The Moores & The Presleys at Graceland.
When Elvis finished shooting a movie in Hollywood, he usually wasted little time before he and his gang headed back home to Memphis in a caravan of vehicles. On one of these cross-country road trips, Elvis was at the wheel of his customized motor home listening to the radio as he drove through the night. Just outside of Little Rock they started to pick up Elvis’ disc jockey friend George Klein’s radio show. George was playing the new Tom Jones song called “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” a sentimental ode to the pleasures of going home. When the song was over, Elvis pulled over to a phone booth and had one of his men call the radio station to request the song be played again. The DJ obliged, of course, dedicating it to a “friend who was coming home.” Elvis liked the song so much he spent the rest of the trip requesting it be played over and over until he pulled into the gates of his precious Graceland. The song had struck a nerve in Elvis because the concept of home meant so much to him.
Because of the instability of his impoverished youth, Elvis lived in more than a dozen different places before he bought the house on Audubon Drive in Memphis, the first house his family owned. A year later, when he purchased Graceland, he knew he had found the place where he would put down roots. It was his home from the age of 22 until his death 20 years later. Graceland became a part of who he was. It was his safe harbor from the slings of life. It was both a symbol of his success and his refuge from the demands of it. Above all. Graceland was the fulfillment of the audacious promise Elvis had made to his parents as a boy, to someday buy them a mansion.
Graceland is a two-story house built of stone brought from Tishomingo County in Elvis’ home state of Mississippi. It’s set on a hilltop with a row of pin oaks leading up to the house, and sweet gums, sycamores, weeping willows, and magnolias growing all across the 13.8 acres of land. The front door is framed by four columns supporting a classical pediment. It seems inspired by the southern plantation esthetic made popular again by Gone With the Wind, and perhaps it was. It was built in 1939, the same year that epic film captured the country’s imagination.
Originally a 500-acre farm established in 1861 by S. E. Toof, the publisher of the Memphis newspaper the Commercial Appeal, it was named Graceland–which you must admit rolls off the tongue a lot better than Toofland–after his daughter Grace Toof.. In 1939, Dr. Thomas D. Moore and his wife Ruth, who was Grace’s niece, commissioned the house to be built. When Mrs. Moore sold it to Elvis, he decided the name was just too perfect to change. To the heart of that poor boy from Tupelo, Graceland was a miracle, a gift of God’s good grace.
Elvis was in Hollywood filming Love Me Tender, his first movie, when he called his parents and instructed them to look for a place in the country, perhaps even a farm. When Vernon and Gladys were first showed the property and home, it was being used for prayer meetings by the Graceland Christian Church, surely a good portent to the religious couple. The day Elvis finally saw it, one of the first things he did after walking through the front door was to sit at the piano in the Music Room and play a few notes. He immediately responded to the house and bought it on March 25, 1957, for $102,500.
As soon as Elvis bought Graceland, he began a series of renovations. His mother Gladys and interior decorator George Golden assisted him, but the King had final say in all work done on his castle. Perhaps in keeping with his desire for a farm, among the first additions was a chicken coop. He had a pink Alabama fieldstone wall built to surround his property and bought and installed custom-built decorative gates for $3,052. As the meeting place of his fans, the Music Gates and the Wall of Love have become two of the more famous features of Graceland. He lit the house with blue and gold spotlights and the driveway was strung with blue lights like an airport runway.
Decorating and redecorating his dream house became a lifelong hobby for Elvis, and the house went through many different styles and color schemes over the years. The only changes Elvis was reluctant to make were of those things that reminded him of his mother. He even hesitated to replace a windowpane accidentally broken by Gladys shortly before her death. Dee Stanley, the second wife of Elvis’ father, was essentially banished from Graceland when she tried to impose her own design ideas, changing the drapes Gladys had chosen, while Elvis was away shooting a movie. Renovations over the years caused the house to grow from 10,266 square feet to its current 17,552 square feet.
Elvis was proud of his home and enjoyed showing it off to friends and often to fans as well. When Graceland was opened to the public on June 7, 1982, his estate was carrying on a tradition started by Elvis himself. Now, each year, approximately 750,000 people come from all over the world to Memphis to tour this place that was so close to his heart.
When you step through the front door of Graceland, you cross the threshold into the emotional ground zero of the Elvis world. This foyer is where Elvis’ casket lay in state for viewing and above this very spot is the room where he died. To the left is the dining room and to the right is the living room and music room. It was here where Elvis’ funeral took place. The current blue, gold, and white scheme was chosen during the restoration made after Elvis’ death; it never existed in precisely this form while Elvis was alive. The room is actually a mixture of furnishings from different years and is an approximation of the Graceland of the 1960s.
In 1977, at the time of Elvis’ death, the house was in its spectacular red period, the result of Elvis’ last major redecorating outburst in 1974. Red carpets, red walls, red drapes, red everything. The red period gained notoriety because it was often mentioned by journalists covering the funeral. In his hateful “biography” of Elvis, Albert Goldman really jumped on the whole red thing. His mockery of Elvis’ taste in interior decorating is said to be part of the reason Graceland was remodeled before it was opened. It’s thought that the present, more subdued, color scheme makes a better first impression than the antebellum bordello look it had. Another possible reason for the change, it is said, is that Priscilla Presley, who’s most responsible for the restoration, didn’t want the remnants of the design sensibility of Linda Thompson (Elvis’ girlfriend in 1974) to be the one that would be immortalized and forever associated with Elvis.
The stairs that lead from the foyer to the second floor are closed to the public and off-limits to all but select members of the Graceland staff. Even in Elvis’ day the stairs were the absolute dividing line between the King’s inner sanctum and the rest of the world. Because the upstairs is where Elvis died, it remains a place of mystery and great fascination to his fans. Until the upstairs is opened to the public, and it’s unlikely that it ever will be, the only way to get a glimpse of it is at the beginning of the documentary This Is Elvis.
The forbidden second floor of Graceland consists of Elvis’ bedroom, bathroom, wardrobe room, and office. There’s also another bath and dressing area that was used by his girlfriend du jour and Lisa Marie’s gold and white bedroom and bathroom. Elvis’ bedroom is behind the two upper windows to the right of the entrance as you face the front of the house.
In 1993, the tour was expanded to include the kitchen and, on Mother’s Day in 1998, Gladys’s bedroom was opened to the public. Until that time both were still being used by Elvis’ aunt Delta Mae Biggs who lived at Graceland from 1967 until her death. Gladys’s bedroom was restored to the way it was in 1958 when she died.
Perhaps the most infamous and memorable room in the mansion is what is now referred to as the Jungle Room–a title coined by the tour guides and never used during Elvis’ day, when it was simply known as the den. Originally an open patio, it was enclosed in the early 1960s and the indoor waterfall was added in 1965. The three air conditioners in the room always kept it at the very unjungle-like temperature that Elvis demanded. It’s got wood paneling on the walls and green shag carpeting on the floors and ceilings and it was filled with an assortment of Polynesian fake-fur-upholstered furniture with wooden arms carved in animal and totem figures. Elvis bought the furniture in 1974 during a 30-minute shopping spree at Donald’s Furniture store. Some say he bought it because it reminded him of Hawaii, a favorite and special place in his life. Another version is that he bought the furniture as a practical joke on his father. Whatever his motivation, the room does forever reinforce the Elvis–Hawaii connection. It was used as a recording studio in 1976 when all of From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee and six songs from Moody Blue were recorded here, as well as the recently released Jungle Room Sessions. Because the Jungle Room represents the fun, spontaneity, and exuberance of Elvis' style, it’s a definite favorite among his fans. It’s appropriate that the man who so convincingly could sing “I’m the king of the jungle, they call me the tiger man” should have such a room.
A mirrored staircase leads downstairs into two other rooms designed entirely for leisure. Memphis interior designer Bill Eubanks, with input from Elvis and Linda Thompson, redesigned the TV Room and the Poolroom in 1974. Both rooms used to have windows but they were sealed off to create an environment well suited to Elvis’ nocturnal habits. The TV Room’s walls, ceiling, fireplace, and bar are fully mirrored and the blue and smiley-face-yellow wall graphics echoes Elvis’ TCB logo. Mounted in one wall are three televisions that today constantly play tapes representing some of Elvis’ favorite viewing: Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove on one, a Johnny Carson show from the seventies on another, and a Clint Eastwood Western on the third. A jukebox mounted in the wall was wired for sound to the whole house and held 100 records.
Across from the TV Room is the Poolroom. It features a mixed bag of nostalgic decorations that might have been found in many cocktail lounges in the 1970s. Its ceiling and walls are covered in nearly 400 yards of red paisley fabric tufted into the center of the room. A Tiffany-style stained glass lamp hangs over the pool table. Reproductions of red Louis XV chairs stand in the corners. A tear in the pool table’s surface is left unrepaired, giving it that Memphis Mafia roughhouse, lived-in look.
The only other part of the main house included in the tour is the Trophy Room. Originally, it was also a porch that Elvis had enclosed to house an elaborate slot car track. After he grew bored with that diversion, he turned it into a room to display the many awards and plaques he had received. When Elvis received the award as “One of the Ten Outstanding Young Men” of our nation on January 16, 1971, he chose this room to host a reception for his fellow honorees. Today, the Trophy Room is a museum of Elvis artifacts that contains parts of his gun and police badge collections, clothing and stage costumes, awards, and many mementos from fans
Behind the main house at Graceland are several other buildings. Directly behind the house, Elvis’ father, Vernon, had an office where business affairs and fan mail were handled. Thanks to Vernon’s famous frugality, almost everything is original and unchanged since 1957. A videotape of the press conference Elvis gave at his father’s desk March 8, 1960, the day after his homecoming from the army, plays on a loop on a monitor in the room.
Next to the office is a smokehouse that Elvis and his friends used as a shooting range. Although Elvis did a lot of shooting on police and professional ranges, his extensive arsenal saw a lot of action at Graceland also, sometimes with creative targets such as automobiles. And the careful observer can still find the hole of a wayward bullet that pierced the slide of Lisa Marie’s swing set in front of the smokehouse.
In the fields behind the house stands the barn. In 1966, Elvis bought Priscilla a horse named Domino. That started Elvis on a horse-buying spree that eventually became the motivation to buy his own ranch. Elvis had a favorite horse named Rising Sun and so the barn was dubbed “House of the Rising Sun.” Today, Rising Sun is buried in the pasture facing, of course, the rising sun. Descendants of some of the original horses still live in those fields behind Graceland.
The Racquetball Court is yet another building behind the main house. In 1975, Elvis commissioned the 2,240-square-foot building so he could indulge his growing interest in the then-popular sport. Elvis played here just hours before he died. It was on the Schimmel piano in the lounge of this building that Elvis sang his last song, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The racquetball court itself has been converted into another awards showcase room. Here you can see the amazing Wall of Gold presented to the Presley estate in August, 1992, by RCA and the Recording Industry Association of America. One hundred eleven different gold, platinum, or multiplatinum records cover the walls along with a nine-foot-tall etched-glass award from RCA recognizing Elvis as the greatest recording artist of all time.
Next to the bean-shaped pool (not guitar-shaped contrary to many people’s expectations) is the last and most poignant part of the Graceland tour, the Meditation Garden. In the mid-sixties, Elvis had the Meditation Garden built as a place for contemplation. It’s said that he was inspired by the lake shrine of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, a 12-acre garden with statues of Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and other spiritual leaders that he had visited as part of his spiritual quests.
The garden’s centerpiece is a circular twelve-foot pool with five single jets of water and a larger one in the middle all lit by colored floodlights. Behind the fountain is a curved wall of Mexican brick with four stained-glass windows. In front of the wall are eight columns set in a half circle supporting a wooden trellis; at the center of the columns is a statue of Jesus given to Elvis as a gift from his inner circle.
Because of security threats to the original gravesite, Vernon Presley had the bodies of Elvis and Gladys moved from Forest Hill Cemetery and reinterred here in the garden on the night of October 2, 1977. Today Elvis, his mother, his father, and his grandmother are all buried here, and a small plaque commemorates Elvis’ stillborn twin, Jessie Garon. On November 27, 1977, the garden was opened to the public and today is the only part of Graceland that can be visited free of charge for a portion of every day. Little did Elvis know when he built this garden that millions of people would someday come to this place for the same reason he did, to quietly conimages his extraordinary life.
Although Graceland was the home that was closest to Elvis’ heart, there are other places he lived that were important in his life. To understand Graceland’s significance to Elvis, you have to go back to the beginning and consider the other places he had lived.
He was born in a 15-by-30-foot shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. Built by Vernon with help from his father, Jessie, and brother, Vester, in 1934, the house still stands after 60-plus years of enduring the elements, floods and the occasional tornado. It has two perfectly square rooms, only 450 square feet altogether, with a tiny porch in front. Vernon borrowed $180 for supplies from local landowner Orville Bean to build the house. It has since been restored into a dollhouse-like cottage with fresh paint, curtains, and landscaping, but when Elvis lived here it was considerably more primitive. They burned oil lamps for light, pumped water by hand, and used an outhouse. While Vernon was in prison for forgery, Gladys was evicted when she was unable to keep up with the house payments. This humble beginning instilled in Elvis the profound need for a home that he couldn’t be thrown out of. Elvis was known to drive down to Tupelo in the middle of the night and park near the house with his lights out and stare at that shack in wonder. The fact that this house could fit into his living room at Graceland would never cease to amaze him.
Another important home in Elvis’ life was the apartment at Lauderdale Courts, a public housing complex built in 1938 as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal that offered subsidized housing to families making less than $3,000 a year. The Presleys paid $35 a month for apartment 328, a two-bedroom, first-floor apartment at 185 Winchester. This is where Elvis lived for most of his formative high school years. Beale Street, and its many influences on his personal style and music, was within walking distance. It was here, more or less, that Elvis became Elvis. Elvis would sit on the steps and sing and play the guitar. These walls witnessed Elvis rehearsing for his dream. It gave him a stable home for three years straight, the longest he and his family had ever stayed in one place up until then. When the Presley income increased, they were forced to leave on January 7, 1953. It was yet another home they were forced out of, ironically this time for a slight rise in the family’s fortunes. The Courts were scheduled for demolition in 1997 but were saved by organized fan action. The fight is still being waged to preserve Lauderdale Courts and so far the people who want to preserve this landmark are winning.
Within only three years of leaving public housing, the Presleys moved to another important home in their saga. On May 11, 1956, with the money from his first movie deal, Elvis bought his first house on 1034 Audubon Drive in a tree-lined upper-middle-class neighborhood. It was a pastel green wood-frame ranch-style house with black shutters, brick trim, and a gray tile roof. It had a patio in the back and a carport for Elvis’ growing collection of vehicles. It was an up-to-the-minute American suburban dwelling of its time and that time was the 1950s. This is the house where Elvis lived when he achieved stardom. It was in the living room of this house that his parents watched his Ed Sullivan appearances while most of the rest of America did also. Although they lived here less than a year, the house was well documented by the photographer Alfred Wertheimer who accompanied Elvis from one of his Ed Sullivan appearances in New York back home to Memphis. He shot 3,800 black and white photos, many of them taken in this house. Those images of a young and still-innocent Elvis show him enjoying the first fruits of his success and sharing it with his parents. A photo of Gladys handing Elvis a freshly ironed pair of underwear as he prepares for a concert is one of the more memorable shots.
Elvis spent much of his time on the road that year. While he was traveling he would often buy a lamp or something else for the house and bring it back to Gladys. She wanted Elvis to spend more time at home and, perhaps impressed by his flair for home decorating, suggested he settle down and open a furniture store. He had a huge swimming pool and changing room put in behind the house. And to pamper his mother, he even bought two deluxe Mixmasters, one for each end of the kitchen so Gladys wouldn’t have to walk too far.
As Elvis’ stardom increased, the house became overrun with fans and visitors. Venders sold popcorn in the street. Even when Elvis wasn’t there fans knocked on the door to ask if they could have some water from the pool or blades of grass from the lawn. Eventually, Elvis’ neighbors resented the disruption of their peaceful suburban existence. They were said to be upset by Gladys hanging her wash on the line in the backyard and the stream of “hillbilly” relatives. They tried to buy Elvis’ house and, maybe in defiance of being told to leave yet another home, he offered to buy their houses instead. Finally Elvis conceded that he needed more privacy anyway and made the last move of his life, to Graceland. Today, the Audubon house is owned by Mike Freeman and Cindy Hazen, Elvis fans and authors of The Best of Elvis and Memphis Elvis-Style. They are in the process of affectionately restoring Elvis’ first home to its 1950s Elvis-just-stepped-out-for-a-spin condition.
In 1967, Elvis was driving through the countryside about 10 miles away from Graceland over the Mississippi border, when he spotted a 50-foot-high concrete cross in a distant pasture and fell in love with the place. This inspired him to purchase the property, a 163-acre ranch called Twinkletown Farms, and finally satisfy his desire for a place truly out in the country. He renamed it the Circle G Ranch and moved his entourage, their families, and his horses there. He bought dozens of mobile homes and a fleet of pickup trucks and tractors and tried to turn the place into a commune. For him, it was a perfect retreat from Hollywood and he was thrilled to move back to Mississippi. The peacefulness and back-to-nature activities soothed him. Elvis enjoyed his time at the ranch riding horses in God’s country, as he called it. He enjoyed it so much, he didn’t want to leave; he spent many happy days playing cowboy with his friends. Elvis and Priscilla spent part of their honeymoon there, preferring to stay in one of the mobile homes instead of the main house. It is speculated that Lisa Marie may have been conceived in that mobile home. Privacy again became an issue and Elvis was forced to build a 10-foot-high wooden fence around the property to keep the fans at bay. He ended up selling the ranch two years after the purchase when he grew tired of it and it had become too much of a financial burden.
Elvis had some homes on the West Coast that were also of note. For most of the sixties he divided his time between his Graceland and California. For the most part, his homes in Hollywood were bachelor pads that functioned as hotels. He lived in five different houses in the hills of Hollywood. He lived at 565 Perugia Way from 1960 until 1965 with the exception of the summer of 1963 when he briefly moved to a different house for a few months and then returned. It was in this house, that had once belonged to the Shah of Iran, that Elvis played host to the Beatles on August 27, 1965. This place, witness to that amazing event in pop music history, was demolished in 1990 and a new home was built in its place.
In 1965, Elvis moved to 10550 Rocca Way and lived there until 1967. It was a one-story ranch that now has been remodeled into a stately Tudor. In 1967, Elvis bought his first house in Los Angeles on 1174 Hillcrest Road in the Trousdale Estates section of Beverly Hills. Even today people scrawl messages on the iron gate of this house. It’s become a sort of West Coast Wall of Love. In late 1967, Elvis and Priscilla moved to 144 Monovale Drive in Holmby Hills. Elvis made his last six films during the time he lived in this house. This is also where he lived when made the famous “68 Comeback Special.” After the divorce, Priscilla lived here and Elvis returned to Hillcrest.
After being introduced to Palm Springs by the Colonel, who owned a residence there, Elvis would often retreat from Hollywood to one of his two houses in that desert resort. In 1965, Elvis commissioned a 15-room house to be built at 845 Chino Canyon Road. This was the only house that Elvis actually had built. In 1967, he also briefly leased a 5,000-square-foot futuristic house on a cul de sac at 1350 Ladera Circle. It was here that Elvis spent his wedding night with Priscilla and for that reason this house has been nicknamed the Honeymoon Hideaway.
All these other homes notwithstanding, it’s the Graceland/Elvis association that is inextricable. No other celebrity is so closely identified with one specific home and it’s because of this that Graceland has become as important to his fans as it was to Elvis, and a palpable connection to him. It was a real home and there was plenty of life in it. A home like any other–with Easter eggs hunts; monkeying around with friends on the back lawn; cozy, good meals at the kitchen table; harmonizing around the piano. Elvis lived here and this is what you feel when you’re there. That Graceland is open to visit is one of the many perks that EPE has provided for Elvis’ fans. If you can make it there, by all means, go.
The Architects Furbringer and Ehrman designed Graceland in 1938.
The Realtors Virginia Grant Hugh Bosworth
Law Office that Handled the Closing on Graceland Evans, Petree and Cobb
Graceland’s Interior Designers George Golden Worked with Gladys and Elvis decorating Graceland in 1957. He had decorated Sam Phillips’s house. He used to advertise his services with a roving flatbed truck that carried model rooms.
Abe Saucer Designed the music gates.
“On one occasion, while Elvis was in his driveway visiting with a group of fans, a large white van filled with foreign tourists stopped in front of the house (because of all the people gathered there). The folks in the van wanted to know of someone famous lived at the house. Elvis' without skipping a beat, said he didn't know who lived there but that Danny Thomas lived down the street. Just about that time, one of them noticed that Elvis looked like well, Elvis. He proceeded very convincingly to tell them that he was not Elvis but everyone always told him that he resembled him. It was pretty hard to keep a straight face at this point. The van finally went on down the street to photograph Danny Thomas's house. On the way back they stopped again to talk a few minutes. After they'd left for good Elvis says 'Damn, I'm good–I ought to be an actor!' He was so proud of himself he talked about that incident for a week.