The real power behind the King: In an exclusive interview with YOU, Elvis Presley’s former girlfriend reveals who the singer’s true guiding light was (and it wasn’t Colonel Tom Parker!)
Several years after the death of Elvis Presley’s mother Gladys, his ex-girlfriend Barbara Hearn was invited to spend the evening with him at his Memphis mansion Graceland. They had become an item just as his fame started to skyrocket in 1956, when she was 19 and he was 21, and the relationship lasted about a year.
When Hearn arrived at Graceland that night her ex-boyfriend was already besieged by groupies and hangers-on who laughed at everything he said. It wasn’t long before the mild-mannered but straight-talking Southern girl had had her fill of the sycophantic fawning.
‘I slipped out to call my mother to pick me up and he followed me and asked why I was leaving. I said, ‘Actually, honey, I’m just not having a good time.’ He looked so sad and he said, ‘Neither am I.’ He knew my mother very well, and when she arrived, he had her get out of the car and he just hugged and hugged her. When we started driving home, she looked at me and said, ‘I think Elvis was saying goodbye.’ We didn’t half cry on the way home. I never saw him again after that.’
Now 85, Hearn spoke exclusively to YOU prior to the release of director Baz Luhrmann’s eagerly anticipated film Elvis, which premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival and is widely tipped to deliver an Oscar nomination for its star Austin Butler. Although not named, a girlfriend very like Hearn is depicted by Luhrmann in the early part of the movie.
Elvis listening to one of his records with girlfriend Barbara Hearn
She and Presley had started dating at a time when his dreams of stardom were coming true. Hearn remembers him as a big-hearted, polite boy with a cheeky grin who loved his mum. ‘He depended on her for everything – his entire emotional wellbeing,’ she says. ‘He could go to her with any problem, she was always there for him.’
But everyone in Presley’s orbit was about to be swept up by the tidal wave of his fame. As Hearn recalls: ‘It seemed like overnight he’d have to send someone to pick me up [for dates].
‘We’d have to call the movie theatres ahead of time so we could go round a back entrance. It started with a handful of people outside his house who wanted to see and talk to him. Suddenly it went from five to 10 fans to 50… to 100… and that’s why they bought Graceland. The fans were overrunning the house.’
She noticed the dramatic effect that this change had on Gladys, who went from being a happy woman who laughed generously, to someone serious and subdued. ‘She was worried the fans’ boyfriends would come after him out of jealousy.
‘She worried about him flying. She worried about him being in a car accident – all the things that normal mothers worry about for their children, but in this case it was more extreme.’
Preseley with his mother Gladys, at the family home in Memphis, 1956
Presley himself acknowledged the impact that his fame was having on his mother. On 13 May 1955, on a night now referred to as the first Presley riot, the 20-year-old had just finished a show in Jacksonville, Florida, when he was ambushed by hundreds of screaming fans, who pushed into his dressing room and cornered him.
The police eventually rescued him from on top of a shower – his shirt and coat torn apart. Someone had even stripped him of his socks and belt.
Presley knew it had upset Gladys but didn’t see how he could protect her. ‘She was afraid they were hurting me,’ he told an interviewer in 1956, as reported in Elaine Dundy’s book Elvis and Gladys. ‘Shucks, they were only tearing at my clothes. I didn’t mind a bit. I told her, ‘Mama, if you’re going to feel that way, you better not come along to my shows because that stuff is going to keep on happening…’
Luhrmann depicts the fear Gladys (played by Helen Thomson) experienced in a scene where she berates female fans for manhandling Elvis after a concert. Hearn believes that her difficulty in adjusting to her son’s fame was exacerbated when he moved to Graceland and she felt the clash between that gilded-cage existence and the outdoor world she had grown up in.
Austin butler stars in baz Luhrmann’s new film Elvis
Gladys Love Smith was born on 25 April 1912 in Pontotoc County, Mississippi, to a poor farming family. She went to school just four months a year, spending the rest of the time in the fields. Sparky, warm and lovable, Gladys was popular and fun to be around. What she lacked in education, she made up for in rhythm. She knew how to ‘buck dance’, a free-form, improvised solo folk dance created by the black community during slavery. To be good, the dancer must lose themselves in the music and allow their body to take over; they need an innate and visceral sense of rhythm. Presley would, of course, inherit his mother’s skills and they would become a crucial part of his act.
ELVIS IN NUMBERS
1 billion Elvis records sold worldwide
31 films he appeared in as an actor
14 Grammy nominations for Elvis, who ended up winning all three of his Grammy Awards in gospel categories
600,000 fans still visit Graceland every year
80 number of weeks his singles spent at number one
$500 MILLION amount the Elvis estate is estimated to be worth
$30 million Elvis’s earnings in 2021 – enough for a spot on the Forbes top 10 highest-paid dead celebrities list
1,100 concert performances during his ‘concert years’ from 1969 to 1977
When Gladys was 21 and newly moved to the small town of Tupelo, she met Vernon Presley, an unambitious but kind and handsome man. They got married after just two months, and a little under two years later on a cold morning on 8 January 1935, Gladys gave birth to twins. The first baby, Jesse Garon, was stillborn, and Elvis Aron arrived half an hour later. Gladys decided that Elvis was special and had inherited the strength of his dead twin. She wouldn’t let the baby out of her sight, and worried constantly that something terrible would happen to him if she wasn’t there. Luhrmann points to the ever-present shadow of Elvis’s dead twin in a scene where Gladys tells him that Jesse would be proud of his success.
When job after job fell through for Vernon and they could no longer pay their rent, the family were forced to move from Tupelo to Memphis which is where Elvis’s star truly ascended. Although Gladys was initially delighted to see her son doing so well, his fame quickly began to trouble her deeply. In 1956, a young Kay Wheeler, the president of the first Elvis Presley fan club, visited the Presleys at home in Memphis. Elvis wasn’t there but Gladys invited her in and offered her lunch.
‘The curtains were drawn, and the records were just piled in stacks across the floor,’ says Wheeler, now 83 and speaking to YOU from her home in California. ‘She seemed unimpressed with the fame and money. She was more concerned about him. I got the impression that maybe Gladys hoped Elvis would marry some local girlfriend and have kids in Memphis. It was almost as if she’d had a premonition of his future derailment. She didn’t like the way his film Love Me Tender ended with his death, so she wanted to fix it.’
As Presley’s fame grew, Gladys saw her son less and less and fans laid siege to her home, ringing the doorbell into the small hours of the morning. A Florida-based Baptist preacher denounced the singer, who he said had ‘achieved a new low of spiritual indecency’ – comments that hurt his mother, a deeply religious woman. When she did see her boy, he was sleep-deprived and wired. Sometimes he’d bring new girlfriends home.
‘Once Elvis had somebody at home visiting and Gladys called me and said that she wasn’t a lady, and that she didn’t like her being there,’ recalls Hearn. ‘She was talking about Natalie Wood, who was a sophisticated, worldly woman in a way Mrs Presley wasn’t. She was a good reader of people, she was good and kind to most, but if she saw something in you that wasn’t right, that was it.’
Presley bought Graceland with its 13 acres of rolling land in the hope it would give his mother the chance to live the outdoor life that he could see she craved. It didn’t work. Gladys was quickly told she wasn’t allowed to feed her chickens outside as it was bad for Presley’s image and the house soon filled up with groupies. His overpacked schedule, meanwhile, meant the one person Gladys did want to spend time with was never there. Her weight shot up and she began drinking heavily. Vernon was distant and, according to Gladys’s sister Lillian, plied his wife with vodka to keep the peace.
Her health continued to decline and, when Elvis was training with the US army in Texas, she reached the end. Her son rushed back to be with her for one final night, and on 14 August 1958, aged just 46, she died of a heart attack. Elvis was devastated, touching the body over and over until hospital staff had to ask him to stop. After the hearse took her away, the family returned to Graceland and Elvis and Vernon sat on the mansion steps sobbing. The press soon arrived and Elvis – ever the diligent pop star – was interviewed through the tears.
‘She was all we lived for,’ he cried. ‘She was always my best girl.’ He wanted the funeral to take place in his home as was family tradition, but he was – as usual – overruled by his manager and instead it was held at a local funeral home where 400 mourners crammed into 300 seats. His mother was laid in an open casket, and by the time the service had begun nearly 3,000 people had filed past her body. A group of 65 police officers was needed to control the crowds. The event was a circus. So grief-stricken was Presley that he had to be helped out of the car. He nearly collapsed multiple times during the service, crying out: ‘I lived my life for you! Everything I have is gone.’
According to family and friends, Presley changed completely after his mother’s death. ‘It was the end of the world for him,’ says Hearn, who attended the funeral. ‘He was never the same after that; he lost his North Star. She was the beacon that he followed; she was his everything. He wasn’t ever happy after she died.’
Elvis will be in cinemas from Friday 24 June