Reporter remembers Elvis friendship

January 8, 2008 12:17:25 PM PST
Hollywood scribe Nancy Anderson wasn't expecting much when she first interviewed Elvis Presley in 1956 on the set of his movie "Love Me Tender." "I didn't really want to meet Elvis because I had just talked to Fabian and some of these other teen idols and I thought 'Well, here's one more. He won't even know his name,'" Anderson, now 89 years old and retired, recalled recently.

But it surprisingly led to a friendship with Presley that lasted until his death in 1977 and continues today with family of the late star, who would have turned 73 on Tuesday.

"He was a nice man and a lot brighter than people thought," she says from her home in this bucolic town set amid rolling horse farms and steep wooded hills about 50 miles south of Nashville.

"We'd sit around and talk about the Battle of Shiloh. We'd talk about religion and girls and making movies and Memphis. Just whatever."

First as a freelance writer and later as West Coast editor of Photoplay and other movie magazines, Anderson reported on Hollywood when the glow from its golden age was still fresh and Americans idolized screen legends such as John Wayne, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

While chronicling the actors and the industry that made them famous, she got to know a lot of them. Spend an hour with her and you'll pick up tidbits only an insider could know about people like Marlon Brando and Ronald Reagan.

"I really liked Elvis a lot. I loved John Wayne. He was good to me. I was very fond of Barbara Stanwyck. And Robert Mitchum I liked real well," she recalls.

Her connection with Presley was a natural. Both came to California from Tennessee - she from Nashville, he from Memphis - and they shared an affinity for Southern culture and history. And of course, they worked in the same industry and knew many of the same people.

"I think I probably reminded him of his mother," said Anderson, who was 16 years Presley's senior. "That's when everybody was making fun of Elvis and I didn't. I think I understood him better."

Over the years, she'd get calls from the star's manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, who'd ask her if she wanted to visit Presley. Later, Presley would invite her to his concerts (she still has a scarf he gave her at one of them). Anderson also became close with Presley's wife, Priscilla, his father, Vernon, and his stepmother, Dee. She hasn't heard from Priscilla for a few years, but she still gets occasional phone calls from Dee.

Anderson last saw Presley around the time she left Hollywood to return with her husband to Tennessee, where she wrote about country music for a while before retiring. It was the 1970s and she went to see him in Lake Tahoe, Nev., where they spoke in his dressing room. He looked ill, she said, and it wasn't long after that that he died.

"Dee (Presley) called me and wanted to know if I wanted to go to the funeral with her. I said 'I can't, Dee. I'm going to Hawaii that day,'" she recalled. "I didn't want to go to the funeral, and so I went to Hawaii."

These days, Anderson enjoys reading history and watching old movies. She prefers to remember Hollywood and its leading men and women the way they used to be, when they were suave and charming and under contract with the big studios.

Today's crop doesn't impress her.

"There's not a John Wayne or a Robert Mitchum in the bunch," she sighs.