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Legends that will not die.

His mansion has become a shrine, a mecca for legions of ardent fans. In 1982, some 300,000 people filed through Graceland, the Memphis estate of Elvis Presley. By 1984, about 520,000 devotees laid down $6.50 a pop for the tour, including a few moments at the King of Rock-'n'-Roll's grave. This year, as many as 575,000 may pay their respects.

Although he died in 1977, Presley is probably as popular now as when his career took off and soared in the 1950s and early '60s, and certainly more so than during the latter years of his life. "In fact," says Irene Maleti, a 66-year-old great-grandmother and the membership chairman of a San Jose, California, Presley fan club, "nearly all the people who love Elvis refuse to speak of him in the past tense."

Despite the stories about Presley's eccentricities, his fans either overlook or flatly reject the allegations. Any Presley failings plainly do not matter, for he is beyond criticism. To millions of people around the world, Elvis Presley is, simply, a legend.

Current times do not produce many legendary heroes. Although we have an abundance of "celebrities," few seem to possess the eminence that leads to enduring fame. Vying for space in People and US magazines by posing for photos in bathtubs and telling all too much about their personal lives on numerous talk shows, our celebrities, however talented, have devalued the currency of stardom. As Emerson suggested, "Every hero becomes a bore at last," and the process today is swift.

Curiously enough, we haven't really cherished heroes for a good 20 years. Though the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair are convenient and overused targets of blame for all sorts of national ailments and trends, these events did indeed reduce our want or need for heroes or, perhaps, the country's ability to embrace them.

A shift, however, may be under way, particularly among youth and adults under 30. In a recent survey taken by the Roper Organization for a national news magazine, respondents clearly accepted the concept of heroes and noted a liking for the movie stars Clint Eastwood, Eddie Murphy, Jane Fonda and Sally Field; the movie director Stephen Spielberg; the Pope; and President Reagan. Interprets the George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni: "We're back to yearning for leadership."

Yet a great difference lies between a widely admired personage and a legend. Within the last half-century or so America has had its share of heroes, including Charles Lindbergh, the generals Patton and MacArthur, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But precious few still captivate our collective imaginations. Among those that do, Elvis Presley, James Dean, Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne stand out.

What makes these five disparate personalities legends? What compels people to pay $6,500 for an 18-inch, porcelain model of Monroe or to dedicate rooms in their houses to Presley memorabilia? None of the five had any impact on politics, economics or the physical betterment of the nation. Ruth played baseball, and the others were entertainers. Why revere them, and not great physicians and scientists?

Well, the nature of mythology--along with those rare characters who embody legendary qualities--hasn't really changed over thousands of years. Oral traditions created our early legendary figures, and the spoken tales were then put into writing, which served the same purpose in bringing legends to public attention. Homer, for example, spread the legend of Odysseus. Now motion pictures are the primary myth-making form.

Homer, the blind Greek poet, is himself a legend; in movies, strong acting personalities often become better known than the legendary characters they play and eventually symbolize the values inherent in the portrayal.

In hard analysis, these associations are unfounded, for actors aren't real-life "heroes." Although fans are aware that Clint "Make My Day" Eastwood doesn't really bend laws and bypass the bureaucracy to justly punish brutal criminals, it's what he represents on the screen that counts. Thus, the fantasy projections ultimately develop a kind of substance in the minds of viewers.

Values, then, are the key. Each of these five legends came to stand for something--common but unarticulated feelings or values--far greater than areer success. Ruth embodied the rugged, individualistic, winning image America had of itself; Presley and Dean provided a voice for the disaffected and restless youth of the postwar generation; Monroe represented the vanguard of the sexual revolution; and "Duke" Wayne cannot be psychically separated from his conservative and patriotic political stance.

Other elements of their lives certainly contributed. An unitmely death surely catalyzed the Dean legend; the relatively early passings of Presley and Monroe lent them a tragic aura. All but Wayne grew up poor, orphaned or abandoned by their parents and started out against great odds. Each, despite glamour, also had a common touch. Yet all five projected an element of danger, a volatility that nonetheless was attractive.

As the historian Marshall Fishwick explains in his book, American HEroes: Myth and Reality: "Our legends...[believe]...they can do any damn thing once they set their minds to it." Our idols, he believes, "don't like fences." Presley, Dean, Ruth, Monroe and Wayne were strong, willful, fence-busting personalities. Moreover, at a time when celebrity is precarious, when notable figures wear thin, these five transcend celebrity. It may be a long while before anyone else can speak for and capture the hearts of so many, like the following legends that won't die.

The King

Critics hated rock-'n'-roll's driving rhythms and seeming simplicity. Lovers of big bands and Frank Sinatra thought it a passing fad. But rock-'n'-roll came and stayed; after 30 years it remains the dominant form of popular music. Elvis Presley was a pioneer rocker, and to many, The King remains unchallenged.

Indeed, says Ken Brixey, the director of marketing for Graceland Enterprises, which manages Presley's mansion, Elvis' recordings have sold more than one billion copies, "more than the next four groups of people combined. We figured that for Michael Jackson to pass Elvis," adds Brixey, "he'd have to maintain the same kind of success he had in 1984 for the next 24 years."

After he served in the army, Presley gave 1,140 concerts--all sellouts. He never again sang to an empty seat. Elvis made 33 movies, none notable in cinematic history, but many nevertheless entertaining. "Looking back at them," Brixey says, "they're the kinds of films you'd want your kids to watch on Saturday afternoons. Most of them were about a bad or poor boy who goes straight and makes good. And while Elvis was a passable actor, I think that with better advice and career direction, he could have been a real good one."

When Presley died in 1977 at age 42, his career had clearly gone into a mid-life slump. Though his album sales were chugging along, he hadn't cut a real hit record since 1972. He'd gained weight and appeared puffy and bloated; he had become an object of satire and ridicule among the self-styled sophisticated and hip.

Macarbre as it may sound, his death revived his career. The rush by fans to get a piece of Elvis was on. Speculators hoarded editions of Memphis newspapers containing accounts of his demise, and fans paid as much as $100 a copy. More than 200 Elvis imitators took to the road, some undergoing plastic surgery to achieve a closer resemblance. T-shirts, scarves and other items imprinted with images of Presley were snapped up; vendors and mail-order houses began a brisk trade selling mementos of the man. (Not all Elvis mementos are "cheap," however; much high-quality merchandise is also produced by licensees of the Elvis Presley Estate.)

The singer's early death proved, says Brixey, that Elvis "was a lot more popular than people gave him credit for when he was alive." About 220 active Elvis Presley fan clubs circulate letters filled with Elvis "news," trade or sell memorabilia and meet to talk about the entertainer. Irene Maleti's group, the King of Our Hearts fan club, has some 300 members. This particular club does more than keep the memory of Elvis alive. "We're also a charity club," Maleti explains, "and we raise money for the American Heart Association and for a local day-care center." And though Maleti has devoted a room in her house to Presley, "my EP room," she bristles at any suggestion that she worships the singer. "People have said the room looks like a museum or shrine to Elvis, or said that I'm obsessed by him," she says. "Well, it does look like a museum, but it's not a shrine. I don't go in there to worship, and I'm not obsessed. I go in there to listen to records, look at scrapbooks and just relax and enjoy myself."

Maleti seems to treat her Elvis hobby much as others would golf, woodworking or any other time-consuming pursuit. "I even listen to other singers," she explains. "Of course, some of my friends in the club get after me if I'm listening to Willie Nelson records. But the thing is, a lot of Elvis fans came out of the closet when he died."

Graceland, on the other hand, is indeed a shrine. Along with the $6.50 tour, which lasts an hour and a half, one can also visit a gift shop, buy food or pay an extra $3.50 for a tour of Presley's jet, the Lisa Marie, named after his only child. Mail addressed to him still pours into the mansion.

"I'm often asked why the Elvis legend is so strong," says Brixey, "and often struggle with the question. I guess the best answer is that he was a blue-collar worker who in spirit never tried to rise above his roots. He's the epitome of a man who started out with nothing, became something and never lost his attraction to the masses. He's a true folk hero."

The Rebel

James Dean was anything but common. As the actor Martin Sheen--a man with an eerie resemblance to Dean--wrote: "James Dean was the strongest influence of any actor that ever stepped before a camera. Ever! And the strength has never really diminished. Young people who weren't even alive at the time are still influenced by his work." It was Elvis who changed the music, suggests Sheen, "and James Dean who changed our lives."

Strong stuff for a guy who starred in only three movies, East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause and Giant. But the characters Dean portrayed in the first two films did touch nerves, particularly among youth. In Rebel, his Jim Stark was the frustrated son of deluded parents who kept moving in futile attempts to solve the family's problems. He told a generation of kids who felt isolated by difficulties with parents and peers that there were many others like them. In fact, many teens dragged their parents to see Rebel without a Cause because Dean conveyed their feelings far better than they ever could themselves.

He was a nonconformist--it's said that Dean was himself the first rock-'n'-roller. (In fact, Elvis took Dean as his acting model and could recite virtually every line from Rebel.) James Dean projected to teens the sense that life is full of insoluble problems and that therefore alienation and rebellion are natural responses.

In real life, Dean was a headstrong and mercurial character, totally dedicated to the Method, a free-form acting process in which a performer delves deeply into the nuances of a character. Though his coworkers respected and were awed by Dean's formidable talent, and felt affection when he turned on his charm, they also found him frustrating to work with. His energy sapped theirs, and he was the consummate scene stealer.

Born in a small Indiana town, Dean was taken by his parents to Southern California when he was a toddler. His mother died when he was nine, and his father sent James back to Fairmount, Indiana, where he was raised by relatives. His teen-age years were devoid of remarkabler incident; Dean, a star athlete, had an interest in theater. After high school he went back to Los Angeles, spent time at a junior college and then at UCLA, and threw himself into stage and screen work.

Although he appeared in a couple of Broadway plays and on live television in the early 1950s, James Dean is remembered for his three films, the last two released after he died. Dean's performance in East of Eden had made him the hottest property in Hollywood; the public was beginning to fix its attention on him. Insiders who'd seen Rebel and Giant thought his future was unlimited.

His death in 1955 at age 24 secured his legend. Driving his new Porsche Spyder to a race in Salinas, California, he struck another car near Paso Robles. It was perhaps an appropriate end for a kid who wanted to "live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse." He had melded the innocence of a farm boy into the cool of a Beat hipster, added a strong dose of street punk and turned loose what came to be known as an attitude.

Dean spawned a cult, out of which came the counter-culture generation. And though "baby boomers"--or "yuppies" who would probably horrify Dean--are now in the mainstream, his influence is still potent. Dean's name is heard often in popular song; the mere mention of it tells more than could be packed into an entire album, for it immediately calls forth all the images he ever projected.

Dean's image continues to influence today's crop of teen-agers as the James Dean attitude is incorporated into their dress (blue jeans, leather jackets, '50s-style sunglasses) and mannerisms (sullen swagger, hip stance, "cool"). The conflicts between youth and parents are timeless and enduring, and for uncomfortable teens of future generations, Dean's message will no doubt continue to ring true.

The Babe

Considering his roots and upbringing, George HErman Ruth is a most improbable legend. One of two surviving children of eight born to a Baltimore saloon keeper, Ruth was in and out of trouble. At age eight, this incorrigible youth was placed in a home for disadvantaged boys. And though the brothers who ran the home couldn't turn him from a taste for corporeal delights, they did instill in the boy a love for baseball. As he grew into a hulking teen, Ruth clearly demonstrated a talent for the game.

By age 20 he was a star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, a brash ballplayer who nonetheless backed up his boasts with winning performances. Ruth would probably have been a Hall of Famer on his pitching performances alone; he could also hit, so in 1918 the Sox shifted him to the outfield. The next year he smacked a record 29 home runs and proceeded to change the very nature of the game.

Before Ruth, professional baseball had been a game based on speed, guile and offenses that scratched for a few runs. Sold to the Yankees, Ruth by his prodigious hitting enabled his new team to sit back and wait for the big inning. The big stick made baseball a game of power and grandeur.

Ruth, the private person, had well-publicized indulgences. He earned big money and often spent it at the racetracks. He had gargantuan appetites for everything. The undisciplined Ruth defied managers, owners and baseball leaders. And the public loved him.

His style of play had something to do with his popularity--but the 1920s were also a time when values began to change, when thrift and prudence meant less than they once had. And if Ruth was unrefined, he was equally full of charm. He was the only person in the country who could get away with greeting Warren G. Harding by saying, "Hot as hell, ain't it, Pres?" He was as insouciant as all Americans, in their hearts, wished they too could be.

Children in particular gravitated toward "The Babe," and he returned their affections. Active in youth charities and benefits, Ruth paid many a hospital bedside visit to young fans as well. A lovable "bear" of a man, Ruth was adored as a hero by kids everywhere.

The times, the so-called Golden Age of Sports, enhanced the Ruth legend. He was by far the superior athlete in the nation's most popular game. Today, the memory of Ruth is vivid, even though most Americans have seen him only in jerky newsreel clips.

How many of us know precisely how many home runs Hank Aaron hit during his career? Ruth's 714, surpassed only by Aaron's 755, is the number remembered by most. His 60 home runs in 1927 is esteemed more than the 61 hit by Roger Maris in 1961--Maris needed a few more games to do it. Ruth had a lifetime batting average of .342.

Images, of course, enhance the legend more than statistics. Ruth's reputed gesture toward the center-field bleachers in the 1932 World Series--and the home run that followed--created a greater stir than many better-documented heroics. "Rutho-mania" swept the country, and nearly everything he did was reported in the newspapers. Babe Ruth symbolized his times and made the nation believe that it, like Ruth's Yankees, was a winner.


If Marilyn Monroe were to try to make it in Hollywood today, she probably wouldn't get past the studio gates or draw more than a cursory look from an agent. Her appearance is not that of the Woman of the '80s, for by current standards she is a bit too plump and rounded. Moreover, in these times "The Blonde Bombshell" has become the stuff of caricature.

Marilyn Monroe did arrive at the right time for her look; now, 23 years after her death from a drug overdose, she is as much as ever the essence of sensuality. Norman Mailer has called her "the sweet angel of sex," but Monroe also carried with her an air of vulnerability. Furthermore, her acting contained a fine comic touch that created a devastating package, a star quality that no living actress, however slim and talented, can match. As Ernie Garcia, head of the 2,000-member Marilyn Monroe International Fan Club, says, "She was like a combination of Daisy Mae and Cinderella."

The Monroe image still carries world-wide appeal. French girls born after she died dress and fix their hair in Monroe styles. Boutiques and stores do a steady business selling such mementos as life-size cardboard stand-ups of Monroe and Marilyn posters, calendars, salt shakers, lamps, ceramic masks and figurines.

The traffic in Monroebilia is tremendous as fans seek physical ties to her life. One man paid $1,040 for a beaded evening bag that once belonged to her, and a strapless evening gown she wore in the movie Bus Stop sold for nearly $2,000 several years ago. Fans still pay homage at her crypt in Westwood, California.

Of course, Monroe had at least as many difficulties dealing with her private life as any legend. Her many marriages and affairs are well-documented. Lurid stories of alleged relationships with the Kennedys abound. Her morals were her own. But as an executive with a major New York department store explains, "The '50s are a source of inspiration for young people. Kids think of the way Monroe appeared on the screen and don't deal with the tragic elements of her life."

Monroe may also still hold her appeal because no female star has begun to take her place. Fonda and Field are both fine actresses, stars in every sense of the word. Yet neither is the superstar Monroe was. Just mention the name Marilyn, and chances are most people will know of whom you're speaking. That's the measure of a legend.


It's a rare day in any major TV market that you can't catch one of the more than 150 movies made by John Wayne. But who needs a movie? That squint, the rolling, half-sideways walk and the cadences of his speech are unforgettable. Say to yourself these lines from his Oscar-winning role in True Grit: "I mean to kill you or see you hanged." Even if you didn't see the film, you can almost hear his precise tone and inflection.

Marion Michael Morrison, the son of an Iowa druggist who migrated to California's Mojave Desert, was born in 1907. He played football at USC, worked his way into films by making mostly B-grade Westerns between 1927 and 1939, adopted the screen name John Wayne in 1930 and finally emerged as a star in John Ford's Stagecoach as the Ringo Kid. It may still be one of the best Westerns ever made.

Wayne is associated with Western roles, although nearly half his films had little or nothing to do with horses and six-shooters. (Between 1948 and 1959, only 7 of the 27 Wayne films released were of this genre.) Though film critics have a tendency to look down on Westerns, those roles brought legendary status to Duke Wayne.

He admitted that Westerns were simple, but he considered good ones art. "They deal in life and sudden death and primitive struggle," he once explained, "and with basic emotions--love, hate, anger. In other words, they're made of the same raw materials Homer used. Westerns are folklore, just the same as the Iliad is." If critics didn't understand, the public certainly did. They thought of Wayne as Odysseus on horseback.

Wayne's films showed a clearcut world where good whipped evil. Though Duke was an individualist in most of the films, he wasn't necessarily a "loner": Often you'd catch the nuance that he was a private person suffering some personal loss or wound. But most of the time he appeared as a rancher, a lawman or a soldier who acted in harmony with others to bring order where lawlessness had prevailed.

Admired as well for his recovery from cancer in 1964, Wayne began to lose some of his popularity because of his political beliefs. He supported the Vietnam war at a time most Americans had turned against the country's involvement. (Ironically, in what was interpreted as an affectionate payment for services rendered, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Wayne his only Oscar, for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, in the spring of 1970--virtually at the height of the antiwar movement.) He was a close friend of Ronald Reagan's, and the pair shared like politics.

Wayne died in 1979, just a few years before his brand of conservatism came into vogue. Because of this latter development, the time may be right for a John Wayne revival. The film critic Andrew Sarris, writing in the New Republic shortly after Wayne's passing, expressed an admiration for Duke's talent, a viewpoint Sarris conceded would irritate his liberal colleagues. His point was that Wayne was a fine actor. He lacked the range of classic British actors and the depth of the Method performers, explained the critic, but he had subtle virtues. Sir Ralph Richardson remarked that Wayne "projected the kind of mystery one associated with great acting."

Wayne himself always scoffed at his ability and said he was merely a tool for great directors. Yet Wayne came to symbolize the man who never looks for a fight but doesn't back down once one starts. Like Ruth, he represented something America perceived in itself.

Wayne, a legend in his own time, learned to live with the odd and inaccurate stories that invariably appear about such an individual. He had a favorite line he used to express those feelings. It came from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The character portrayed by James Stewart had just revealed to a young reporter that he wasn't really the one who shot Valance, although that tale had brought him great fame over the years. Stewart asked the reporter if he planned to use the startling disclosure. The reporter said no, explaining, "When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend."

So it is with all American legends, who had failings just like any other human's. Once our perceptions are established, facts that could diminish the legend don't get in the way. The images, once forged, refuse to fade.
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Author:Stuller, Jay
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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