A few memories from my trip to Graceland. Today is Elvis’s birthday. He would have been 78
When I was in high school, I was in a one-act play entitled “Graceland,” written by Ellen Byron, about two women waiting in line to get into Elvis Presley’s mansion. In the play, it’s 1982, five years after Elvis’s death and Graceland is opening to visitors for the first time. Bev and Rootie (I was Rootie) think everyone should get in line behind them because they are Elvis’s biggest fans. Each woman is privately hoping that Graceland will give her some kind of mystical, magical experience that will change her life.
Fast forward about three decades. I was standing in a similar line waiting to board the tour bus to Graceland, not expecting a transformative experience. In fact I had the distinct thought, What the heck am I doing here? I wouldn’t, let’s say, visit Frank Sinatra’s home. Or Louis Armstrong’s. I’ve walked by John Lennon’s Manhattan apartment building many times without feeling the need to acknowledge it.
Singer/songwriter Paul Simon wrote, “For reasons I cannot explain, there’s part of me wants to see Graceland.” Yes, there was part of me that wanted to see Graceland, too. As I clipped on my audio tour headset, I started to get excited to go beyond the famous wrought iron gates — the same ones Bev and Rootie camped out next to for three days.
Elvis purchased Graceland when he was 21, and it was his primary residence until his death twenty years later. He had said it was the only place in the world he felt at home, the only place where he could be himself. The bus rounded the circular driveway, stopping in front of the classic revival-style house like Elvis himself must have done hundreds of times in one of his fancy Cadillacs.
Graceland’s reputation for having tacky interior décor precedes it. Elvis reportedly did most of the decorating himself, which reflected his personal taste for bold colors and notice-me prints. I steeled myself for Studio 54 meets Tara. Yet immediately to my right upon entering the house were the all-white living room and music room, separated by windows of stained-glass peacocks. Nothing too crazy here (though hard to clean!). In fact the main floor was quite formal and well appointed. Out of style maybe, but nothing jaw-dropping. Until we went to the basement.
First was the billiard room:
Then the TV room:
Now the pace of the tour picked up because people seemed to know what was around the corner: the jungle room. I would liken it to suddenly spying the statue of David at the end of a long hallway in the Academia in Florence or getting a glimpse of the Mona Lisa as the crowd parts at the Louvre. Okay, it wasn’t exactly like that, but it is the most highly anticipated room on the Graceland tour. I can say with confidence that this room had the most fake fur upholstery I’d ever seen in one place. Water trickled down a stacked stone wall in a waterfall effect. Carved wooden idols were tucked into every nook and cranny. And I do believe that was green Astroturf on the ceiling. Actually Elvis referred to this vaguely Tahitian-inspired room simply as the den. When Graceland opened to the public, it was his fans who began calling it the jungle room and the name stuck.
If a home is evidence of its owner’s personality, how much of Graceland is Elvis? “Elvis was always a flashy person, and some of the rooms reflect that,” said his cousin Billy Smith. Or to put it another way: “Nothing in the house is worth a dime,” wrote Albert Goldman. In his book, Elvis, he describes Graceland as looking like a bordello, summing it up as gaudy, garish and ostentatious. Well, in a word, yes. It is all of those things, even taking into consideration the fads of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when it was furnished. But Goldman missed the point, I think. Rock-n-roll wasn’t about conforming. It was about individualism. Being yourself in spite of (or to spite) the status quo. More than just a fanciful way of dressing or decorating, Elvis had a distinctiveness that unhinged the establishment.
Nowhere is there more evidence of that than in the trophy room. The trophy room and the awards exhibit, now housed in the former racquetball court, had what turned out to be my favorite items: Elvis’s costumes. I admit it was exciting to see the small scuffs on his shoes, the threads of the gold lame suit he wore in 1957, and the svelte thirty-two inch waist he was sporting to fit into the 1970 jumpsuit when he opened in Las Vegas. (The fat Elvis does not exist at Graceland.) He personally chose or designed these clothes and that makes him a bit more real.
I stepped out the side door into the sunshine, blinking from the transition. What always astounds me about Elvis’s life is that there was no one else who really understood was it was like for him. For years he was alone at the top, breaking new ground on superstardom. He was no longer part of the world, but apart from it. That’s probably what he meant when he told a reporter, “…the image is one thing and the human being is another. It’s very hard to live up to an image.”
I took the shuttle bus back across Elvis Presley Boulevard to look for a few souvenirs. The New York Times called Graceland Plaza “death by gift shop” with eleven stores, each with its own theme. There were stores specializing in army Elvis, movie Elvis, automobile Elvis, Elvis for kids and much, much more. Some of the more unusual Elvis merchandise available for sale: pool cues, thimbles, cross-stitch patterns, key chains with Elvis’s driver’s license as the fob, night lights, Pez dispensers, clocks on which Elvis’s hips swiveled to the second hand, and fake sideburns. I played it safe and bought an I ♥ Elvis magnet because by now, I did ♥ Elvis.
- 600,000 people visit Graceland each year, making it the second most visited home in the U.S., after the White House.
- Elvis bought Graceland in 1957 for $102,500 (about $800,000 in today’s dollars). Elvis did not name Graceland. Dr. Thomas Moore, the original owner, had already named the property.
- The mansion sits on 13 acres.
- There are nine bedrooms, seven-and-a-half baths, two full kitchens and two living rooms in 17,000 square feet (1,579 meters) of space.
- In the billiard room, the couches, walls and ceiling are all covered in matching fabric — 400 yards of matching fabric to be exact. It took three workmen 10 days to cover it.
- Fans of The King in the `60s and `70s report that Elvis himself would often head down the driveway to sign autographs at the famous gates, sometimes riding on his John Deere tractor.
- No visitors are allowed on the second floor where Elvis died in August 1977 from cardiac arrest.
Have you ever been to Graceland? If so, what was your favorite part of the tour? If not, would you like to go someday?