BOOKS OF THE TIMES | 'THE COLONEL'
Elvis's Aloof Manager, and a Killer as Well?
By JANET MASLIN, New York Times
July 15, 2003
Alanna Nash begins her latest book at the funeral of Elvis Presley, offering voyeurs a peek at the corpse. But her real interest is in the master manipulator who showed up in a Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap, seeming weirdly unperturbed and refusing to look at the remains of his golden goose.
"Elvis didn't die," that man, Col. Tom Parker, would tell the press. "The body did." From a business standpoint — the only one that ever mattered to him — he knew that Presley remained as valuable as ever. And "my attraction," as Parker, Presley's manager, enjoyed describing him, would now be easier to control. In macabre forms like the spectral video Elvis who still sells out "live" performances, history has proved him right.
The crassness of the ersatz colonel (actually a Dutchman named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) has long been the stuff of legend. "You don't have to be nice to people on the way up if you're not coming back down," he is supposed to have said. So is the enterprise: he liked to suggest that a check signed by his client was actually an autograph, and thus ought to be hung on a wall. When it came to straight-faced misanthropy and highway robbery, the colonel picked up where W. C. Fields left off.
And he is generally credited with bringing carnival-style standards of decorum to the selling of popular culture, at a time when hawking Elvis lipstick in "Hound Dog orange" was an innovative concept. Asked if he actually commandeered half of Presley's income, he answered: "No, that's not true at all. He takes 50 percent of everything I earn."
Ms. Nash has already written one volume of Presleyana, as well as "Golden Girl," about the television news broadcaster Jessica Savitch. She now suggests that the colonel's dark side may have been even worse than previously imagined; she thinks he may have killed someone in the Netherlands and spent the rest of his life fleeing the crime. The funny thing is, given what is actually well known about his activities, this doesn't seem much of a stretch.
"The Colonel" says Parker's story is "beneath the veil of secrecy, a tragedy, and very nearly the stuff of Shakespeare." (Ms. Nash also invokes the bloodstains of "Macbeth" and the connivings of Machiavelli.) Her book is at its most overwrought in describing the early years of the Colonel as von Kuijk. She writes about the demise of his father, "Death, which had quietly hidden in the sheets and blankets of his life for so many years, finally made a hushed leap and filled the room with silence."
And could this young man be responsible for the murder of Anna van den Enden, a greengrocer's wife in his hometown, Breda? "Only Andre and Anna know that now, speaking the truth with no tongue, no mouth, and no throat, nestled in the cool, dark folds of death." More straightforwardly, the killer did have the Parker-like idea of sprinkling white pepper at the crime scene to outsmart bloodhounds.
When he fled the Netherlands, assumed a new identity and imbibed the carnival tactics that would serve him so well with Presley, the colonel also laid the groundwork for his own subsequent rise and fall. Ms. Nash points to the 1933 Army medical discharge document that describes his "Constitutional Psychopathic State" and "Emotional Instability." Both would be helpful in show business. And the anomaly of this tightwad's willingness to pay his income tax may have reflected his lifelong eagerness to avoid any examination of his past.
The aloof, arrogant tactics that initially worked so well in business would eventually backfire on both the colonel and his protege. And Ms. Nash uses a wealth of anecdotal evidence to show how self-destructive these methods became. The colonel knew how to demand $1 million (he liked the sound of it) arbitrarily for Presley's talents. What he didn't know, or apparently didn't care about, was whether those talents were being put to good use. "The Colonel" describes a man who very nearly allowed Presley's recording of "Suspicious Minds" to be erased because he didn't control publishing rights to the song.
Ms. Nash's version of this story may not be Shakespearean, but it achieves a powerful sense of futility and loss (just as her Savitch biography did). The colonel squeezed every possible penny out of Presley's career, only to gamble most of it away. (When he became infirm, he had assistants to pull the arms of one-armed bandits for him.) And as Elvis's admirers have long maintained, the colonel continued to push an obviously troubled, drug-abusing client well beyond a normal breaking point. "The Colonel" revels in sad, scatological images of the bloated Presley being propped up and sent out to perform.
But "The Colonel" joins Connie Bruck's "When Hollywood Had a King," about Lew Wasserman, as a look at brazen tactics that revolutionized the entertainment industry. Each book presents a chilly, distant man with phenomenal intuition about how to sell what was hot.