Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2002 / 9 Adar, 5762
The steam used to come out of his ears when he would see his 9-year-old son -- that would be me -- staring at our family's black-and-white television set, watching Elvis Presley sing. He would pound on my bedroom door any time he would hear Elvis' voice wailing from the record player inside. Even at 9, my taste in Presleyana went well beyond the mainstream -- the rest of the country might be listening to "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Don't Be Cruel," but I also favored the more obscure "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Good Rockin' Tonight" and "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again."
(Yes, I was an unusual 9-year-old.)
"Get off this Presley kick," my father would bark. "What's wrong with you?"
Down in Tennessee, another unusual person -- that would be Elvis -- was doing something rather unconventional at about the same time my father was pounding on my door. Elvis was writing a thank-you note to his laundry -- how many people have you ever heard of who have done that?
The handwritten letter -- as I mentioned in a column here last week -- read:
I should like to commend your Laundry for doing a fantastic job on my clothes, you show esceptional care. Sincerely E.P.
Yes, "exceptional" was misspelled. Elvis aspired to sell records, not to win spelling bees.
I happen to own that letter -- as I explained in last week's column, I bought it 10 or 15 years ago. And, as I mentioned last week, I consider it a piece of American history. So when the National Archives announced that it was sending a spectacular and deeply inspiring exhibit of the United States' most significant and precious documents to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum of the Chicago Academy of Sciences in Lincoln Park, I did the only patriotic thing: I offered to loan the museum Elvis' thank-you note to his laundry.
Here's the unexpected part:
The museum said yes.
The "American Originals" exhibit opened over the weekend; it will be at the museum through April 28. I handed over the laundry letter to museum president Joseph E. Shacter the night before the opening. During the weekend I went to the museum, and . . .
Right there with the Louisiana Purchase Treaty . . . right there with Thomas Edison's original patent application for the electric lamp . . . right there with the notebook recording the first controlled sustained nuclear chain reaction, and with John F. Kennedy's handwritten notes for his 1961 inaugural address, and with the instrument of surrender of the German High Command during World War II. . . .
Right there with all of that is Elvis' letter to his laundry.
(Actually, "right there" is not quite accurate. I have learned that officials of the National Archives, while not demanding that Elvis' laundry letter be kept away from the exhibition, did make it clear that they did not want it in the same room with their artifacts. So the laundry letter is in a display case just outside the door to the main exhibit room -- you pass by it just as you're walking in. It works out better this way -- Elvis' thank-you note is the first thing you see at the exhibit. This may be the only time that Elvis has been an opening act for anyone.)
There is a formal museum-type explanatory plaque with the display case, which says, among other things:
"This note, written by Elvis Presley when he was on the verge of becoming a star, provides an example of how seemingly trivial documents can increase in value and cultural significance as a result of historic events. It also shows that despite his growing fame in the early 1950s, Presley cared about the feelings of others."
While you were pounding on my door and telling me to take Elvis off the record player, he was down in Memphis thoughtfully thanking his laundry. And now our lives have connected in this most delirious of ways -- now, against all odds, his letter to the laundry is under the same museum roof as the Emancipation Proclamation.
I don't know who would be more speechless -- my father or Abraham