The only woman Elvis Presley loved

Section
Celebrity,
Publish Date
Saturday, 9 February 2019, 10:08PM

In the 1957 film musical Loving You, Elvis Presley's alter-ego, Deke Rivers, performs Got a Lot o' Livin' to Do in a coast-to-coast broadcast that will win over the hearts of the American nation, even those who once dismissed our hero as a juvenile delinquent.

Captured on film in the audience is Elvis' real-life mother, Gladys. She sits at the end of a row, clapping along, never missing a beat. When Deke leaps from the stage, she almost rises from her seat, unable to contain her excitement, just like the thousands of girls who attended Elvis' shows.

She's considerably overweight and appears older than her 44 years, but for those few moments on screen, she looks every inch the proud mother basking in her son's success.

Gladys was very much part of the Presley package, right from the start. Early magazine features often mentioned Elvis' closeness to his parents, particularly his mother. His devotion was intensified, the stories suggested, by his being not only a God-fearing southern boy, but also an only child whose twin brother died at birth.

However, behind the media image was a darker truth. Far from being transported into some blissful American dream by Elvis' rise to superstardom, his mother was actually plunged into despair.

Gladys Love Smith was 21 when she met Vernon Presley in her home town of Tupelo, Mississippi, in the spring of 1933, and they eloped to be married that summer. Both lied about their age, Vernon adding four years to his 17 in order to make things legal, Gladys claiming to be 19 to even things up. It wasn't long before this hot love affair cooled. In 1938, Vernon was sentenced to three years in Parchman Penitentiary for forging a cheque.

While his daddy was away, 3-year-old Elvis became the man of the house.

Elvis comforts his mother Gladys and his father Vernon on the eve of his induction into the US Army. Photo / AP

There must have been little doubt in Elvis' mind that he was precious, special — and more than a little responsible for his mother's happiness. Gladys never tired of recalling how, even as a young boy, he promised one day to pay off the family debts and buy them fancy cars and a big house.

After Vernon returned from jail, he never again held down a steady job, and Elvis took on the role of Gladys' protector. From the age of 19, he was the sole breadwinner for the family.

Gladys is sometimes viewed as monstrously smothering, and her son as a helpless mama's boy — or worse. No doubt Vernon's second wife, Dee Stanley, had her own reasons for spreading the rumour that Elvis had sex with his mother.

There's no evidence for this — they certainly slept together sometimes when he was a child, but the Presleys rarely had enough mattresses to go around, let alone bedrooms.

If Gladys was over-controlling, she at least realised there was one area where she should back off: music. From around the age of 9, Elvis was going alone to join the live audience of local radio broadcasts and listen to just about any kind of music he could. After the family moved to Memphis, he would frequent the Blues joints of Beale Street.

When he was 19 — having spent the past year trying to get the manager of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, to notice him — he cut a record, That's All Right, and it got played on the radio. Gladys said she was so shaken by hearing Elvis' name spoken by the DJ that she couldn't hear the song. You can read this two ways. Naturally, she was excited and proud.

But she was also scared. After all, the last time her husband's full name was uttered aloud in public would have been when he received his jail sentence. To Gladys, there was something dangerous about being exposed in this way.

Gladys Love Presley, mother of rock 'n roll singer Elvis Presley, is shown in 1957. Photo / AP

Her fears were not unfounded. For the first few months of his success, Gladys and Vernon attended Elvis' shows. At one high school dance, the audience mobbed the bandstand, trying to get their hands on Elvis. Gladys threw herself into the throng, picking the girls off her son and demanding, "Why you trying to kill my boy?" After a show in May 1955, hundreds of teenage girls broke into his dressing room and stripped him of his clothes.

Elvis treated the whole thing as a bit of a joke, but Gladys began to fear for her son's life.

In 1956 there was a media frenzy over Elvis' "grunt and groin antics" and he was blamed for just about everything conservative America feared: race-mixing, riots, juvenile delinquency.

One Baptist minister in Jacksonville prayed for Elvis' soul. It must have been bewildering for Gladys, who'd brought her son up to respect the Bible's teachings and always act polite with folks. She turned to drink, but she did it secretly, aware of the distaste her son had for alcohol. The real trouble for Gladys was that she was losing her son. His career kept him away from home for months at a time, taking him to places she could barely imagine. In 1957, the family moved to Graceland, the 14-acre, colonial-style mansion Elvis bought in the hope of making his increasingly miserable mother happy.

Although Gladys enjoyed the trappings of luxury at first she was frustrated by the way her son's fame locked her in a gilded cage, unable to socialise normally with her neighbours.

The final insult came when Gladys was warned not to feed her chickens in front of the house because it was bad for Elvis' image.

Elvis Presley poses with guitar in a promotional still for the movie "Jailhouse Rock" circa 1957. Photo / Supplied

To Elvis, Graceland seemed the culmination of his dreams: a public declaration of just how far he'd come, how much he'd been blessed. But to Gladys, it was a place of illness, isolation and depression.

By the beginning of 1958 she was suffering with (undiagnosed) hepatitis, brought on by alcoholism. She told her cousin she was "the most miserable woman on earth".

When Elvis was inducted into the army in March 1958, it was the beginning of the end for Gladys, especially when she learned he would be posted to Germany. She wasn't fit enough to travel abroad; worse, in her mind, Germany meant one thing: war, and more life-threatening situations for her boy.

By this point, Gladys' health was in serious decline. Elvis tried to deal with his mother's illness by keeping her close — when he was posted to Texas for army training, he rented a house for his family nearby. But by August 1958, Gladys was back in Memphis, in hospital. She died of acute hepatitis and severe liver damage, on August 14 1958, aged just 46.

It's often said that Elvis' tragedy was the early loss of his mother. And you can hear it in his voice, which is haunted by the woman he had to leave, the only woman he ever really loved, the woman he could never make happy. What's less often noticed is Gladys' tragedy.

Her son's success brought her the big house and fancy cars he'd promised. But she couldn't drive, and she was left alone in the house, waiting for him to call.Telegraph Media Group

• Bethan Roberts' new novel Graceland (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) is out soon.