Barbara Gray never asked to be immortal. In 1956, she accepted a friend's dare to phone a rock 'n' roll singer at his hotel room, and she was pleasantly surprised to enjoy her conversation with the 21-year-old stranger. The man invited her up to a concert in Richmond, Va., offering to send a car down to Charleston to pick her up.
"I was just getting a free ride to Richmond," says Gray, then 20. She had family to stay with there and was on her way to Philadelphia to see her boyfriend anyway, so she could hardly refuse the offer, extended though it was by a mystery man named Elvis Presley. Little did she realize that the single day she spent with Elvis, talking in a hotel diner and snooping around backstage at the Mosque Theatre, would be documented in some of the most enduring photographs of the King of Rock 'n' Roll. Nor did she realize that, 55 years later, she would find herself at the center of a media whirlwind when she revealed herself as the once-anonymous woman who touched tongues with Elvis.
"It's very frustrating," says Gray, who estimates she has been the subject of a dozen interviews since Vanity Fair published a tell-all story about her Monday. "Everybody wants to find out if I slept with him, and I'm not interested in that. If they don't want to hear the real story, then I'm not interested in talking to them."
When Gray — who went by Bobbi — toured the concert venue with the yet-to-be-famous Mississippi boy, she had no idea that photographer Alfred Wertheimer was recording their every touch and glance. She says Wertheimer told her afterward that he was going to sell the photos to Seventeen magazine; that sale never materialized.
Instead, the pictures appeared in the National Enquirer. Wertheimer never took down Gray's name for the captions, and Gray kept mum about the pictures until 1977.
"Next thing I know, Elvis dies, and I try to get in touch with Wertheimer," Gray says. "All he did was asked me a million questions and said I couldn't be the girl." Wertheimer had reason to be suspicious: Other women had made the same claim. Gray eventually took her story to Vanity Fair writer Alanna Nash, whose published books include Baby, Let's Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him. For Elvis fanatics, Gray was the solution to a long-unanswered riddle. For Gray, the Vanity Fair story was a chance to set the record straight.
In spring, several photos from the Wertheimer series appeared in the traveling "Who Shot Rock 'n' Roll" exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art. Brian Lang, curator of decorative arts at the museum, says the pictures captured a moment before Elvis had even sold a gold record, and before professional handlers started cultivating the King's media image.
"It showed a tender moment. It showed a softer side of him," Lang says. " Wertheimer himself said that he would not have been able to take those photographs even a year or two down the road."
Lang says the magic of the pictures is not diminished by Gray's revelation. "I think it was more just the setting and the emotion."