By Graham Sweeney
Like many other 16-year-olds growing up in the 1960s, Kathy Tatum kept a diary during the formative years of her life.
Unlike most teenagers, numerous entries in Tatum’s diary focused on her personal relationship with one of the biggest stars in the world.
Early in the summer of 1969, Tatum had a chance encounter with Elvis Presley that would blossom into a two-year relationship and inform the rest of her life.
Tatum, who lived in Collierville for nearly 20 years before moving to LaGrange in the 90s, recently decided to publish excerpts from her childhood diary that detail her secret romance with The King in a book called Love Beads from Elvis.
With the help of local author Mark Baker, Tatum recalls dozens of experiences with Presley, beginning with their first encounter in July of 1969.
One evening, driving home from Lowenstein’s Department Store, Tatum and her older sister, Terry spotted a crowd of young girls at Graceland. The two decided to stop.
They made their way through the group and saw Elvis on a platform outside of the entrance signing autographs and embracing fans.
“Well,” Tatum said, “he starting motioning for me to come up there on the stage.”
Tatum and her sister complied with Presley’s request and spent the next hour with him on stage while he attended to his fans.
“Then he asked if we’d like to come up to the house,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I think we can manage that.’”
After spending a few hours at Graceland, the Tatum sisters headed home. Despite having given her phone number to Elvis, Tatum said she doubted he would call.
“It was two nights before he was scheduled (to perform) in Las Vegas,” she said. “I thought that night I’d never see him again.”
However, Presley would reconnect with Tatum within a month.
Musician Charlie Hodge, a longtime associate of Presley’s, called Tatum when Elvis returned to Memphis and asked if she would be interested in going to a movie with Presley and his friends.
“I was in shock,” Tatum said.
From there, the two began seeing each other three-to-four times a week when Presley wasn’t performing out of town. After each date, Tatum would return home and write in her diary.
They spent many evenings with Presley’s entourage at the Memphian Movie Theater, which is now Circuit Playhouse. Tatum said the two would often leave the movie and go to the balcony to talk.
She also spent time at Graceland, where she would snack on sandwiches and watch television with Presley.
“We’d talk about silly stuff,” she recalled. “He had a good sense of humor and liked to tickle.”
However, Tatum said the fact that Elvis was still married to Priscilla, whom he would divorce in 1972, caused a great deal of anxiety.
“Sometimes we’d be at the movies and she would be there,” Tatum recalled. “It was kind of a rule, if Elvis would get up to go to the concession stand, then none of the guests were supposed to get up. But the minute I’d get up to leave, he would get up to leave. She knew something was going on.”
Tatum said Presley often alluded his eventual divorce.
“He kept saying, ‘Be patient and you’ll be able to write your ticket,’” she recalled.
When asked why she believed Elvis beckoned her to the platform that summer day, Tatum said she thinks it was because she didn’t “act like a fanatic.”
“I didn’t ask him for a kiss or an autograph,” she said. “Everybody else was doing that. Maybe he just liked someone who wasn’t a fanatic. Maybe that was appealing. He liked someone who wasn’t so crazy.”
Tatum’s ability to mitigate her fandom would continue throughout the relationship.
“I never treated him different,” she said. “I didn’t try to impress him. If I started being like everyone else I wouldn’t be different.”
Tatum kept the relationship a secret from her mother and many of her friends at Oakhaven High School.
“Two or three friends knew,” she said. “That’s all. I felt like Lois Lane not telling everybody she knows Superman.”
Tatum described Presley as “very polite” and a “perfect gentleman.”
“He made me feel as special as I thought he was,” she said.
She remembers exactly where she was when news broke of Presley’s death.
“I was in the backyard pushing my boys on the swing when I heard it on the radio,” she said. “I always thought I’d get a chance to see him again.”
Although she does reminisce, Tatum said she does not regret ending the relationship with Elvis in 1971.
“If I stayed with him I wasn’t going to have a normal life,” said the mother of five.
She looks back at that brief period of her life with tenderness and awe.
“He was the first person I ever fell in love with,” she said. “I got to live a fairy tale for two years.”
Tatum’s book is available on Amazon.com and lovebeadsfromelvis.com.