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.

La Casa Pacifica: Nixon’s Western White House

La Casa Pacifica is a grand San Clemente, CA estate that was owned by Richard and Pat Nixon from 1969 until the mid-1980s. During his presidency, Nixon traveled to San Clemente often and hosted Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, Henry Kissinger, Bebe Rebozo, and many others at the mansion. After his resignation the former President retired to La Casa Pacifica, a name he gave to the home, to write his memoirs. The Spanish-style, mission-revival home was designed by architect Carl Lindbom. It should be noted too that Nixon’s La Casa Pacifica was the first of the presidential homes to be dubbed “The Western White House.” This term has been used to describe subsequent presidents’ homes such as George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas and Ronald Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara County.

These images of the former Nixon home were captured by White House photographer Oliver Atkins and can be found in our Oliver F. Atkins photograph collection.

Richard and Pat Nixon enjoy a cup of tea in the parlor of La Casa Pacifica

Nixon relaxes by the pool, which was formerly a tennis court. Converting the tennis court into a pool was one of many renovations made by the Nixons.

Aerial view of Nixon's "Western White House"

Photographer Oliver Atkins Saw the Rise and Fall of Two 20th Century Cultural Icons

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Oliver Atkins at the Great Wall of China during Nixon's trip of February 1972. From the Oliver F. Atkins Photograph Collection.

Oliver Atkins (1917-1977) photographed some of the world’s most recognizable individuals and created some of the world’s most recognizable images.  A photographer for The Saturday Evening Post from 1946-1968, Atkins captured both the national/ international political scene and human interest stories from mid-century America.

In a recent article, The Saturday Evening Post explores Atkins’ somewhat ironic historical connection with Richard Nixon and Alger Hiss. The article can be found at: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2009/12/12/archives/retrospective/photographer-spy.html.

The Ollie Atkins Photograph Collection contains photographs, negatives, and contact sheets dating from 1943 to 1974. The images, numbering nearly 57,000, are representative of his work with The Saturday Evening Post and the United States government as official photographer to President Nixon. A small sampling from the Oliver Atkins Collection can be viewed at: http://sca.gmu.edu/exhibit/atkins_1.htm.

For more information about the Oliver Atkins Collection or other collections in Special Collections and Archives, please visit sca.gmu.edu.

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