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Alfred Wertheimer photo courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
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Barbara Gray in 2010. Photo by Connie Maurer
In 1956, a mystery blonde canoodled with Elvis Presley backstage at the Mosque (now the Landmark Theater), resulting in the famous picture The Kiss by photographer Alfred Wertheimer. I tried to find her for a 1996 feature for this publication, and I got some leads, but no woman. Alanna Nash, author of Baby, Let's Play House, a book about the King's love life, succeeded where I fell short, revealing the woman as Barbara Gray in the August 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. On Jan. 8, Gray, a Charleston, S.C., resident, is scheduled to cut a birthday cake at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as part of the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, "Elvis at 21," which opens on Dec. 24.
RM: Barbara, what gets me is the informality of 1956. You're 20 years old, hanging out in a bar with friends in Charleston, S.C., your home, and friends say if anybody could get Elvis' attention, you could, and you just called him on the bar phone.
BG: I didn't really know who Elvis Presley was. I got put up to calling him at the Francis Marion Hotel. From there I learned who he was.
RM: He sent a Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz around to get you the next day.
BG: I wasn't too terribly impressed by any of that. I was actually on my way to see my boyfriend in Philadelphia.
RM: You didn't see Elvis until you got to Richmond.
BG: His cousin Gene took me up to the room. I saw this fellow in a slate-gray suit. And he turned around. I thought he was a gorgeous guy. He treated me very ladylike. That was all. Turned out to be a day of fun and games.
RM: At the lunch counter, Elvis flirted with you.
BG: Oh, he asked me if I wanted a beer, and I said no, and he said, "Good, because I don't like my women to drink." And then he asked if I smoked and I said no — kind of a little fib — and he said he didn't want his women smoking. And I told him, "I'm not your woman. And if I want to have a beer or a smoke, I will." [ Laughs ] Then he liked me.
RM: Have you been back into the Mosque? It's the Landmark Theater now.
BG: We tried once and couldn't get in. I'd like just to see where things were.
I look at the pictures, and I remember the window in the stairwell, where the girl was looking through, and they were saying, "That's Kim Novak he's with," they assumed, but I'm not as tall — 4-[foot]-11. I was standing a step up — Elvis was more than 6 feet.
[Elvis] was being silly. He was just a boy. I told him I wasn't going to kiss him, and he leaned to me, and that's the picture Mr. Wertheimer took. Elvis chased me across the stage to kiss me, but I told him, "I have a boyfriend."
RM: So, for you, that was that — except that one picture got around and some
BG: I walked away from it not knowing that they'd use the pictures. Mr. Wertheimer told me at one point at the end of the day, that it would be coming out in a magazine called Seventeen. I didn't know what it was and never read it. Six months or so later, I got a phone call at the shoe store where I worked. It was Pat Boone. I'd met him the year before. He called me and said, "What are you doing with my biggest rival?" And I said, "Who are you talking about?" "These pictures of you and Elvis Presley!" Pat Boone became a very dear friend who led me to Jesus Christ, and he and his wife, Shirley, baptized me in their pool.
RM: What are you doing these days?
BG: I'm buying houses and making them into transitional living for abused women. I've opened one in Pottstown, Pa. We're hoping to open another one [in Charleston] for abused young women in the service who've been injured, and they're back in the States and have no one turn to. If I can use my connection to Elvis to promote this effort and help women, that's what I want. Back then, I wanted to be with a show-business man and make him important. But now I'm with the right man and doing something important.