The KISS Letter: An Encounter with Elvis

Eugenia Dettelbach Wicker and Marcie Cohen Ferris

"The last time I kissed him he only had on half a shirt. He has a wonderful chest. I am really crazy about him now + have the funniest feeling in me, all over."

Along with talent and energy, Elvis brought a sexual charisma into the music business that his colleagues did not possess. Certainly no country entertainer before him had exhibited such raw masculine appeal. Elvis’s unusual combination of little-boy shyness and leering sensuality won him a legion of female followers of all ages. Nicknamed “Elvis the Pelvis” because of his peculiar dance gyrations, Presley awakened feelings among his young women listeners that not even they understood.

—Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A.

“The Last Time I Kissed Him, He only Had on Half a Shirt.”

June 1956, Atlanta, Georgia. It was the summer before ninth grade at a white girls’ academy. Genie Dettelbach was thirteen years old, on the cusp of fourteen. Although her friends had returned for a final year of summer camp, Genie rebelled and chose to stay in Atlanta. Little did she know that her independent spirit would shake her from both a sense of summer malaise and her adolescence. When Genie heard Elvis Presley was coming to Atlanta’s Paramount Theater, she jumped at the chance to attend a performance.

Twenty-one-year-old Presley’s career had rocketed that year, thanks to his first rca recording session, the hit single “Heartbreak Hotel,” national television appearances, and his first gold album. Knowing of her parents’ disapproval of the controversial Presley, who was already famous for his charisma and “physical gyrations” on stage, Genie secretly made her way to the 2 p.m. concert on Friday, June 22.

 

This essay originally appeared in Southern Cultures, Vol. 17, No. 4: Music (Winter 2011). We share it today in the spirit of Valentine's Day.
Genie with a friend in June, the month of Elvis Presley’s concert.

Ann at camp. (Photographs courtesy of Ann Fowler, one of the letter's recipients.)

The following “KISS Letter,” so named by Genie and her friends at summer camp who received the letter, was written the evening after the concert. At the heart of her description of the event is a passionate kiss with Presley. Genie’s excitement, as well as her close attention to detail—what Elvis wore, the songs he performed, the first-time appearance of the Jordanaires, the reaction of the young girls—confirm historians Peter Guralnick, Bill Malone, Pete Daniels, and Joel Williamson’s descriptions of the powerful convergence in Presley’s music of an emerging sexual revolution and the loosening of racial boundaries. Kissing his female fans—of all ages—was exactly the kind of illicit behavior that both shocked Middle America and enthralled those who adored Presley.

Genie Dettelbach was one of the thousands of young women “awakened” by Presley’s dynamism in an era of 1950s conformism. Her parents must have wondered what had gotten into their daughter that night. Genie wrote, “I couldn’t even eat tonight. We had Roast Beef, but I just couldn’t eat it . . . I can’t even lie down without moving . . . I’m going back tomorrow. You bet.”

The Kiss Letter

June 22, 1956

Dear Ann, Dell + Flossie,

Yall, I’m so excited I can’t write. I’m also listening to Elvis’s album + records. Its been a dream come true + I really mean it like never before. I’ll give you an exact record of what I’ve done today. Got up at 7:30 fixed breakfast. got ready left the house at 15 to 11, got to town at the Paramount at about 11:30. I saw Patsy Allen + we ate a small lunch there were girls even then from the ticket box clear to the corner. However I bought my ticket and we both broke in line boy were those girls mad most of them had sign posts like this [drawing] + they were carrying them. At a quarter to twelve I was so hot it wasn’t funny. excuse my writings, it’s just I’m so excited I can’t write straight. My hand’s sorta shaking. Anyway there was me in the middle and girls all over me and I mean [drawing] it was aful. I waited til 1:15 like that. Then they opened the door and we rushed in [drawing of Genie, the door, girls trying to get in].

I got really squshed and a bruise on my thigh. However I ran + got a wonderful seat on the second row in the middle. The picture was a dull Western. Then there was a band, a girl singin then a man doing a real funny act. He did an imitation of a girl taking off her girdle. He said this was how the Boogie Woogie got started. Then the Jourdaneers sang 4 good pop songs.

Then Elvis came on girls. He laughed a lot during his act I took 4 pictures of him. They told me to quit taking them (the policeman + usher) but I wouldn’t. I knew they wouldn’t kick me out. He had on a white shirt black tie green coat black pants. believe it or not I didn’t scream once I just sat there. He sang Heart Break, Blue Suede Shoes, I Gotta Woman, I was the one, I want you I need you, Hound Dog. He sang Blue Suede Shoes 3 times. I got a picture album. It has about 30 pictures about half the size of this letter of him shakin. Man its the coolest and greatest. Anyway he was also wearin 2 diamond rings.

He talked sort of slow like. I’m gonna do a song now . . . Pause . . . and its a song titled I want you . . . everybody yelled . . . I need you—everybody screamed . . . I hate you. he laughed.

Elvis on the CBS television program Stage Show, January 16, 1956.
Flossie (left) and Ann (right).

The happy campers performing an Elvis skit.

Once we all yelled move the mike down we can’t see your face. Then he mimicked us “Want me to move the mike down” he said in a real high squeaky voice. They screamed again. this was all great but listen. After he got through singing houndog real fast he did it slow and then sort of danced off the stage. Oh Ann you know how you said they danced at Grady when you stood still and wiggled your muscles.

It hurt you said. Well Hon he did it only 50 times more wiggly. Then I got up my legs were shakin sort of funny + I could hardly move. We went (by this time I had lost Patsy) with the whole theatre out the side exit to a side door. i was the first one at the door. They were pushing [drawing of the door, Genie, others] but I was determined to stay. Then Elvis came to the door opened it but shut it again + went up to the window upstairs [small drawing of the window, the word “Elvis” in the window, stick-figures]. Girls were climbing up the building. I started to go over to the window to see him but didn’t cause I knew he’d hafta come out sooner or later + I wasn’t intending for anyone to get my place. Then a colored man came with some hamburgers from the Krystal. When he opened the door

We rushed in to another room. I said “please open the door + let us get some autographs.” A mob of girls leaned on the door + it came open. Then we rushed in. It was terribly hot. He was kissing some girl when the lights went off. There we were in a tiny little room with no lights. It was hot as hell. Police men had by now cleared half of the screaming girls away but I hid in a sort of dark corner. There were just about 15 girls left I stuck my pen + paper in his face and asked him to please sign it. He made a few scratches on it. He couldn’t see it was dark. Then he put his arms around my neck I did the same to him it was real dark with about 10 girls left. He kissed me. It was wonderful not sloppy just wonderful. It was just about 2 minutes long. I didn’t hold my breath. It was so wonderful.

His hair smells like perfume. I had touched him about twice but I never dreamed of this then he did it again it was about the same amount of time. Then I went to sit down. I felt like I was gonna faint but I was determined not to. A policeman came up to me + told me to clear out I told him to wait til I got my breath I went up there again and said sort of loud Elvis do you have my pen?

Elvis Presley poses for Jailhouse Rock promotional photos in 1957.

 

He said yes kissed me and said I gotta go sugar.

Then he went out upstairs to change for his next show. A girl grabbed his shirt right before that + I got a big peice of it. The last time I kissed him he only had on half a shirt. He has a wonderful chest.

By the time I got through dividing it up with some of my friends from Chamblee which I couldn’t refuse I had only a small bit left about so big. [drawing] but I will send you a small bit of it. I am really crazy about him now + have the funniest feeling in me, all over. I couldn’t even eat tonight we had Roast Beef, but I just couldn’t eat it. I can’t even lie down with out moving I’m so nervous but I’m going back tomorrow. You bet.

His shirt was a real funny pattern. It was like this [drawing of the pattern]. Here’s a picture of him they gave me at the record shop. Give it back when you come home. Look on page 163 in Padgent there’s a picture there of him in a bathing suit shaving.

He’s got green blue eyes with beautiful long lashes + real light brown hair, like Punkin! [nickname of a friend] [A piece of the shirt, taped to the letter, with a circle around it]

When yall get home be sure and get me to show you this picture book you’ll die

P.S. On his last act he got down on his knees an leaned back like in the dirty Boogie.

Write me

Sorry I wrote such a long letter hope it wasn’t too boring but I just had to let it out.

P.S.P.S. Franks mowin lawn Mon.

Eugenia Dettelbach Wicker was born in 1942 and received her education in Atlanta at The Westminster Schools and the University of Georgia. She is a former Spanish teacher and the mother of two beautiful daughters. Living now in Italy, France, and the United States, her most recent accomplishment is hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela—over 1,000 miles from France to Spain.

Marcie Cohen Ferris is a professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ferris’s research and teaching interests include southern history and culture–particularly the foodways and material culture of the American South, the history of the Jewish South, and American Jewish identity and culture. Her books include Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South (UNC Press, 2005) and The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region (UNC Press, 2016).

Editor’s Note: We have preserved the spelling, punctuation, and style of the original letter. Special thanks to Marwa Yousif, master’s candidate in Folklore, for her research assistance to Marcie Ferris.

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