A Book, a Book o’ Burning Love : To capture Elvis’ ‘sense of Americana,’ Orange County writer and partner find new details in old autopsy documents, medical records.
Elvis Presley may have permanently left the building 20 years ago this month, but the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll has never gone away.
More than 300 books have been published about the show business phenomenon who was found dead in his fabled Memphis mansion Aug. 16, 1977.
There have been books by Elvis’ relatives, former lovers, members of his inner circle known as the “Memphis Mafia” and ex-wife Priscilla. Even Presley’s cook, gardener, secretary and hairstylist-cum-spiritual advisor have written books.
That’s not to mention “Early Elvis: The Tupelo Years,” “Elvis in the Army,” “The King on the Road,” “The Death of Elvis,” “Is Elvis Alive?” and several biographies.
So what could possibly be left to say about Elvis Presley?
Veteran entertainment reporters Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske, co-authors of a new biography of Presley, have uncovered plenty.
Their book, “Down at the End of Lonely Street: The Life and Death of Elvis Presley” (Dutton; $25.95), provides detailed new information on:
* What really killed Elvis--and his earlier brushes with death;
* the cause of his mother’s death, the verbal and physical abuse in the Presley household and the extent of his parents’ drinking;
* Presley’s impressive military record;
* his life in Hollywood;
* his plastic surgeries and complex about his body;
* his early use of drugs.
Broeske and Brown, who co-wrote a best-selling biography of Howard Hughes last year, obtained previously sealed autopsy documents and Presley’s medical records. They interviewed more than 300 people who knew Elvis--many who had never talked before.
Dr. George Nichopoulos, the Memphis physician who took care of Presley beginning in the late ‘60s and became controversial for having provided Presley with prescription medication, “has never before cooperated with a major book,” says Broeske, who lives in Santa Ana.
Brown, of Encinitas, and Broeske discovered Kitty Jones, who helped screen women for dates with Elvis in Hollywood. They talked to dancer Gail Ganley, who had an unreported romance with Presley during the making of the musical comedy “Kissin’ Cousins.”
And they bagged actor Gary Lockwood, who initially rebuffed Broeske’s request for an interview--"Oh, babe, I never talk about Elvis"--and later spoke candidly about the “girl fests” and food fights behind the locked gates of Presley’s rented Bel-Air home in the ‘60s.
On her research trips to the South, Broeske found former Presley classmates at Humes High in Memphis who had been untapped by previous biographers--as well as former neighbors in Lauderdale Courts, the Memphis public housing project Presley and his parents, Vernon and Gladys, moved to when Elvis was a teenager.
“One said, ‘My God, you heard Vernon and Gladys fighting day and night,’ ” Broeske says.
Brown, who wrote and researched chapters chronicling Elvis’ military career, tracked down Elvis’ former commanding officer and fellow soldiers in Germany--none of whom had ever been interviewed.
Brown says Presley “was an incredibly gifted soldier who advanced rapidly through the ranks, not because he was Elvis but because he was so damned good. He was the best marksman in his entire [tank corps] outfit in Germany.”
The authors are the first to interview Dr. Joseph Davis, the former Dade County medical examiner who reexamined all the Presley autopsy data in the late 1980s after the Memphis Board of Supervisors voted to conduct a reexamination.
“He was embargoed; he couldn’t talk about it to anybody,” Brown says. “He only consented to talk when we were able to produce the embargoed documents.”
Davis confirms the originally stated cause of Presley’s death--a heart attack.
The original autopsy report said Presley died of a heart attack, but a toxicology report later listed 15 drugs in Presley’s system when he died.
“The media immediately jumped on that and began focusing on the drugs,” Brown says. But, according to Davis’ reexamination of the autopsy data, the traces of drugs in Elvis’ system when he died were not enough to kill him.
“Everybody wants to believe Elvis died of drugs, but they didn’t see the report, and the proof is in there that he couldn’t have died from drugs,” Brown says.
When he died, Presley was also heavier than anyone had ever known, weighing, the authors say, more than 300 pounds.
“The weight is a factor [in his death], and the drugs had been taking their toll, there’s no question,” Broeske says.
Indeed, Brown and Broeske are the first to obtain medical records detailing the singer’s medical history and three hospitalizations in Memphis in the 1970s that were reportedly for exhaustion but were, in fact, for detoxification.
“He went in with life-threatening drug levels in his body,” says Brown.
But Presley’s first brush with a drug-related death came in 1973, when he lapsed into a coma in Las Vegas.
“To keep the publicity down, they had to turn his suite at the International Hilton into a hospital room,” Brown says.
When Elvis finally did die in 1977, rigor mortis had already set in when his body was found on the bathroom floor at Graceland. And in the ensuing commotion, as the authors relate, life-saving efforts were made during the mad rush to the hospital.
This, after all, was Elvis Presley.
“Down at the End of Lonely Street” is not the only book tied in to the 20th anniversary of Presley’s death.
At least a half dozen titles are hitting bookstores--including “Elvis: In the Twilight of Memory,” a memoir by Elvis’ ‘50s girlfriend June Juanico; “Child Bride,” a biography of Priscilla Presley by Suzanne Finstad; and “That’s Alright, Elvis: The Untold Story of Elvis’ First Guitarist and Manager, Scotty Moore,” a memoir by Moore.
But Brown and Broeske’s book is the first major biography of Presley since Albert Goldman’s “Elvis,” published in 1981.
“Everybody who likes celebrity bios read that book when it came out,” Broeske says, “and while it’s very interesting--and I have to say this, I’ve never heard that it’s really inaccurate--but the man never has a kind word to say about his subject.”
Once she and Brown began researching what had been written about Presley, Broeske says, “We realized there was a need for a thorough birth-to-death biography by writers who didn’t hate their subject.”
Their 524-page book includes 16 pages of photographs, a complete discography and filmography, a life chronology and a list of television appearances.
The result is what their publisher bills as “more than the definitive biography of Elvis Presley.”
In a narrative style, Broeske and Brown paint a vivid portrait of Elvis, who grew up dirt poor in a tiny shotgun shack in Tupelo, Miss.
Presley was a mama’s boy who talked baby talk with his mother, a habit that he continued into his 20s. As a small boy, Elvis would wait for his mother’s return from work at a laundry and then bring her tea and “rub her little sooties,” as he called her feet.
As an adult, he would massage the feet--and sometimes suck the toes--of women he dated.
“He had a definite foot fetish,” Broeske says. “They had to have pretty feet. That was a requirement for a date with him.”
As a teenager, the authors say, Elvis once threatened to kill his alcoholic father if he continued to abuse his mother. Gladys Presley had her own problems with drinking and taking diet pills--a far more serious problem with alcohol and amphetamines than previously reported. The authors also reveal that Gladys Presley died of cirrhosis of the liver and not, as officially stated at the time, a heart attack.
When Presley’s mother died not long after Elvis went into the Army, Broeske says, “It was probably one of the most public displays of grief from a person. The man couldn’t walk when he got out of the car. They had to help him. And he had tears streaming down his face. If you’ve ever seen any of the film footage, it’s heartbreaking.”
In the book’s most bizarre episode, the authors describe a grief-stricken Elvis throwing himself on his mother’s body after her coffin is placed in the music room at Graceland. He then asked the funeral attendants to show him his mother’s feet. Elvis proceeded to cradle his mother’s bare feet in his hands, kissing them and fondling her toes.
Murmuring in his baby talk, he pleaded, “Wake up, Mama. Wake up, little baby, and talk to Elvis.”
Music was always a part of Presley’s life. At the age of 8, he began learning chords on a cheap guitar.
He would accompany himself on his favorite song, “Old Shep,” a country lament about a boy and his dog, which he sang to anyone who would listen. At 12, he would sometimes sneak into black honky-tonks to listen to the musicians rehearse.
His musical tastes were further broadened after his family moved to Memphis, which Broeske and Brown describe as a “mecca of musical influences.”
During his freshman and sophomore years at Humes High, Elvis drifted in anonymity, the authors say. But then the shy loner began to blossom.
At a time when his classmates sported crew cuts, Elvis let his hair and sideburns grow. (He once even had his mother apply a Toni home permanent to his normally straight hair.) And instead of wearing blue jeans and plaid shirts, he would show up at school wearing a pink-and-black shirt and black slacks with a pink stripe down the sides.
The shy, greasy-haired boy with a bad case of acne was far from being considered one of the “cool” kids on campus, however. But his clothes--and the singing and guitar playing he did for his friends--clearly set him apart.
“Sure does,” Elvis told a classmate at the time. “That’s what I’m after.”
After Elvis recorded “That’s All Right (Mama)” on the Sun label in 1954 and began touring the South, he wore blue eye shadow and mascara to accentuate his eyes. Reporters who covered Elvis’ performances at the time took note of the mascara streaming down his sweaty face.
In 1956, after the canny Col. Tom Parker took control of Elvis’ career and he became a national sensation, Presley had cosmetic surgery for the first time: He had his nose slightly sculpted and his acne-scarred skin smoothed, Broeske said. He also had his teeth capped, and by then, Broeske says, he was dyeing his dishwater blond hair black.
Presley always had a clear sense of image. An avid moviegoer who devoured fan magazines as a teenager, he studied ‘50s screen rebels Marlon Brando and James Dean. He proved to be a good student. A few years later, when he was being photographed for Parade magazine, he refused to smile for the camera.
“I know that you can’t be sexy if you smile,” he said.
Broeske says the idea that Elvis experienced overnight stardom is untrue.
“That’s All Right (Mama)” eventually became a hit only on the Southern charts, and Elvis spent two intensive years on the road before hitting the big time, “playing every backwater town you never heard of, sometimes doing two and three shows a day,” Broeske says.
“This guy worked so hard at it. He’s playing Future Farmer of America halls, barely making a living, and he’s talking about becoming a big movie star. He’s very ambitious; he’s plotting things out. He doesn’t get enough credit for that.
“Sadly, one of the things we discovered is that he had a predilection to use drugs far earlier than anyone has previously disclosed, probably stemming from his mother’s use of diet pills. She also was an addictive personality.”
Broeske says Elvis and his buddies would pop Percodan before playing games of war at a roller rink in Memphis before he went into the Army. Elvis called the morphine derivative his “happy pills.”
In the Army in Germany, he took amphetamines. In Hollywood in the ‘60s, Broeske says, “he took everything--drugs to get thin, drugs to get awake, drugs to go to bed. It was that kind of scene.”
Broeske says that what she and Brown discovered during their year and a half of researching and writing their book is that Presley “is more human than anyone realized.”
“People don’t think of him crying, anguishing over headlines when he turned ‘forty and fat,’ apologizing to Las Vegas audiences because he looks less than perfect or refusing to take his shirt off in a movie [in the 1960s] because he’s gotten a little chunky.”
Broeske says it wasn’t out of character for Elvis to cry while reading sad stories in the newspaper or to take the time to get out of his car and pose for pictures with fans.
Broeske says she found much to like about Elvis.
“He’s good-hearted. He’s kind of sweet when he courts women. He had a sense of humor people didn’t know about--and I liked his sense of hard work as he climbed. We liked our subject.”
But, she says, there were problems.
“He could have a cruel side. When friends did things he didn’t like, he could cut you off. He definitely had some demons he dealt with, that he certainly kept secret. The thing with his mom was a tricky relationship.”
In writing their biography, Broeske says, “Our thing was Elvis isn’t just a kitsch joke. His name evokes a sense of Americana to a lot of people, and he embodies the American dream.
“Our idea was to capture that spirit.”