Gary James' Interview With Elvis' Cook / Maid
Nancy Rooks was hired on at Graceland as Elvis Presley's cook / maid in May of 1967. She was there at Graceland on that awful day of August 16th 1977 (the day Elvis died) and continued working at Graceland after Elvis' death. Nancy is the co-author of the book The Presley Family Cookbook (Wimmer Books) and the author of the book Inside Graceland (Xlibris Books).
What was it like to work inside Graceland on a daily basis? What was it like to have Elvis Presley as your boss? We'll let Nancy Rooks tell you all about it.
Q - Whose idea was it to put that cookbook together? Was it your idea?
A - It wasn't my idea. It was Vester Presley's (Elvis' uncle). I did it really for him and the family.
Q - Vester is no longer with us, is he?
A - No. All of 'em are gone.
Q - When did he pass away?
A - Maybe about three or four years ago. *
Q - These recipes in the book are the actual recipes you used to cook not only for Elvis, but for the entire Presley family, correct?
A - That's right.
Q - Did you ever think that some of these recipes were too fatty or too salty or too high in calories?
A - (laughs) At that time when we was fixin' food for him, a lot of it was fat, sure. We would try to put him on a diet, but he wouldn't let us. He wanted what he wanted to eat. You couldn't make no suggestion. I took food off his plate and he would see me on the camera and tell me to go back and put that food on his plate. He'd be upset. I'd have to come back downstairs and put it back on his plate.
Q - Would he ask for second helpings of cakes or some kind of dessert?
A - He would breakfast at this time (5 PM) in the evening. This would be his breakfast time. He didn't eat breakfast in the morning like maybe you or I would eat breakfast, 'cause he would be asleep most of the time in the morning time. He might wake up some time that day upstairs, so we would probably take him some water or we would have a bowl of fruit up there. I had some honey dew melons, watermelons, some cantaloupes, all cut up in pieces. If not, we'd have chocolate ice box pie, lemon ice box pie, coconut pie. Not all at once. We'd have one of 'em in the refrigerator up there, he could snack on if he wanted to.
Q - When would his dinner time be?
A - (laughs) Dinner time would be like, he'd go to the movies or something and he'd be back by 12:30 AM or 1 AM that night. He would come back in and eat dinner, but the dinner would already be prepared. But there would always be somebody there to fix it for him.
Q - Who would that have been, Mary Jenkins?
A - I wouldn't be here. Mary and I worked in the daytime. Most of the time it would be Pauline. She would be there all night. I would get there maybe six o'clock in the morning or close to seven. And at that time, most of the time he would just be going upstairs to go to bed. I would probably get him some orange juice up there, some water, or try to get him to eat something before he would lay down. Sometime we would take some orange juice, egg omelet, a biscuit and some bacon up there. Sometime he would eat a little something. Maybe a cup of coffee.
Q - What would Elvis eat for lunch?
A - Most of the time lunch was skipped. If he was leaving, going out of town, going back to California, sometimes we would serve lunch at that time. That would be something like maybe a porterhouse steak, baked potatoes, green beans and most of the time it would be crackers. We served him biscuits some time, but most of the time he would eat crackers.
Q - That sounds like a great dinner to me.
A - That would be dinner.
Q - So, how did you get this job at Graceland?
A - Well, I was living out in North Memphis at the time. I was working as a claimist. I quit working at this claimist so that my cousin could have this job. I told her I would find me something later, because she was new in the city. So the man went on and hired her in my place. I went home and layed up about a week. I left and went to the employment office and I told the lady I was looking for a job. I told her I wanted something good. She says "Well, I'm gonna try and find you something." I said "I appreciate that." It was about a week. I'm not sure it was a whole week, she called me. She said "I got a job for you." I said "What?" She said "Yes. Do you know Elvis Presley?" I said "No Ma'am. I have heard of him, but I really don't know him." She said "Well, that's who you'll be working for." I said "How I'll be working for him, they're not interviewing me." She said "I'm the one doing the interviews and I'm gonna send you out there. You go out there and look for the gate with the music note on it. So in the morning, they want you there at eight o'clock." So, my husband and I went on down in Whitehaven and found the gate with the music note on it. So, we turned back and now we know where the gate is. The next morning I went there and the guard was all ready. I guess he was looking for me. They gave him my name. So, I went on up to the house. The maid came out on the carport and they escort me in the house. I went in the house and met his grandmother and his Auntie. He was there at the time, but he was upstairs in the bed. They just told me, whatever need to be done, do it! I told her "Well, OK," and I just started working. So, I just started in his mother's room, cleaning in his mother's room, and from there to the kitchen because the woman was cooking and she needed some help in the kitchen. So, I stopped, went in there and set the dining room table and taken some food in there on the table 'cause she was looking for him to come downstairs. So, I got that set up. But she was so long getting it together that he kind of got a little upset. (laughs) But anyway, I fell on in there and help her get it on in the table. It was breakfast really. It wasn't dinner.
Q - What year would that have been?
A - That was May 9th 1967.
Q - How many years did you end up working at Graceland?
A - I worked there 'til '77 when Elvis passed. I was there. I was the only one of the maids that was there, because one of 'em was sick and the other one was at home because she worked nights. The other one had left me that morning to go home so she could get some rest so she could come back that evening. So, I was really left there alone that day, that Tuesday. But I told her that I could handle it, which I could. If he needed anything, his Auntie and I was both gonna fix it anyway. So, he came in early that morning from the racquet club, him and one of the other bodyguards. He stands on the steps waiting to go upstairs, in the kitchen. I said "You want some breakfast Mr. Elvis?" He says "No, I don't want anything to eat now. I just want to get some sleep. But what I would like to have is some water." I said "Well, OK. That's no problem." So, I told Pauline to take him some water upstairs. We didn't' carry him water in a big glass like you would probably drink out of. You remember you used to buy orange juice and it had the hand thing on the side of the jug? It had hand claps on the side where you could hold it. But anyway, I carried him some ice water, upstairs. Pauline said "I ain't never knowed him to grab that water and drink it like he drank it this morning." I said "He's probably just tired. He just came from playing racquet and probably was hot. That's why he probably drinking the water like he drank it." She said "But I ain't never seen him do that before."
Q - How did Elvis look to you that morning?
A - Great. He was planning on leaving that night, going back to California. He was gonna drop his daughter off in L.A. Some of the boys had already left. They was already out there in California. So, his road manager was here. I don't know how long he had been. I had been in the office with Mr. Presley (Vernon - Elvis' father) and the secretary Mr. Smith had left and went to his trailer back there, 'cause he was going to get some rest too, so he can be ready when the night came.
Q - Wasn't Elvis scheduled to do a concert in Portland, Maine on August 16th?
A - That's right.
Q - But you say he was going to California?
A - They were gonna have to go there to drop the baby off. He had his daughter here. That's where they lived, in California, in L.A.
Q - Are you saying that on August 16th, 1977, Elvis was going to go to California with his daughter?
A - I'll put it this way: I don't know who, if he was gonna go back and take her home or not. But, I know some of the boys were going to take her to Priscilla.
Q - During the summer of 1977, had Elvis packed on some weight?
A - Quite a bit. He gained quite a bit of weight. Like I would tell people, I would beat up maybe three or four eggs. When I beat 'em up, I put a little cheese in 'em, put a little onions in 'em, put a little stuffing in it. Then I would fry as hard and as dry a whole pound of bacon, OK? A lot of people think a pound is a lot, but, it might be, but it had about eighteen or nineteen slices in it. And I had to make sure it didn't have any grease. It had to be dry.
Q - That's what Elvis wanted, right?
A - Yeah. That's the way he liked it.
Q - Go back to August 16th, 1977. That was probably just a routine day, wasn't it?
A - You're right. It was just a regular, routine day. But Ginger (Elvis' girlfriend, Ginger Alden) was upstairs with him. Now the two boys supposed to be there that day, like a bodyguard, just watching to make sure everything is OK. That was David Stanley. He was not there. He came in that day, him and some other boy.
Q - The other boy's name was Mark White.
A - Yeah. but he left. He started to go upstairs to check on him, but he asked me "Is Ginger there?" I said "Yeah, Ginger's still upstairs." She hadn't left. He said "Well, there ain't no need for me going up there. I guess everything's OK." I said "Well, I don't know about that, 'cause I heard a loud noise up there." So he goes upstairs to the black doors, but he didn't open 'em or nothing, he just come on back down. So later on, about ten minutes to two, the telephone rings on the intercom. I picked it up and thought they were probably calling for their breakfast. Ginger say "Who down there?" I said "There's nobody down here but me. Aunt Delta is gone to the drugstore. Al is gone to pick up some stuff for the night. His Dad and the rest of 'em are in the office. His grandmother is in her room." She said "Something bad has happened up here!" I said "What is it?" She went to crying and I said Oh my God, it must be bad. I put the telephone down then. I go upstairs myself because I thought maybe he had did something. Sometime he might bust some glass up there. I go upstairs and go down the little hallway there and into the dressing room area. I seen him on the floor. I said "Oh my God, what is this?" I run back downstairs and by that time Al Strada was coming in the door. I said "Al, go upstairs. Something has happened up there." He said "What is it?" I said "Go and see right now." So he goes up there and looks. He comes back downstairs. I said "Don't you stop and look at me. Do something!" So by that time, he had called his Daddy and the road manager, Joe Esposito. So Joe Esposito comes on inside and he runs upstairs. By that time he called his Daddy and his cousin and they come in and they go upstairs. With the hollering they were doing, they just knew he was gone. So, by then I tried to get in touch with Dr. Nick (Dr. George Nichopoulos). I called him on every phone that he had. I didn't' get any answer. So, his Auntie was gonna try to get her doctor to come out there. She called him up there in Whitehaven, but he said "no, he's not my patient. I cannot come." So he said "I'm sorry." And he did not come. By that time, somebody had called an ambulance. They had got in touch with Dr. Nick some kind of way. I think Dr. Nick and the ambulance and some of them met up in the gate there almost together.
Q - It sounds to me like an ambulance was not called right away.
A - No, they didn't. Not right away. I let 'em in when they got there. They didn't know how to get upstairs with the stretchers. So I showed them how to handle them stretchers over their heads, going up the steps and when they get up those steps to bring him back down. But when they brought him back down, he looked just like he was asleep. But he had passed some time earlier. He had blue spots on him.
Q - On his face you're talking about?
A - Yeah.
Q - What time did you hear that loud noise upstairs?
A - About 9:30 in the morning. Somewhere between 9:30 and 10 o'clock. But I just thought they were into it. If she had not been up there, I would've been checking on him. His Auntie would've gone up there and checked on him. We don't let him be up by himself without anybody checking on him.
Q - Now, when you say they were "into it", what to you mean?
A - I mean him and her was having an argument about whether she was gonna go to California that night or she's comin' in the mornin' later. He was sayin' "Hell no. You're goin' tonight. If you don't come tonight then so-and-so you're not comin' out there in the mornin'. I'll have somebody else." So, that's the way the argument were.
Q - When you got the job at Graceland, you said you didn't know Elvis, but you had heard of him?
A - Yeah. When I got the job I had heard of him. The reason why is, he used to go to Humes High School. I lived there on Alabama Street. It was a street running through there, Lane Street. I was goin' to the store one evening and this little ol' boy was standing side of the street and he was bare-feeted and he had some overalls on, one strap was fastened, the other one wasn't and he was pickin' a guitar and they had the road blocked. The children were out there listening to him. I hollered over and say "Would you all kids get out of the street. You all standin' around. Let me back. Get out of the street." So, they just kind of looked at me. (laughs) I was sayin' "Who is that anyway?" (laughs) One of the kids said "That's Elvis Presley." You know, he was young, goin' to school. I didn't know who he were. I still didn't know who Elvis Presley were. I said "He oughta go home!" (laughs)
Q - You saw Elvis when he was a teenager then?
A - Yeah, that's right. He was a teenager. He had blonde hair. He had on some kind of white short shirt with some overalls on. He didn't have any shoes on. I guess they pulled his shoes off.
Q - By 1967, you must have known Elvis was a big star. Did you see him on Ed Sullivan?
A - Well, I had heard of him, being as a movie star. But, for me as really seein' him after he had been a movie star, I really didn't. I worked all the time. I really hadn't seen him.
Q - Had you heard any of his music on the radio?
A - No, I didn't.
Q - I guess then you really had no idea who Elvis was.
A - (laughs) No, I didn't. But after I got out there and met him, he was very nice and an intelligent person. He as a very polite person 'cause he learned me how to say thank-you. When he asked you for something, he always would say "Thank-you" or please pass me this or give me this and would say thank-you afterward. I didn't say that all the time myself. So, I said "well, you're learning me how to be polite." He said "Yeah", his mother taught him that.
Q - How long did you continue working at Graceland?
A - I worked there after he passed for the rest of his family. I stayed there six more years before it was opened up to the public in 1982. June 1982 it was opened up to the public. I was still working there. We were all cooking and cleaning for his grandmother. We'd go upstairs and clean up there proper maybe once or twice a month to make sure it not get too dusty up there.
Q - Wasn't it kind of sad to work at Graceland after Elvis died?
A - Yeah. I missed him when he passed away. Really, when he passed away, I was sitting in the house, sitting at the table and one morning, a door slammed so hard, but I didn't see no door close, but I heard it. I run out of the house and told the guard to back in there, that somebody was in there, had slammed the door. So, he goes in there and searched the house over. I stayed outside 'cause I says maybe someone slipped in there, but it wasn't. I said "That was Elvis." He was angry. He just slammed the door real hard. He never wanted the home opened up to the public. He wanted the trophy room open to the public, but he was gonna intend to do that his self if he had retired. He was gonna let 'em come through the hall there and go down through the trophy room on back by the swimming pool and on back around. He had decided on doing that. But I stayed on up there at the house until they opened up across the street. They put the place across the street over there. Then I was removed out of the house and put over there across the street at Heartbreak Restaurant and Rockabilly's to run the cash register. I was asked why I was took out of the house, because I had got two movers hired to do some cleaning at the house. But she said she took me out of the house so I could learn more about the business. I had been there so long, she was preferred me to do another job there. So, they put me across the street and from there down to Rockabilly's and back to Heartbreak. I was there really twenty-six years. I was there until June 18th, 1993 I believe, 'cause I fell out there and hurt my back. That was one reason I been having a problem ever since. They operated on my back in 2001. So, I haven't been able to do anything since.
Q - Sounds to me like you're saying Graceland is haunted.
A - Yeah, well it were. I would be down in the trophy room and the lights and things would flash on and off when I would be cleaning 'cause I worked at night. I would tell Mr. Elvis "Now you leave these lights alone 'cause I got to see." One night I was laying down on the platform where his uniforms, his suits, they had in the middle there, in the trophy room on exhibit. I was laying down. I tried to sleep and take me a nap, and somebody shook my foot. I said "what is this?" I jumped up. I didn't see anybody. I said "Mr. Elvis, I know what you did. You did that to wake me up. (laughs) That mean for me to go to work." So I gets on up and hurry up and get out of here now.
Q - I read somewhere that Elvis and his bodyguards were eating dinner in the dining room and a voice cried out "Elvis." It was his mother's voice. Did you ever hear Elvis' mother's voice?
A - No, I never did hear no voice from his mother. But we always sit and hear his mother's footsteps going up the steps. She was wearing them steps out, going up and down them steps to see about him. Then one time, I was in his grandmother's room, which used to be his mother's room. There was something that come from the ceiling, like an entity. It landed on her bed. And she waited awhile and we just sit there. I was standing. She was sitting. She said "Do you see it?" I said "Yeah." She said "Wonder what was that? Oh, I know. It's probably Gladys. She's tryin' to tell us somethin'. She got an entity comin' down from the ceiling. I don't know exactly what it mean." I said "Yeah, it look like she tryin' to tell us something. She got an entity. It might be some tears shed somewhere." But we just laughed it off and we didn't think no more too much about it.
Q - Did you believe in hauntings and ghosts before these encounters of yours?
A - Yeah, because I had seen them before. I had an uncle and he came back and I seen him. Well, I was the type of person who had kind of seen things off and on when I was a child coming on. A lot of people say it don't exist, but it do exist to some people.
Q - Did Colonel Parker ever come to Graceland?
A - Well, he came. It wasn't often. But he would come ever once in a while with his ball-game cap and his cigar. Most of the time we fixed something to eat for him. And they'd run like rabbits 'cause they all scared of him. (laughs) They were a little afraid of him. But I didn't know him that well other than just seeing (him). He would come there ever now and then. It wasn't often.
Q - Did you ever hear Elvis singing around the house
A - Yes. He would play in the music room and sing "How Great Thou Art". Him and I sung together upstairs. (laughs) His girlfriend had gone shopping. He was upstairs and he told me he get lonesome and to come on up there and sit and talk to him. I went on up there and he said "Well, we need something to do. I'll tell you, we goin' in the office area and I'm gonna play the organ." I said "OK. We gonna sing. You know I can't sing, but I'll try to help you." We started on "Precious Lord Take My Hand And Lead Me On". We got to the part where we didn't really know the words. I'm sure he knew 'em, but I didn't know 'em. We'd just hum through. (laughs) We'd just do it that way. I was up there with him for quite awhile until one of the bodyguards happen to come in and came up there. "What are you doing?" He said "What you think we're doing? We're singing!" And just bust out laughing.
Q - Who started laughing?
A - The bodyguard and Elvis, and we all started laughing.
Q - Do you remember the name of that bodyguard?
A - I believe it was Billy Smith.
Q - Well now Nancy, enough time has gone by that you know how popular Elvis was and still is. Do you sit back and say to yourself, I sang with Elvis Presley. I worked for Elvis Presley. Do those thoughts ever cross your mind?
A - Oh, yes.
Q - People would have loved to be in your position.
A - They just want to touch me, because he touched me. I would put his clothes out for him. I would put his socks out for him. I'd put his hairbrush out for him. I'd put his hair comb. I would clean his toothbrushes for him. I'd make his bed for him. I'd put the pillow on his head for him. Sometimes I'd turn the TVs on for him. I'd set up the pool, if he wanted to go to the pool. I would take him a towel, a radio, some cotton for him to put over his eyes, sunglasses, probably a Pepsi and a Shasta drink. I realized how famous that he were 'cause he couldn't lay out there because the people would want to get over the back fence, in the backyard where he was laying at. A lot of the time he couldn't stay down there long. Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes, he'd have to come back to the house. I'd have to go back there and bring all his stuff back up to the house.
Q - Maybe he should have put up a bigger fence. What do you think?
A - Well, regardless of how tall a fence were or barbed wire over the top of it, they still would try climbing it. I mean, they still would get in there, find a way of getting in there. Sometimes a fan would even get by the guard and come upside of the wood area and get over the fence. Two or three have got in the house. I'd chase one. She was going upstairs. So, I got her back downstairs before she got up there to his room.
Q - Was this a teenager?
A - Really wasn't a teenager. Might've been in her twenties or something like that. Then we've had all kind of fans come to the door and ring the doorbell and want to see or talk to him, and we'd have to turn 'em away. Some of them would cry. That's what we had to do. We said, we're sorry, we can't let you in.
Q - Didn't Elvis go down to the front gate and sign autographs for his fans every once in awhile?
A - I'll tell you a story. Elvis had a Black yardman. He got sick and broke his leg, OK? So, he hired this White man to do the yard while the Black guy was out sick. So, when the Black guy come back, the White guy had to be dismissed. So he (the White guy) goes over to his (Elvis') Daddy's house and tells his Daddy, "Well, you got rid of me. You fired me for this Black man." He told him "We've been having him for a long time. He's been working for us for a long time. He was just out sick. You was here temporarily. We told you this at the beginning." He said "I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm going over there and kick Elvis' ass!" So Mr. Vernon say "What you say?" "I'll tell you what I'm doing. I'm going over there and kick his ass. I want him to meet me at the gate down there. I'm on my way." Mr. Vernon calls and told me. I answered the phone. I goes upstairs and get him. I tell Mr. Elvis this guy is comin' down to the gate and says he's gonna kick your ass." Mr. Elvis say "That sounds good to me!" He had his pajamas on. He said "Give me my robe." He comes on down the steps. He said "I'm goin' down to the gate and meet him." He was down there and Mr. Elvis say "What you say you wanted to do to me?" "I'm gonna kick your ass!" Mr. Elvis say "Yeah? I'm gonna whup yours too!" He whupped the guy. I mean he really beat him. That guy took off running. Elvis just killed himself laughing. He said "I bet he won't tell anybody else that."
* Vester Presley died January 18th, 1997, at the age of 82