The President and The King or Art Imitates Life

I was traveling on an airplane recently and stumbled across an interesting film while browsing the in-flight entertainment options at my seat. Elvis and Nixon is an eighty-six-minute history/comedy treatment of the infamous December 21, 1970 meeting between “The President and The King”.  The film features Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, Michael Shannon as Elvis, and Johnny Knoxville and Alex Pettyfer as Memphis Mafia members Sonny West and Jerry Schilling. Having worked at two libraries holding materials created by the man who photographed the meeting, I am quite familiar with Presley’s visit to the White House. I had several hours remaining in my flight, the book I had been reading had become boring, and this movie seemed to scream “watch me!,” so I decided to view it.

Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon, the most popular photograph in the history of the National Archives and Records Administration. From the Oliver F. Atkins Photograph Collection, C0036, Box 21 Folder 8. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

The meeting between Nixon and Elvis was hastily arranged by both Presley, himself, and Special Assistant to the President, Egil “Bud” Kroh.  Elvis simply showed up at the White House gate on December 21, 1970 and asked that a letter he wrote to the president be delivered to him. Presley, an avid badge collector, wished to meet with Nixon to discuss America’s growing problem with dangerous drugs and volunteer to help out in the effort to stop it. He also hoped that Nixon might give him a badge from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs for his efforts.  Krogh thought a meeting with the famous rock star would provide the opportunity for the president to earn a little “street cred” with America’s younger set.  Fifteen photographs of the meeting in which Elvis and Nixon exchanged gifts and compliments were captured by White House photographer Oliver “Ollie” Atkins.  At the conclusion Nixon instructed assistants to make certain the appropriate official secured the badge for Elvis.

Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon (left) and Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley (right) in Liza Johnson’s ELVIS & NIXON, an Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street release. Credit: Steve Dietl/Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street. In this still from the film Oliver Atkins, played by Gus Rhodes, is taking the infamous photograph while Egil Kroh, played by Colin Hanks, looks on. Used with permission.

The National Archives and Records Administration’s Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum holds negatives to photographs Atkins took while serving as Nixon’s photographer (1968-1974). Included in this collection are all 15 images of the famous meeting between the two. The photo of the two in mid-handshake, smiling, and looking directly at the camera is regarded by NARA as it’s most requested photograph, ever.

The George Mason University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center maintains a collection of photographs personally donated by Atkins in 1977. Atkins was an early neighbor and long-time friend to George Mason University since the early 1960s. This collection features about 60,000 photographs he made between 1943 and 1974. The photographs document his work as a photographer for the American Red Cross, The Saturday Evening Post, and the White House.  The White House photographs, which comprise a selection of prints he made while he was White House Photographer, contain two different images from the Nixon-Elvis meeting. For more information on the Atkins Photograph Collection visit the finding aid at http://sca.gmu.edu/finding_aids/atkins.html.

A storage box from the the Oliver F. Atkins Photograph Collection, C0036. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Photographer Olliver F. Atkins. Oliver F. Atkins Photograph Collection, C0036, Box 27 Folder 4. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two films have been made and several articles and books, including one by Egil Kroh, himself, have been written about the very brief but intriguing meeting. Krogh’s 1994 work, The Day Elvis Met Nixon, is his personal recollection of the meeting from memory and notes he made while taking part in it.  Comparing the meeting as portrayed in Elvis and Nixon with Krogh’s written description of the actual meeting might lead one to the conclusion that a bit of artistic license was taken in parts of the 2016 film.  Of particular note is a sequence during which Elvis eats M&Ms belonging to Nixon and another where he teaches the president some karate moves. Each of these, while perhaps not historically accurate, is very funny!

Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley, December 21, 1970. Oliver F. Atkins Collection, C0036, Box 21 Folder 8. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

I found Elvis and Nixon to be a fast-moving and fun film.  Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon each did a fine job portraying their character’s unique posture, gesture, and speech.  The film succeeds in portraying an actual historical event while flavoring it with clever comedic moments. It is one of those films which can reach a broad audience and illustrate a moment in history, all while being entertaining in the process.

 

To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.

George Mason University Mentioned in the Film Hidden Figures

When was the last time you heard George Mason University mentioned in a major motion picture? For this author, never. But in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, George Mason University found its way into the script during a memorable part of the film.  The reference to Mason was made by Janelle Monae in her portrayal of Mary Jackson, a NASA engineer and one of three African-American women who played key roles in the early development of the United States’ space program.

Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson in “Hidden Figures” Twentieth Century Fox Studios. Screenshot from video clip accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aiWlZJ6Pfg on 8 Mar 2016.

During the scene Mary Jackson is standing before a judge in a Hampton, Virginia courtroom to ask permission to attend night school classes in graduate-level math and physics sponsored by the University of Virginia and held in the then-whites-only Hampton High School.  When the judge informs her that segregation is the law in Virginia, and that an African American woman attending a white school is unheard of, Jackson pleads with him:

“Your Honor, you of all people should understand the importance of being first…You were the first in your family to serve in the  armed forces. U.S. Navy. The first to attend university.  George Mason… Your Honor, of all the cases you will hear today, which one will matter in a hundred years? Which one will you make the first?”

While the scene in the movie takes place sometime in 1961, as a later reference in the scene to Alan B. Shepard implies, we know that Mary Jackson actually attended the classes several years earlier and completed the program in 1958. A 1961 reference to George Mason University would have been a bit premature.  Mason was known as George Mason College (it became George Mason University in April of 1972), was a two-year community college, and had only been in operation for four years by 1961. So, it is highly unlikely that this jurist would have just finished his work at George Mason and became a high-ranking judge.

Nevertheless, it was gratifying to see that the writers of the film chose George Mason as the institution for the judge to have attended. This might spur some interesting reference inquiries in the future!