In the summer of 1956, a 21-year-old Elvis Presley, already inciting libidinous mayhem from Kansas City to Jacksonville, impishly touched tongues with a young woman in Richmond, Virginia. Alfred Wertheimer snapped the shutter just at the moment of contact. The result: "The Kiss," one of the most storied photos in Elvis lore. Yet for five decades, no one, not even Wertheimer, knew the identity of Presley's date—until now.
Several years ago, Malcolm Gray was watching an Elvis Presley tribute show on Pay Per View when a still photograph appeared: the iconic 1956 shot of the 21-year-old rock 'n' roll star playfully romancing a blonde fan backstage. Gray's eyes widened. "My God, come here!" the electrical engineer shouted to his girlfriend, Barbara, now his wife. "They've got you on that big screen. Does Priscilla know who you are?"
"No," Barbara said, nonchalantly, from the other room. She had seen that photo hundreds of times over the past half-century. "I was before Priscilla, Malcolm."
"The Kiss"—as the photograph is sometimes called—is in fact the most enduring of the 3,800 exposures that photographer Al Wertheimer made of Elvis Presley, many of the best taken during a two-day period in June 1956. While chronicling the rock prince on the threshold of becoming the King, Wertheimer, then 26, famously caught Elvis on the road and at his home in Memphis with his family and entourage. But that prize frame has become one of the classics in the rock-photography canon: Elvis, in a stairwell at the Mosque Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, minutes before a concert, darting a mischievous tongue toward the deliciously reciprocating mouth of a mysterious girl in black.
Many have compared the picture to another moment snapped 11 years before: Alfred Eisenstaedt's 1945 "V-J Day in Times Square," shot for Life, of a sailor and a nurse spontaneously embracing the day World War II ended. But while both images have remained photographic whodunits for decades, nearly 20 people have come forward now and again, purporting to be the subjects in the Times Square shot. In contrast, no one has ever emerged with a legitimate claim as Elvis's blonde. And with good reason. In the photo, her features are largely obscured. And to make matters more difficult, Elvis, throughout his career, was known to have had scores of dates and trysts with fans and companions.
"I never bothered to ask her name," says Wertheimer, an energetic 81-year-old German émigré, sitting in his New York brownstone brimming with Elvis books, photos, and memorabilia. "And she never bothered to tell me." As a result, for 55 years Wertheimer has called her simply Elvis's "date for the day." What's more, ever since the picture was published, no one on the Richmond music scene, or in Elvis's inner circle, seemed to know who she was.
But how could they not? This was a Kim Novak look-alike, dressed for Saturday night—sexy, flirty, wearing four-inch, plastic Springolator pumps, rhinestone fan earrings, a black chiffon spaghetti-strap dress, and a see-through purse festooned with faux pearls. Whoever she was, this was not a girl to forget. As evidenced in the 48 shots that Wertheimer took of her that day—many of which show her facing directly into the lens—she had fetching dimples, brows sharply penciled in black, and a teasing smile that tugged at the corners of her mouth.
By her own admission, real-estate manager Barbara Gray, though a natural blonde, doesn't much resemble that babe from '56. "But, hey, what do you want? I was 20 years old," she says good-naturedly, sitting in the kitchen of her Charleston, South Carolina, home, and speaking in an accent that smacks of street-smart Philly. "Now I'm 75. I was very thin and very stacked. Every time I would go to get fitted for a bra, the sales ladies would say, 'Gosh, you have such lovely breasts.' And I would think, 'Well, I don't know. Are you hitting on me?'"
When the photo first appeared—in a September 1956 magazine entitled The Amazing Elvis Presley (a 100,000-copy, 35-cent-an-issue newsstand "one-shot")—Barbara, known as Bobbi, got a kick out of it. In those days she was a sometime dancer, a shoe-store clerk, and an unabashed party girl. And she certainly got around. The singer Pat Boone, she says, with whom she'd become rather friendly when he played Charleston the year before, called her to give her some grief. "Boy," he supposedly needled her, "you're in pictures all over the place with my biggest rival!"
"What are you talking about?"
"These pictures of you with Elvis Presley!"
Later, the shots showed up in Life and elsewhere. And then, it seemed, the music stopped. Bobbi, albeit anonymously, had enjoyed her brief brush with fame, and "didn't really seem to be that interested," remembers her sister, Margaret Crosby.
She wasn't the only one. According to Wertheimer—who, that March, had initially been hired by RCA Victor to shadow the label's dynamic young star—the images were of "no value to speak of" until 1977, when a drug-addled Presley collapsed and died in his bathroom at Graceland at the age of 42. "Then the phone started ringing," says Wertheimer, "and it really hasn't stopped in the 34 years since"—largely because no other photographer had ever been granted such access.
Wertheimer was a Brooklyn-raised photojournalist who shared a studio at the time with photographers Jerry Uelsmann and Life's Paul Schutzer. In between assignments, Wertheimer would take forays to the South, creating a variety of images of Presley riding his motorcycle, hanging out with cronies, recording songs in the studio. But by 1958 the singer's paranoid manager, Colonel Tom Parker, lowered a curtain around his protégé and, for the rest of Presley's life, restricted the media to meticulously orchestrated events.
In 1996, Wertheimer decided to abandon a movie-equipment-leasing business to concentrate full-time on Elvis, selling prints through The New York Times's online store and Washington's Govinda Gallery (for as much as $9,000 each). He also entered into a licensing agreement with Elvis Presley Enterprises, which began emblazoning photos of the singer and the mystery kisser on calendars, note cards, screen-savers, purses, refrigerator magnets, and the like.
The sheer ubiquity of "The Kiss," in part, is what finally got Barbara Gray, you might say, all shook up. "My granddaughter went to Graceland and brought back a coffee cup, a little lunch bucket, and a clock, all with that photo on it," she explains. "She said, 'Grandma, can you get your name on the picture? Because some day it's going to be worth something.'"
It's true that the woman in the photos didn't sign a model release; she could have made a good sum, over the years, from the commercial use of her likeness. But Gray says she's not after material gain at this late stage. What she claims to want, instead, is to get her story out. And she says that by turning to Vanity Fair—knowing the magazine has featured Wertheimer's work in the past—she is also seeking validation from the one man who could give it to her.
A year ago January, Malcolm Gray, Barbara's fourth husband (and 16 years her junior), brought home a copy of USA Today. For Presley's 75th birthday, according to the paper, the Smithsonian was mounting an exhibition, "Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer." In the accompanying photo, there was Wertheimer, standing in front of a blow-up of "The Kiss," the centerpiece of the show.
Gray insists that that one image was the last straw. She was fed up, as she puts it, with being "the unknown young woman in the wings." So she switched on her computer, found Wertheimer on Facebook, and fired off a message: "I'm the girl, 'The Kiss,' Have a good story for you…Please answer this email." She signed off: Bobbi Owens, using her maiden name.
But while Wertheimer says he's been searching for the bona fide blonde since the 60s, he bided his time before answering. "Over the years," he explains, "I've had at least a half a dozen women—from Houston, Atlanta, almost always from the South—tell me that they were the one who got kissed by Elvis. I'd say, 'I don't doubt it, but you weren't the one in my photograph.' And they would say, 'How do you know that?' Well, most of those women said they were somewhere around five foot eight or nine. I didn't tell them, but the girl was like four foot eleven. Elvis was six feet tall, and she was standing on the landing while he was one step down, so they were both at roughly the same height."
Wertheimer was doubly skeptical. Recently, he'd received an update from an employee of the Heartbreak Hotel in Memphis—a fan-favorite motel across the street from Graceland—who informed him that a woman claiming to be the kissee's mother said her daughter had died in a car accident many years before. "I was under the impression that the Kiss Lady was dead. I said, 'My goodness, that's a sad way to end it.'"