Elvis was born on this day in 1935, Tupelo, Mississippi
From Elvis and Gladys by Elaine Dundy
On the chill afternoon of Tuesday, January 8, 1935, Catherine Hall was walking briskly home. At the end of Lake Street she slowed down looking right and left before crossing Highway 78 like her mama was always cautioning her to, but resumed her stride past Kelly Street and up to the corner of Berry when she brought herself to an abrupt halt. There on the Old Saltillo Road where she lived, right across from the Methodist church, she saw a crowd of neighbors collected around both Presley houses. Something interesting must be going on. Mama would know. She hurried past the people to her own front porch. But Mama was already waiting for her, and even before the thirteen-year-old girl could get out her question she was told to quickly change into her clean dress and tidy herself up because one of the twins young Mrs. Vernon Presley next door had given birth to that morning had passed away and they were going to pay their respects.
When her mother told her she was actually going to see a little baby who had died, Catherine prepared herself to see it looking all funny and twisted and deformed like that little calf that had come out all wrong. Once in the small front room, Catherine took no notice of the people or the food, or of Gladys Presley and the little live baby in bed with her, but slipped away from her mother and went straight to the small, open casket standing by the window. Fearfully she peered into it. Then her fear changed to puzzled astonishment. The tiny baby lying there was perfectly formed. It didn’t even look dead; it just looked asleep. She glanced around at the grownups. Perhaps they’d made a mistake.
Later on Catherine just couldn’t help telling her best friend that in her opinion they could’ve made a mistake putting that little infant in the casket. That baby didn’t look to he like he had anything wrong with him. Couldn’t he be alive and just real quiet, resting or something?
But Catherine’s best friend was one of Vernon Presley’s younger sisters and therefore, being infinitely better informed about the whole matter, was in a position to put Catherine right. She told her not to be so simple; of course the baby was dead. Wouldn’t Mrs. Edna Robinson, who’d midwifed most of the babies in East Tupelo, and Dr. Hunt, whom Vernon had fetched because of the emergency – wouldn’t they be expected to know everything there was to know about these things? She went on to tell more: that the second twin – the one who was all right – hadn’t come out till a whole half-hour after the first and that he hadn’t arrived till 4:30 in the morning. They’d already named him Elvis Aron.
“But what about the other?” Catherine timidly queried. “Do they name babies who are … like that, or what?”
She received an impatient look. Of course they did; they already had. How would he get into heaven without a name? He was named Jesse Garon and he was go ing to be buried near all the Presleys in the cemetery at Priceville so that he wouldn’t be lonely.
Elvis had a lot of guilt about being “the twin who lived”. He wondered if he had somehow, by osmosis in the womb, stolen the strength of his twin. Had he lived only because Jessie had died? Jessie was part of the Presley family mythology. Jessie was not swept under the carpet and never mentioned again. He was a living part of the family. Elvis would pray to Jessie, and talk to Jessie – not just as an impressionable child, but throughout his life. What would it have been like if Elvis had had a sibling? What would have changed? Elvis was a sui generis figure in the culture: the fact that he had had a twin is so fascinating. Were they identical? These are questions that are interesting to contemplate, although some folks go a bit far with it. (You know, Jessie is alive and well and running a service station in Tallahassee, or whatever. )
Vernon Presley and Gladys Smith were a young couple, impatient and eager to be together (you can see it in the photo at the top of this post). They had almost no prospects, outside of Gladys’ ferocious get-up-and-go nature. They were sharecroppers sometimes, Vernon got odd jobs, Gladys got odd jobs as a seamstress, she picked crops with Elvis strapped to her back.
Like Harry Potter, Elvis was “the boy who lived”. The very fact that he lived gave him great importance, understandably, to his parents, especially when it was found out that after the horrific experience of giving birth to the twins on January 8, 1935, Gladys couldn’t have any more children. It is not at all surprising or unusual that Gladys would hover over her son, as long as he lived, even long past the age when it was necessary.
When he became famous, she was worried but not surprised. She always knew he was marked for something special. Because he was the boy who lived.
On January 8, 2013, I woke up with the sun, scraped my car of frost, and drove from Memphis to Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis’ birthplace. It’s about 100 miles from Memphis. The highway careened through farmlands, glittering with frost, steam rising off of the creeks and ponds. The road was nearly empty. I listened to church services on the radio, and raucous black choirs going to town for Jesus. I hit Tupelo before 9 a.m. It was quiet.
I stopped at the Veterans Park on the outskirts of town, a beautiful area with a pond and a fountain, and some pushy ducks who basically ran me off the lawn. The Elvis Presley Birthplace museum was closed, but that was fine because everything I wanted to see was out in plain view. There was the two-room shack, built by Vernon himself, the shack that was such a step-up to the hardscrabble Presley family, and so important to their feeling of independence. The shack was longer than I realized, although I’ve seen pictures. It has a little front porch with a battered swing, there are windows along the sides. The shack is placed in the center of a circle of stones, marking events in the Presley life during their time in Tupelo: The tornado that destroyed most of Tupelo when Elvis was a year old. Elvis winning a prize singing “Old Shep” at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair when he was 10 years old. (He would return to perform at that same fair in 1956, now an icon in a blue velvet shirt and white bucks, hometown boy made more than good.) The Presleys moved to Memphis in 1948. Vernon packed up the family in “an old ’39 Plymouth” (according to Elvis many years later) and they were off to seek a better life.
I was the only person at the Presley Birthplace. The frost still glittered on the grass. There was a modern brick church across the street, but it was still too early for services. The sun was just coming up, and everything was cold and still and quiet.
Along with the little shack, there was also the old Assembly of God church that Elvis used to attend with his parents (it had been moved from its original location). The church was just what I had pictured: homely, plain, white-painted, nothing special. But one of the most important places in Elvis’ childhood.
Solitude promotes reflection. I grew up in a town with deep colonial roots: homes along the Main Street are dated from the 1730s, 1740s. Except for the addition of streetlamps and sidewalks and stoplights, nothing has changed. If you catch that street at a certain time, dawn or sunset, when it’s emptied out, the area unfolds its history to you, in images, sensations, memories. You can almost imagine yourself “back then”. I grew up feeling that history around me. We were taught about it in school, yes, but it felt different when you grew up in a town that still has a little wishing well from the 1800s, and a library that used to be the spot for local Revolutionary patriots to meet up and make plans in the 1760s and 1770s. Sometimes when you go to these historically rich places, you can believe in other dimensions running alongside our own. You can feel that time is not linear, but stacked, or clear, like water: you can look down through it.
That’s what I felt, wandering around the little Presley shack and the Assembly of God church, on a frosty Sunday morning before anyone else was up. Time and history felt clear and I was looking down through it.
A ’39 Plymouth sits near the parking lot, out in the elements. You can walk right up to it and touch it if you want to. I sat right near it and had some coffee. It was cold. The details of the car (not the actual Presley vehicle; that one is long-gone) were fascinating: the windshield wipers, the interior, the gas cap. There is so much space inside! You could certainly load up that thing with all of your belongings.
After that, I headed into town. Tupelo is plain and flat and simple. There’s not much to it. The main street area is surrounded by fields and giant turbines and silos. You can feel the space stretching out around the town, something I never get used to down in these small Southern towns, coming as I do from the congested East Coast, where each thing pushes up against the next thing. Here, space dominates, you can feel it at the end of every street.
Tupelo has an interesting history, Elvis notwithstanding. The town was poverty-struck, but also bustling and ambitious, a hub of industry and business and hustle. Tupelo is proud of their native son. He went far, farther than anyone else from Tupelo (farther than anyone else from anywhere, Neil Armstrong being the most obvious exception). Elvis’ emotional ties were in Memphis, although he did return once to Tupelo, most famously on September 26, 1956 to perform at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair, the very same fair where he won 5th place in the talent show when he was 10 years old, singing the weepy dirge about a dog that dies, “Old Shep”.
Elvis had been on the rise for a year or so, but with the advent of Colonel Parker’s management and Elvis’ television appearances throughout the year, 1956 was the year when “it” broke, “it” being the cultural tidal wave. Elvis’ return to Tupelo occurred right before the opening of his first film, Love Me Tender. At the start of 1956 he was still a regional phenomenon, although that was quickly changing. By September, he wasn’t a regional phenomenon anymore. He belonged to everyone. He stood on a platform in the middle of the fairgrounds, wearing a blue velvet shirt (given to him by Natalie Wood), black pants, and white bucks. He’s so close to the crowd that it looks almost dangerous for him. A girl did bust loose from the crowd at run up onstage at one point, but she didn’t throw herself at Elvis. She made it up to him, and then stood there, staring at him, but frozen. He’s in the middle of playing a song, stops and glances at her, and says, friendly, unfazed, “Hi.” She is then hustled off by a cop.
Elvis gets close to those reaching hands, sometimes brushing against them, giving those girls a thrill, but he senses the distance he needs. They want to touch him, and he allows them to, briefly, but then he is off, to another part of the stage. He gives them what they want, and leaves them wanting more.
The pictures of that day are world-famous by now. Gladys and Vernon traveled to Tupelo to watch their son perform, and according to many people who knew Gladys, she experienced extreme anxiety, almost to the level of PTSD, returning to the town where she had known such hardship. But in the interviews done with Gladys that day, she is bubbly, proud, and happy. She was a survivor, a gritty woman who didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve (not in public anyway, that would have seemed very bad form to Gladys). You would never know that that proud Mama in the interviews almost hadn’t accompanied Elvis to the show, because it was in Tupelo, and because her memories of that town were so painful.
Where those fairgrounds once were is now the main square in Tupelo in front of City Hall: a vast lawn, with circular steps, benches, a big Christmas tree, and a beautiful statue of Elvis, onstage in the very spot he had performed in 1956. The statue was erected in 2012. The statue is isolated in the middle of the large lawn. Nothing is around it. He is highlighted against the low buildings of Main Street, nothing huddles up alongside of him. There is no other context for the statue.
It hovers in thin air. It’s lonely up there in the stratosphere.
When I arrived in the main square in Tupelo, it was empty. Emptier than anything ever is in New York City. The town hadn’t quite woken up yet, although I imagine people were getting ready to head out to church around that time. There wasn’t much traffic. The shadows were still long. The fields around the town came right up behind the buildings encircling the Square. The frost gleamed white. I almost wiped out right in front of City Hall on a patch of ice. The space is impressive. (My perspective is admittedly skewed because there is NO space around me where I live. Even the gorgeous expanse of Central Park is pushed in on all sides by apartment buildings).
The Tupelo Hardware Store, still open and running to this day, is where Gladys (famously) bought Elvis a guitar for his 12th birthday. He wanted a rifle. She got him a guitar. I knew it would be closed, but I was sitting on a bench in the park, looking around me, and saw, further up the main drag, a sign floating on the top of a building.
I love continuity, and I love places that remember. It’s just a regular hardware store. It sells tools and paint and ladders. But an important moment in 20th century culture went down there.
Elvis looks lonely in the middle of that big field.
It wasn’t just fame that brought him alone-ness. He started out that way. He was born into a world of poverty, a circumstance isolating in and of itself. But his first moments on this earth were accompanied by his parents mourning for the stillborn twin, who had preceded him into the world: in other words, he entered into a family that already missed someone. He felt that lack all his life: Somebody else should be with me right now. He had spent 9 months curled up next to this person in the womb. Elvis, of course, would not remember that part of his existence, but it cannot be argued that he wasn’t there, that he didn’t experience it in some way that became incredibly meaningful to him.
The family mythology of Jessie intensified with his fame. I’ve said before that I think, if you boiled Elvis down to his essence, what would be left as “the thing” that created him and defined him, it wouldn’t be blatant sexuality or even musicality. What he was really about was loneliness. And it was the loneliness that drove him to do what he did. We all experience loneliness but imagine a loneliness so acute that at a very young age you would set out to destroy that loneliness once and for all that you become Elvis Presley. The man who was never ever alone.
He wasn’t a member of a group or ensemble, like The Beatles or the Stones. He didn’t “make it” surrounded by others. He made it on his own. He had help acquiring his position. Sam Phillips helped. Dewey Phillips helped. Scotty Moore and Bill Black helped. His first manager, Bob Neal, helped. Movie producer Hal Wallis helped. His supportive girlfriends helped by believing in him (he always needed a girl on his arm). Colonel Parker helped. But without Elvis putting forth his own essence, so fearlessly, none of those individuals would be remembered today, or at least not in the same way. He was a singular figure. He felt that singularity. As Dave Marsh observed so beautifully in his book Elvis, if there was one thing Elvis really wanted “it was to be an unignorable man.” His singularity was beautiful. It was also a trap. But he couldn’t be anything other than what he already was.
Kurt Russell has said that he loves Elvis Presley movies “because Elvis is in them”. You can count on one hand the artists who generate such a response. It has to do with the projection of Self, in the way that John Wayne did, and a very short list of others. Such figures, who seem inevitable once they have arrived (“how on earth did we manage before they came around?”), who become engrained in the culture, signifying/symbolizing something inchoate and yet present like the Mississippi River, imprinting themselves on every aspect of the landscape, will always stand alone.
Crowds will clamor up against such figures. We are drawn to those who project Self in a fearless way. It opens up space for us to do the same. Such figures allow things, they make space for things. These figures will often respond to fame by “entouraging up”, surrounding themselves with a Praetorian Guard of trusted friends and associates. The crowds will continue to push and jostle and grab and riot.
But the overriding image behind the Mayhem and Noise of that crowd will be a person surrounded by a vast and endless space.