The 10th of March, 1956: That's when Anne Fulchino, of RCA Victor records in New York City, called a young photographer named Alfred Wertheimer. Fulchino wanted him inside a CBS studio a week later to take pictures on the set of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's TV program, Stage Show. Wertheimer jumped at the chance. Tommy Dorsey was one of his big-band heroes.
But it wasn't Tommy Dorsey that Fulchino wanted Wertheimer to photograph. It was a young singer, recently signed to RCA Victor, who was appearing on the program. The label needed publicity shots.
"I want you to photograph Elvis Presley," Fulchino told Wertheimer.
And that's when, Wertheimer recalls, 15 seconds of silence followed on the phone. Then Wertheimer broke the silence: "Elvis who? Who is Elvis Presley?"
He was about to find out.
Flash forward to the 3rd of August, 2012: That's when Barbara Gray said by phone from her home in Charleston, South Carolina:
"He was in Charleston doing a show. I was at a bar that evening with some friends. They said, 'Bobbi' — I went by "Bobbi" — have you met Elvis Presley?' I said, 'Who's Elvis Presley?'"
She was about to find out.
"They said he's that new singer. He does that rockabilly kind of stuff. They said, 'Give him a call at the Francis Marion Hotel. If anybody can get a date with him, you can.' I said, 'I don't know him. I don't like that kind of music. I follow big bands.' But they got me to call the Francis Marion.
"I asked for Elvis Presley's room. Gene Smith, Elvis' cousin, answered. I said, 'Are you Elvis?' He said, 'No, ma'am. But I'll put him on the phone.'
"An hour and a half later, Elvis had convinced me he was sending his car for me the next morning to go to Richmond, Virginia. He wanted me to see the show he was going to do there. And the car did show up the next morning — a long, white Cadillac convertible. I went to Richmond not even knowing who these people were."
The evening of June 30, 1956: The setting is a backstage hallway inside the Mosque theater in Richmond.
That's when and where a 26-year-old Alfred Wertheimer photographed a 21-year-old Elvis Presley and a 20-year-old Barbara Gray. Both were oblivious to the photographer who was taking shots every few seconds and using the light available: a 50-watt bulb overhead and a stairwell window to the side.
"Excuse me, coming through" is what Wertheimer remembers saying to the couple as he worked his way around, above, and below in order to photograph Elvis face to face with Barbara, his hands resting on her lower back, their eyes locked; Elvis bending Barbara's nose because he'd missed kissing her full on the lips; and then The Kiss — the title of Wertheimer's iconic image of Elvis Presley and Barbara Gray, the tips of their tongues barely touching.
"Mission accomplished" is how the note to that photograph reads in the catalog, Elvis 1956, to an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian. That exhibition, called "Elvis at 21: Photographs of Alfred Wertheimer," is now at the Pink Palace Museum.
Wertheimer will be in town during this week's 35th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. Gray will be too, for her first-ever appearances in Memphis. So check this issue's calendar of events scheduled for the Pink Palace, Graceland, and the Peabody. But consider first the work of Alfred Wertheimer, because the spring and summer of 1956 was the last time in the life of Elvis Presley that a photographer was granted unrestricted access to the man who would be king.
Wertheimer took full advantage of the opportunity. He captured Elvis onstage, offstage, in rehearsal, and in the recording studio. Then he followed Elvis back to Memphis, where the singer asked that the train make an unscheduled stop at a sign by the tracks that simply read "White" (as in White Station). Elvis wanted to travel by foot — with acetates in hand of "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel," songs he had just recorded in New York — for his homecoming on Audubon Drive. But he wanted to wow concertgoers that night at Memphis' Russwood Park. And that's what Elvis did: He mesmerized the crowd of 14,000 who were there to see the singer on his home turf, on his own terms — to see, as Elvis announced from the stage, "what the real Elvis Presley's all about."
Wertheimer caught the starstruck faces in that crowd. But Wertheimer, for his part: He stayed out of Elvis' way.
"Sure, fine. Why not? Go ahead. Take your pictures," Elvis told the photographer when the two were introduced inside that CBS studio. And that's what Wertheimer did: He took his pictures. He became, in his own words, a fly on the wall. And in a recent phone interview, Wertheimer in New York talked about his days spent in 1956 with a star on the cusp of becoming a superstar. Wertheimer's method of capturing Elvis, in essence, was this:
"That's one of the things people give me credit for: 'Al,' they say to me, 'you did such a marvelous job.'
"Well, what did I do? I let Elvis be himself! What did other people do? They wanted Elvis to be part of a TV show, part of a scripted item controlled by a director. I didn't want to be a director. I wanted to reflect Elvis' image — his body, what he was thinking. All you have to do is absorb what there is. You don't have to have a script. The script is there. I didn't want control. My 'control' was no control.
"So there I was, shooting 'available light' photography. I'd rather do that than pop off a lot of flashbulbs, constantly pointing the finger at myself, as if to say look what I'm doing, instead of letting people live their lives. So what if I screw up on half the pictures? It was more important to get Elvis' personality than to get mine. When a person is directing his own life and you're not asking them to do anything unusual except be themselves, you'd be surprised at the wonderful things that can happen.
"I was using Elvis like I was experimenting in a lab. I'd photograph his scuffed white shoes. I'd zero in on his sideburns. I was getting that close. When I got bored shooting his body or face, I'd shoot the top of his head to see what direction his hair was going. Elvis didn't care if I was in there at three feet. He didn't flinch. He didn't act for me. And when you get that close — three feet — now you're part of his personality. You can feel his vibrations. And he can feel a little bit of yours.
"I was learning as I went along, and I've photographed quite a few people after Elvis. But I never had a subject who allowed me that kind of entree and who turned out to be a superstar. If Elvis is a king today, when I photographed him in 1956, he was working on being a prince.
"So, in the thousands of pictures I took, there are only two that are posed. Nothing else was posed, nothing. You're getting 100 percent pure Elvis. And that's really the heart of the matter."
These days, for Barbara Gray, the heart of the matter isn't Elvis Presley. It's Jesus Christ. And it's been that way for decades — ever since Gray's friend the singer Pat Boone baptized her in his Beverly Hills swimming pool in the late '60s. But their friendship goes back further than that, and it includes the day in September 1956, when Boone called Gray at the shoe store where she was working to ask what she thought she was doing in the arms of his biggest rival, Elvis Presley. Boone had seen it, Alfred Wertheimer's photograph The Kiss, reproduced in a fan magazine.
"Um, um, I don't know" was, according to Gray in our interview, the only answer she could come up with that day in the shoe store. On other matters, though, she was more than forthcoming, and someone could write a book. That someone should be Barbara Gray herself.
She's, in fact, planning a memoir, but it would be better, she thinks, that she tell it, somebody else author it. Turns out, Gray has a ton to tell:
A father who beat her. Multiple marriages, the first, to a sailor, when Gray was 14. Working stints as a night-club "show-off" dancer, manager at a Frederick's of Hollywood, and TV makeup artist for The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia. A run-in with Zsa Zsa Gabor, when Gabor took Gray's makeup mirror from the beauty shop where Gray worked. Friendship with two of Liberace's acquaintances: one of them a fellow student of Gray's at the beauty school they attended (Gray's husband got jealous and "beat the livin' crap" out of her); the other an assistant manager at the hotel where Gray did manicures. Another run-in, this time with Harry Belafonte, who repeatedly planted his hotel room key on Gray's manicure desk and who once said to her, "I just looove Southern fried chicken," to which Gray responded: "Me too but only the white meat." (Gray to Belafonte's wife, who'd walked on the scene: "I think you need to get your husband out of here before I stab him with this nail file.")
Gray back in the day was, in her own words, a "pretty spunky gal." "Quite a live wire and a very striking girl" is how Edward Swier, Gray's boyfriend at the time, was quoted in the August 2011 issue of Vanity Fair, in an article written by Alanna Nash, author of Baby, Let's Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him.
Little wonder, then, that Gray was indeed in the arms of Elvis Presley at the Mosque theater in Richmond in 1956, and she sat with him earlier that day inside a hotel coffee shop, where Wertheimer also photographed them. And make no mistake: Upon meeting him, Gray thought Elvis "absolutely gorgeous."
She already had a boyfriend, Swier, in Philadelphia, however. Spending time with celebrities was for her "no big deal." Once Elvis got "frisky," Gray told herself, "That's it." When Elvis asked that she go with him from Richmond to New York, she traveled to Philadelphia to see Swier instead. By the time she returned to Charleston, she didn't give much thought to her meeting with Elvis. She didn't give any thought to the photographs that had been taken of them.
Now she's quite prepared to be reminded of those photographs when she greets fans eager to meet her after the frustrating time she had convincing others, including Wertheimer, that she is, in fact, the woman in The Kiss.
"It was a moment I'll never forget," Gray said of an appearance she made at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond earlier this year. "Everybody in that line ... they stood for hours ... over a thousand people! Every man and woman came around the table, had their picture taken with me, hugged me. They even hugged my husband! And to think, all these years I hadn't wanted to be a part of it."
Nor, after 1956, did she play a part in the life of Elvis Presley. She said he sent her a Christmas card once, but they had no further contact, though she did think to reach out to him:
"He was appearing in Philadelphia sometime in the '70s. I was working at the time with drug addicts and alcoholics, and I wanted to talk to him, help him.
"I'd become a Christian. I wanted to witness to him. But my pride got in the way. I was older, heavier. And I thought he wouldn't know who I am. He wouldn't know my name. I've never forgiven myself for not pushing my way in. I used to know how to do that when I was 20."
Gray may no longer be 20, but she's happier now than at any time in her life. She gives "God the glory for that." And she'd like others to know something else:
"I want people to know that Elvis was a good, Christian, young man when I met him. He treated me like a lady. He was a kind, sweet boy. All he wanted, he said, was to do gospel music. That was really his thing. All that others wanted to do was make money off of him.
"But, frankly, I'm having a hard time remembering things that go too far back.
"When I talk with someone like you, though, all these old things come up in my mind. Because of people, like you, who ask me questions."