THE KING AND IIF GRACELAND IS ROTTEN TO DECOR, DON'T BLAME IT ON ELVIS' FORMER DECORATOR GEORGE GOLDEN
George Golden is not now and never was a fan of rock n' roll music. And, at the age of 79, it's a virtual certainty that he will not soon convert.
But in early March 1957, the 40ish Golden was singing a considerably different tune. A phenomenon named Elvis Presley had just purchased a slightly run-down mansion called Graceland on the outskirts of Memphis and, like every other interior decorator in town (all three of em), Golden was determined to grab the contract to furnish it.
Sitting on the porch of the comfortable north Phoenix mobile home he shares with his second wife, Ann, retired interior decorator George Golden smiles as he recalls how he landed the job decorating what would ultimately become the most famous private residence in the country.
"At that time, Elvis had been famous for about two or three years," says Golden, looking remarkably fit for a man who suffered a major heart attack less than six months ago. "So when we heard that Elvis had bought Graceland, well, you can just imagine. It was like a circus out there with everyone trying to jump on the bandwagon. Every decorator in town wanted that job so bad they could taste it."
Reminiscing about the morning that Vernon and Gladys Presley, Elvis' parents, invited Golden and his two female competitors to make bids on restoring the run-down, 18-room, two-story manor, the retiree chuckles. "Those two gals were all over poor Gladys, waving sketches in her face and gabbing away like you wouldn't believe."
Realizing he'd get nowhere fast were he to enter that melee, Golden stood back and chewed the fat with Vernon Presley while his locustlike competitors descended upon Elvis' rapidly rattled mom. A smart move, as it turned out.
"Miz Presley was a shy woman and had a real fear of being in closed-up spaces," says Golden. "Finally, she had had enough. She waved her hands in those women's faces and hollered, 'Get away and leave me alone! Mr. Golden's gonna do our work!'
"When she said that, the room suddenly got very quiet," recalls Golden. "My competitors turned around and gave me the hardest looks you've ever seen. They just knew that one of them was going to land that job and when they found out they hadn't, well, let's just say I had two very unhappy ladies glaring at me."
George Golden, understandably, was as happy as a pig in, well, you get the idea. The country-bred Presleys certainly did.
"Having been an entrepreneur of one kind or another all my life, I knew that you're never going to make a sale until both people start to think along the same lines," reveals Golden. "Now, the Presleys' language was quite simple, exactly what you'd expect from country folk, so I tried to talk as plainly as possible," he continues. "Ain't' was a word they used very commonly, so if they said 'ain't,' I said 'ain't,' too. And I sure didn't use any fancy words that they'd be unaccustomed with."
When there was no way around that problem (just try talking about interior design without using the word "decor"), Golden simply reverted to Presleyese.
"Instead of 'day-core,' I'd say 'deck-core,'" he explains. "It wasn't 'tomahtoes,' it was 'tomaytoes.' I just started talking like them, and after that, we got along just fine."
@body:In 1957, at least, the 22-year-old Presley's penchant for visual flamboyance did not extend to interior decoration, says Golden, who claims he was pretty much given free rein to decorate Graceland any way he saw fit.
Not that any member of the immediate Presley family could have contributed much to the project, anyway. Elvis was far too busy cutting records, touring and preparing to shoot Jailhouse Rock to spend much time fretting over color schemes and fabric swatches.
"Of course, Elvis wasn't around nearly as much as Mr. and Miz Presley, but when he was, you knew it," says Golden. "Once he borrowed one of my delivery trucks and pulled a hat down real low over his face so he could drive through the gates without getting mobbed. Then, when he got back, he got out of the truck, took off the hat, bowed to the girls lined up against the fence and said, 'Thank you, ladies!' Well, they liked to die. But that was the kind of person he was--a born showman."
His parents, meanwhile, who'd both spent most of their lives in shanties and government housing projects, probably knew as much about decorating as they did about nuclear fission. Says Golden, "Elvis' daddy said to me, 'Mr. Golden, you survey the situation and you see what needs to be done.'"
Somewhat stunned at receiving virtual carte blanche, one of Golden's first decisions was to erect a temporary fence around the house and staff the perimeter of the property with guards. And even though the Presley clan didn't take up residence in the house for another six months, news of Presley's Graceland purchase almost immediately triggered pandemonium bordering on mass hysteria.
"In Memphis, at least, it was front-page news," says Golden, who compares the town's coverage of Presley's acquisition of the minimansion to the recent media blitz surrounding the Phoenix Suns' bid for the NBA championship. "There were big headlines everywhere," he continues. "Elvis Presley Buys Graceland.' Then, once word spread around the country that he had bought this house, it became national news and people from all over started driving by to see the place.
"It was truly unbelievable, seeing these cars from other states driving by just to get a look at this old house that had been sitting there for years," says Golden, shaking his head. "It was truly a side show out there. People were lined up against the fence, picking grass and sticking it between the pages of books. Some people were even kissing the ground. I'll tell you one thing--if it hadn't been for that fence, my men never would have gotten any work done." (Golden had not yet designed his most immortal contribution to Graceland, the famous musical gates designed to keep Elvis Presley's private paradise at Brownie Hawkeye length from the rest of the world.)
"They pretty much gave me a free hand," Golden says modestly. "Vernon Presley made it clear that no one was to countermand my suggestions."
No fan of the mindless faddishness that permeated his profession (who can forget Danish Modern?), Golden deliberately avoided turning Graceland into the last word in interior decoration, circa 1957.
"I elected not to go with any one particular motif," explains Golden. Instead, he opted for a hodgepodge of styles, ranging from contemporary suburban ranch house to something best characterized as Late Fifties Lush Life.
The latter decor was most visible in Graceland's dining and living rooms, two lavish (if smallish) chambers awash in chandeliers, gold-on-white trim and swagged draperies. Probably the closest approximation to classic elegance in the whole of Graceland, both rooms still look more or less as they did when George Golden decorated them more than 30 years ago--give or take the post-Golden addition of such glitzy accouterments as a stained-glass bird-of-paradise panel, a slab of polished marble and more mirrors than you'll find this side of a fun-house maze.
In their 1987 book Elvis World, pop culturians Jane and Michael Stern marvel over the incongruous opulence of it all. "You have seen this place before, but not in the real world," they write. "You have seen it in the movies . . . it says 'rich person's home.' Remember Imitation of Life? Lana Turner could have lived here, in Technicolor."
But if Lana or anyone else wandered into one of Graceland's less formal rooms, they may well have thought they'd strayed onto the set of an Eisenhower-era sitcom. Adorned with pink, flowered bedspreads, red telephone and a stuffed hound dog, Elvis' own bedroom looked more like a teenage girl's boudoir than sleeping quarters for the King of Rock n' Roll. (Gidget could be very happy here," noted the Sterns.)
In another room, the youthful Elvis entertained chums over a full-scale soda fountain originally intended for a drugstore. (Elvis' interest in the pharmacological side of such stores would not become apparent until some years later.) Golden reports that the ten-foot-long fountain cost $3,000--a damned fortune in those days."
It's a cinch that Graceland's soda fountain and large kitchen saw far more traffic than some of the more formally decorated sections of the house, such as the lavishly appointed dining room. According to Golden, at least one of the Presleys' early forays into formality sounds like something out of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Describing one dining-room fiasco involving a handful of top record-industry honchos who were invited for dinner, Golden tactfully says, "Let's just say that Gladys and Vern hadn't gotten accustomed to the ways of the city. One time there were quite a few RCA executives who were down from New York. So Miz Presley was going to impress them with this big dinner--corn, carrots, roast beef, gravy and all that good stuff. Those executives barely touched it--they didn't go the country route at all, and Gladys was plenty upset. Well, the next day, they sent her a big basket of 36 long-stemmed roses and she said, 'My Lord! I bet those things cost $10!'"
Although he was given a free hand with the Presleys' stately homestead, Golden confesses there were moments when he wished he'd received a little more guidance than Elvis' vague mandates--like the whimsical order to turn the Southern mansion into a "showplace" that would one day rival Red Skelton's digs in Tinseltown. (Elvis reportedly was smitten with the 11-car garage that adjoined the TV comedian's Hollywood home.)
"Every once in a while, it would occur to me what a challenge this was," admits Golden. "Then I'd get worried because I'd taken on such a big responsibility."
As it turned out, that worry was needless. "Every night, Vern Presley would come over and look around at what we'd done that day and say, 'Boy, I sure like that!'" On his relatively rare visits to the estate, Elvis himself was no less enthusiastic over the country-fried Xanadu. "Mama's bedroom, well, it's so pretty she doesn't even want to sleep in it!" the singer reportedly gushed. "Why, this is the most beautiful house I've ever seen!"
@body:In retrospect, it's not hard to imagine why the other two decorators in Memphis were shocked when George Golden nabbed the much-coveted Graceland gig.
A self-proclaimed "maverick," Golden was something of an anomaly in a field dominated primarily by a squadron of imperious females and male fuss-budgets.
Asked about the stigma of working during far less liberated times in a profession largely associated with homosexual men, Golden shrugs. "I had a wife and some kids, so that was never a problem. And I never did dress like a queer--oops, I guess we don't say that anymore, do we?--although I did have one on the payroll, and he was the best salesperson I had. I could always send him out and never have to worry about him making advances to the ladies. In fact, the women loved him--they just ate him up."
Next to his flair for talking to potential customers on their own level, Golden claims his personal ace in the hole was a knack for decorating that didn't really become apparent until he consistently began winning prizes for vegetable displays he'd assembled for windows in a Piggly Wiggly market he managed in the Thirties.
"I've just always had a knack for putting things together, that's all," shrugs Golden, who was working as a salesman for Lipton during the early Forties. Suddenly unemployed when World War II cut off the company's tea supply, Golden supported his family with a variety of odd jobs, finally opening a combination custom furniture/interior decorating firm called Golden's of Memphis in 1945.
In the beginning, it's probably safe to assume that Memphis' decorating elite lost little sleep worrying that George Golden's fledgling enterprise was going to crash their soign ranks.
"For the first few years I was in business, I was the laughingstock of Memphis," confesses Golden, who's been semiretired since the late Sixties. "Everyone thought I was crazy."
And little wonder. It wasn't every decorator who flaunted his self-avowed impeccable taste by cruising the city's streets in flatbed trucks outfitted with glass display cases containing dollhouselike rooms decked out in the latest in interior design.
"Oh, those trucks were something to see, all right," says Golden, who claims that his Barnum & Bailey-style advertising gimmickry rarely failed to stop traffic, particularly when he cruised Memphis' main drags with his illuminated dioramas after dark. "They were actual three-foot-wide miniature rooms, built to scale, complete with carpet, wallpaper and a two-foot sofa, upholstered in chartreuse satin. That sofa with the shiny satin really caught everyone's eye. Chartreuse was the No. 1 color back then."
Golden himself had his eye on a different shade of green--the hue found on U.S. currency. And thanks largely to that unorthodox advertising campaign, the business begin to build, eventually spreading to jobs in the adjoining states of Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
"After people realized I wasn't really a nut, we began doing a tremendous business," says Golden, whose clients eventually included such Southern-based celebrities as opera singer Marguerite Piazza, golf star Cary Middlecoff and Sun Records mogul Sam Phillips, who had recorded Elvis' first records. In 1959, Golden moved his operations to Arkansas so that he'd be eligible to remodel the governor's mansion in Little Rock, future home of Bill Clinton, himself a latter-day Elvisphile.
@body:Although Golden claims that Graceland was far from his most lucrative decorating job, Presley could easily have saved a fortune in decorating fees simply by accepting the truckloads of free furnishings offered by manufacturers eager to link their products with the rising rock star. But Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' lifelong mentor, reportedly put the kibosh on such crass commercial exploitation of Presley's personal hideaway.
(Never mind that Parker reportedly tried to sell Presley's pre-Graceland home to a bubblegum company that wanted to raze the house, then package matchbook-size pieces of the rubble as a bubblegum premium. According to biographer Albert Goldman, the project fell through only after it was discovered that Elvis had already signed an exclusive contract with a rival bubblegum manufacturer precluding the giveaway.)
"Ol' Parker told Elvis not to accept anything," recalls Golden. "If you want it, buy it,' that was Parker's motto. 'That way, you owe them nothing and when they come to see you, they'll pay to see you sing.'"
Paying to see Elvis perform was one thing. But back in 1957, it's doubtful that even the most ardent Presleyphile could envision the day 25 years later when millions of fans would have the opportunity to fork over cold, hard cash to traipse through the home of the singer who would become one of the most mythic figures in modern history.
Now Memphis' (and perhaps even Tennessee's) No. 1 tourist attraction, Graceland played host to 650,000 visitors last year. That does not include the additional thousands who have toured Elvis' private jet and related attractions or the throngs who have schlepped through dozens of souvenir stands that line the once-bucolic thoroughfare now known as Elvis Presley Boulevard.
George Golden, for one, would have found such a suggestion sheer heresy. Because of Elvis' putative obsession with privacy at that time, one of the conditions of Golden's employment was that Graceland renovation be carried out with as much secrecy as humanly possible.
How this dictum squared with the rocker's penchant for occasionally strolling out in the front yard to chat up the ever-present fans is not clear. In any event, "Elvis told me that there was only one thing I absolutely could not do," says Golden. "He told me that if I wanted the job, under no circumstances was I to talk to the press or publicize what I was doing inside that house. That meant that if I was dealing with an outside supplier, I had to make it clear the deal was off if they leaked anything to the papers." Furthermore, Golden had to agree that he wouldn't photograph any of the work he had done inside Graceland--a rather standard procedure among decorators, who use such photos as portfolio pieces for client presentations.
Realizing that Graceland was not your run-of-the-mill assignment, Golden acceded to the unusual request. "Elvis,' I said, 'you have my word.'"
Unfortunately for Graceland historians, the decorator was as good as his promise and never once photographed the property during two years of sporadic decorating and remodeling work. As a result, the rejuvenated mansion's early years were never adequately photographed for posterity. The few photographic examples of the early Elvis-era Graceland that exist today are random background details visible in informal snapshots from the Presley family album.
Truth be told, you'd have needed a pretty quick shutter finger to capture Elvis on film at Graceland during the late Fifties; The King was forever leaving the building due to extended professional and governmental engagements. (The singer was drafted into the U.S. Army less than a year after moving into the house.) His mother wasn't destined to enjoy much more time at the Presley dream house, either. Reportedly happiest when tending to the Cadillac full of poultry Elvis had thoughtfully unloaded in Graceland's backyard, Gladys Presley succumbed to acute hepatitis in August 1958, only a year after moving into Graceland.
@body:As Golden is quick to point out, the Graceland of 1977 (the year Elvis died, thereby "freezing" the manor in time) is not the Graceland of 1957. "Lord, no!" gasps the decorator, who estimates that 20 percent of his work can be seen in the house today. Considering Elvis' later penchant for tented billiard rooms, shag rugs, fountains, fake fur and other horrors of Seventies decor (even Graceland's press material warns potential visitors to anticipate a Lava Lamp-lighted "time warp"), it's surprising that percentage isn't much lower.
"That's often the kind of opulence that instant money buys," says Valley decorator Peggy Gustav, national director of the American Society of Interior Designers. "There's a well-known designer in New York City who says, 'Every night I pray that my clients with money will get good taste and my clients with good taste will get money,' because they don't usually come in the same package."
Such a prayer would have been wasted on Elvis Presley, judging from a stack of photos documenting Graceland interiors of the late Sixties and Seventies.
"Is this garish?" Golden asks, gazing at a pile of photos that includes a shot of Presley's infamous Jungle Room, a nightmarish, early-Seventies addition to Graceland that looks like a third-rate knockoff of Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room. "Yes, I'd have to say so. But then, this doesn't represent the Elvis I remember. See the bar in this picture? No way would he ever have had me put one in back when I was working for him. No sirrreee."
@body:Earlier this year, when Golden returned to Graceland to participate in the ceremony to dedicate the U.S. postage stamp featuring Elvis' picture, the trek marked his first visit to the house since 1959, when he oversaw installation of a swimming pool, patio furniture and a nonalcoholic wet bar capable of serving 100 guests at a time. At that time, he was interviewed and his recollections published in the official Graceland house organ.
Graceland's Todd Morgan elaborates on the importance of contributions such as Golden's in nailing down the mansion's ephemeral, often contradictory history. Because of the dozens of speculative and often sloppily researched books about the singer (just published: The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley, a dietary tell-all reportedly chronicling the singer's lifelong eating disorders), determining such simple facts as how many bedrooms Graceland housed at any one time can be a major research project.
"It depends when you're talking about," says Morgan, Graceland's director of communications. "Things kept changing and people remember things differently. Someone who was there for a few weeks in 1957 has a far different perception than someone who was there for two weeks in 1964 or 1972. That's why we're about to start a major oral history project within the coming year--that way we'll have even more conflicting information.
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