The freshest "revelation" in Alanna Nash's biography of Col. Tom Parker is that Parker might possibly have bludgeoned a Dutch grocer's wife with a crowbar then fled The Netherlands never to return.
If that's your enticement to read the book, you should know the claim is based on an anonymous letter to a Dutch journalist and is never backed up except by tedious and repetitious speculation. It serves little purpose except as the same kind of bait the carnie colonel might have used had he written the same book.
Even so, Nash's speculative biography, The Colonel: The Extraodinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, eventually rallies past its sordid hook, putting together a rambling portrait of an abused child whose emotional scars colored every deal he ever made and every relationship he ever had. "You don't have to be nice to people on the way up if you aren't coming back down," he would supposedly joke.
Parker began life in Breda, Holland, as Andreas Cornelis van Kujik. His mother's family were gypsy-like merchants. They fascinated the child, nicknamed "Dries," who grew up with a seemingly inescapable need to "snow" the world, separating people from their money by whatever means. With nine brothers and sisters, Parker worked as a child to help support the family, mainly himself. They lived above the stables where his stern militaristic father, a livery man for a freight handling firm, cared for the firm's horses.
Young Dries was drawn by traveling carnivals, wearing sandwich boards and riding tall bicycles to promote the shows, then working as a water boy, animal caretaker, and all-around hustler when the shows came to town. Like his father, he developed an affinity for animals, but when he tried to demonstrate his carnival skills by teaching the horses to kneel and curtsy in the livery stable, his father burst in, beating him with a belt in front of his brothers and sisters and the neighborhood children.
Nash concludes the incident and his treatment by his father incubated in Parker a permanent "need to humiliate others, especially those in subordinate positions."
Nash makes her writing task more difficult by forgoing a straight narrative approach and bouncing back and forth from Parker's childhood to his relationships as an adult. In the sometimes confusing process, his future clients, from country music stars Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow to Elvis, string the reader along with what's to come.
Parker left Holland in 1929 (roughly the time of the mysterious robbery-murder there) and made his way to the United States without visa or entry papers. Traveling carnivals would become both his refuge as an illegal alien and his passion. Parker worked tirelessly, learning every promotional trick and every nuance of the carnie. He worked as animal trainer, concessionaire, barker, promoter, always frustrated by his inability to land a job in the "front office." He would get his revenge by returning again and again to "gloat" once he became the promoter of the world's biggest act.
Parker also worked tirelessly to cover his tracks, changing his name and registering for the military. Eventually wanderlust or instability caused him to go AWOL and resulted in an Army discharge with the diagnosis: "Psychosis, Psychogenic Depression, acute, on basis of Constitutional Psychopathic State, Emotional Instability."
The diagnosis seems prophetic for a man often portrayed as cruel, cunning and greedy - a man who would take 50 percent or more of the profits from Elvis with seemingly no concern about the quality of Elvis's music or the "bikini" movies that frustrated Elvis.
Strangely, Nash's story also creates what may be unintentional sympathy for Parker. He parlayed his carnie skills into music promotion with his first high-profile client crooner Gene Austin, who, in the late 1930s, was the Bing Crosby of his day (his tunes included the hit My Blue Heaven). Parker worked every angle, often paying Austin's bills with checks signed by Austin. He told merchants, "That's a real autograph there. You might want to hang that on the wall." An uncashed check was money in the bank.
Parker usually traveled separately from his stars, acting as the advance man. When they drove into town, he often greeted the tour bus at 5 a.m., passing out hotel keys to the entourage, including Elvis, then heading to the next town where he worked late into the night promoting, advertising and making all arrangements for the next concert.
Parker once told a British tabloid that, no, it wasn't true he took 50 percent of Elvis's earnings. "He takes 50 percent of everything I earn."
The colonel was a master showman, originating the sales of merchandise at rock concerts, using movies to sell soundtrack albums and merchandise and, always, surrounding his star with an air of mystery. Nash rises to a rarely memorable line in the book on that account: "By not allowing Elvis to be seen or heard in interviews, Parker made him into an object of nearly limitless romantic fantasy from a pious innocent who loved his mama and his Lord to a wiggling, greasy god of sex."
Elvis was soon commanding $25,000 a night - 2 times the fee for the next biggest act of his day, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
By the late 1960s, Parker was booking Elvis into grueling Las Vegas schedules of two shows a night, seven nights a week, reinforcing the star's need for the uppers and downers that created the long downward spiral that led to his death.
The colonel was facing his own demon - a voracious gambling habit that may have consumed more than $40 million and left him with an estate of less than $1 million when he died at 87 in 1997.
The colonel's grip on Elvis had ended in a long legal battle with the singer's ex-wife Priscilla Presley, as guardian of heir Lisa Marie Presley, after Elvis's death. By the time Parker died, longevity had created a measure of respect for him and what he had done. "I can sleep good at night," he said.
At his eulogy, Priscilla said: "Elvis and the Colonel made history together, and the world is richer, better and far more interesting because of their collaboration. And now I need to locate my wallet, because I noticed there was no ticket booth on the way in here, but I'm sure that Colonel must have arranged for some toll on the way out."