More Mr. Nice Guy

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He was a compulsive gabber. Pat discloses information about himself so avidly and uncontrollably that you wonder if he should join a 12-step program for it. Within moments after I turned on my tape recorder, he related a dizzying array of salient and not-so-salient facts. He had promised his wife of 44 years, Shirley, that he would retire in 14 months, when he reached the age of 65. He was the No. 8–selling singles artist of the rock era; look, it says so right here in this official pop-chart history book. He was watching a documentary about Jim Croce the other night, and he teared up remembering how Shirley used to sing “Time in a Bottle” during their seventies family stage shows. All four of his daughters (Cherry, Lindy, Debby, and Laury, born during the three and a half years between 1955 and 1958), lived what Pat considered wholesome and exemplary lives. “In the early part of my career I had about 100 products with my name or likeness on them,” he said, moving right along. “Perfume, bobby socks, lampshades, pillowcases, watches, all kinds of stuff. The proceeds went into trust funds for the girls for their educations and their weddings. I told each of the girls when she was old enough to understand, ‘Your college education is provided for. You can go to any Christian college that will admit you, as long as you can be home for dinner.’”

This motormouth tendency hasn’t always been to his advantage. One result was that after more than four decades in show business he had zero mystique. “I’m long-winded,” he said cheerfully. “Tom Parker was very smart in keeping Elvis away from the press most of the time. He let his movies and music speak for him and let there be an air of mystery as much as possible. Me, I was too open and I had a PR guy and I would grant interviews and talk like I’m talking now. So people got to know me very well.”

Pat’s relaxation made me feel I could ask him anything: Was it true he shoplifted?

But the upside was that once you got to know him, it was harder to judge him negatively. Pat killed your disdain with conviviality. He also boasted a quality that was usually missing from far righties: tolerance. “You know, it’s only in recent years in all of human history that women left home and got jobs and left the family before they were married,” he said at one point, veering off on one of his wackier conservative tangents. “For 98 percent of human history families protected the women until they were married. Then they went to the husband, and he protected them. As a father I just didn’t subscribe to the idea of my daughters going away at 18 or 19, living in maybe a coed dorm, and being exposed to all kinds of stuff that they’d been protected from at home.” Then he stopped short. “I realize I’m talking to somebody who probably did it, and did it fine.”

Pat’s relaxation helped me lighten up. I felt as if I could ask him anything. Was it true that he shoplifted as a kid? “Oh, yeah,” he said. “And I was good at it. Daring. I’d put on clothes under other clothes and walk out blithely. I was never caught, but my conscience began to eat at me. I went to my high school principal and told him what I’d done. He went to the various store owners and said that I was going to get an after-school job and pay for what I stole. And I did.” What about the thing I kept reading in old press clips about his brushing his teeth 20 times a day? “Nooooo,” he said, laughing. “I might have brushed them 18, 20 times when I brushed them—I mean, like, strokes. Now, I did, even in dating days, have a toothbrush over the visor in the car. Shirley should have known how cluttered and hectic our lives would be because I’d pick her up for a date and maybe I hadn’t finished eating dinner, so I’d have a plate of food on the seat. She’d slide in and help feed me while we went to the basketball game or the movie. And when I finished eating, I had a toothbrush over the visor, and I’d brush my teeth. So I was always conscientious about personal hygiene.”

For me, interviews are like little romances—safe, intellectual ones. Sometimes the chemistry’s not right, but sometimes you hit it off. As I sat with Pat, I felt myself falling. And as I fell, I had a vision of the legions of fifties girls who fell too, alone in their rooms or clustered around record players or weeping in television studios. They were not so foolish. It’s easy to fall for Pat.

I reached into my bag and, flicking away any professional embarrassment, pulled out my totems: a handful of his vintage LPs. I had Star Dust , a collection of swing-era classics; Side by Side , country duets with Shirley; and Howdy! , full of whispery versions of thirties ballads. Pat came around his desk and sat down next to me, examining them. “Oh, you’ve got some of the originals,” he said kindly. “They look like they’re in good shape. Star Dust was a big album, particularly overseas. That was one of my first big-band albums, perhaps the first. Boy, I loved that album.”

I gazed up at him, dissolving. I had the urge to ask him to sign them. I had the urge to climb onto his lap.