Towards the end of my October visit to Austria and Germany, my wife and I drove to Bad Nauheim in the state of Hesse, about a half-hour drive north from Frankfurt am Main. When I told Germans why I was going there, I usually got chuckles in response.
Today the spa town of Bad Nauheim (pop. 30,365) is famous for its effervescent salt baths, special medical clinics, and what the Germans now call “wellness.” In the 1920s the then luxury resort town was popular with the rich and famous (Marion Davies, Albert Einstein, Lillian Gish, William Randolph Hearst). In 1891 the future US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt even spent time there as a child with his family. But Bad Nauheim and neighboring Friedberg are also known for something else: Elvis Presley’s military years in Germany. I had earlier done some research on Elvis in Germany when I first wrote an article on the topic for the German Way.
Elvis lived in Bad Nauheim from 1958 to 1960 when he served in the US Army. Unlike most G.I.’s in Germany at the time, Elvis lived off-base, first in hotels, later in a rented three-story villa. I wanted to take some photographs of various Elvis landmarks in the region called the Wetterau (named for the Wetter river), as well as get a feeling for the place where Elvis spent 17 months of his life when he was still in his early twenties. As I walked through the streets of Bad Nauheim I couldn’t help thinking about the kind of expat life Elvis had in Germany. We stayed at the beautiful hillside Johannisberg Hotel and Café Restaurant overlooking Bad Nauheim, where Elvis had once caused a furor with his presence. He drove his sporty BMW 507 up the same winding road we took. I was driving a rented BMW 118 diesel. (Not quite the same thing, but at least it was also a stick shift.)
Elvis was already world famous when he was drafted into military service in 1958. Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, carefully choreographed Elvis’s time in Germany to make sure that the “King of rock ‘n’ roll” would remain on his throne and be even more popular after his return to the US. Elvis was not allowed to give any public performances in Germany, either for free or for pay. But he did graciously sign autographs at scheduled times outside his home in Bad Nauheim.
After getting kicked out of two hotels, the Elvis clan plus entourage moved into a rented house on Goethestraße in the so-called “Millionaire’s Quarter” of Bad Nauheim. (See photo above.) Living with his father, grandmother and several “body guard” friends, Elvis was immersed in a US bubble of family, American southern cooking and AFN radio in English. Sadly, he never learned more than a few German phrases. Except for a number of young “fräuleins,” the King had very little contact with German culture. That was rather typical of most G.I.’s, but Elvis had money and freedom that the typical US soldier stationed in Germany could only dream of. He could have sampled German food, beer and culture, but he didn’t drink alcohol at all, and he preferred granny’s home cooking. Though Elvis shunned alcohol, it was in Germany that he increasingly used the sleeping pills and “uppers” that would eventually kill him.
On the plus side, he met his future wife in Germany. Priscilla Beaulieu was the 14-year-old daughter of a US Air Force captain stationed in nearby Wiesbaden. Elvis was introduced to Priscilla by a friend who brought her to the Presley house on Goethestraße one evening. Although she had to leave by midnight, Elvis was smitten by the ten-years-younger American girl. The two became an item (and grist for the popular press) and spent much time together in the Wetterau. They would only marry years after Elvis returned to the States – on May 1, 1967 in Las Vegas. When they divorced in 1973, Priscilla claimed it was because Elvis was still a “mama’s boy.”
Other than his army time in Germany (and a brief refueling stopover in Scotland on the flight home), Elvis Presley never spent time in any foreign country before he died at age 42. The international star never gave a concert outside North America! After Germany, the most exotic place he ever visited was Hawaii (already a state). So he was not really a prime candidate for appreciating a foreign culture. Which in the case of Bad Nauheim is a shame. I don’t really know what the town was like in 1959 (it was never bombed during WWII), but Bad Nauheim today is a charming, enjoyable place – with at least one excellent Greek restaurant. Today you can find an Elvis-Presley-Platz (square) in both Bad Nauheim and Friedberg. There is also an annual Elvis Presley Festival in August.
Elvis did take home one cultural item after all: the folk song “Muss i denn,” which he later turned into the hit song “Wooden Heart.” According to the book The King in Germany, Getrud Geipel, a German lady who ran the American library at Ray Barracks near Friedberg, taught a G.I. to play the German folksong. That G.I., John Lafata, later played the tune for Elvis and other soldiers at Ray Barracks. Elvis liked the song enough to turn it into a hit song for the 1960 movie G.I. Blues (with the help of Fred Wise, Ben Weisman, Kay Twomey and German bandleader Bert Kaempfert).
MORE: Elvis Presley in Germany – with photos