"Did you see it?" the old man asked, shifting his mountainous heap of flesh to the edge of the chair, his eyes open wide and twinkling. "What a hell of a thing! Unbelievable!"
It was June 18, 1994, the day after O. J. Simpson's infamous Bronco run, and Colonel Tom Parker, with his attentive wife, Loanne, at his side, held court for two visitors at the N'Orleans Restaurant, a meat 'n' two joint in a run-of-the-mill strip mall named Lucky's on the outskirts of the gambling capital of the world.
Like the rest of the country, Parker had been mesmerized by Simpson's bizarre highway chase. But now his reaction, with his face momentarily frozen in awe, spoke silently of something else -- not of a fascination with sports or the subtleties of race relations, but of a sort of perverse pride, perhaps, in an elite and remarkable fraternity of rogues. Or at the very least, in a man who had taken a terrible risk, and managed to beat the odds.
This was my second of three visits with Parker, whose own survivor instincts so defied description that many thought him indestructible. Yet less than three years later, also in Vegas, far from his birthplace of Breda, Holland, where he first learned the art of the hustle as an errand boy in Dutch fairs, circuses, and carnivals, he succumbed to the complications of a stroke at the age of eighty-seven.
A master illusionist in business and in the business of life, Tom Parker made things appear and disappear at will, and created something very great out of nothing -- including himself. Out of respect for that, if nothing else, I went back to say good-bye.
The giant marquee outside the Las Vegas Hilton was both sweet and succinct (FAREWELL, COLONEL PARKER), but not everybody knew what it meant.
"You here to gamble?" asked my taxi driver, who had shuttled me in from the airport on a late January day in 1997 and who had uttered not a word until tip time.
"No, I'm going to the memorial service for Colonel Parker."
A beat. "Dat the fried chicken guy?"
At least one cynical obituary writer, Serene Dominic, seconded that thought in a Phoenix New Times article headed "Cooked the Colonel's Way -- Colonel Tom Parker Has Kicked the Bucket, and the Original Recipe for Rock 'n' Roll Rotisserie Goes with Him." But the 160 mourners who filtered into Ballroom D saw him as one of the last giants and true iconoclasts of the century -- a penniless immigrant who slipped into the country, befriended U.S. presidents and corporate CEOs, created both an icon and a $4-billion business, and never let any of it get in the way of what mattered most -- playing the game.
Through it all, he remained as individualistic, as shrewd, rude, crude, and fun-loving as ever. At his death, he still delighted in practicing what he called the art of "snowing," the exquisitely performed act of separating people from their money, leaving them with a smile on their face and melting away before they realized what had taken place.
While some would argue that Parker's very body was a temple to gluttony, greed, and feeding off the dimmer wits of others, it was the Snowman his friends had come to honor this day, his widow, Loanne, posing an intriguing question.
"I want to leave you with just one thought," she said, addressing the crowd, which had passed a lobby-card-size photo of the couple at the entrance. "If Thomas A. Parker had never existed, how would each of your lives be different today?"
One person who couldn't answer that question was Elvis Aaron Presley, whose piped-in versions of "Memories" and "How Great Thou Art" opened and closed the service with ghostly reverence. The Elvis Presley who had first come to Vegas in 1956 as an acne-faced adolescent left it twenty years later as a pathetic, corseted cartoon, his body blown from years of abuse, his spirit picked hollow.
For all of the twenty years that Parker outlasted his greatest discovery, he would also have to live with the allegations that he had destroyed him, stifling his artistry in third-rate Hollywood formula pictures, suffocating his ambition in 837 Vegas performances from 1969 to 1976, and killing his will to live by refusing to challenge him in meaningful ways -- a European tour, a dramatic film role to reclaim his self-respect, a crack at a memorable song.
Whether regarded as a meretricious and evil confidence man, or as a brilliant marketer and strategist, as remarkable as the star he managed, no figure in all of entertainment is more controversial, colorful, or larger than life than Tom Parker. "He was so immense, so gigantic in his way," remembers writer Robert Kotlowitz, an RCA publicist in the late '50s and early '60s. "His style was equivalent to a great politician's, with so much flamboyance and wit and, underneath it all, cunning. He had to beat the whole world."
Yet at his death, Parker was blasted by rock critic Dave Marsh as "the most overrated person in the history of show business," and assessed by Dutch journalist and filmmaker Constant Meijers as "a nobody who needed a somebody to be anybody." To this day, a favorite debate question among pop music journalists is whether Elvis, whom the Colonel often referred to in carnival terms as "my attraction," would have remained a regional act without Parker's guidance, or if the young performer was such a blazing comet that no one could have stopped his streak across the sky.
The probability is that neither man would have been as big in his field without the other, Parker realizing, like P. T. Barnum, that the promotion of a curiosity was just as important as the curiosity itself. A chameleon who was many things to many people, Parker has his staunch defenders -- as a visionary, a businessman, and a friend, even by those who got up from the losing side of the bargaining table. And while Parker probably would have referred to himself as a promoter more than anything else, having marketed the icon most recognizable in all the world after Coca-Cola, Chet Atkins, who dealt with many of the biggest artists during his tenure as an RCA Records executive, pronounced Parker "the best manager I ever saw....Whatever he cost Elvis, he was worth it, because Elvis would've...lost that luster in no time if it hadn't been for the Colonel."
Mike Crowley, who traveled with Parker in the concert years of the '70s and is now a talent manager himself, speaks, like many, of Parker's loyalty, and also justifies his treatment of Elvis, the addict. "Nobody killed Elvis except Elvis, and nobody could have helped Elvis but Elvis. The only other thing he could have done was walk away."
Parker himself never bothered to address his critics, nor did he try to carve out much middle ground in the debate of whether he was the devil or angel in Elvis's own private hell. When pressed about his handling or mishandling of Elvis, he'd merely bristle, stamp his cane into the ground, and repeat his stock answer: "I sleep good at night."
Beyond that, the old Dutchman who understood America far better than most Americans simply threw out the line he'd used for decades to keep himself out of headlines ("Elvis is my only client and my life, so I never give out stories about myself"), allegedly because he was writing a memoir to be called How Much Does It Cost If It's Free? But it was an excuse he had concocted to keep others from looking too closely at the hocus-pocus of his life, and from having to explain himself, especially in light of a 1980 lawsuit in which the state of Tennessee accused him of "overreaching" in his fiduciary responsibilities to Presley.
If Elvis was unknowable by his manager's design, the Colonel was beyond knowing, even to his own family. In 1980, Parker's brother-in-law, Bitsy Mott, who spent many years on the road in the Colonel's employ, was asked to explain the man he'd known for nearly half a century. "That man's a mystery," he said, and little more, for not even he knew that Parker had a secret to protect, a secret that colored nearly everything he did.
On the surface, it would appear only that Parker had entered the country illegally and had never become a naturalized U.S. citizen. But if something darker had happened in the distant Netherlands, it must have been deep, shameful, and nearly unforgivable, at least to Parker himself. Certainly he never talked about it, or about his Dutch upbringing, to either Presley or any of his previous clients. And when the Colonel's stepson, Bobby Ross, died in 1978, it was without benefit of the knowledge that the man who had reared him from the age of ten had not been born as Thomas Andrew Parker in Huntington, West Virginia, as he always claimed, but as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk -- known as Andre to his Dutch biological family.
I first met Colonel Parker in December 1992, and I wondered then how the secret of his origins -- revealed to the world at large in 1981 -- impacted the all-dominating decisions he made in shaping nearly every event in the life and career of Elvis Presley.
At first glance, Presley and Parker appeared to have little in common except the raging fire of ambition, shaped by a shameless ferocity both struggled to keep hidden. Yet I discovered as I began to research this book that in the strange choreography of chance and coincidence, the fates of Elvis Aaron Presley and Thomas Andrew Parker were bound by two still surging events, and the pull each incident had on both of them.
Despite the hundreds of books profiling Presley and his career, the story of the relationship between these men, I saw, had yet to be uncovered. Parker was a man of not just one, but many secrets, and the keeper of several fantastic tales he fought to preserve, with Elvis almost always paying too much of the price.
On each of my three visits with Colonel Parker, I sat across the table from him and looked into his eyes -- hypnotic pools of unearthly blue -- and wondered, Just who are you?
And so I decided to research the story chronologically, trying to find the boy who became the man. That mission took me to Holland, where I met with the kindest and most cooperative sources on this book: Parker's Dutch family, who were as mystified by his behavior and as dedicated to finding the truth as I was.
Over a period of three years, I interviewed and corresponded with several members of the van Kuijk clan, including the Colonel's ninety-two-year-old sister, Marie. And with the help of American journalist Bill Burk, I established an ongoing and treasured friendship with Parker's niece, Mieke Dons-Maas, who worked so hard in the 1990s to try to reunite her mother, Engelina, with her brother in America. Along with her husband, Ted, and friends Angelo Somers and Hanneke Neutkens, who spent years gathering materials for a proposed Parker foundation, we united as a team, chasing the apparition of a lad who had walked the Breda streets so long ago on the first leg of his remarkable journey.
In the end, my research led me to realize that the tale of Colonel Thomas Andrew Parker, né Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, is, beneath the veil of secrecy, a tragedy, and very nearly the stuff of Shakespeare.
The following is my attempt to resolve the conundrum of his life.
-- Alanna Nash
Copyright © 2003 by Alanna Nash