Though hundreds of books have been written about the King, no book has solely explored his relationships with women and how they influenced his music and life—until now. The book also spotlights important early girlfriends and the women who dared to turn him down, including Cher, Petula Clark, and Karen Carpenter, as well as two women—Kay Wheeler and Tura Satana—who taught him dance moves he used onstage. Baby, Let's Play House, named after the song that was his first to hit the national charts and his mother's favorite Elvis recording, presents Elvis in a new light—as a charming but wounded Lothario who bedded scores of women but seemed unable to maintain a lasting romantic relationship.
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While fully exploring the most famous romantic idol of the twentieth century, award-winning veteran music journalist Alanna Nash pulls back the covers on what Elvis really wanted in a woman—and was tragically never able to find. A compilation of the many women of Elvis's life, none more important than his mother Gladys.
Gladys was ten or eleven years old, but she ripped a plowshare off and took the point and hit him in the head with it. Damn near killed him. Still, Gladys had her vulnerabilities, most of them emotional. Though she attended religious services—worshipping at the Church of God and Prophecy—Gladys held to primitive superstitions, and not even her faith could completely quell the anxiety and impulsivity that plagued her from the time she was a small child. She was frightened by all kinds of things—by thunderstorms and wind. She was always hearing noises outside at night and imagining there was someone in the bushes.
In time, her uneasiness with life would escalate to full-blown phobias.
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Once she moved to East Tupelo—which sat across Town Creek from the more prosperous Tupelo proper—she had all the bushes around her house cut down, terrified that dark things were moving in them. Her anxieties came and went without warning. She seemed better with the promise of social outlets, when she had something to look forward to, something that would take her mind off the dreariness of existing hand to mouth. And one of the things that most stirred her imagination was the opposite sex.
As a young child, Gladys seemed scared of boys. Her sister Lillian recalled that the first time a boy asked if he could walk her home from school, Gladys took off her shoes and ran. When he caught up with her, he walked way on one side of the road, and she way on the other. Kissing was strictly forbidden, as it inevitably led to other things.
By her late teen years, Gladys was well over her fear of boys, and now it was she who chased them. Years later, Pid Harris, who dated her in her youth, reported she was fast and liked to play, which, of course, was a scandal. He remembered her fighting with another girl, the two of them slapping and hitting— We had to pull them off of each other —evidently over a man. But one by one, her older sisters were leaving home to marry, and now Gladys felt the pressure. Her impulsiveness—coupled with her desire to escape the oppression of toiling the fields and caring for her mother and younger siblings—led her to elope with a young farmer when she was in her late teens.
Her embarrassment knew no bounds when she learned the man was married. The family was stunned with disbelief—Doll had always been the sickly one—and so unprepared they had to borrow a winding sheet from Mrs. Irwin, the coproprietor of the general store, to wrap the body for placement in an unmarked grave in Spring Hill Cemetery. But rather than stepping up and taking charge, nineteen-year-old Gladys seemed to crumble. Coming so soon after her failed elopement, the loss of her father was a double blow. Bob Smith had been the one stable man in her life. Worse, the family would be split up, with Doll going to live with Levalle and her husband, Ed.
Gladys, feeling responsible for the rest of the family, would have to find a full-time job in a town that offered little employment outside of the cotton mill and textile plant.
Elvis Presley and the women who loved him
In the weeks that followed, Gladys fell into a complete and total collapse. At first, she seemed to revert to the lethargy that had so annoyed Lillian when Gladys was an adolescent. But then she began displaying the classic symptoms of what psychologists call conversion hysteria, in which grief becomes manifested in physical ailments. A friend remembered she became so anxious that she could not walk. Gladys got herself into such a state that her legs would start shaking every time she was fixing to go out of the house.
Finally she took to the safety of her bed, unable to move without the help of others, replicating the state that her mother had manifested for decades. Conversion hysteria acts to block the mental pain from conscious awareness, and also provides the benefit of allowing its victims to avoid unwanted responsibilities, wrote psychologist Whitmer. Ten years later, in the winter of , she had a similar reaction to another tragedy.
This time, conversion hysteria rendered her mute. She just stood there, saying nothing. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She was wringing her hands over and over. Back in them days, we had woodstoves, and she went to build a fire in the stove to cook dinner, and thought she had got all of the sparks out from the one before.
She poured a little coal oil in it, and it flamed up and caught her on fire and burned her. Rhetha lingered a few agonizing hours before expiring. In both instances, the only thing that freed Gladys from psychological paralysis and restored her to normalcy was her religious faith, particularly after she began participating in Pentecostal services at the tiny Assembly of God church in the economically deprived East Tupelo, sharply divided from Tupelo by a levee and cotton fields. There, in a tent pitched on a neighborhood lot, some thirty worshippers gathered each Sunday to pray, sing, and feel the spirit take hold way down inside them.
Later they moved to an old building up on the highway. Annie Presley termed it a tabernacle. Just a roof and a couple of sides. No pews or chairs. Just things set up with long planks across them. The congregation also met in an old movie house, ironic, since the Assembly of God frowned on picture shows, if not music. In all of our church services, music and singing were very meaningful parts, recalled Reverend Frank W.
Smith, who became pastor at the church about ten years later. We would always begin our services with congregational singing. Not loud singing, but worship singing. We had a song leader, and everyone would join in and sing along together. Sometimes there would be no worshipful expressions during this part of the service, just singing. As in other Pentecostal churches, the Assembly of God revered speaking in tongues as evidence that the Holy Spirit talked through the parishioners.
Both the speakers and the interpreters of the sounds, variously called the barks, the jerks, and the Holy laugh, were held in the highest esteem. By the time he got there, she was dead. Gladys was the one that took the baby out of my bed and put it over on another bed when she died. She stayed right with me. Annie, only nineteen, was too weak and distraught to go to the graveyard, so Gladys stayed with her then, too, while everybody else went. Your belief in God will get you through, Gladys told the devastated mother over and over.
Look to God. They eloped two months after they met, on June 17, , in Pontotoc County, where Vernon, barely seventeen but looking every bit a full-grown man, could pass as one. He borrowed the money for the marriage license, which spelled his name Virnon, either because the clerk made an error, or because Vernon, who was only semiliterate throughout his life, knew no better. Both he and his bride lied about their ages, Vernon adding five years, for twenty-two, and Gladys subtracting two, for nineteen.
In a photograph taken of them about that time, they can hardly conceal their hunger for each other, their heads pressed together, Gladys snuggled up to him from behind, her arm around his shoulder. Yet it was not precisely love at first sight. I was too wild in those days. So Gladys quit seeing me and we quit seeing the Smith girls for a while. But soon it was a foursome again, as Clettes married Vester after Gladys wed Vernon—two brothers marrying two sisters.
So their kids and my brother, Bobby, and me were double first cousins, explains Billy Smith. None of that was lost on the locals. Even as Tupelo looked down on East Tupelo, East Tupelo was divided into two sects—the more prosperous below the highway, and the less fortunate above the highway. The highway being Rosella, who never knew him, grew up independent and freethinking, and continued the tradition, bringing ten illegitimate children into the world by various men who never stayed long enough to know their offspring. A sharecropper, she died at sixty-three without ever identifying the fathers of most of her children.
But her youngest son, Joseph Presley, would say a man named Steele, part Cherokee Indian, sired at least a few of her brood. She was a very strict disciplinarian, but a loving mother. Despite the hardships, she always managed to give each of us a little present at Christmas—even if it was only a piece of candy or a secondhand pair of shoes. Though she had no real education, she wanted better for her children, and saw to it that they attended school. Noah Presley, the good son, moved to East Tupelo, where he ran a grocery store and drove a school bus. Civic minded, with a soft spot for children he had thirteen of his own , he regularly took the kids of East Tupelo to the zoo in Memphis on Sundays.
On the other end of the scale was Jessie Presley, also known as J. Like his son, Jessie had married at seventeen, wedding an older woman Minnie Mae was eight years his senior of higher social standing. In contrast to his brother, Jessie D. McClowell Presley was as self-centered and parsimonious as Noah was generous. Everyone in East Tupelo talked about how mean he was, particularly when he drank. We went somewhere else if we wanted to eat. Still, Jessie has his defenders. Was he being stingy, or were the times just hard and he was being careful?
To judge him on that is a little bit unfair. Given to dapper suits, he cut such a handsome figure that women were said to stare at him as he strutted down the road.
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But Vernon did, in fact, demonstrate an aversion to three things: responsibility, conflict, and work. For a while, he and Vester—shorter, scrawnier, and no competition with the ladies—tried farming a little truck patch together, planting cotton, corn, and soybeans. But Vernon hated getting up before the sun and soon resorted to odd jobs, including working for Orville Bean. Jessie, who was a skilled carpenter, helped his son with the construction, as did Vester. The three, mindful of the floods that raged through the area in the spring, raised the little house off the ground with stone piles.
When it was finished, in , it resembled housing constructed for mill villages around the area and was solid enough to last a hundred years or so, if not especially fancy, with no indoor plumbing or ceiling, just the roof. The two families shared a cow and some chickens out back. By the end of June , Gladys realized she was pregnant, and around her fifth month she told everybody she was having identical twins.
Not only was she uncommonly large, all swollen up and heavy, and her legs hurting her, but also with time, she could feel two babies kicking inside her. Besides, twins ran in the family on both sides—Gladys had identical twin cousins, Elzie and Ellis Mansell, and Sales Presley had a fraternal twin, Gordon.
For her baby shower, Gladys received the usual items that comfort newborn infants, but also two sheets and thirty dollars in cash. Her friends and family were concerned that Vernon would drink it all up. Gladys had always wanted a house full of children, all of them around her all the time, and she and Vernon were giddy with the news. Vernon thought he was a stud, remembers Lamar Fike. Elvis used to say that Vernon knew when Elvis was conceived, because afterwards, he blacked out. They picked out rhyming names—Jessie Garon for the firstborn, and Elvis Aaron. The Garon simply rhymed with Aaron.
In the predawn morning of January 8, , Gladys awoke to intense labor pains, and rallied her husband from sleep. Vernon, she said, shaking him. And go call the doctor. Come quick! Gladys is in labor! Minnie Mae and Jessie rushed over in their nightclothes, Jessie still hung over from the night before. Minnie Mae asked Gladys some questions, and then also implored her son to get the doctor.
He took off running to Highway 78 and the nearest telephone, dialing the four numbers that connected him to sixty-eight-year-old Dr. Minnie Mae somehow sent word to the midwife, Edna Robinson, and began boiling a large pot of water on the wood-burning stove. By the time Dr. Hunt arrived, steering his Model T Ford the mile and a half across the levee to the Presley home, Gladys was about to deliver.
Jessie Garon appeared first, around 4 A. Then a hush fell over the room, and Dr.
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Hunt announced that the child was lifeless, stillborn. Gladys let out a long, piercing wail as the midwife carried the dead infant out into the back room. Vernon, too, was crying, but according to the story Billy Smith heard down the years from the family, Jessie, drunk out of his mind, thought Vernon was laughing.
The baby is dead! Precisely what happened to Jessie Garon is open to speculation. Might Jessie have been injured in the accident? According to the oft-repeated story, Dr. Hunt had his coat on to leave when Gladys insisted there was another baby. One variation of the tale has it that the first baby could have lived, that Dr. Just before the births, he said, there were two identical medicine bottles setting on the mantel of the fireplace. Just as Gladys was giving birth, one of the bottles inexplicably burst, while the other remained intact.
After Jessie was pronounced dead, Vernon interpreted the exploding bottle as a sign from heaven. When Jessie died, he said, Elvis took over his soul and spirit. Hunt, who billed the Presleys only fifteen dollars as a labor case, sent her to the Tupelo Hospital, where she would stay for two weeks. Elvis, who was being breast-fed, went with her.
Hunt announced in church that the Presleys had had twins, and that one had died. The community may have been poor, but it looked after its own, Janelle McComb reported. Some of the congregation went to visit and took things. A few days after the delivery, a still exhausted Dr. Pegues at his side. There, in the Presley plot, they supposedly carried out their grim task, burying the infant in an unmarked grave that all but disappeared when the grass grew in. But Priceville has been questioned in later years.
Billy Smith says that Jessie was, indeed, buried in an unmarked grave, but in another cemetery closer to Saltillo. And Joe Savery, who owns the original death certificate, has said that nobody really knows where that child is buried. Later on, Elvis tried to find out.
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You would think that somebody in the family would have known where they buried that child, but I have never known anybody that does. However, Roy Turner believes Priceville is the burial spot after all. Someone put a small marble foot marker there years ago that sets near the grave of Noah Presley.
A lot of people in that era were not able to afford tombstones. When I first saw the grave, there was only a concrete chunk marking the spot and some artificial flowers. Some years back, I was doing a documentary on the  Tupelo tornado and interviewed Mr. Pegues, wanting to know how many deaths they handled, continues Roy Turner.
They had a little wood coffin for the baby and all. Maybe bones. Why bother? Leave it in its resting place. Presley spelled it, not Jesse, as is so often written. Gladys had a one-track mind, offered a female cousin.