I love that photo of Elvis.
Jan. 8 will be the 85th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley. Don’t fear that this milestone will be celebrated too quietly. Elvis 75 (a shorthand moniker for the event itself, as well as the title of a new greatest-hits collection) will bring an onslaught of commemorative festivities and products, like parties at Graceland, concerts with Elvis impersonators and a movie suggesting that Presley, who died on Aug. 16, 1977, has spent the last three decades in outer space. It will bring everything except realistic thoughts of what the uncontrollably self-destructive Elvis might have been like as a 75-year-old man.
Naturally, there are books. Lots and lots of books. Among the standouts — beyond a tell-all by the doctor who knows a lot about Presley’s death and a hagiography from the lifelong buddy who is fond of saying that America has had many presidents but only one King — is Alanna Nash’s long look at Elvis’s bizarre history with women. She has cleverly borrowed one of his most seductive song titles, “Baby, Let’s Play House.”
Since Ms. Nash’s book is studiously annotated and longer than many biographies of American presidents, there is reason to think she may have done some serious work here. Also, she approaches this subject with a running start. As the author of “The Colonel,” about the carny tricks of Presley’s famously Machiavellian manager, Col. Tom Parker, as well as “Elvis and the Memphis Mafia,” she sounds like someone well connected in the Presley world. So it is only a little bit worrisome to see her identified in the jacket copy for her new book as “the first journalist to see Elvis Presley in his casket.”
That whiff of morbid curiosity turns out to be determinative. So does the genesis of “Baby, Let’s Play House”: Ms. Nash acknowledges that she initially wrote a women-oriented article for Ladies’ Home Journal and then decided to expand it. Thus armed with what she all too aptly calls “an oral history of some of the women in Elvis’s life,” Ms. Nash began padding her story with three kinds of material: her own legitimate interviews (some with women still pining for Elvis 50 years after their fateful encounters), secondhand gossip (from self-serving memoirs and fan publications) and psychobabble. Cobbled together, these elements led her along Presley’s long, winding trail from babes to baby sitters as his life spiraled into sad decline.
“Baby, Let’s Play House” is abundantly illustrated with pictures of Presley with his girlfriends. And the pictures tell a powerful story. He worked his way through a lifetime’s worth of women who looked like his brown-haired, soulful-eyed mother, Gladys. At first they were girls next door. Then, though still from the same cookie cutter, they became ever more beautiful as Elvis’s star rose, to the point where he paired up with women almost as good-looking as he was.
Ms. Nash tells a long, repetitive and dirt-digging version of that dramatic tale. Her central premise, supplied by Peter O. Whitmer (“The Inner Elvis”) in his capacity as this book’s resident psychologist and buttressed by terms like “individuate,” “stuck grief,” “sexual dimorphism” and “estrogen-androgen balance,” is that Presley’s loss of a twin brother at birth set him on a lifelong search for companionship he could never truly find and that his extreme closeness to his mother left no room for other adult women.
Using details too tawdry for even the most voyeuristic fans, the author offers evidence of her subject’s arrested sexual development, physical insecurities and general predilection for the 14-year-old girls who struck him as unthreatening. Sometimes he really did throw pajama parties and teach girls how to put on eye makeup and style their hair.
Some details in “Baby, Let’s Play House” invoke the bottom-feeding biographical style of Albert Goldman. And Ms. Nash, in playing to the rubbernecking crowd, is not shy about using Mr. Goldman as a source. She also replays the memories of each girlfriend who believed herself to be Elvis’s true love (“I was the one who got away”), the creative stylings of too many ghostwriters and the fairy-tale tone of Priscilla Presley, Elvis’s wife. (“I thought I was living inside a dream. Except the dream had come true. I had come home with Elvis.”) Although Ms. Nash usually plays fair with attributions, she sometimes creates the misimpression that material borrowed from fan Web sites is a) current and b) her own.
But she has done her own dogged research too. And some of it is memorably succinct and tough. Consider this near haiku from Patti Parry, the lone female buddy in Elvis’s inner circle: “Nineteen-year-old truck driver becomes superstar and super stud, which he wasn’t.” Or this from Lamar Fike, one of his closest associates: “I’ll give you Elvis’s relationship with Priscilla in a nutshell. You create a statue. And then you get tired of looking at it.” Or from Sheila Ryan Caan, one of the rare girlfriends who felt free to tease Elvis about his sartorial style: “Does Cruella know you have her cape tonight?”
Regardless of how Ms. Nash accrued and assembled this material, she manages to collect all the madness, badness and sadness of the Elvis myth in one exhaustive and (let’s face it) embarrassingly tempting volume. Though she is sure to be excoriated for leaving the emperor unclothed, she also writes with admiration. And after presenting an endless-seeming parade of consorts (he had declined from young starlets to young bank tellers in his final months), Ms. Nash gets the last word on girl-chasing from Elvis at his weariest.
“Why the hell do you put up with her?” Billy Smith, Presley’s cousin and entourage member, tells Ms. Nash that he asked Elvis about Ginger Alden, the consort who was asleep in the next room when he died. Said the King, “I’m just getting too old and tired to train another one.”
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