Book reviews

Jenkins, Mary. Memories beyond Graceland Gates by Mary Jenkins as told to Beth Pease. Eastland Publishing, Paris , TX , 1997. 110p. Reprint of 1989 issue. ISBN 0 9623756 0 8

Rooks, Nancy B. Inside Graceland : Elvis' maid remembers . Nancy B. Rooks as told to Jim Cox. Xlibris, [Philadelphia , PA ?], c2005. 149 p. ISBN 1 4134 5477 1 (hardcover); 1 4134 5476 3 (softcover).

Together, these two books provide a fascinating glimpse into the private life of Elvis Presley at Graceland . Mary Jenkins and Nancy Rooks were daytime employees at Graceland, both starting out as maids and later taking on the role of cook. Mary started in 1963 and Nancy in 1967. They worked together for several years and recount unique individual experiences as well as overlapping anecdotes.

Nancy Rook's book is the more detailed, containing 12 chapters and 16 pages of black and white photos. Mary Jenkins' book is a coffee table book with 17 short chapters and plentiful photos, some coloured, followed by 12 pages of "Elvis' favorite recipes" for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime snack including, yes, peanut butter and banana sandwich.

The authors' motives are to provide a positive tribute to a kind, giving and humble human being in order to counterbalance the many negative, spiteful and exaggerated published accounts. Both comment on how welcoming the Presley family was (especially father Vernon and Grandma Minnie Mae "Dodger"), and how Elvis put them at ease and made them feel part of the extended family. Both authors found Graceland an attractive and comfortable home. They contradict accepted myths about Elvis's eating habits, drug taking and promiscuity, and note Elvis's ongoing interest in religion. Nancy Rooks sometimes sang hymns with Minnie Mae, as well as with Elvis - both Presleys played the organ and Minnie Mae had her own organ in her room. She liked the maids to watch soap operas with her and told them various anecdotes about the family and Elvis as a child.

For those lingering doubters, there are yet more anecdotes of Elvis's incredible generosity and more proof that Elvis was not racially prejudiced.

Character distortions can occur when infrequent incidences of bad behaviour are reported out of context and extrapolated as typical behaviour. By not including the circumstances, stresses and pressures that triggered outbursts, we can be led to believe Elvis's behaviour was more capricious than it was. Yes, we know he had a temper - so did his mother Gladys and Aunt Delta. Aunt Delta would sometimes throw objects at the wall when drunk. But Nancy Rooks considers that Elvis often showed forbearance and laughed matters off when anger would have been justified. Mary Jenkins claims that when things got too much at Graceland, Elvis would sometimes move out to a motel for a few days.

Elvis's behavioural problems increased from 1975 to 1977 as he was more heavily medicated. Again, while not denying that he was taking a large quantity of medications, Nancy Rooks believes this was necessitated, partly due to his increased tolerance to drugs, and partly due to very real health problems and ailments that left him in terrible pain at times. The fact that prescriptions were filled in Elvis's name for members of his staff reinforces the impression that he was taking more drugs than he actually was. After his death, it was Nancy who cleared Elvis's bathroom on Aunt Delta' instructions. She stresses that she only found prescription bottles, no illegal drugs.

Graceland had a formidable army of around 100 staff to keep it running, including yardmen, contractors, electrician, painters, carpenters, maids, cooks, nurse, secretaries, security guards, animal keepers and general maintenance people. Everyone had to be fed. The cooks prepared waves of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. Aunt Delta did the grocery shopping which came to $300 to $400 per week (Rooks), or $500 per week in the late sixties (Jenkins). Both remark on Lamar Fike's large appetite. Elvis preferred plain southern-style cooking but would sometimes get cravings for something different.

Versions of the cooks' stories differ slightly, maybe due to quirks of memory, or maybe because the cooks weren't in the same place at the same time. When Lisa Marie Presley was born on 1 February 1968, Elvis rang Minnie Mae during the day to say that Priscilla had given birth to a girl, according to Mary Jenkins. Nancy Rooks' version has Elvis arriving back at Graceland in the evening to tell them the news for the first time.

The combined account of Elvis losing his temper and breaking the telephone on the wall goes as follows: after his divorce, and as he got more heavily involved in taking his medications, Elvis could become more demanding about his food. On this occasion, Mary Jenkins was sitting in the kitchen waiting for Elvis to call and order his meal. Several of the guys were lounging around in the jungle area. Elvis thought he was buzzing down to the staff for his meal when actually he was buzzing the wrong intercom.

Opposite: Elvis Memories Beyond Graceland Gates

After 20 minutes of frustration, he charged down the backstairs into the kitchen area in a rage, at which everyone went running. He tried to rip the telephone from the wall; failing that, he picked up a chair to smash it. Nancy Rooks thought she saw Mary Jenkins running out of the back door into the yard, but Mary's version has her going in that direction without actually going outside. She and the dog Get Low hid trembling in the hallway between the jungle den and the outside door, where Elvis found her. He put his arms round her and asked forgiveness - his temper had been aimed at "those lazy so-and-so's" (the guys). Once he had his meal served by Nancy and realised that he had not been intentionally ignored, he apologised to everyone, and they could tell for a couple of days that he regretted his behaviour.

On one occasion Elvis shot out the toilet, resulting in water pouring through the ceiling: Nancy Rooks was working in the kitchen when she heard a "pop" and ran upstairs. There she met Elvis in his pyjamas, with a smoking gun in his hand and a sheepish look on his face. He did not explain what happened and she didn't ask for an explanation. When Mary Jenkins went up to collect breakfast trays Elvis and Ginger Alden were having "one heck" of an argument. Mary heard the gunshot when she reached Minnie Mae's door.

Other snippets gleaned from these two books:

• As a child, when Elvis was upset by his mother Gladys he would sometimes turn up at Dodger's house with some clothes in a paper bag and say that he was running away

• Elvis gave this reason for the move from Tupelo to Memphis: he saw the body of a murdered woman which triggered nightmares

• While Elvis enjoyed Christmas, he did not enjoy Mother's Day or Easter

  • It was Dodger who first suggested to Elvis that he dye his hair

• Both authors mention family friend Janelle McComb, with whom Elvis held long telephone conversations

• Elvis used these brands (Rooks): after-shave - Aqua Velva and Brut; toothpaste - Colgate; laundry detergent - Tide; briefs - white Fruit-of-the-Loom

• After the divorce, Elvis always seemed to be reading the Bible in his room

• Lisa Marie and friends went through a phase of making prank phone calls by dialing random numbers until someone answered

• Many of the staff believed that Graceland was haunted by Gladys's ghost, who was there to ensure that Elvis was well looked after.

All in all, we get an intriguing picture of life in a large-ish family home in the American south in the 1960s and 1970s, and an account of changes to household staff, furniture and décor over time. Staff appear to have been valued and well-treated as part of the extended family. It's unclear whether Mary Jenkins and Nancy Rooks were friends - they merely mention each other in passing, and their accounts differ in places. Yet both contribute separately and together to an interesting glimpse of history at a certain point in time.

Susan MacDougall

12 March 2007

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