The "joke" in her family was that Barbara Hearn dated Elvis Presley "steadily for a year."
Hearn was going steady. She even wrote a column about dating in 16 Magazine and told fans how she "taught him everything he knows" about kissing.
But, as it turned out, Presley, except for being single, was the Tiger Woods of the '50s, dating everyone from Hearn, his hometown sweetheart, to dancers to movie star Natalie Wood.
Instead of taking a golf club to him, Hearn says she accepted Presley as something the world had never known - the first rock star. Hearn, 72, will be a guest of Graceland when Presley fans celebrate his 75th birthday this week. She will tell her story as part of a "Conversations on Elvis" program Saturday, the day after the actual birthday, in Memphis.
Hearn, now living in Trenton, Tenn., with her husband, retired CIA officer Jim Smith, operates a bed-and-breakfast called Holly Tree Manor (hollytreemanor.us.com), which welcomes Presley fans curious about her once-public romance just as he became a singing sensation and movie heartthrob.
"He had already done 'Heartbreak Hotel,' 'Don't Be Cruel' and 'Love Me Tender,' " she says of Presley's fame when they dated. He had made his debut on national TV and acted in his first film, the Civil War drama "Love Me Tender."
The relationship began after his breakup with Dixie Locke. "I met him through Dixie. Dixie and I worked together at (a department store) during Christmas vacation," says Hearn. When Presley picked Locke up to take her home from the store, he sometimes gave Hearn a ride, too. Locke, who has talked to fans during previous birthday celebrations, said she broke off her relationship with Presley when his career meant long separations and led to a lifestyle too worldly for her: "I had given my heart to the Lord. He (Elvis) was doing things our church didn't approve of. I couldn't go with him to clubs where they served alcohol."
Hearn said she felt a twinge of guilt at first when Presley called her after the breakup with her friend. But she rarely saw Locke and agreed when he asked for a date. The invitation came when Hearn had gone to work as an advertising copywriter. She was asked to model for a TV news segment about Fashion Week. Presley saw her at the studio and said he was going on tour but would like to see her later.
"We got along and were great friends, but I don't think I ever had any illusions of permanency," says Hearn, who says she did not think of Presley as a potential husband. "I had hoped not to marry anybody - ever. I wanted to do something wonderful myself. I thought I might be a writer, a world-famous actress, a model, a political activist."
She was runner-up in a Miss Memphis pageant and had encountered at least one other Presley girlfriend, Anita Wood, in a pageant. Hearn says Wood could sing, but Hearn, who bore a resemblance to actress Susan Hayward, was hampered in the talent competition. "I couldn't sing or dance or twirl a baton. I did (a dramatic reading) from George Bernard Shaw's burning of Joan of Arc at the stake."
Presley's eventual status as a legend was unclear at the time. "I thought he would be popular and make a good living, but I never thought it would go as far as it has."
Hearn says she and Presley were never intimate. "You didn't do that in my circle. There are a couple of pictures of us kissing, but that's about as far as it would go. Ladies had to behave like ladies."
Hearn remained close to Presley's mother, Gladys, and grandmother, Minnie Mae, even when the relationship with him began to cool. That was how she learned that Gladys Presley quickly took a dislike to Natalie Wood when she met her at the Presley home. "They were having some work done on the house, and Natalie was sashaying around in a negligee around all those workmen."
On Christmas, he arrived with a woman Hearn remembers as "Dottie Harmony. She was a Las Vegas showgirl. I thought, 'You just don't bring a Las Vegas showgirl home for Christmas.' "
It could have been one of the times when Hearn says he tried to calm her down by saying, "Little Barbara's got her nose out of joint."
When Hearn enrolled to study journalism, speech and drama in college, Presley bought her a new yellow Buick convertible. Hearn says yellow "was a good color for it." It was a lemon that she soon traded.
Before graduating, Hearn moved to Washington to work as secretary to Sen. Estes Kefauver. She planned to finish her degree in Washington, but put it off because of the expense. By then, she had met Jim Smith, a law student who would become a CIA officer assigned to the Middle East, Far East and Europe.
Smith says his wife's former boyfriend did not make him jealous. "I knew the girl I had, and I was quite right in my assessment. I've loved her for 48 years."