Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Myths Surround Los Angeles Badges Given to Elvis Presley
By ROGER M. GRACE
Sixteenth in a Series
The Los Angeles Police Department had stopped issuing honorary badges by 1940 and was not about to present an actual police badge to performer Elvis Presley. But Presley—who collected real badges from as many big cities as he could—did wind up being presented with something close to the item he coveted.
According to lore, Presley met with the Los Angeles police chief in December, 1970; the following year received a Los Angeles Police Commission badge; and ultimately landed an actual LAPD lieutenant detective badge.
Presley insisted on secrecy in connection with presentation to him of badges by public officials, and secrecy breeds fables. What parts of the tale are true?
This event of Dec. 3, 1970 is recounted in, “All Shook Up: Elvis Day-By-Day, 1954-1977,” by Lee Cotton:
Police Chief Edward M. Davis with Elvis Presley.
“Elvis personally delivered a check for $7,000 to Los Angeles Police Chief Edward M. Davis to be used for the community relations program. Elvis also gave Chief Davis a custom-made frontier model Colt .45 caliber revolver. There was a stipulation at the time that there could be no publicity (the event was not reported until September 7, 1977). This was the largest single donation to the program.”
A Sept. 18, 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times notes that the Colt pistol was inscribed to “To Cheif Davis.” Spelling was apparently not one of Presley’s strong suits.
The article says that Davis (by then, a state senator) recounted that Presley “had his black ermine trousers and jacket and was wearing his championship gold buckle, a huge buckle that covered half his belly,” adding:
“He wanted to talk. He was a very ingenuous young man and very respectful of the old chief. He was sort of a police buff.”
The Times piece recites:
It cannot be imagined that Presley desisted from bringing up at that meeting his desire for an authentic LAPD badge, though it might well have eluded Davis that the request was the whole purpose of the visit.
Later, Presley did, apparently, obtain something approaching what he wanted. Joel Williamson, in his 2014 book, “Elvis Presley: A Southern Life,” relates that what he received was “a gold police commissioner’s badge.”
That book and other sources tie Presley’s receipt of the emblem to his meeting with Davis. It is doubtful, however, that the events are linked. If the chief had been motivated to arrange for a badge for Presley, it would seem to follow he would have been the person to present it—which he didn’t.
Presley’s bodyguard/hairdresser/spiritual mentor Larry Geller, in the 1989 book, “If I Can Dream: Elvis’ Own Story,” says that the singer gave him “his personal police commission badge that had been presented to him by the Mayor of Los Angeles.” The mayor in that era was Sam Yorty.
He describes the object in these words:
“[A] beautiful gold-plated badge with a brilliant electric-blue border and letters, and the seal of the City of Los Angeles in the center. At the bottom was just ELVIS.”
Steve Harvey’s Los Angeles Times column of May 4, 1993 says:
“The badge’s existence was revealed in a lawsuit filed recently by Larry Geller, Presley’s former bodyguard. Geller, who was given the shield by Presley, claims it was later stolen by a couple of L.A. businessmen who had promised to manufacture replicas.’ ”
The complaint in Geller v. Gordon declares:
“In March 1977, Elvis presented to Plaintiff, in recognition of services performed by Plaintiff, a Los Angeles Police Commissioner’s Badge which had the name ‘Elvis’ inscribed upon it, which had been given to Elvis by Mayor Sam Yorty…in 1971.”
The complaint avers that “since the badge, due to its special nature, is priceless, plaintiff is entitled to recover at least $5,000,000, or a sum to be proven at trial….”
Not only is there no evidence that Davis sought to requisition a commissioner’s badge for Presley, but it appears that the commission never addressed the question of whether Presley should be granted such a concession.
I asked the LAPD for access to minutes of the commission’s meetings during the relevant time period so I could determine if, following the Dec. 3, 1970 meeting, a badge for Presley had been authorized. Richard Tefank, executive director of the commission, reports:
“Our staff have spent a significant number of hours reviewing the files for the period October 1970-December 1971. All of the agendas, reports and minutes for that time period were searched and there are no records responsive to your request.”
I talked by phone with Frank G. Hathaway, a retired businessman now living in Big Sur, who became president of the Police Commission on July 1, 1971 and had been vice president for the previous one-year period. Hathaway remained a member of the commission until Aug. 8, 1973, shortly after Tom Bradley took office as mayor (and proceeded to appoint his own commission).
Does Hathaway recall the commission authorizing a badge for Presley?
“No, I certainly do not,” he says.
Hathaway remembers that Presley “tended to be a supporter of the Police Department,” but adds:
“As far as giving a badge to him—they weren’t giving out badges to anyone.”
Badges were, in earlier days, conferred on non-officers, but that practice had “gone out of favor,” he notes.
Presley might have been presented with some sort of badge, he remarks, but “certainly not a Police Commission badge.”
Did Geller get his facts wrong? After all, the book came out 12 years after Presley made a gift to him of the badge?
It’s highly doubtful. Recordations that are contemporaneous with events are generally credible. The quotation from the book, appearing above, is from Geller’s diary notation for Feb. 17, 1977.
Did Presley get his facts twisted? That possibility seems remote in light of what Geller says in the book (co-authored by Joel Spector, Patricia Romanowski) as to Presley’s propensity for keeping track of how he acquired the badges:
“Each badge…represented a particular time and a place, and Elvis had a story to tell about every single one of them—who gave it to him, how he went about getting it, who said what to whom, and so on.”
At this point, two realistic possibilities loom: either no such badge existed, or Yorty had one made up, on his own authority.
The existence of the badge is asserted by Geller in his book and in his verified complaint. Is there substantiation?
In 1971, I was covering City Hall for the Herald Examiner, and recall no rumblings in the building about a visit to Yorty by Presley. Too, the city’s records reflect no photos of the purported encounter; a City Clerk/Records Management Division inventory report on the Yorty Administration lists a photo of Yorty’s wife with Presley, circa 1964, but none with the mayor and the entertainer. No such photo appears in Geller’s book or on the Internet. Yet, the secret meeting between Presley and Davis was photographed, as was a hush-hush meeting between Presley and President Richard M. Nixon.
On the other hand, what would possibly have been the point in Geller suing to recover possession of an item that didn’t exist?
Indeed, the answer filed by defendants Barry Gordon and Don Tanner does not deny the existence of the badge; rather, it declares: “that on or about October 15, 1992, Plaintiff made an outright gift to Gordon of the Elvis Presley badge and the original wallet in which it was housed as an expression of gratitude to Defendant Gordon who was then providing for Plaintiff’s support and maintenance.” Gordon made an allegation to like effect in his cross-complaint against Geller (whom he accused of backing out of his obligations under a contract entailing an attempt to turn his book on Presley into a movie).
Geller did not regain possession of the badge.
“I would love to have that badge returned to me,” he tells me, noting that “it was one of my prized possessions.”
But recovering it, at this point, he remarks, “seems quite impossible.”
Geller says the badge was “stolen” from him, and the person who took it has died.
As to the origin of the badge, he advises:
“I can tell you what Elvis told me when he gave me the badge, that Mayor Yorty gave it to him privately. That’s all I know.”
Did Yorty simply act on his own?
That seems unlikely. What motivation would there have been for the publicity-conscious Yorty to make a clandestine presentation to Presley? As mayor of the city in which Hollywood is located, with his constant contact with stars, he was hardly a hick-town mayor who would have been awed by the glittery-costumed singer.
Yet, there is this observation ascribed to Sherlock Holmes:
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
Here, we’re not dealing with impossibilities, but competing improbabilities. Dismissing as implausible the prospect that the Police Commission minutes were doctored, it appears that the commission did not authorize a badge, this conclusion being bolstered by Hathaway’s certainty that the board would not have taken such an action. The possibility that parties litigated over ownership of an item that was merely imagined is likewise implausible. What remains is this conclusion:
“Mayor Sam“ saw no need to gain permission from police commissioners—whom he had appointed—to have a badge made, and gave the order that it be cast.
In any event, a commissioner’s badge was not that of a law enforcement officer, and, while it was something far more than an honorary badge, it wasn’t what Presley really wanted.
According to an account on an Australian website, Presley was in Los Angeles for a May 11, 1974 concert, and had police protection; the singer cozied up to LAPD members, and eventually was able to wangle from a detective an authentic lieutenant detective’s badge, pictured at left.
Presley did have two performances that day. The problem with the Aussie yarn is that he was onstage at the Forum, in Inglewood. His protection would have been from the Inglewood Police Department.
It is true, however, that Presley did receive an LAPD lieutenant detective badge, depicted at left. It’s on display, with other badges, at Graceland, the Memphis mansion in which Presley resided, and which is now a museum crammed with Presley artifacts. The fact that it’s on display suggests (but only suggests) that it was stored by the singer among possessions he treasured, and that he therefore believed it to be genuine.
There is, however, a problem with the badge. LAPD records indicate that it’s a fake.
After spending more than a month trying to pry the information from the LAPD—which has not come to grips with the fact that the Public Records Act is more than a loose policy guideline which it’s free to ignore—I’ve been advised that “no Detective or Lieutenant’s badge” has been “issued with the number 5233.” A spokesperson advises:
“A Police Officer badge with number 5233 was issued to Officer Robert Searly from 1969-1971. It was not issued again until 1973 to Officer Alvin Harden, who had it from 1973 to 1990.”
Not that he was likely to face arrest, but Presley’s mere possession of Badge No. 5233 was unlawful under an ordinance.
Sec. 52.27 of the Municipal Code, enacted in 1959 (and still in effect), provides:
“No [unauthorized] person shall have in his possession any…badge, star, shield, miniature, ring, charm, or insignia, regardless of the size, shape or design thereof, which has on it the words…‘Los Angeles Detective’, whether used separately, together or in combination with any other words indicating a connection with the Los Angeles Police Department….”
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