‘He was very agile, wonderful movement, wonderful timing, and the best voice any of us ever heard.’
‘Was he sex on legs?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Was he sex on legs?’
‘I suppose he was…I suppose he was.’
– An exchange between a radio interviewer and Debo
Even though she lived through the 1950s when Elvis burst onto the music scene, Debo did not become an avid fan until the evening of her life. Had she been a fan during his prime she surely would have been arrested for stalking – her claim, not mine! In her own words Debo described her introduction to the King in an interview for BBC Woman’s Hour: ‘I switched on the television one day for no reason and there he was and I suddenly realised I was in the presence of a genius. Never having really noticed him when he was on the go. I just thought this was the most brilliant performer I have ever seen and that’s what I still think. In my long life I’ve seen many performances of many people but there’s nothing comes up to him. Nothing.’
Debo soon advanced from a casual listener to an avid collector. Her collection contains many pieces of rare memorabilia (a plank of wood said to be from the fence at Graceland) to mass produced souvenirs (tattoo transfers and postcards). ‘One thing leads to another and it became a sort of joke…’ Debo said. She, too, could see the irony in owning such a vast collection containing street signs, car registration numbers, sketches, books, CD’s, slippers and a telephone which played Jailhouse Rock. ‘People are surprised, but some people are easily surprised, aren’t they?’
And speaking of her pilgrimage to Graceland, Debo said: ‘It’s really very moving because you feel it was his real home and he really loved it but of course the other fascinating side, to me – I love seeing round strange places -was that it was probably the last really early fifties interior which has been left intact. There is his amazing chairs and tables and the huge old televisions and the carpet on the ceilings as well as on the floor. It’s just extraordinary!’
Debo’s favourite trinkets from her collection are a few ‘roughly made museum pieces’, such as an Elvis themed cook book entitled Are You Hungry Tonight? Some of the recipes, mind you, were disgusting as Debo discovered; although a few of them, she thought, ‘might be’ delicious. ‘But it’s what he liked,’ she carefully added. ‘Fried peanut butter and banana…’ Other collectables included a pair of earrings made in Mexico from Coca-Cola bottle tops; ‘The trouble is, I can’t wear them because my ears aren’t pierced.’ And a black Elvis mug which says ‘Elvis Lives’, when hot water is added a picture of Elvis manifests. ‘So Elvis does live. He really does,’ she said. During the interview Debo searched her fireplace for some familiar Elvis photographs. ‘Oh, that’s my grandfather! That’s no good,’ she said as her eyes scanned the clutter. She spied a photograph of Elvis dancing with a teddy bear. Let’s not even mention the Elvis printed wallpaper in her lavatory . . .
Her husband, Andrew the Duke of Devonshire, was not an Elvis fan but he understood Debo’s infatuation with the king of rock ‘n roll. ‘He’s your hero!’ he caterwauled on the BBC programme Debutantes. ‘He’s your hero!’ he repeated just in case the enthusiasm was lost on Debo. I should add this was the result of an exchange between the Duke and Duchess on people who possess star quality (Debo nominated Lester Piggot, Rita Hayworth, Winston Churchill and the man himself, Elvis).
The greatest experience in Debo’s quest for Elvis was a touring concert which visited London. Elvis appeared onstage via hologram and was surrounded by his original band, ‘Some of them were grey . . . some of them were fat,’ Debo described the ageing musicians. ‘But the atmosphere was incredible.’ Despite her love for his music, Debo had admitted that she cannot sing any of his songs. ‘No of course not!’ she protested when pressed to do so by an interviewer, ‘can you imagine! It’s an awful idea, no no.’ Debo, however, admitted that she loved to retire to her drawing room in the evening to blast Elvis music on her CD player. ‘Banging away,’ as she referred to it.
Her Favourite song? Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away. It was symbolic, Debo thought, because he had become ‘such a travesty’ compared to what he was when young. ‘Very sad,’ she said.
You can read more about the Mitford girls and their love of fandom in my book The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life.