AS HISTORY WOULD see it, 1956 would be year one, ground zero in the phenomenon known as Elvis Presley. So much metamorphosis would occur in both his personal and professional lives that 1956 could be seen as a reference point—the time when Elvis went from regional performer to national sensation, ending his age of innocence.
Barbara Hearn, a dark-haired Memphis beauty he had known casually for years, was one of the young women he dated that year. Decades later, Barbara still spoke fondly of their time together, despite the heavy competition for Elvis’ attention. “My husband tells everybody that Elvis and I dated steadily for a year. And I say, ‘No. I dated him steadily for a year. He didn’t date anybody steadily for more than 15 minutes.’”
Barbara never asked him about all the other women in his life, but she suspected that he divided them into “good girls” and “road girls,” the latter of whom were fair game and didn’t mean anything beyond the moment. “He was very, very respectful to women. If you could see how he treated me, my mother, his own mom, his grandmother—we were people he cared about. The ones who went backstage were in a different category. They were fans.”
ON APRIL 15, 1956, Elvis, billed as “the Nation’s Only Atomic-Powered Singer,” played the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio. There to meet him was Kay Wheeler, the virginal 17-year-old president of the first national Elvis Presley fan club. Kay was in something of a teenage haze. A year earlier, she hadn’t even been able to find a picture of Elvis. But by early 1956, working from her Dallas home and aided by two sisters, she had built the club into more than 20,000 members, each of whom received a large autographed photo of Elvis, a “Presley pink” membership card, and a four-page monthly newsletter. Kay was as atomic-powered as the object of her affections, and only Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, matched her devotion and energy in promoting Elvis into a major heartthrob.
At the beginning of April, Kay had received a letter from Parker’s secretary telling her that Elvis would be on tour in Texas, and inviting her to attend the kickoff show in San Antonio. When the big day came, she chose a clinging sheath dress, dangly pearl earrings, and a pair of spike heels. Then she boarded a Greyhound bus for a 270-mile ride that would mark her first trip away from home. When she arrived at the auditorium, she flashed a telegram from Col. Parker, and was waved through by a guard. Backstage, Parker’s second in command, Tom Diskin, pointed to an unmarked door and said, “Elvis is in his dressing room. Just go on in.”
Elvis was sitting in front of a mirror, smoothing down his dark-blond ducktail, and he turned to look over his shoulder at her. Kay’s knees went wobbly. “Hi, Elvis,” she managed. “I’m Kay Wheeler, the president of your fan club.” “My fan club president?” he asked. He seemed surprised. Kay thought he knew she was coming, but there wasn’t time to think about that now, because the 21-year-old singer had on a blue satin shirt that matched his eyes, and there was a mischievous grin on his face. “If any man ever stepped out of a dream,” she thought, “it was Elvis Presley.”
Elvis stood and walked toward her, staring. The room began swirling, but she could see he was still smiling, and she thought he was about to say something. Instead, he put his hands on her shoulders, and then began following her curves. He slid his hands up over her hips, then moved his fingers to her waist, and nearly up to her breasts. Finally, he spoke: “Is all this really you?”
“He pretty much groped me,” she recalls. “I was overwhelmed. He came on like Godzilla.”
Kay stepped back until his hands dropped away, and then they were both embarrassed. “Gee,” she murmured. Just about then, the door opened, and in came a gaggle of reporters to ask him questions. Kay stood back and watched. Then, in the middle of the interview, Elvis motioned for her to come over. Before she knew what was happening, he grabbed her, turned her around, and pulled her toward him until her back was pressed up against him. He folded her into his arms and kissed the side of her face as photographers snapped away. Kay couldn’t believe what was happening. “He should have been under freaking arrest. He’s feeling me up in that picture. Those are some of the most blatantly sensual poses that I’ve ever seen him in with a girl.”
Just before going onstage, he kissed Kay passionately, pushing against her in a way no boy had done before. Then he launched into the first of two shows before 6,000 deafening fans.
ALREADY, ELVIS’ REPUTATION as a sex symbol was becoming a burden. Some years later, in the 1960s, he would tell Larry Geller, a member of his entourage, that in the early days of his fame he had relations with so many women that he was hospitalized for exhaustion. Whether that was the reason behind a 1955 hospital visit in Jacksonville, Fla., isn’t known. But according to Geller, the experience chastened Elvis. Elvis’ sex-god label also seemed to hamper him psychologically. Women assumed, from his image and his movements onstage, that he was a lover of legendary proportions. But he was insecure about his sexual prowess, fearing that he might not measure up in bed to women’s expectations. This was a factor is his gravitation toward 13- and 14-year-old girls. Young teens were likely to be satisfied simply to make out—precisely where Elvis felt most at ease.
Sometime in the fall of 1956, Elvis’ father, Vernon, was visiting a Memphis Oldsmobile dealership where the family often had their cars repaired, when the owner, a man named Mowel, asked if his 14-year-old daughter, Gloria, could meet Elvis. Vernon Presley said that was ?ne, and for Gloria to come on over anytime.
On Oct. 11, Gloria showed up at the tidy one-story ranch house on Audubon Drive that Elvis had bought for his family in the spring. She was shocked to see Elvis answer the door himself.
Gloria was cute, sweet, and personable, and she knew music—she identified “Ruby, Baby,” a recent hit by the Drifters, whom Elvis loved, playing on the phonograph in the den. So after her visit, Elvis invited her back another day. Soon, she was taking her friends Heidi Heissen and Frances Forbes, who were also 14, and Elvis began asking them over for evening swims at the house, or just to watch TV. Frances, a petite, dark-haired beauty, had been hanging out by the gate of the house since she was 13. “He didn’t pay any attention to me then, but when I was 14, he noticed me. Fourteen was a magical age with Elvis. It really was.”
Fanatical in their devotion, the three girls followed Elvis everywhere he went in Memphis. Elvis had an easy rapport with the trio and felt as if he could ask them what the other kids were saying about him and his music. They were his local contacts with the larger fan base, but it went deeper than that. “He was fascinated with them,” said Lamar Fike, an aspiring deejay who was starting to integrate himself into Elvis’ entourage. In no time, Elvis was inviting the girls to go to a local roller-skating rink, and by 1957, they became his constant companions, part of the group that went to the nearby Mid-South Fairgrounds to crash into one another in the dodge-’em cars and eat endless Pronto Pups. “They were just as nutty as fruitcakes, but they were fun,” Fike remembers. “All three of them were pretty cute girls.”
As Elvis’ attraction to the girls grew, they started staying for private pajama parties—just 14-year-old Heidi, Gloria, Frances, and their 22-year-old host, holed up in his bedroom, a pale-yellow room equipped with a selection of pink stuffed animals. Elvis didn’t seem to mind that his mother had chosen such a girlish motif. “When you were in that room,” says Gloria, “you wanted to shut out the whole world for the rest of your life.”
In an odd suspension of time and gender, Elvis became not only their age but also a teenage girl. After swims in the Presleys’ pool, he’d wash and dry their hair, and they’d blow his hair dry, too. He’d tease them, say to Gloria, “Frances was jealous tonight because I was throwing you in the pool!” Then they’d all giggle, and he’d show them how to put makeup on their eyes the way he liked it, heavy on the shadow and mascara. Sometimes he’d apply the eyeliner himself. Then they’d lie on the beds and roughhouse and have pillow ?ghts, Elvis tickling and kissing them until they couldn’t take it anymore.
The girls insisted that nothing overtly sexual happened inside Elvis’ pastel lair, though it came close on occasion, as Gloria later remembered. “We’d tickle, ?ght, laugh, mess around, but all you’d have to say is, ‘Stop!’, and he’d roll over and quit. It would never be mentioned again that night. But next time, it would be the same thing exactly. You’d ?ght with him, kid around, and scuf?e. The next thing, he’d get serious and you’d just push him away. I think that if he really pushed, I would have done it.”
No matter how Elvis rationalized his interest in mentoring young girls, the relationship contained a strong erotic element. Elvis and the girls would sit on the bed yoga-style, with Elvis in the middle, and he’d kiss each one. “Gloria is jealous ’cause I kissed Frances,” he’d say, and then turn it around: “Frances is jealous ’cause I kissed Heidi.” Eventually, they’d tire of it all, and Elvis would turn out the light, lying with an arm around two of them, with the third girl stretched out across his feet. “Elvis was always kissing,” says Frances, “and it was a good kiss, a real good one. He might be doing anything—playing pool, anything—he’d walk up and kiss you, or he might turn his cheek for you to kiss him. He was especially romantic when it was just you and him. He might talk to you about things that bothered him, and just like teenagers, you’d neck a little bit. Elvis was like a teenager somewhat—the things we did were things that kids do. They really were all very innocent.”
Heidi, Gloria, and Frances were always the last fans to leave Audubon Drive. At 3 or 4 in the morning, Elvis would sit up and kiss each girl and say, “I love you, and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Fike would drive the girls home, and they’d catch a few hours of sleep before getting up and going to junior high. “The amazing thing is that I never had one problem with any of the parents,” Fike says. “Not ever. It was something I assumed would not happen, and it didn’t.”
Elvis didn’t want his mother to know they stayed so late, and before Gladys Presley got up, they were out and gone. But chances are she was aware that they were there, and she probably didn’t mind. Gladys knew that Elvis, a boy-man, was looking for a child-woman he could mold into his idea of a perfect mate. Fourteen-year-olds were just the right age, as they allowed him to play the role of the older man who would teach them about life. If he could ?nd one who had his mother’s coloring, who shared her values, and who also somehow felt like his twin soul, she would hold him captive.
His friendship with the trio of Memphis teenagers lasted through the early 1960s, about the time he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife.
From the book Baby, Let’s Play House ©2010 by Alanna Nash. Used with permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How the South's ugly racial history is haunting ObamaCare
- If Democrats abandon immigration reform after Tuesday's likely loss, they will turn 2016 into a debacle
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
- Stop making fun of philosophy and read some philosophy
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Israel's quiet doomsday submarines are almost ready
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- What if Leo Strauss was right?
- The culture war finally comes to the Catholic Church
Subscribe to the Week