Auction at Graceland
At Graceland’s live auction of Elvis memorabilia, Stela Xhiku marvels at the strange artifacts and the even stranger stories behind them.
Everyone sees Elvis in two: the first a soldier, with dark around his eyes, full of ma’ams and sirs, and always in mourning for his late mother, who died when he was 23, and before her, his stillborn twin. A solemn young thing, this Elvis carried his own set of clean utensils, cultivated a healthy fear of STDs, and answered all of his fan mail with a ‘sincerely.’
His second image comes bejeweled, swollen with meat sweats and polyester capes. Very excessive, and very sensational, this was the Elvis of a new era. Of which the general motif was baroque machismo. Once, for example, as his security detail tussled with a stage-bound fan during a performance, Elvis started doing air-karate on stage. He was a black-belt.
As a kid idolizing the myth, I built a confused shrine: three parts sparkle, one part ghostly. Gentleman and Showman. I was Vegas Elvis for Halloween; I thought of his earlier, darker self during my own dramatic spells, pretending I saw a resemblance. We both had dark hair after all and, my god, was I mopy.
This past summer I began a spontaneous quest to fill in his image during a night in, when I discovered that Graceland was hosting a live auction on eBay. I had never seen eBay pull off an IRL sale on the web and was curious first about the design, second, about the fast-talking man who presided over this auction, and third, about the range of objects that were featured. Even a disappointing bit of correspondence between Elvis’ manager, Colonel Parker, and his former secretary made it into the auction. In it, the Colonel rejects her request for employment very tactfully and on Paramount Pictures letterhead. Then, less tactfully, the Colonel writes in marker, “PS Mrs Parker is in Palm Springs.” Here was the beauty of the Graceland auction: that minutiae, when magnified, suggests a forgotten mystery. Like the long-gone affair of the Colonel and his secretary.
The other objects were less torrid; most were memorabilia that Graceland sourced from fans and children of fans. All came with a letter of authentication. “Elvis gave me his special smile and asked my name,” writes Karen Dobner of an autographed scarf, who concludes her letter with “fan forever.” Armond Morales, who received a wristwatch that Elvis engraved to Arman writes, “It was absolutely electrifying!”
The watch sold for $11,875.00 and is likely behind glass somewhere, surely being gaped at by houseguests. And, for one night, I also basked in these artifacts. I took them, and their myth, very seriously. These were relics of our King, after all, and they told a big story:
Elvis was no king, he was God! His lifetime dream of being a sheriff lead to an impressive collection of sheriff's badges which came with many illegal requests to enforce the law. He monitored roads, stopped speeders, requested a full policeman’s uniform, and tried to attend a drug bust. He received many yes’s. Even from President Nixon, who appointed Elvis a Federal Agent-at-Large in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Nixon gave Elvis a badge, his friends cufflinks, and added brooches after Elvis interjected, “Mr. President, they have wives, too."
The meeting with Nixon was shocking in its indulgence of celebrity, but hardly useful. Elvis was already self-appointed purveyor of justice, supreme punisher and healer. He gave gifts to strangers over observed kindness. The owl ring (pictured) was given to a girl he saw break up a disagreement. She remembers: “He leaned over and gave me a kiss as he took my hand and put the ring in it. I said, ‘You dropped this in my hand.’ He smiled and bowed with his cape wide open and said, ‘No I gave it to you.’”
That’s nothing to Dianne Pilcher, who can thank Elvis for her life, something he did via telegram on the day of his second Ed Sullivan appearance. The telegram – gentle in spite of the all caps – was credited for her miraculous recovery from cancer.
His close entourage, called the Memphis Mafia, was more reluctant with his experiments as shaman. Elvis’s childhood friend Red West censored any complaints of pain; “Whenever he knew I had the pain, he would ask me to sit down in front of him, and then he would lay on his hands, telling me over and over that the pain would go away, that he was drawing out the pain. Well, I would sit there and he would say, 'It's going away, Red. You're going to be okay.’” He tried the same with his costar in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Julie Parrish, by hovering his hand over her aching side.
Yes, Elvis is the Jesus story vajazzled and Baz Lurhmann-ified. He had Jewish and Cherokee lineage on his mother’s side and eagerly consumed all religious and spiritual texts. Ginger Alden spent her first night alone with Elvis listening to him narrate a Christian picture book: “He had this large book with a symbol and said, ‘This is an illustration of God.’ It was a man with a long flowing beard with symbols of fire, ice and wind to the sides. Elvis started reading it to me, and then he handed me the book and wanted me to read to him.” Ginger Alden is, of course, Elvis’s last girlfriend and the woman who would later discover him dead in front of the toilet in a position resembling muslim prayer.
This is not Elvis; This is me morbidly reproducing the scene that Ginger Alden describes at 3:00 am on a Wednesday to make sure it does actually resemble a muslim in prayer.
The Memphis Mafia, a happy band of yes-men, would do as apostles. They did do, that is, until their casual ruckus and horseplay got Graceland into lawsuits and three men, two of whom were Elvis’s close childhood friends, were dismissed. Competing accounts suggest that these three men were the only Mafiosos to discourage Elvis’s prescription drug problem. The three would address the addiction in their book, Elvis, What Happened?, which reads like a concerned, if not critical, telling of tall tales:
“He firmly believes he is a prophet who was destined to lead, designated by God for a special role in life,” they write, qualifying with a bizarre anecdote, in which Elvis orders a car to stop so that his crew can look at the sky:
‘Now see that cloud? I will show you what my powers really are. Now I want you all to watch. All of you, look at that cloud.' Well, we all look at the damn little cloud up there like a bunch of goats. Elvis is staring a hole through the damn thing. Well, the perspiration is dripping off us. Not a sound in the car, just a whole lot of dummies dying of heat stroke looking up at a cloud. I'm near dying and I am praying that the sonofabitch would blow away. At the same time, I'm really having a problem not to burst out laughing. Well, after about ten minutes, thank God, the damn thing dissipated a little. I mean, if you watch a single cloud anyway after ten minutes, it will move or dissipate to some degree. I saved the day by noticing it first, and, because I didn't want to die of dehydration, I said, 'Gee, Elvis, you're right. Look, it's moving away,' That was just the right thing to say. Old Elvis gave me one of those sly little smiles that told me he had done it again. 'I know, I moved it,' he says. Then we drive off.
The men insisted that this book was their public intervention. Two weeks after its publication, Elvis died.
Before this big betrayal, these three were given gifts of handguns and top-of-the-line holsters (likely monogrammed) – many of them sold to Graceland. They enjoyed shooting targets such as this one (pictured) with Elvis and were, according to the auctioneer, sharp shots.
Receipts are so unfeeling, the way they catalog things! It’s a sad day when a banquet of suckling pig, Rockefeller oysters, and fried chicken can be confined to the parenthetical ‘food’. It says nothing of the first dance, which was to Love me Tender, or of Elvis’s specific request to remove the word ‘obey’ from the vows. It doesn’t even hint – though I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to – that the newlyweds had not had sex until their wedding night.
Elvis was no virgin, himself, but extramarital sex was a shameful thing for women, especially for the virgin Priscilla. She was 14 when they met during his army tour in Germany, moving to Elvis’ father’s house shortly thereafter. It was innocent. She begged Elvis for sex and he refused; both of their urges were satisfied “in every way short of penetration” for seven years.
This is, assuredly, the work of early Elvis, whose ideals of control was self-imposed self-restraint. Self-restraint from sex, self-restraint from celebrity: he joined the army and risked losing momentum as a star; self-restraint from delusions of grandeur: he questioned his own position and was haunted by the question, “why me?” – chilling considering that he often wondered why he was the surviving twin; and frankly, self-restraint from fun. Elvis was seriously introspective and forced himself into intellectual and spiritual study.
Priscilla, who was his ward for seven years before becoming his wife, naturally fell into Elvis’s purview. He told her how to dress, how to do her hair and makeup. He took her to the Memphis Morgue, where he was fascinated by the corpses. He isolated her in the mansion of Graceland and asked her to have pretend-sex with other women while he watched. He imposed a policy of celibacy when his sales declined to the Beatles and his weight ballooned. And when Priscilla was pregnant with his only child, Elvis explained that the birth would change their sex lives. I don't fuck moms, he said. (Although he did break this rule more than once.)
One of his later mandates, that she train under karate instructor Mike Stone, lead to Priscilla’s goodbye. And when she announced that she was leaving him for Stone, Elvis forced himself on her.
With Priscilla began his easy transition into control-mania. He picked virgins who he could sexually train to his liking. His famous reaction to a breakup: “Does that mean I have to get someone else, train them how I want them?”
This was the doped-up, double-chin Elvis. The one who waged a judgmental war on drugs while abusing prescription pills; who fetishized absolute, petty control directed at pedestrians and speeding cars while he himself spun out of control.
This tourmaline ring has passed through many hands. The single ring – a holy grail of sorts – has a tragedy all its own, travelling through Elvis’ girlfriend, to The National Enquirer, to an oilman with a good poker hand, and finally to the unnamed winner of a sweepstakes. The story spans all of glitzy America:
The offered 18-karat yellow gold, diamond and tourmaline ring was worn by Elvis and then given to his girlfriend Linda Thompson. At the 10-year anniversary of Elvis' passing, the National Enquirer obtained this ring and, as an homage, included the ring as a prize in a contest for one lucky reader to win. The winner of the wildly popular contest was a woman from Texas. It is believed that the current consignor obtained the ring from Brown Humphries, who owned a construction company that was doing work in Texas. Humphries won the ring in a poker game from an oilman who had purchased it directly from the Texas woman that won the Enquirer contest. The ring is accompanied by an original copy of the August 11, 1987 issue of the National Enquirer in which the contest was announced and images of the ring appeared. The ring, weighing approximately 21.5 grams, has 20 round diamonds, measuring approximately 1.8 to 3.0 mm and weighing approximately 1.75 carats; 22 marquise-cut green tourmalines, measuring approximately 6 by 3 mm; and one large, dark-colored, radiant-cut center tourmaline, measuring approximately 12.4 by 1.2 mm. The interior of the back is stamped “CR 18K” and the ring measures approximately size 10. Accompanied by a letter of authenticity from Graceland Authenticated.
In the Graceland auction, everything that grazed Elvis’ atmosphere had been traced, dusted, and verified. These relics give the impression that he is eons past – not that he has a living ex-wife who cameod on Melrose Place, a daughter who was an ex-Scientologist, and a granddaughter who played the redhead in Mad Max: Fury Road. Nor does it tell of his reality television connections: his ex-girlfriend, Linda Thompson, appeared on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and her own short-lived reality show, Princes of Malibu. Her children and an ex-husband are lame staples of the genre: Brody and Caitlyn Jenner. The former has Elvis’ motto “TCB,” short for taking care of business, tattooed on his wrist. It’s all heinous stuff, and unfortunately links Elvis to the Kardashian dynasty.
While Elvis’ circle still exists, and feels closer than ever, his bigness has no place in 2016. He has had 39 years of heightened absence and the benefits of his heartbreaking demeanor to build him. Had he survived, he would have had to live alongside Nicolas Cage (who would have been his son-in-law in 2002), Shia Laboeuf (his granddaughter’s costar in American Honey), and Lady Gaga (who his ex-wife predicted he would have loved).
This is no lot, but something true and very important. Elvis has big cheeks. So big, in fact, that a smile fully transforms his face. It is the biggest transformation I noticed between young Elvis and later Elvis – the latter was quick to smile, revealing a small mouth and a new, taut chin. I never saw an expression change someone’s features like this. It’s no wonder that the grinning rhinestone-suit Elvis is adopted by impersonators – no one would hire the first Elvis, in all of his gravitas, to officiate a wedding.
Especially not Priscilla who has often said that impersonators cheapen Elvis; “Elvis had a lot of class,” she has said. These days, she has impersonators of her own, who accompany knockoff Elvis’s on appearances. These would-be ‘Cillas say nothing of her role in rebuilding Elvis’ poorly-run estate, or her own career, which is a footnote to her work as Elvis’ living custodian.
In an interview with The Jonathan Ross Show, Priscilla told of her last conversation with her ex -- a conversation devastating for its optimism: “(I was) asking if he was OK and if he was excited about going on tour and he was [...] he felt he was OK.”
It is the same sense of expectation that fills these auction items with their own small grief. The still-to-be used raquetball bag that Elvis might have used the day he died (he was said to have played that day), likely leaving it out for use the following day, his aircraft’s incomplete logbook, and a promotional poster for his final tour (of which, the last three shows were cancelled).
Now, these objects are leased, drifting about and carrying many stories with them. Their accumulation leads us further from our bygone idol. I collected plenty details and zero closure on the night of the auction. Exposing Elvis’ trifles and doodads, it seems, further shrouds him. They appear as hollow props, especially to his ravenous fans, watching from an eBay screen across different timezones. I don’t think I would be happy to own something of his. Instead, I am happy to watch as he becomes such a forlorn god that his vision appears on a bug, and on toasted bread, and a monument of him is found in Mars, where his admirers tend to prefer Blue Suede Shoes.