He seemed to arrive out of nowhere yielding an otherworldly presence that was so powerful it still resonates in the public's consciousness decades after his death. But he wasn't from another world; he was born near the Mississippi Delta and raised in music laden Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis started as a dirt poor southern boy but he grew to epitomize the American dream so much so that he became a permanent part of its landscape. Many have tried to replicate or aspirate the essence of what made Elvis Presley so damned special -- with little success. Even the people who managed his career didn't know how to handle this artist of endless potential. How could they? From the start nobody had ever seen anything like him. When he walked into Sun Studios and was asked "Who do you sound like?" He replied "I don't sound like nobody." Even so, the managers and producers knew enough to try and encapsulate this rare find. Unfortunately, in the process they smothered him. Perhaps actor Martin Sheen put it best when he said:
They just wouldn't let him out of the box, they had a jewel there, they had a golden egg and they knew they could count on him where he was.
When Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977 at his beloved Graceland Mansion, news of his death spread like wildfire across the globe within minutes. Think about it: This was years before the advent of round-the-clock news, the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.
By August 17, 1977, President Carter issued this statement:
Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.
In death, the allure of his legendary life and career grew even larger. Unlike celebrities of today, he had kept his private life private, creating an enthralling air of mystery. The public was starved for information and the golden egg could no longer be contained in its box. All but a few of his family, friends and acquaintances lined up to get while the gettin' was good. It was if Elvis was made of some sort of magical, sparkling dust and anyone who came within a grain of it borrowed some of his shine.
One of the few who didn't get in the cash line was Elvis's fiancee, Ginger Alden. Although there were minor monetary concerns for her upon his death, she granted only a few interviews. The experience left a bad taste in her mouth and she pulled away from the public. She could have easily written a book about her time with Elvis and made millions but she didn't. No, it took Ginger 37 years to decide to tell their story.
I'm passionate about the serious topics I write but these days when I choose a new book to read, I try to pick lighthearted subjects for a mental reprieve. So I downloaded a copy of Elvis and Ginger: Elvis Presley's Fiancee and Last Love Finally Tells Her Story. Like most self-respecting southern women, I'm a bit fascinated with Elvis lore. I don't have his toenail clippings in a jar or anything like that, just a healthy admiration for his talent and contributions to the music industry and to our country. (Many American's are unaware that when donations to complete the construction of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor dried up, Elvis donated the rest of the cash needed.) Plus, you can't walk around with the moniker "Cilla" and not expect his name to come up. For the record, although I'd be proud, I wasn't named after Priscilla Presley and I'm not related to Senator John McCain.
As I started reading the book I expected to find her unleashing decades of pent up resentment at her haters. Over the years I'd heard negative bits and pieces about Ginger Alden and her family from Elvis insiders. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Alden only lightly addressed the negative rumors opting instead to focus on writing a heartwarming memoir. Quite frankly I find this refreshing. I've read reviews of the book in the New York Daily News and other places and inevitably all the reviewers want to focus on is Elvis's prescription drug addiction, his guns and his fight with the inevitable middle age bulge. For years reviewers have cherry picked these topics to examine and mostly ignored the positive. But that's what the media machine is best at isn't it? It loves to build people up to hero status and then tear them down when they display any hint of possessing human frailties.
To me, Elvis and Ginger is a testament that Elvis's last days were not filled with the torment and misery of a drug filled haze. While there's no doubt he was struggling with a prescription drug dependency that caused wild mood swings and shortened his life; he was still trying to live life and have fun. With Ginger, he seemed to be seeking refuge in his southern origins and a longing for a stable home life. She writes from the point of view of young woman in awe of her fiance, yet it's obvious that she was mature beyond her 21 years. When he encouraged her to read spiritual books, instead of rolling her eyes with boredom, she did so with genuine enthusiasm. Nor was she afraid to live a life separate from his, even refusing to officially move into Graceland because they were not married. Of course he bestowed her with generous gifts including a credit card to use as she pleased; she tried to keep it all in perspective and rarely used the card. Elvis's penchant for gift giving is as legendary as his rise to stardom. After all, didn't we all want to grow up and buy a mansion for our Mama and be able to help poverty stricken strangers with houses and cars?
I think Alden's relationship with Presley has been largely misunderstood from its beginning. She was cruelly shoved into a corner immediately upon his death. I asked her about the response she's experienced by the books release and what she would like to say about it. She said:
I'd like to thank the fans for all of their support and love for Elvis. Having people tell me "Now I understand" has meant the world to me.
After 37 years of silence, I guess it does feel good to let it all out.