Early Easter morning on the running trail, 53 degrees and windy. It’s cool and damp from the previous day’s rain and dogwood petals, leaves to be truthful, fall like snow. Elvis Presley is on my mind.
Running through falling dogwood flurries makes for an odd time to be thinking of Elvis, but that’s what happens when you’ve just seen an Elvis impersonator. And it’s a strange time to be thinking of Winston Churchill, too, unless you’ve just been to the Willcox Inn in Aiken. And I had the day before.
That’s where Elvis delighted friends, family and the curious with a birthday show, and that’s where the man who rallied Britain against Hitler once visited, as well.
The birthday party was for my cousin Dianne Jensen, Aiken resident, and it was hosted by her daughters Dana Tynan and Cathy Jensen Sigmon. Knowing their mother had been a big Elvis fan, Dianne’s daughters decided to bring in Jason Sikes, Elvis tribute artist, for a trip down memory lane and the party rocked The Willcox lobby with favorite songs from the King.
For me, it was the second visit to this grand hotel in months. The first was a quiet dinner before a book signing. This time around, a raucous, rocking afternoon unfolded as an Elvis impersonator put on a show.
A conservative estimate says more than 90,000 impersonators don the flamboyant white jumpsuit and do their Elvis thing around the world.
Though Elvis has been dead for 37 years, he’s still making money for a lot of people, which brings to mind a telling passage from “Blue Memphis.”
Laurence Gonzales wrote this magazine feature in 1995: “Near the end, Elvis looked like Napoleon with his capes and his haunted eyes, and I suddenly understood that what happened to Elvis was that he didn’t have a friend in the world. No one looked out for him. For those around him, there was nothing on earth more auspicious that that he should die. The estate now takes in $100 million a year (in 1995); it was on the verge of bankruptcy when Elvis died in 1977.”
It was auspicious for the hordes of Elvis impersonators, too, though the truth is they have been around from the day Elvis became a star. Many claim they are simply paying tribute to a man they love. And there’s no doubt people love a good impersonator’s show.
Then there’s the music. People love the King’s songs. Gonzales wrote, “Elvis is loved so much because he, more deeply than anyone else, was unable to love himself.”
Well, people love the legions of impersonators he inspired. It’s fair to say that Elvis created an industry peopled by men with white jumpsuits, carpetlike muttonchops, and black pompadour wigs (many impersonators dye their real Elvis-like hair so black it’s gun barrel blue).
A costume good enough for the bright lights of Las Vegas can run more than $4,000. Yes, I’d say Elvis created an industry entire when he died at Graceland.
So there we were at the Willcox Inn, waiting for the show. We were in a good place in several ways. Spirits were high. It was a rare chance to see family from afar, and we were in the place one Frederick S. Willcox established so long ago in the last years of the 19th century.
His inn became a haven for Yankees seeking a warmer clime. Today it’s a sumptuous setting with stonework and rich wood-paneled walls where, in a gallant gesture, Elvis sang his way over to women and draped a colored scarf around their neck. Then this King for a day gave them a kiss.
If you let your imagination go, you could gin up a feeling that it really was the kid from Tupelo, Mississippi.
A wedding party was underway and as “Hound Dog” and “How Great Thou Art” reverberated past the bar, the curious drifted into the lobby to see the show. The wedding party’s photographer even took pictures of Elvis.
All those many years ago, this hubbub would not have set well with visitors to the Willcox in the Gilded Age, as the 1920s and 1930s were known.
Back then, Aiken was known as the “Winter Colony.” Every fall well-heeled Northerners came by private railcar to Aiken to play polo, golf, race their thoroughbreds, hunt fox, and socialize at high tea, musicales, balls and dinners. I doubt the real Elvis would have suited this crowd.
As the Willcox Inn’s website says, “Politicians, royalty and captains of industry often visited the Willcox.” The Willcox, as I call it, was said to have had the first bathtub in the South connected with hidden plumbing.
Over the years, Winston Churchill passed through the columned entrance. Did he use that innovative tub? Andy Williams and Bing Crosby came too as did John Jacob Astor, Harold Vanderbilt and Evelyn Walsh McLean who owned the Hope diamond.
I should let you ladies know that makeup queen Elizabeth Arden graced the hotel, as well. As for Franklin D. Roosevelt, legend maintains that he rode his private train to the inn’s back door where he quietly slipped inside.
Of all the legends and tycoons, none interest me as much as Churchill. He died in January 1965. By then Elvis had become a sensation. No doubt Churchill heard the King’s music. It’s my belief that Sir Winston liked Elvis.
He was a bit of a rounder and enjoyed a bit of excitement and was quick to fire back retorts. You insulted Churchill at your own peril.
When Nancy Astor, American-born British socialite, threw out this tart declaration, “Sir, if you were my husband, I would give you poison,” Churchill replied, “If I were your husband, I would take it.”
There’s no record that Elvis and Churchill met, but they did share the same limo driver. When Elvis was making movies in Los Angeles, he used Gerald Peters as his driver. Peters had also driven Sir Winston Churchill around. It’s too bad a meeting wasn’t arranged. Churchill and Elvis could have been friends. Why not?
I thought about Churchill a lot during my afternoon at the Willcox. What a sight it would have been to see a cigar-chomping Sir Winston get out of a limo and enter the hotel.
Outside the front entrance a whiff of cigar smoke swirled in the gray, soggy air. Perhaps the spirit of the old prime minister was about in those mists.
The Willcox has seen it share of the famous. I would love to see an artist compose a Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club poster of all the rich and famous who have stepped inside the Willcox. Now that would be something.
I did see a fascinating painting in the Gentleman’s Room. A gathering of men in top hats are watching Billy, the celebrated rat-killing dog “perform his wonderful feat.”
And what might that feat entail? In 5½ minutes Billy killed 100 rats. The artwork shows scads of rats panicking as Billy chomps down on three ill-fated rodents. Other rats clump in the corners to avoid this dog’s wrath.
There’s something comical about this art. Elvis, Churchill and rats. What a strange concoction of images.
Rats aside, our afternoon at the Willcox Inn was a day to long remember and it spurred memories too. I was struck by the absence of men. All my uncles are dead. All the husbands and dads are no more. Elvis and I pretty much were it as men went that misty afternoon in Aiken.
I like the Willcox, and I recommend you check it out. Use it as a base camp and go exploring. Aiken has a lot to offer. Nearby are Hopelands Gardens, a 14-acre estate garden, and Hitchcock Woods, one of the country’s largest urban forests. There’s a place called Rye Patch too, a popular venue for weddings and parties.
In 1999, Robert Clark and I included the Willcox Inn in our book “Reflections of South Carolina.” Back in 1997 and 1998 when we were working on that book, I never made it inside the Willcox Inn. It took me some 17 years to finally do that.
The next time I’m there I hope to meet the owners and ask if they can show me the general vicinity of the inn where Churchill stayed.
When they do, I’ll tell them how much I enjoyed imagining I had seen Winston Churchill watching the real Elvis, the king of rock and roll, at their fine and respectable establishment.
Visit my website at www.tompoland.net. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.