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Graceland

08/31/2007

Dateline — Memphis, August 26

When I told Shirley Crenshaw, my author escort in Memphis, that I wanted to visit Graceland, she thought I was kidding at first. She’d only gone once before.

Then she told me her sister had gone to high school with Elvis. Seriously. So we had to go. After all, this is the 30th anniversary of Elvis’s death.

First thing I learned is that it’s not pronounced the way Paul Simon sings it. The second syllable is unstressed.

Second thing I learned is that it’s not exactly a mansion. It’s like a big suburban house, decorated in the worst 1970s taste. The famous “Jungle Room” is basically a rec room with shag carpet and fake-fur upholstery. One look at the kitchen, with its cheesy wood veneer cabinets, and you want to tear it all out and renovate.

But hey, it’s Elvis. He bought the house in 1957 for just over $100,000, with a $37,000 mortgage, a year after he hit the top of the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel.”

By the time he died, the poor guy was way overweight and drug-addicted and chronically constipated, and in financial trouble. His manager had sold the rights to most of his songbook back to RCA, for a fraction of what they’d have gotten now — but he needed the cash.

Elvis was a great singer, a charismatic performer, and a very generous guy. But at the time of his death, he was pretty much washed up, and I suspect he’d be all but forgotten, a pop-culture curiosity of the 1950s and ‘60s, a Trivial Pursuit question . . . were it not for his ex-wife Priscilla, who hired a brilliant entrepreneur, Jack Soden, to manage his estate, Elvis Presley Enterprises.

Soden, a marketing genius, didn’t hesitate to file lawsuits against anyone and everyone who dared to use Elvis’s image — his face, for God’s sake — without paying for it. He turned Graceland, this kitschy high-suburban house, into a shrine that gets 600,000 visitors a year, a tourist attraction second only to the White House.

Two years ago, Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie, sold 85% of Elvis Presley Enterprises to the media mogul, Robert Sillerman, for around $100 million.

She got to keep Graceland, though.

The signing was at the Horseshoe Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. A nice crowd of people, just about none of whom had ever read any of my books before. Tunica, which used to be one of the poorest places in the country, has exploded in the past five years, with all sorts of casinos springing up. The night sky glows neon.