The rich but unhappy life of a king

Elaine Dundy is the author of "Elvis and Gladys," "The Dud Avocado" and, most recently, "Life Itself!"

Elvis has had the most extraordinary life since he died on Aug. 16, 1977. At that time, some 50,000 fans rushed to Graceland to mourn him. On the 10th anniversary of his death, 55,000 pilgrims arrived there and turned it into a World Event, with the media racing to catch up with what was, in effect, his deification. Then came the sightings, and on his birthday in 1993 came the stamp -- the most successful issue in postal history. Suddenly, it was all right to love Elvis: Everybody did.

Now in 2003 he has been raised high in Highbrowland: he has become a Penguin. In its Lives Series he joins such luminaries as Marcel Proust, Dante, Joan of Arc and the Buddha. He may not have been familiar with the first three but, in his ceaseless spiritual quest, he was certainly familiar with the last.

Elvis could not have been better served in this series than by Bobbie Ann Mason. An award-winning author, she grew up on her father's farm in Kentucky. She found her voice writing about working-class people of western Kentucky, which helped her understand Elvis and his family's mind-set. Most important for this work, she has been a fan of Elvis since her teens. She knows firsthand how it felt to be a fan in hot-blooded youth; how it feels to be a fan for more than four decades.

She writes about Elvis: "He was a boy wonder, both endearing and threatening, with a talent that defied category. He set a style of music that would dominate the world for the last part of the century."

Mason tells of Elvis' journey from poverty to instant fame to boundless riches. She tells of teenagers going wild with his sexuality, and parents wild with anxiety. She tells of the death of his beloved mother, his two-year stint in the Army, fading Hollywood stardom. She tells of his sensational comeback special on TV, followed by spectacular shows opening in Las Vegas that brought him back live, his crown secure as never before; of the decline and fall of his body -- not his voice -- and his death at 42.

And just when we become sated with too-frequent mentions of his subservience and passivity, his feelings of inferiority and unworthiness, his fear of a recurrence of poverty, she serves us a helping with a sharp taste and aftertaste that clearly defines Elvis -- paradoxes and all.

Take his passivity: One sees how it even wove itself into his performances. When early Elvis was rocking, his body vibrating, rotating at breakneck speed to the beat of his heart, his golden voice finding new meanings to each song, his face remained curiously placid, expressionless. Just so in his movies. It may be the reason he never became a great film actor. A hundred nuances of thought and emotion do not register on his face in close-up, as they do on all the enduring stars.

Mason points to the startling fact that all Elvis' women left him.What? A king's favorite walking out on his majesty? It may be that he always chose beauties of independent and stable temperament. None slit her wrists and went screaming into the night or to the National Enquirer. Instead they got on with their lives. In his favor, they are invariably better for the time spent with him. Ann-Margret's career soared; Priscilla became an accomplished actress and businesswoman; Linda Thompson a successful songwriter.

Though he may have loved them them all tenderly, Gladys, the Queen Mother, was never deposed. She reigned supreme in his life. But though Elvis sanctified her and remained devastated by her death, after his stint in the Army, when he returned to Hollywood as a money-spinning movie star, his feelings of grief were mixed with relief. He had lost his "moral compass" but gained the freedom to indulge all his exaggerated pleasures. He was getting used to being a king.

In Memphis, he took over amusement parks and movie houses for all-night parties with his ever increasing circle of friends (after all, he didn't have much of a boyhood). In Hollywood he settled into an opulent Arabian Night life in rented mansions in the choicest locations, gated for his protection. Fans sat outside day and night hoping they would be invited in, as some were, for an evening in heaven with Elvis.

So many legends and religions bump into each other in Elvis' story: Orpheus torn to pieces by the maenads; the divine right of kings; Judaic and Christian dealings with the devil.

Jesus, tempted by Satan, resists with a "get thee hence." Dr. Faustus makes his pact with the devil and ends in hell. Early on, Elvis meets Colonel Parker and signs a contract that binds him to the diabolical Dutchman for the rest of his life.

Wonder of wonders, Mason takes Elvis' kingship seriously -- as seriously as he did. He was a real king with millions of subjects the world over. But it was not easy to be a king at such an early age. It takes some getting used to and Elvis was unprepared (as were many kings in history). King Elvis had to be the man of a huge extended family, says Mason, relatives, friends, growing entourage and fans. "He had major financial and artistic obligations" -- responsibilities that still a boy king, he didn't want to take on.

Elvis was King of the Teenagers and he loved his subjects. When he wasn't in dalliance with the lucky ones, he was humble and polite as befits a king. He made them crazy, made them scream, made them moan, made them dance. The subservient king subjugated his subjects. But there was a disconnect in the prosperous 1950s between Elvis and his teenagers. They picked Elvis as the embodiment of the youth rebellion, but he came from a different place.

"He was rebelling against poverty not affluence. He wanted acceptance not alienation...." He was a representative of the marginalized who fight their way into the harbor, not the disaffected who jump ship, explains Mason.

Behind Elvis there was another great legend: the metaphysical world of the double-identity comic-book heroes such as Superman and Batman. Mason refers throughout her text to the importance of a Marvel comic-book hero that consumed Elvis' interest. But she calls him Captain Marvel and in this she errs. It is not Captain Marvel who consumed young Elvis but Captain Marvel Jr. -- a sort of younger brother to him. Marvel is a man; Marvel Jr. is a boy. A glance at both reveals Captain Marvel as beetle-browed and burly while Captain Marvel Jr. is an appealing adolescent. He looks, in fact, exactly as Elvis, from childhood to the end of his life, would strive to make himself look.

Further, in Jr.'s everyday life he is poor, crippled Freddy Freeman. But with his secret identity, this innocent, powerless lad becomes the "the most powerful boy in the world." Millions of youngsters related to this comic. But Elvis, crippled by poverty and the loss of his twin brother, dived deep into both identities. The trappings of boyish Marvel Jr: cape, lightning bolt emblem, glistening black hair with forelock falling across his forehead and triumphant stance osmosed in his fantasies and became his reality. Later, to bring him up to speed with his magical self, Elvis used massive doses of uppers and downers.

In December of 1970, Elvis decided to drop in on President Nixon. He had been invited to sing at the White House, but Colonel Parker refused because Elvis would not get paid. Infuriated, Elvis decided to meet Nixon on his own. What is so wacky about that? Love goddess Marilyn Monroe had her President Kennedy. Why shouldn't King Elvis have his President Nixon? It says something awesome about our culture: In a democracy the people elect their royalty.

He was received by Nixon the very day he requested his audience. He dressed for the occasion in appropriate regalia. What should he have worn, a business suit? There was a memorable exchange when the president said, "You dress kind of strange, don't you?" The King replied, "You have your show and I have mine." I think he was gently reminding Nixon of who they were and what they represented: the elite of the elected.

Mason concludes, "Elvis always behaved as if there were no limits. It was his genius, and his curse. His excess aspiration spurred his worthiest achievements."

I think of him as a Greek tragedy: Chosen by the gods, he was abandoned by them. To read this biography is to be filled with pity and terror.

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