Except for the White House, few American residences match Graceland for sheer fame. Purchased by Elvis Presley in 1957, the 13-acre spread with the Neoclassical Colonial-style home nine miles away from Memphis’ urban center was intended to shield neighbors from the onslaught of fans, media and curiosity-seekers. According to Graceland Holdings managing partner Joel Weinshanker, over 600,000 people tour the house, grounds, and museum annually.
A time capsule of 1960s and 1970s excess and style, the rooms are maintained exactly as Presley lived in them, Graceland stands as the epitome of style’n’class for a poor boy with little education making the American dream his own. For fans from the flyover, it also represents hard-wired traditional values as members of Presley’s family lived there, too; not only his parents, but his Aunt Delta lived in the home after her husband died – at Elvis’ invitation — until she passed away in 1993.
Those are the facts, then there’s the reality. For hardcore fans, this is where the King lived, breathed, played and recorded his From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee and Moody Blue in the Jungle Room. Before there was reality television, Architectural Digest celebrity home spreads or “MTV Cribs,” there was the pilgrimage to Elvis’ home.
Those curious about the man in the rhinestone jumpsuits with the high collars and back-bracing belts find a church of kitsch and extreme design. Whether the French dynasty-inspired Billiards Room with its tuck-and-draped ceiling made of 350 yards of heavy brocade fabric; the lemon yellow and bright blue TV Room with three televisions, each turned to a separate network and the TCB Lightning Bolt logo on one wall; or the tropical rain forest-evoking Jungle Room with stone walls, carved heavy wood Polynesian furniture and an actual waterfall, Presley’s extravagance is on full display.
As the man who became an instant national sensation on “Ed Sullivan,” and was the biggest record seller in the world until the Beatles changed everything, nothing speaks to his unrestrained desires quite as vividly as what’s behind the doors at the brick house with the Corinthian columns. A poor boy looking for legitimacy, the façade is classic; as a rock star with taste beyond convention, the rooms give license to fantasy, personal proclivity and living on one’s own terms.
My first trip to Graceland – on a cross-country move from Florida – found a mix of tourists, obsessives, a church group from Oklahoma and an Elvis impersonator with his mother. When we moved through the Trophy Building, formerly a garage, I swear the impersonator began speaking in tongues.
Walking through the rooms, a mixture of aw, stunned silence and cracks about the tackiness of the decorative choices. My companion, a fellow industry insider, dryly whispered in my ear as we peaked into the lemon and blinding blue TV Room, “If I designed some of these horrible rooms, I’d pay good money to not be identified.”
But that’s not the point. They were picked. By Elvis. Creating his living space. Creating an aesthetic for the man many called “The King.”
Years later, my friend, “Tonight Show” music producer Bill Royce, wanted to get his kitsch on. He called someone who worked for Priscilla Presley, and we swept through the gates, up the curving driveway and around to the back. Like part of the Memphis Mafia, we emerged from the car at the back door, looked around and whistled.
The VIP treatment in full effect, we were going to be ushered into the kitchen, where Elvis consumed his weight in peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches. Across the linoleum floor, we trekked out towards the front hall to join the next tour through the all-white formal living room.
For one moment, though, we were swept up in the illusion of how it was — part of an inner sanctum with its own rules, taste aesthetics be damned. There was a racquetball court, and a meditation garden, and, once upon a time, the Sweet Inspirations or Jordanaires might be sitting around, singing Elvis’ favorites.
Today, Graceland stands as so much more than just a famous person’s home. Beyond the rooms, each with its own vivid personality, Elvis’ final resting place – yes, he and his family are all buried there — represents the freedom to live as one pleases. Whether through luck, looks, talent, or hard work, one’s achievements can deliver them to a place like this – designed wholly to your whims.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but like William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, it represents an era and an icon, and offers insight into what was deemed desirable to one of the biggest stars in the world. With an entrance fee that starts at $38.75 (without the planes, gold records or tour memorabilia), it’s the last access to the man who sang “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” forced Ed Sullivan to shoot him from the waist up, starred in “Blue Hawaii,” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Jailhouse Rock,” made the legendary “’68 Comeback Special” for NBC, and colonized Las Vegas for aging rockers needing a new place to play.
For a career that spanned only 20 years, Elvis’ legacy lives on in Graceland — both for posterity and for eternity.
Holly Gleason is a Nashville-based writer and artist development consultant. She recently edited the forthcoming essay collection, “Woman Walk the Line,” due out on University of Texas Press.