The Man. The Life. The Style.
By Pamela Clarke Keogh
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster,
268 pp., $35
In the words of Diana Vreeland, Vogue editor and arbiter of high style in the 1960s: "Give me anything. Just don't bore me!"
It's a quote that crops up in Pamela Clarke Keogh's new biography, Elvis Presley: The Man. The Life. The Style., but it does so in a paragraph devoted to Elvis' girlfriend and future wife, Priscilla. According to Keogh, Priscilla was 18 and fresh out of Immaculate Conception High School when, in 1964, her "inner Elizabeth Taylor" went into overdrive.
There's no telling what Vreeland made of Priscilla's look back then. (If it's on record, it's not in this book.) But bored Vreeland couldn't have been by the two pairs of false eyelashes Priscilla sometimes wore, her jet-black eyebrows penciled to match and her hair back-combed to "Brobdingagian proportions." "The big boomba" is what Patti Parry called her friend Priscilla's hairdo, and Parry should know, because she was in on the big tease. "Make it bigger" is what Priscilla kept telling Parry. "It's too big" is what Elvis told Priscilla when he saw it, which brought Priscilla to tears with Parry to blame. Who did Parry have to blame? Nobody. According to Keogh, "Eventually, Patti tired of the hair imbroglio and decided to let Cilla fix her own damn hair."
No one, however, told Elvis Presley what to do with his hair (save one time: the U.S. Army), because no one knew better than Elvis that, in addition to talent, style makes the man. In the early 1950s, that instinct for style had already made the teenager -- Elvis' hair: whipped into shape with an amalgam of three brands of grease; the shirts he'd sometimes wear to Humes High: lace. As Keogh writes, "Elvis had no damn interest in any Ivy League look."
Bernard Lansky, of Lansky Bros. on Beale, knew that appearance counts too when Elvis, age 18, walked into the store, "shy beyond belief" but inspired by the truckers he'd seen barreling down Highway 78 and the big-screen gunslingers he'd watched in Memphis' downtown theaters. That look was about to be replaced, with Lansky's help, by pegged, no-back-pocket pants or maybe "a raw silk number with an ivory button blouson cuff." But that look would change too -- from "Hillbilly Cat" (mid-'50s) to "Euro Elvis" (late '50s) to "Rat Pack Elvis" (early '60s) to leather-suited Elvis (1968) to jumpsuited Elvis ('70 and beyond). You know the looks.
But maybe you don't know that Elvis' inseam was 31 inches. That a pair of women's opera gloves was the inspiration for Bill Belew's leather duds for Elvis in the '68 "Comeback" special. That Graceland's first interior decorator, George Golden, was a former Lipton ice-tea salesman. That Graceland's Jungle Room is "unerring in the overall cohesiveness of its design." That, by the mid-'70s, Elvis kept more than 80 pairs of size-12 shoes "with nary a lace-up in site." That Elvis didn't wear Creed's Green Irish Tweed scent but, according to Joe Esposito, he did wear Brut. That only 5 percent of Elvis memorabilia can be displayed to the public at any one time -- stuff that includes his sixth-grade report card, his favorite Yahtzee set, a box of Crayola crayons, and some oxygen tanks. That Richard Nixon favored cottage cheese and ketchup for lunch and that Diana Vreeland (her again) daily dined on a peanut-butter-and-marmalade sandwich, a shot of scotch, and a pack of Pall Malls. That Elvis' peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich fixation is largely a myth. ("He didn't eat that many," Esposito clarifies for us here.) That Elvis liked his meat burned to just this side of smithereens is no lie, however. "I like it well done," Elvis once said. "I ain't ordering a pet."
Keogh's coverage of Elvis' career may not be groundbreaking, but she's had the endorsement of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which makes it a first for a full-length biography of the man. She's had access to unpublished photographs and reprints them here. She knows her stuff when it comes to style, having writing on Audrey Hepburn in Audrey Style and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in Jackie Style. And she can get absolutely ga-ga over Elvis, be it early, middle, or late in his career.
This month, for her part, Priscilla Presley (plus daughter, plus granddaughter) gets the cover of Vogue.
Pamela Clarke Keogh signs Elvis Presley: The Man. The Life. The Style. at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Tuesday, August 10th, at 6 p.m.