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BEVIS HILLIER

Breakfast With Elvis : Today, Don Cravens Sells Real Estate in Reseda. But as a Press Photographer, He Spent Time in Germany with Presley, and Frau Goering.

August 17, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

Don Cravens used to make his living by the shutter of his camera. Today he is more likely to be concerned with the shutters of a "desirable residence." The one-time Life magazine photographer has become a real estate broker. He is not one of the big boys in Beverly Hills. He has a relaxed, satisfactory business in Reseda.

Cravens has virtually retired from press photography. But he still gets royalties from some of his famous pictures, which are reproduced again and again. One of the photographs much in demand is a classic: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a number hung around his neck, being "mug shot" by the police in Montgomery, Ala., during the 1955 bus boycott there. When the picture was taken, Cravens was under threat of violence from both sides. "The blacks called me 'whitey,' " he recalls, "and because Life had taken a strong human-rights stance, the whites in Montgomery called me a 'nigger lover.' "

Cravens has another cache of pictures for which the market is unlikely to decline: color transparencies of Elvis Presley taken during the singer's Army service in Germany in 1959. Cravens had met Presley's manager, Col. Thomas A. Parker, in Nashville. (They are still friends.) Parker commissioned him to accompany Presley to Germany.

Cravens spent a month with Presley at Bad Nauheim, Germany. Elvis, who had a house in the area, would often ask him to breakfast. "I hated to go to breakfast with Elvis," Cravens says. "His grandmother was there with him, and two or three cronies--the 'Memphis Mafia.' She cooked great rashers of bacon, and he would take the toast and soak it in the bacon grease and eat it--and that made me sick. But Elvis would insist; so I had fried eggs swimming in bacon grease, with mounds of toast."

For some weeks, Cravens could not persuade Presley to pose for photographs. "It was hard to get him to stay still," Cravens says. "I'd tell Elvis: 'The Colonel's going to raise hell.' And Elvis would answer: 'Don't worry about it. He hasn't called me yet.' "

Eventually, Cravens managed to take some good color pictures: Elvis driving a tank; Elvis shaving in the woods, with his mirror hanging from a tree; Elvis strumming a guitar or kissing a girl who was wearing a German peasant costume. Parker liked the work so much that later, after Cravens had moved to Hawaii, Parker called and asked Cravens to help choose Hawaiian locations for a Presley telecast that was going to be beamed by satellite from Honolulu to Europe and Japan as well as to America.

As a small boy, Cravens had no ambitions to be a photographer--or a real estate agent. He wanted to be a river-boat captain like his grandfather, Charles R. Spear.

Cravens grew up in Peoria, Ill., where his father was in the grocery business. At 13, he was given a camera and shortly afterward he won a photography prize--offered by the Peoria Journal-Transcript--with a picture of a little girl eating grapes. While still in high school, he began working as a night photographer for the Journal-Transcript. His first big news story was a fire at the Hiram Walker distillery in Peoria. "Whiskey was pouring down the street and people were out there with buckets, trying to fill them with whiskey."

In November, 1936, Life magazine was launched. "From that moment on, I never thought about anything else," Cravens says. But before he could complete a course in business and cinematography at USC, America declared war and he enlisted in the Signal Corps. He asked to be transferred to a combat division and landed in Normandy on D-Day as a movie cameraman with the 2nd Infantry Division. He was with Ernest Hemingway on the entry to Paris through Versailles. ("That guy nearly got us killed. He had a death wish. He would take such crazy chances.") Cravens was photographing Gen. de Gaulle when the French leader was fired on by snipers as he was entering Notre Dame Cathedral. For Cravens' war service, he received two Purple Hearts and the French Medal of Liberty.

He stayed on in Europe, working for International News Photos, which eventually became part of United Press International, and covered the Nuremburg war trials. (At the trials, he was embarrassed to be waved at by Hermann Goering, whose wife and daughter had been released from prison with Cravens' help.)

In 1949, Cravens returned to America to work on the Nashville Tennessean. He moonlighted, photographing album covers for country and Western music. In 1954 he achieved his dream of working for Life on contract. His first story for Life was about Geoffrey B. Onuaha, a black student from then British West Africa who had been "adopted" by the community of Cherokee, Tenn., so that he could receive an American education at nearby Morristown College. "He rode around Cherokee on a motor scooter, wearing long robes," Cravens remembers. From 1954 to 1959, Cravens was kept busy covering integration / segregation conflicts--what he calls "the war in the South."

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