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The rich but unhappy life of a king

Elvis Presley: A Life; Bobbie Ann Mason. Lipper/Viking: 192 pp., $19.95

January 26, 2003|Elaine Dundy | Elaine Dundy is the author of "Elvis and Gladys," "The Dud Avocado" and, most recently, "Life Itself!"

Elvis has had the most extraordinary life since he died on Aug. 16, 1977. At that time, some 50,000 fans rushed to Graceland to mourn him. On the 10th anniversary of his death, 55,000 pilgrims arrived there and turned it into a World Event, with the media racing to catch up with what was, in effect, his deification. Then came the sightings, and on his birthday in 1993 came the stamp -- the most successful issue in postal history. Suddenly, it was all right to love Elvis: Everybody did.

Now in 2003 he has been raised high in Highbrowland: he has become a Penguin. In its Lives Series he joins such luminaries as Marcel Proust, Dante, Joan of Arc and the Buddha. He may not have been familiar with the first three but, in his ceaseless spiritual quest, he was certainly familiar with the last.

Elvis could not have been better served in this series than by Bobbie Ann Mason. An award-winning author, she grew up on her father's farm in Kentucky. She found her voice writing about working-class people of western Kentucky, which helped her understand Elvis and his family's mind-set. Most important for this work, she has been a fan of Elvis since her teens. She knows firsthand how it felt to be a fan in hot-blooded youth; how it feels to be a fan for more than four decades.

She writes about Elvis: "He was a boy wonder, both endearing and threatening, with a talent that defied category. He set a style of music that would dominate the world for the last part of the century."

Mason tells of Elvis' journey from poverty to instant fame to boundless riches. She tells of teenagers going wild with his sexuality, and parents wild with anxiety. She tells of the death of his beloved mother, his two-year stint in the Army, fading Hollywood stardom. She tells of his sensational comeback special on TV, followed by spectacular shows opening in Las Vegas that brought him back live, his crown secure as never before; of the decline and fall of his body -- not his voice -- and his death at 42.

And just when we become sated with too-frequent mentions of his subservience and passivity, his feelings of inferiority and unworthiness, his fear of a recurrence of poverty, she serves us a helping with a sharp taste and aftertaste that clearly defines Elvis -- paradoxes and all.

Take his passivity: One sees how it even wove itself into his performances. When early Elvis was rocking, his body vibrating, rotating at breakneck speed to the beat of his heart, his golden voice finding new meanings to each song, his face remained curiously placid, expressionless. Just so in his movies. It may be the reason he never became a great film actor. A hundred nuances of thought and emotion do not register on his face in close-up, as they do on all the enduring stars.

Mason points to the startling fact that all Elvis' women left him.What? A king's favorite walking out on his majesty? It may be that he always chose beauties of independent and stable temperament. None slit her wrists and went screaming into the night or to the National Enquirer. Instead they got on with their lives. In his favor, they are invariably better for the time spent with him. Ann-Margret's career soared; Priscilla became an accomplished actress and businesswoman; Linda Thompson a successful songwriter.

Though he may have loved them them all tenderly, Gladys, the Queen Mother, was never deposed. She reigned supreme in his life. But though Elvis sanctified her and remained devastated by her death, after his stint in the Army, when he returned to Hollywood as a money-spinning movie star, his feelings of grief were mixed with relief. He had lost his "moral compass" but gained the freedom to indulge all his exaggerated pleasures. He was getting used to being a king.

In Memphis, he took over amusement parks and movie houses for all-night parties with his ever increasing circle of friends (after all, he didn't have much of a boyhood). In Hollywood he settled into an opulent Arabian Night life in rented mansions in the choicest locations, gated for his protection. Fans sat outside day and night hoping they would be invited in, as some were, for an evening in heaven with Elvis.

So many legends and religions bump into each other in Elvis' story: Orpheus torn to pieces by the maenads; the divine right of kings; Judaic and Christian dealings with the devil.

Jesus, tempted by Satan, resists with a "get thee hence." Dr. Faustus makes his pact with the devil and ends in hell. Early on, Elvis meets Colonel Parker and signs a contract that binds him to the diabolical Dutchman for the rest of his life.

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