Confessions of a Royal watcher:
Celebrating Prince George’s first birthday with Elvis
Friday, August 22, 2014 8:43 AM
Let’s get straight to a confession.
1) To commemorate Prince George’s first birthday in July, I had to do something.
But let me start by saying that last January I had another work-related chance to spot a royal when my husband and I shepherded a group of college students around London, where Queen Elizabeth and her family have lodgings, but, yet again, had no luck. Sure, I gazed at the official painted replica of Kate’s head on a wall in the National Portrait Gallery and bought the postcard rendition for my refrigerator, but that’s not the same as seeing her adjust her wind-blown brunette hair while surrounded by gob-smacked fans in polite hysteria.
A week later, in a tourist information center in Cambridge (the university city that Kate is “Duchess of”) I spied the mother-of-the-third-in-line-to-the-throne, but, alas, she was just a life-sized cardboard cut-out standing next to her glossy, flat husband. Nonetheless, I zoomed to the couple, who were positioned next to one of those machines that squashes pennies into good luck charms, and posed for a picture.
Pathetic, I know.
It pains me to confess that the Windsor clan eludes me.
So you won’t be surprised to hear I chose not to follow the minute-to-minute details of the young Cambridge family’s spring 2014 vacation – I mean tour of duty – to New Zealand and Australia. I can’t tell you Kate and William’s good-will itinerary to remnants of the Commonwealth. Or how much the star-power couple paid George’s nanny to get him out of their hair when they yacht-raced on April 11 in a New Zealand harbor. Deliberately, I weaned myself from spending valuable time drooling over Kate’s designer dresses (the Alexander McQueen bluish-pink dress with “three-quarter sleeves, peplum details and a pleated, flirty-full skirt” worn to Adelaide on April 23 would look great on me).
Strange but true, I scarcely thought about the not-yet-one-year-old-baby-traveler’s “sailboat-smocked dungarees” worn to a media-covered play date at Wellington’s Government House or “striped polo and navy shorts” Easter outfit. But then, no one I shop for is a candidate to copy-cat-wear the soon-to-be-outgrown clothes and shoes of a miniature fashion icon. Parents world-wide, though, want their nappy-wearing, projectile-vomiting, cranky kids to be seen in the future king’s threads, as evidenced by The New York Times article titled “Ascending to the Throne of Trendsetter.” The little dude’s outfits sold out in hours.
His first steps
By sheer chance, I caught the mid-June astounding news of toddler George taking his first public steps (with the help of his mother) at a polo match. (Thanks, Brian Williams.) Though I slacked off during my royal watching duties, I would never forgive myself if I didn’t somehow celebrate Prince George’s milestone first birthday on July 22. (The royal child and I share an astrological sign.)
Vacationing at the home of America’s first king (albeit of rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis) was the most monarchy-like partying I could do on a slim budget.
Besides, Elvis, Caroline Kennedy, and I had unfinished business.
In 1977, the summer before my last year in college, I traded being a swimming pool basket room attendant for a stint at my hometown newspaper. The weekly never had an intern before, so the editor dished out workplace tasks to enhance my communication skills: writing up obituaries and weddings (learned to spell boutonniere), reporting about, say, the new inhalation therapist at the hospital (he smoked), and adhering mailing labels to brown envelopes with a paste concoction stirred up in a yellow dog dish. I got around on a ten-speed bike bought with saved-up allowance money.
The newspaper was the heart of a happening river town where people were “called by death” and the police were “hot on the trail” – like the time a high school grad dressed up in a gorilla outfit, loitered outside the bank until it opened, limped in, and robbed the establishment brandishing a gun he’d stolen from his grandma. Everyone knew who the guy was, but the case wasn’t cracked for months.
On Aug. 17, I sauntered into the newspaper office and heard a frantic voice say, “Elvis died yesterday and you need to get the local angle.”
“Elvis who?” I answered.
It was a small town and I didn’t know anybody named Elvis.
“You know, the King. Elvis Presley. There’s a girl in town who went to an Elvis concert. Her name’s Debbie. You need to call her and ask her how she’s feeling. “
“About what?” I asked.
(Is this where I confess I was not an Elvis fan?)
After retrieving my reporter’s notebook and pen from the corner nearest the spider plant, I dialed Debbie’s number. The teen wasn’t home. She was en route to Madison, the capital city, to take part in a candlelight vigil to chant his name and mourn his death. I interviewed Debbie’s mom.
“How’s Debbie taking the news?”
“She’s devastated, like all of us.”
Debbie’s mom – a good sport – listed off all the names of Elvis records that Debbie owned. She saved her bombshell for last, revealing that at the concert Debbie attended, Elvis threw an article of clothing to the crowd.
“Did Debbie catch it?”
“No, but Elvis meant it for her, if you know what I mean.”
Can’t say for sure, but I think my story headline was “Local Girl Attended Concert of Late Elvis.”
I laid my low-key connection to Elvis to rest until I devoured a biography about Caroline Kennedy – the daughter of JFK and Jackie – who is approximately my age. She’s practically royalty. Her parents had wealth and pearls and visited my hometown on the presidential campaign trail, nine months to the day, locals erroneously claim, before John Jr. was born. Caroline was also a 1977 cub reporter assigned to get the Elvis scoop. Only her editor sent her from the East Coast to Graceland to get the national angle in person and view the deceased King in his coffin. Reportedly, Caroline even interviewed the King’s ex-wife.
I have been jealous for about a decade.
So, a few July 2014 weeks before Prince George’s first birthday – which, by the way, was reportedly celebrated at Kensington Palace with a rabbit-themed tea party – I piled some family members into a car headed to Graceland, the kingdom in Tennessee where, if I remember correctly, the voice of Elvis said, “Welcome to my world” over a loudspeaker.
More than a mansion
In case you don’t know, Graceland is more than a mansion. It’s also an automobile museum featuring the pink Cadillac the on-the-cusp-of-adulthood-king gave his mother and his collection of “motorized toys,” a pair of custom jets (the “Lisa Marie” boasts a 24-carat gold-plated seatbelt on Elvis’ bed in his air bedroom), and an exhibit about Elvis’ links with Hawaii (including the crown a fan hand-delivered at a concert and information that in 1956 he received “over 21,000 Christmas cards from Hawaiians”). Plus a collection of be-jeweled jumpsuits (looked like onesies any royal baby could wear but upsized) he wore for sold-out audiences in Las Vegas.
I mistakenly expected my Graceland experience to be sort of tacky.
The only tourist I questioned about her reason for being in the long line for the Platinum Tour said, “I’m not a super fan, but it seemed like a good thing to do since we’re here.” She was from Illinois. Her husband added, “He wasn’t too bad of a singer.” Once at the mansion – where throngs of screaming girls were kept at bay by gates back in the years when no one debated whether or not Elvis was alive – I donned on the audio-tour headphones.
Within minutes, thirty-plus dollars per person seemed like a bargain to thread through Elvis’ digs and see his crystal chandeliers, peacock-stain-glass windows, fake-fur covered furniture, three televisions side-by-side so he could watch the main networks at once, mirrored stair-step walls, scads of hit music awards, and harvest-gold-colored refrigerator. Gosh, the King, who could make concert-going-girls faint by his dangerous renditions of Hound Dog, even had a blender in his kitchen like the one my husband and I got as a wedding present.
The Jungle Room
I listened with the hushed reverence of a teenage mutant pilgrim to the headphone voice in my ears until my well-mannered traveling companions and I neared the funky Jungle Room – a place where, according to the audio tour, the green shag carpet on the floor and ceiling “improved acoustics.” Elvis hung out there, jammin’ with his entourage in tow.
Pointing to two matched high-back chairs near a big-eyed teddy bear and a group of carved monkeys, I, according to a relative, shouted, “They look like thrones!” (I’m not accustomed to wearing headphones.)
“Be quiet. Everyone can hear you,” she scolded.
“But he’s a king. He has thrones,” I said. My quest, after all, was to be in the presence of greatness since I couldn’t crash George’s birthday party. “Quit taking pictures of me. I don’t look that good,” I loudly added.
Graceland had a kingly demeanor: property big enough to get around easily in golf carts. And Elvis was like the Windsors: a stint in the military, a taste for precious gems and metals (can a person ever have too many gold plated microphones?), and a penchant for getting what he wanted. After all, the pelvis swirling musician – a nocturnal creature – convinced a pet store to open in the middle of the night so he could buy puppies for everyone. Can’t remember if that was before or after he waltzed into the White House uninvited and convinced President Nixon to make him a federal agent so he could fight crime on the street.
A generous king
The King of Graceland was generous, habitually handing out free cars and free horses and free money. He gave his wife (who became his ex-wife) a white Mercedes Roadster. Like Queen Elizabeth II, who dishes out grace-and-favor accommodations on palace grounds for relatives who help her run her kingdom, Elvis made Graceland a multi-generational home for his clan. This included his grandmother, Minnie Mae, who was named as “queen of our home” on her grave marker at the back of the mansion. According to one printed source, she wasn’t keen on wearing her dentures, but liked snuff and aprons and, of course, being around Elvis.
Who could blame her? After four hot hours at Graceland, I balked when my husband said, “We have to go.”
I hadn’t purchased a souvenir from one of the “l2 specialty stores” or figured out how a mere man who sang and starred in movies commands the attention of millions of people decades after his death – be they fanatics who decorate their bedrooms with Elvis memorabilia or jet-black-side-burned-Elvis impersonators in made-to-order replica jumpsuits. I’m guessing the “I Got Lucky” white suit with golden studs is pretty popular.
My pleas of “I’m not ready” did no good, so quickly had to settle for an unsharpened pencil featuring multiple Elvis heads on a pink background and a handful of postcards of the King of rock ‘n’ roll in various positions.
Back in our car in the immense parking lot, I asked my relative who shushed me in the Jungle Room what she thought of our Graceland experience. “I couldn’t name five of his songs when I went in. And now I feel like I’m going to faint.”
Hey, Prince George, happy birthday!
And, Elvis, thanks for the hospitality!