On June 30, 1956, an iconic photograph of Elvis Presley kissing an unidentified woman was taken backstage at The Mosque Theater in Richmond, Virginia. Photographer Alfred Wertheimer just happened to capture Presley in a private moment flirtatiously touching tongues with a young woman. Diane Keaton would call it “the most erotic photograph ever made.”
Wertheimer, who was one of the few photographers who had the opportunity to accompany Elvis on tour in the early days, took many photos of Presley in 1956. Wertheimer had been hired by RCA Victor to take some shots of Presley, their young, rising rock and roll star.
Wertheimer’s photos first appeared in The Amazing Elvis Presley, a magazine published in September 1956, but were virtually forgotten until Elvis Presley’s death in 1977. Ironically, it took 55 years for the woman in “The Kiss” photo to be revealed.
Wertheimer never asked the woman her name for documentation purposes. “I never realized that these would become iconic,” Wertheimer explained. At the time Elvis was not a household name. He would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time three months later.
After Presley’s death, Wertheimer’s black and white photos of Elvis backstage and behind-the-scenes became iconic with “The Kiss” becoming the most legendary photograph in the portfolio. However, until 2011, Wertheimer could only describe the woman in the photo as “Elvis’ date.”
After years of countless women claiming to be Elvis’ companion in that photo, Barbara Gray or ‘Bobbi’, then using her maiden name of Owens, finally came forward to claim her title as the woman in “The Kiss” photo. Gray was able to convince the skeptical Wertheimer that she was truly the woman whose identity remained a mystery ever since the photo was taken backstage at The Mosque Theater in Richmond, Virginia on June 30, 1956.
Surprisingly, the day the picture was taken was the first day Bobbi, who was 20 years old at the time, had ever met Elvis. She had called his hotel room in Charleston, South Carolina on a dare from her friends two days earlier and after a long, flirtatious chat, Elvis asked her out over the phone. They made plans to meet in Richmond a few days later where Presley would be performing two afternoon concerts. Presley’s cousin, Gene Smith, came the next day to pick Gray up in Charleston and drive her to Richmond.
On June 30, Bobbi spent an event-filled day with Elvis accompanying him to his concerts in Richmond. He asked her to come with him to The Steve Allen Show the following day in New York, but she declined explaining that she was on her way to meet her boyfriend in Philadelphia.
After spending a whole day with Elvis, Bobbi left and never saw Elvis again. Gray says she received a Christmas card from Elvis once but she moved soon after and doesn’t know if he ever tried to contact her again.
With a little mediation from Vanity Fair and Elvis author Alanna Nash (Baby, Let’s Play House), Bobbi Gray was able to prove to Wertheimer that she was the young girl that became Elvis’ date for the day in 1956, even though she had tried unsuccessfully once before in the 1970s to contact the photographer.
One of the key clues in solving the mystery was Gray’s height. Bobbi is only 4’11” and that was one trait that stood out in Wertheimer’s memory. Also convinced by a series of detailed questions he asked her, Wertheimer acknowledged in 2011 that Gray was the woman in “The Kiss”. They appeared together on The Today Show on August 8, 2011.
Gray says she was not motivated to reveal her identity for money, but rather more for the acknowledgment and recognition that she was the woman in the photo. Wertheimer agreed to a settlement with her, since she originally never signed a photo release. “I just wanted to get my name on the damn picture,” Gray said.
Although Wertheimer passed away in 2014, his popular photo exhibit called ‘Elvis at 21‘ which started touring the country in 2010 is still going strong. The exhibit which features ‘The Kiss’ photo is currently on display in Savannah, Georgia through October 2016.
A richly illustrated book of Wertheimer’s photos, Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis, was also released
For more fascinating Elvis Presley stories, check out the author’s book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music