By Daniel M. Klein
Published by Minotaur Books
March 2002; 0-312-26249-3; 240 pages
Elvis took a flying leap over a hay bale, executed a lackluster hip twitch in mid-air, and landed ungracefully on his heels. Behind the camera, Gene Nelson, the director, was making monkey faces at him and mouthing the word, "Smile." Elvis cranked up the corners of his mouth like he was hauling dead weights out of the sea.
"Cut!" Nelson shouted.
The playback stopped and the entire cast of "Kissin' Cousins" stumbled to a halt. Nelson ambled over to Elvis with a pleading look in his pale grey eyes.
"Please, Elvis, it's the last day," Nelson said soothingly. "Try and look like you're having fun."
"I ain't that good an actor," Elvis replied, deadpan.
Fact was, it had taken a supreme act of will power for Elvis to drag himself onto the MGM lot that morning to finish filling in the dance sequences. He'd been able to overlook just how ridiculous this picture was while they were on location up in the luminous San Bernadino Mountains, but back here, hearing himself sing those god awful hillbilly songs in playback, there was no way he could ignore how moronic it was.
"Well, I'm having fun," Lance LeGault said, sidling up beside Elvis with a goofy grin. "Just pretend you're me, Elvis."
LeGault was Elvis's double. Elvis played two roles in "Cousins": Jodie Tatum, a dim-witted yokel straight out of L'il Abner, and Josh Morgan, Tatum's straight-arrow, Army lieutenant, lookalike cousin; when both cousins appeared in a scene -- like in this hoedown number -- LeGault stood in for one of them.
"Man, you'd have fun at a public hanging," Elvis muttered to LeGault.
"At least I'd try to make myself useful -- like comforting the widow in my own obliging way," LeGault replied, winking.
"One more time!" Nelson called out. "Hit your marks, folks!"
Elvis rambled back to the hay bale, hooked a thumb into the pocket of his Josh Morgan army khakis, and was preparing to leap on the downbeat when he spotted Colonel Parker galloping onto the set. The Colonel's bovine face was a mean shade of red. A newspaper flapped in his stubby right hand.
"Time out!" Parker hollered and Nelson flashed five fingers for a five minute break.
"Son, we are thigh deep in cow patties this time," Parker said, thrusting the newspaper in front of Elvis's face.
Elvis peered down at it. The headline read, "Elvis & Ann-Margaret Tying The Knot." It was datelined London, where Miss Ann was attending the royal premier of "Bye Bye Birdie" and where she had taken it upon herself to announce to the press that she and Elvis were deeply in love and planning to get married.
"Fool woman," Elvis mumbled, even as a genuine smiled tugged at the corners of his mouth.
"Damn shot worse than a fool," Parker snapped. "That woman's a home-wrecker."
God Almighty, the Colonel was right. Elvis hadn't figured that when Miss Priscilla saw this -- and some damned fool would surely show it to her -- she'd throw a fit and a half. She'd just flown in from Memphis day before yesterday with a bad case of jealousy on the brain and this could put her over the top. Make her threaten to go running home to daddy in Germany again.
"Guess we need to do something about this," Elvis murmured.
"I'm doing it already," Parker snapped. "Called a press conference for six sharp. We'll set the story straight."
Elvis watched the Colonel greet the reporters at his MGM office door decked out in knickers, a buttoned-up Hawaiian shirt, a floppy bow tie and, to top it off, Elvis's "Kissin' Cousins" blond wig set at a jaunty angle on his moon-shaped head. It was one of the Colonel's standard gambits: when you've got a crisis, bamboozle them with buffoonery. After the journalists had taken their seats, he grinned at them for a full minute, then removed the cigar from his mouth and barked, "Okay, gents, one question per. And be gentle, boys, Mr. Presley has been feeling kind of put upon lately."
Elvis lowered his eyes. The way Parker put things, Elvis always ended up sounding like some touchy mamma's boy.
The first question came from Dunlap of the Hollywood Reporter: "Exactly how would you describe your relationship with Ann-Margaret?"
Elvis leaned back in the Colonel's leather desk chair and scratched his jaw. He was still in costume and make-up, so his fingernails scraped off a thin line of tan foundation. "I would describe our relationship as a deep friendship," Elvis began. "Sort of like brother and sister. Yes, Miss Ann is like my long lost sister."
Truth to tell, he had felt a deep connection to his "Viva Las Vegas" co-star the moment he laid eyes on her. And that connection went way beyond Ann-Margaret's sexy good looks. He'd felt from the start that she was a soulmate, some kind of female mirror-image of himself.
"So you are denying that there is anything romantic going on between the two of you?" the Variety reporter said.
Elvis sat up straight and looked directly in the reporter's eyes. "Sir, denying and affirming are awful grand words to be using when you're talking about romance. Seem more like church words, if you know what I mean."
From the corner of his eye, Elvis saw the Colonel grinning and nodding with approval. No doubt he thought Elvis was doing a little bamboozle of his own, but actually Elvis was trying to get a point across, so he went on. "You see, there are all kinds of ways that a man and a woman connect with one another and most of them are a mystery. Least they are to me. So it's hard to put into words exactly the way I feel about Miss Ann. It's a deep and complicated feeling."
The Colonel turned to Elvis and pumped his eyebrows up and down by way of reproach; this wasn't going the way he'd scripted it.
Ferguson from Time chimed in with: "With all due respect, Mr. Presley, you've been seen all over town motorcycling with Miss Margaret, holding hands, going into your trailer with her and closing the door behind you..."
In spite of himself, Elvis felt the sweetness of those glorious times with Ann-Margaret sweep over him. The feeling only lasted a split-second, but that was long enough to show in his eyes and the reporters responded with knowing smiles and started scratching furiously in their notepads.
That did it; this was going from bad to worse. The Colonel popped in front of Elvis. "Thank you, gentlemen," he said dismissively. "I know you'll do right by Mr. Presley in your papers. Now we've got stills from our new movie over on the table there. You can pick them up on your way out."
"One last question please, Elvis." It was Mike Murphy, the famously wise-guy reporter from the L.A. Times. "And I promise you, it's got nothing to do with your private life."
The Colonel started to wave him off, but Elvis stood and said, "Okay, one last one."
"Well, I was talking with Hal Wallis the other day," Murphy began, "and he said that he just loves producing your pictures because with all the money he makes from them he gets to make first rate films with actors like Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. Would you care to comment on that?"
It felt like a punch in the gut. Elvis reeled back into his chair. That one hurt bad, terrible bad. Far worse than anything anybody could say about his love life. No, this one got Elvis right where he lived. His great pal, Hal Wallis, had put it out there plain and simple: Elvis was just a cash machine so Wallis could make real movies, movies that actually meant something unlike this joke of a picture. And dammit, the Colonel had hand-picked "Kissin' Cousins." He'd said the script had "Elvis" written all over it.
The Colonel shot eye-daggers at Murphy. He yanked the blond wig off his head in what he must have thought was a gesture of fury, but it only made him look more buffoonish. Man, Elvis hated that wig. He'd hated it every time he had to put it on to play that pea-brained country bumpkin, Jodie Tatum. And at this moment, he hated it with all his heart because he saw it for it what it really was -- a clown's wig. And he was the clown.
Before the Colonel could say another word, Elvis rose again from his chair. If he had been shaky on his feet a moment before, he was steady as a rock now. He stood tall and calm and resolute in his army khakis with the lieutenant's stripes, looking for all the world like a man in command. The entire room went dead quiet, a couple of the reporters freezing in mid-motion as they packed up their notebooks and pens.
"Let me put something straight here," Elvis began in a low voice. "There is nothing I would like to do more than make a picture that has some real meaning to it. A picture that would give folks something to think about after they left the movie theater. Something to consider about their own lives. Maybe about their families or their country or anything else that's meaningful to them."
Elvis paused, looking the reporters in the eye one at a time. He felt better than he had all day and he surely knew why: He was finally speaking his own lines.
"I'm no great actor," he went on. "No Richard Burton or Peter O'Toole. I wouldn't kid myself about something like that. But that doesn't mean I couldn't do a real picture if I had the right script. And that's the thing I want to say here. I want to find a story -- a movie story -- that I'd be proud to make. I don't know what that would be, but I'm pretty sure I'd know if I read it. So I'd appreciate it if you gentlemen would do me the favor of writing in your papers that I am on the lookout for a first class script. I don't care who writes it. Could be a fisherman or a truck driver for all I know. But I'm looking. And I need your help finding it. Thank you. Thank you very much."
The reporters broke into spontaneous applause. In the doorway, Ned Florbid, the sleek MGM production manager who had wandered in during Elvis's little speech, joined the applause, smiling broadly. And then Colonel Parker started clapping too, the blond wig swinging comically from one hand, but clapping for all he was worth. That was one of his standard gambits too: Always cheer, but cheer the loudest when you are losing.
Chapter 2: Silent Night
The reporters had been gone for several minutes before either Elvis or the Colonel said a word. Then, without looking at Elvis, Parker pointed his cigar to a corner of his office.
"You want to read scripts?" he intoned. "Well, I got a whole crate of 'em right over there. And that's just last week's. That should keep you busy for a while, son."
Parker stuck the cigar back in his mouth and stalked out of his office.
Elvis walked slowly to the picture window overlooking the MGM lot. It was dusk, but there was still plenty of activity out there. Two guys in cowboy outfits sauntered by eating hot dogs. A mini-tractor swung around them, towing a calliope on a flat bed. Standing in front of the door to Sound Studio C, a statuesque blonde puffed furiously on a cigarette -- all she was wearing was a silk dressing gown that didn't quite cover her buttocks.
That feeling of steady calm that came over Elvis when he spoke his desire to make a meaningful movie was already ebbing away. Up and down, back and forth, around and around -- seems he couldn't hold on to any one feeling for longer than a minute. All his hankerings seemed to come in opposites these days. Like Ann-Margaret and Priscilla. Those two couldn't be more different from one another, but each one seemed like the perfect woman when he was with the other one. Same for Graceland and his house in Bel Air. When he was in Graceland, he felt all cooped up, especially now that Dad and that woman, Dee, had taken up residence. Still, not a day went by out here when he didn't find himself hurting for home. It even went for the Colonel too. One minute he'd be thanking his lucky stars for sending him Colonel Tom Parker to lead the way on this fabulous joy ride. And the next minute he'd be cursing the day he met Parker, reviling him for dragging him further and further away from the life and the music that was in his soul.
Elvis turned from the window and ambled over to the corner where the Colonel had pointed. As promised, a wooden peach crate sat there piled high with faux leather-bound movie scripts. He picked up the top one, brought it to the desk, and pulled the chain on the banker's lamp on Parker's desk. The title was "Flubber Rock" by one Richard Persky.
Elvis closed the script right there and pushed it to the corner of the desk. He went back to the peach crate, stooped over and pulled off the next script, "Pickles and Cream" by Bruce Person. He opened to the first page, still crouching.
Elvis dropped it back onto the pile. Damnation! Maybe he should stop making movies altogether and get back to just recording songs. Real songs, not cornball movie ditties with cornball titles like those groaners from "Kissin' Cousins": "Barefoot Ballad," my foot! And "One Boy, Two Little Girls"-- that one sounded like a nursery rhyme for slow learners. Those songs were about as authentic as Mountain Dew pop since they sold out to Pepsi. Worse. Coming as they did out of the Hollywood song mill, they had a built-in wink just to show that these Tinseltown songwriters were superior to the songs they churned out. And surely to show that they were superior to the man who would sing them. Fact was, these Hollywood types couldn't write a genuine song -- a song with a true heart and soul like "It's Now Or Never" -- if their lives depended on it.
Elvis was just straightening up when he saw the photograph lying in the Colonel's wastebasket next to the peach crate. It was a photo of him in an army uniform -- a real army uniform -- with a guitar in his hands, and it looked like he was singing. Other soldiers all around him. And something -- a tree? -- just behind him. Strange. He hadn't given any public performances while he was in the army. That was part of the deal: he'd insisted on being treated like any other private and that meant no performing, not even for the troops.
He picked the photograph out of the wastebasket and held it under the desk lamp. That was a tree behind him, a Christmas tree. Suddenly it came back to him -- Christmas day five long years ago in Friedberg, Germany. He and his company had set up a Christmas party for a nearby orphanage, then returned to Ray Kaserne and decided to decorate their own home-away-from-home for the holidays. When they'd finished, one of the guys had brought out a guitar and started singing, "The First Noel." Pretty soon, everyone was singing, "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Elvis was singing along too and at one point the guy handed the guitar off to him. They all kept singing until they got to "Silent Night" and then, one by one, the others dropped out, leaving Elvis to sing it solo. And sing he did, poured his heart into it for all the Christmas trees and Christmas dinners every one of his comrades would be missing this year. It had come out of him all gospel, the song singing itself. At one point, the guys with weekend passes started to file out and when they passed by Elvis as he sang, they just touched his sleeve and continued to the door, not saying a word. When he came to the end with a soaring, "Sleep in heavenly peace," no one clapped or cheered. They just stood there, silently happy and sad and grateful. Finally, Elvis had called out, "Merry Christmas, everyone" and they'd called back, "Merry Christmas, Elvis." Elvis remembered thinking then, as he thought again now: That is why I sing. That's what it's all about, right there.
Elvis saw that there was a faint pencil line circling the head of one of the soldiers at the edge of the photo and next to it the word, "me." He leaned his head closer. It was a baby-faced soldier with sleepy eyes and a loopy smile. Elvis had no idea who he was. Just another GI keeping up a brave face far from home. But why had he sent the photo? And why the heck was the Colonel throwing it out without showing it to him first? Colonel knew this was just the kind of photograph that Elvis saved for his personal album.
Elvis walked back to the wastepaper basket and stooped down. It stank of cigars and spit and fermenting pizza crusts. He poked around with one finger. Another photo, this one of a pretty young woman with bare shoulders and short curly hair. It had writing on it too, in ink: "Elvis, I'll do anything you want me to. ANYTHING! I love you, Doris Frimel. Telephone 860-3298." That's what passed for fan mail these days. Elvis pushed it off to the side next to a cigar stub. And there he saw a crimped-up piece of blue-lined notebook paper with something written on it in pencil. He brought it back to the desk and ironed it flat with his fist.
Elvis smiled to himself -- Colonel had already taken care of that part. He read on:
Elvis looked again at the photograph. No, he didn't remember "Squirm" Littlejon, just as he didn't recognize the hundreds of other faces he saw every day of people who surely knew who he was, people who had even convinced themselves that they knew what was hidden in his heart, God love them. And heaven knows this man was right, Elvis didn't owe him a single thing.
Suddenly there was a tap at the open office door. Elvis looked up. Silhouetted against the corridor lights were Gene Nelson and the Colonel.
"Busy?" Gene asked.
"Kind of," Elvis said.
"Just wanted to tell you I checked the dailies and there's a little problem -- we keep seeing Lance's face in the hoedown. Can't cut around it so we'll have to reshoot tomorrow morning. Only a half-day, okay?"
Elvis clasped a hand to his forehead. At this particular moment, the prospect of prancing around hay bales for even one more minute felt like a twenty-year sentence on a chain gang.
"I told Gene we don't having anything else scheduled for tomorrow," Colonel Parker said brightly, sauntering towards his desk.
Reflexively, Elvis spread his hands over Littlejon's letter, but it was too late -- Parker's eagle eyes saw it and he was already shooting Elvis one of his scolding stares, the kind that said, "Don't get distracted by that nonsense, son. Keep your eyes on the prize!"
"No problem at all, Gene. I'll be there bright and early," Elvis said evenly, averting his eyes from Parker's. "But if you gentlemen will excuse me now, I got some personal business needs taking care of."
Colonel Parker fired off another admonishing glare but Elvis glared right back at him and this time it was Parker who looked away. He must have seen the venom in Elvis's eyes, the kind that said, "Don't push me, Colonel, or I'll throw this damned desk lamp right in your face!"
The moment the two men left, Elvis lifted the phone on Parker's desk and asked the MGM switchboard operator to connect him with the California Correction Institution in Tehachapi, California.
"I'd be happy to, Mr. Presley," the operator said. "Is there anyone in particular you wish to speak to?"
"Yes, M'am," Elvis replied. "Man named Freddy Littlejon. He's doing time out there."
Elvis snapped off the lamp and put his feet up on the desk. Priscilla and the gang would be waiting for him at home. There had been talk of a wrap party out at the house to celebrate the completion of "Kissin' Cousins." Of course, Priscilla would have heard about the Ann-Margaret interview by now. He definitely wasn't looking forward to the conversation they would be having about that. It was hard enough having two opposite feelings about everything without a woman with tears in her eyes begging you to have one pure heart.
The operator said, "Go ahead," and a man's voice said, "Mr. Presley?"
"Yes, this is Elvis."
"My Lord, what a fine surprise this is," the man on the phone said. "I'm Bob Reardon, warden of C.C.I. Funny thing is, I just this minute heard them talking on the radio about you. About an interview you gave this afternoon."
"How about that? " Elvis said. Trifling news traveled fast out here in California.
"I hear you want to talk to one of our residents," the warden said. "Little Squirm Littlejon."
"That's right, sir," Elvis said.
"Call me Bob, please," the warden said.
"Did you want to meet with Squirm in person?"
"Just on the phone should do it," Elvis said.
"Between you and me, Mr. Presley, you can't tell much from a phone call with a con. Gotta see their eyes, you know?"
Elvis rubbed his jaw. What was this Reardon fella getting at?
"Normally, setting up a face-to-face is no easy thing," Warden Reardon went on. "Takes a load of paper work. But I've been known to make exceptions under special circumstances."
"That's encouraging to hear," Elvis said.
"What are you doing right now, Mr. Presley?" the warden abruptly blurted with a self-conscious laugh.
Elvis gazed out the picture window of the Colonel's office. It was completely dark on the lot now, probably past eight o'clock already. What was Mr. Presley doing right now? He was sitting alone in a dark room in a movie studio trying like crazy to put off going home.
"Not a whole lot," Elvis answered.
"Well, if you got yourself in a car this minute, you could be up here by ten. And I'd have Mr. Squirm Littlejon waiting for you in a clean shirt and pants."
Elvis hesitated only a moment. "I'll be there," he said.
Reardon gave him directions, then signed off with, "I've got a little surprise for you myself, Mr. Presley."
© 2002 Daniel M. Klein
After winning the hearts of critics and audiences (all over again) in Daniel Klein's KILL ME TENDER, Elvis Aron Presley returns once more to try his hand at crime-solving in a fun, suspenseful sequel.
1963. Elvis Presley has just completed filming "Kissin' Cousins," a hillbilly romantic comedy of which he is instantly ashamed. His romance with Ann-Margret has just become public knowledge and Priscilla is on the warpath. It is a critical period for Elvis, a time in which he must sort out his own contradictory feelings and make life-changing choices.
Against this backdrop, one "Squirm" Littlejon, an old army friend, contacts Elvis. Littlejon is serving life in a California penitentiary for the murder of a young actress on the MGM lot and he insists he was framed. Elvis figures that taking the case is just what he needs to escape all those people making demands of him, both professionally and romantically.
So begins a fast-paced mystery train-ride that takes Elvis from the weird world of movie stuntmen to a ground-breaking genetics laboratory in Mexico. His sidekick on this adventure is Squirm's deadbeat, Freud-spouting lawyer who has personal insight into the psychological quirks of surviving twins -- like Elvis.
Before he's through, Elvis will have to disprove a murder charge of his own and stop a diabolical film producer from publishing career-wrecking photographs of Elvis and Ann-Margret making love. BLUE SUEDE CLUES is a who-dunnit that keeps readers guessing right up to an ending worthy of only one man: The King!
Daniel Klein is a graduate of Harvard. His novel Magic Time follows the life and times of Timothy Leary and five of his young Harvard experimentees in the early days of psychedelia. His previous novels, Embryo, Wavelengths and Beauty Sleep are all medical thrillers. He is also the ghost-author or co-author of nine books of nonfiction.
Daniel Klein lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and plans to continue adding episodes to the Singing Sleuth series as appropiate to Elvis' life.