Alfred Wertheimer, the New York photographer who took some of the earliest and most iconic professional photos of Elvis Presley, died on October 19th at the age of 84.
Wertheimer was a young photographer in 1956 when RCA hired him to take publicity shots of Elvis during a visit to New York. He photographed a rehearsal, a recording session, and a television appearances on the Steve Allen Show (complete with Elvis singing "Hound Dog" to a basset hound onstage) and the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. Then — mostly on a hunch — he traveled on the train back to Memphis with Presley. Over the 10 days they spent together, Wertheimer took more than 2,000 pictures, including many famous ones like "The Kiss." He said that he saw something in Elvis that was magnetic, that "he could make the girls cry" on or off the stage.
When they arrived in Memphis, Wertheimer and Presley got off the train at the White Station stop and walked back to Presley's newly acquired home at 1034 Audubon Drive, which he had just purchased from the proceeds he made off of his first RCA hit, "Heartbreak Hotel." While Elvis was in New York, his parents had been busy getting things in Memphis ready and everybody was excited that the pool had just been finished (although not yet filled). Elvis performed at Russwood Park that night but spent the afternoon cutting up with friends, riding his motorcycle (running out of gas at one point), greeting fans, and spending time with his family. And Wertheimer captured it all.
The Audubon Drive house was purchased by Mike and Linda Curb in 2006 and is now part of the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College (www.rhodes.edu/curb). It is used for various student-focused endeavors, from research projects and oral histories (including stories and reflections from Elvis' former neighbors, which can be found on the institute's YouTube channel) to a student-produced house concert series. One of the most striking things about visiting the house is that Wertheimer's pictures are hung throughout in such a way that wherever you stand, you can look on the wall and see Elvis and his family in the same spot. In August of 2012, during Elvis Week, Wertheimer himself visited the house one more time for a special presentation for the college.
Upon arriving, Wertheimer chose not to speak directly to anybody while walking down the driveway, preferring to go inside his head and reimagine the same walk he took in 1956 alongside of Elvis — recalling the positions of the Cadillacs, Gladys and Vernon, and other family members and fans. Once inside the house, Wertheimer walked the halls recalling the scenes he witnessed and captured during his first visit. He talked about Vernon shaving in the bathroom, Elvis' advances toward Barbara Hearn in the living room, and how Elvis and his friends jumped in the pool when it was only partially filled with water — Wertheimer jumped in himself with his camera.
As Wertheimer began his presentation, it was remarkable to see the images appear on the screen and then be able to look around to find the exact spots where they were taken. The pictures are intensely personal, and Wertheimer explained, as he has stated in other interviews, that this was because he was able to get unprecedented access and that "Elvis permitted closeness" at that early stage of his career.
Elvis and his family moved to Graceland in 1957 after only 13 months on Audubon Drive as Elvis' fame soared and his presence loomed too large for the quaint neighborhood to handle. But for a couple of days in 1956, and again on a night in August 2012, the house on Audubon Drive gave people a unique window into the life of a figure who captured America and seems so familiar to so many.
Wertheimer was charming, gracious, and utterly approachable. He talked shop with photographer Justin Fox Burks, took pictures with Elvis cutouts, and interacted with everybody who was there in a very personal way. As Tracy Patterson, who was in attendance that night, said about her time with him, "The wallpaper on my phone is his picture of Elvis and 'The Kiss.'" After showing it to him, Wertheimer told her, "Now, every time you look at your phone you'll think of me." For others who were there, every time they see Wertheimer's pictures or visit Audubon Drive, they will think of him too.