(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
When Elvis Presley died in August of 1977, fellow journalist Robert Palmer and I left New York City immediately for Memphis to serve as Rolling Stone magazine’s team of reporters on the scene. We knew we would face stiff competition as the world’s press descended on Memphis to cover one of the biggest deaths ever in American music and in world popular culture. Bob and I did very well, I think in retrospect, in the face of such competition.
Now, in reading a new history of the National Enquirer, I’m not surprised to see the extent to which our heaviest competition was playing a bit dirty. I’ve always heard stories about the Enquirer buying news and bribing and then hiding sources, but the memoir by Iain Calder, Enquirer veteran editorial director, lays it all out there. His book, The Untold Story: My 20 Years Running the National Enquirer, is must reading for anyone who would like to try to understand what has happened to American journalism in recent years. It especially helps explain how entertainment journalism has morphed into mind-numbing celebrity journalism.
On the Elvis trail, Palmer and I were up against an army of Enquirer storm troopers: The Enquirer rushed 25 reporters to Memphis with $100,000 in cash for bribe money. And they spread the money liberally around town. I’ve always suspected that it was Elvis’ own family that betrayed him, and Calder’s memoir confirms that.
It was common knowledge at the time that the reason that Presley didn’t get immediate medical attention when he keeled over in his bathroom was that his minder-on-duty — one of his cousins who was appointed to check on him regularly that night — had taken some of Presley’s own drugs and had become somewhat incapacitated. Now Calder writes that it was one of Presley’s worthless cousins who took an $18,000 cash bribe from the Enquirer to sneak a camera into Graceland to snap the infamous picture of Elvis’ corpse in his open casket that was splashed across the cover of the Enquirer.
But something I didn’t expect is also claimed in Calder’s book: As word of the Enquirer‘s treasure chest of blood money spread throughout Memphis, Presley’s own stepmother, his father Vernon’s wife, Dee Stanley Presley, according to Calder, showed up at the Enquirer‘s Memphis hotel rooms “…offering her story for a price. She was clad in the obligatory black dress, but it was slit all the way up one side, making her look like a hostess from Hong Kong. Pretty sexy for a funeral.”
And Presley’s then-girlfriend Ginger Alden told the story of her last night with Elvis, when she awoke at 2 p.m. to find Elvis sprawled — apparently lifeless — on the bathroom floor. “She wanted money — of course,” writes Calder, “but she was willing to give us her exclusive story.”
In Memphis, among other sources, I found several Baptist Hospital workers who would tell me what they saw and heard at the hospital that night. And they didn’t want money. They just wanted to tell their Elvis stories. The Enquirer bought off the two ambulance drivers who took Elvis to Baptist Hospital and then flew them off to sequester them in Florida so no one else could have access to them.
Similar stories abound in the book about the deaths of Princess Grace of Monaco, Rock Hudson and Liberace. If you’re interested, that is.
As Calder says, checkbook journalism still flourishes today, albeit in different form. Big media organizations still pay people off, but now it may be in the form of “consulting fees” or in favors of synergy, in terms of book deals or program or script development deals with affiliated companies.
At any rate, there is no denying that the Enquirer forever changed print and broadcast journalism, especially in the matter of celebrity coverage. When the Enquirer began broadening its entertainment coverage in the late 1960s, the U.S. media mainly covered only movie stars in fan magazines like Photoplay and in occasional pieces in general-interest magazines. TV and music personalities were largely dismissed by the mainstream media. One reason was that newspapers and magazines were just beginning to sense that their advertising dollars were starting to be drained away by television. And they fought back by ignoring the new threat. The Enquirer embraced TV and the new celebrity culture that was emerging, quickly discovering that, as Calder writes, “Lucille Ball on the cover sold better than John Wayne. Mary Tyler Moore was bigger than Doris Day.” It only built from there. With the Enquirer and its flashy celebrity covers then getting onto racks in supermarkets — a huge advance for a tabloid — the future for celebrity journalism was building.
And the basis for celebrity journalism was becoming the vulnerability of celebrities. Calder writes that the Enquirer discovered two basic truisms for celebrity coverage.
“Most people want to know things before their neighbors do,” he notes. “Information is power and creates status. If you can tell your pals that the teenager across the street is pregnant, you feel important that you know first. The same principle holds true with news about a Hollywood star. That was one reason we worked so hard for our celebrity exclusives. The second reason for our exclusives is that people feel better when they know that the rich and famous don’t lead perfect, happy lives.”
People magazine gave Elvis’ death in 1977 a single paragraph in the magazine. Comedian Marty Feldman, who had just died, was on the cover. Now there’s a household name for you.
Can you imagine what People would do today?