The boy downstairs

January 08, 2004|By Judy Fruchter Minkove

SHE WAS A reporter's dream, a guaranteed great story. Her compelling tales about Elvis riveted listeners. But they weren't merely tales. They were powerful anecdotes about a young man's character, and my mother, Jeannette Fruchter, was determined to set the record straight, especially on the anniversary of Elvis' birth.

He would have been 69 today.

She simply couldn't bear to hear the stories about the aging Elvis' excesses. Repeatedly, she would tell reporters, "He was the finest boy you'd ever want to know."

But this will be the first year she won't be interviewed about Elvis. My Mom died Aug. 28, 2003, shortly after the 26th anniversary of Elvis' death. (My father, Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, died nine years ago.)

As we went through my mother's belongings - among them countless articles and book excerpts about Elvis' humble beginnings - we stumbled on a photo that had not been published in any books. It shows Elvis at around 18 years old on the porch of our home with my sister, Debbie, my brother, David, and Elvis' cousin or friend, whose name we can't recall. In the early 1950s, my family shared a Memphis duplex with the Presleys at 462 Alabama Ave. They rented the small apartment downstairs; we lived upstairs.

My parents knew Elvis when he was a teen-ager, between ages 15 and 18. During those years, my newlywed parents were struggling to make ends meet as our family grew. The Presleys were even poorer than my family. My father was the Orthodox rabbi for a small congregation and later founded and became principal of the Memphis Hebrew Academy. During the day, my mother would share coffee with Gladys Presley.

Mrs. Presley confessed her worries about her son. "She wanted him to give up his singing career to become a doctor," my mother said. "But I told her she shouldn't worry. One day he would make her proud, no matter what career he chose."

Mom would remind Mrs. Presley that Elvis was such a good boy. He worked at Crown Gas after school and every Friday would cash his paycheck and turn the money over to his mother. And whenever my mother would come home from the grocery store, Elvis would run out to help her with the packages and bring them upstairs for her.

"He was so respectful, too," Mom would say. He used to call my father "Sir Rabbi."

In our house, Elvis was known as the "Shabbos goy," the gentile who would turn on lights for us Friday nights or Saturdays, when Orthodox Jews are forbidden to light a fire, which in time evolved into not turning on lights. Despite numerous offers for compensation, Elvis refused to take any money for those services. He also accompanied his family to church every Sunday, dressed in his finest threads.

Handsome young Elvis would frequently pull out his guitar and serenade girls on the porch swing. My mother told us he was always a clotheshorse and had been setting aside money for a pair of onyx cufflinks he saw at a jewelry store. My mother surprised Elvis and bought them for him as a high school graduation gift.

My parents also allowed Elvis the frequent use of our record player (the Presleys didn't own one), helped with paying the Presleys' water bill and invited them for meals at our home - and in our sukkah (outdoor shelter) on the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles each fall.

The warm friendship between the two families continued through early 1955, when we moved to California. I was a newborn, making me the fourth Fruchter child. My father's meager salary could no longer support all of us. The synagogue was struggling too, so he accepted a position in Oakland. A couple of years later, my parents saw a headline in the local paper, "Elvis Surrounded by Thousands of Girls." My father looked at my mother and asked, "Do you think it's the same Elvis?"

Indeed it was. My father called George Klein, Elvis' agent, who had celebrated his bar mitzvah in my father's synagogue. Backstage on concert night, Elvis greeted my father with open arms and made a big fuss over him. My mother, unfortunately, couldn't get a babysitter that night and couldn't go.

That would be the last time Elvis and a member of my family would see each other. But the press remained fascinated with Elvis' humble beginnings and sought biographical nuggets. Years later, we learned that Elvis made generous contributions to Memphis Jewish charities because he recalled a Jewish family that had helped his family when he was younger.

My mother was convinced that Elvis turned to drugs because his mother died so young and the two had been extremely close. When my mom heard the news on that sad August day, she was inconsolable. She spoke not as a disillusioned fan but as an old friend: "He was one of the biggest mensches I've ever known."

Judy Fruchter Minkove is assistant director of publications for Johns Hopkins Medicine's Office of Corporate Communications. She lives in Baltimore.

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