawaii, plus his Harley-Davidson motorbikes and supercycles.

Graceland was more than a place to live for him. It became a sacred sanctuary. "To me, my home is all wound up with all the acts of kindness and gentleness that my mother and my grandmother and my daddy lovingly provided. All of this love still remains within its walls."

The dining room

In the dining room, a star-shaped chandelier hangs above a walnut table, the chairs in red velvet. But Elvis was not into fancy food. A small steak and potatoes for formal occasions; for the rest, sandwiches of jelly and peanut butter, or mashed banana.

Harold's Harley

Memphis wanted to celebrate the publication of The American Century, so they invited a bunch of us to debate what America had achieved in a hundred years. The mayor did us proud, with a police motorcycle escort, with sirens, for our visit to Graceland. The King would have approved. You understand, I posed on one of the cops' Harley-Davidson's only to demonstrate the bike that Elvis liked best.

Home comforts

Transforming Graceland into a dream family home, with additions like the swimming pool, meant more to Elvis than anything except his daughter and his music. The King lived here for 22 years.

Vernon and Gladys Presley's bedroom suite is off the foyer, near the main staircase. Some time after Gladys died in 1958, Elvis gave the room to his grandmother Minnie Mae, and then to his aunt Delta Presley Biggs.