‘It’s (not) all right, mama’: misery of the only woman Elvis really loved
Gladys Presley and her son were inseparable, but behind the pictures lay a darker truth
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’s real 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’s 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 remarkable success.
Gladys was very much part of the Presley package, right from the start. Early magazine features often mentioned Elvis’s 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. Elvis told one interviewer that if he couldn’t sleep, his mother would rise from her own bed to talk through his worries with him, no matter how late the hour.
However, behind the media image was a darker truth. Far from being transported into some blissful American dream by Elvis’s rise to superstardom, his mother was 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 that summer. Both lied about their age, Vernon adding four years to his 17 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, three-year-old Elvis became the man of the house. Gladys’s elder sister, Lillian, said he would comfort his mother, patting her on the head and saying: “There, there, my little baby.” Even when Elvis was grown, mother and son shared their own baby language: toes were “sooties”, milk was “butch”, Gladys was “Satnin”, and Elvis was “Naughty”.
Unable to have more children, Gladys was reluctant to let Elvis out of her sight and told him that when one twin dies the other gets all his strength. There must have been little doubt in his 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’s 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 about the age of nine 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. But he’d always come home and tell his mama “boocups” (everything) about his day.
Gladys’s dream was for her son to become a businessman and settle down with a wife and family. But 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’s 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. Her fears were not unfounded.
For the first few months of his success, Gladys and Vernon attended Elvis’s 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.
Elvis was determined to make the most of all his opportunities. His womanising began early in his career. Jimmy Snow, the country singer who roomed with Elvis on tour in 1955, remembered him bringing as many as three girls a night back to the hotel.
While she was certainly not above chastising her son for failing to live by “Jesus’s plan” (she’d smack him across the back of his head, even when he was grown), to some extent Gladys enabled this behaviour. She encouraged him in his courtship of girls as young as 14, “interviewing” them to ascertain their suitability for her son and pointing out to them that Elvis had some wild oats to sow in the few years until they were ready for marriage. Whenever Elvis was away, his current “best girl” would often sleep in his bedroom in the family home, partly to keep Gladys company, and partly so Gladys could keep an eye on her.
In 1956 there was a media frenzy over Elvis’s “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’s 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 (Vernon’s father, JD, was a renowned and cruel drunkard). She favoured beer concealed in a paper sack, and tried to hide the smell on her breath by eating raw onions.
Yet she also did her best to live the life of a superstar’s mother in her own fashion. At their new ranch-style house on upscale Audubon Drive, Memphis, Gladys would chat with fans at the gate and allow them up the drive to look at Elvis’s cars, even supplying them with Kleenex so they could wipe the dust from the fenders and keep it as a souvenir.
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 (Elvis bought her two “Mixmaster” mixers, one for either end of the kitchen, so she wouldn’t have to walk so far) 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’s image.
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 learnt 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’s 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, at just 46.
It’s often said that Elvis’s 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’s 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.
• Bethan Roberts’s new novel Graceland is out on February 14.
– © The Daily Telegraph