The Washington Post Sunday
Searching for their own Graceland
For two young D.C. fans in 1956, it was worth a runaway mission
Around midnight on Oct. 2, 1956, 16-year-old Carol Church used a rope to lower a packed suitcase from her second-floor bedroom window, sneaked down the stairs carrying a rag doll and a fishing knife, and walked out the door of her Northwest Washington home.
Outside, she picked up the luggage and, just as planned, met Jeanne DeGuibert, her 12-year-old best friend from down the street. They climbed into Carol’s Volkswagen Beetle. Over the summer and on the sly, Carol had perfected the rolling start; she pushed the car out of the driveway, then steered it quietly down 45th Street NW. Once out of earshot, she shifted into gear and popped the clutch. They were off.
The next morning, with two kids and one car missing, the families called the police. The newspapers reported what the cops learned: Girls from Wesley Heights, one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, were missing and headed toward Memphis.
“Life would have been a lot easier if we never told anybody we were going to meet Elvis,” Carol says.
In 1956, the parents of Wesley Heights didn’t see Elvis Presley as a beloved musical icon — they saw him as a menace.
A 1989 primer on Wesley Heights from the Historical Society of Washington says the developer who designed the neighborhood beginning
Bumpy back roads
in the late 1920s had “effectively designed a subdivision attractive to Christian, upper-middle-class whites of Washington.” Deeds to lots in the neighborhood included “covenants” that forbade sales of the property to minorities. The neighbors were high-society: The Nixons and the Johnsons lived there before moving to the White House.
The well-connected Church family had steeplechase races named after them and summered in Nantucket. Carol’s big sister had her debutante ball featured in the social pages of The Washington Post.
But Carol didn’t have a fancy comingout party. She describes her young self as a “ bad kid.” Once, she pulled a false fire alarm at the emergency box at the corner of Garfield Street and Foxhall Road. She left a bragging note on the scene (“Lucky Strikes Again!”) — which she’d written on her sister’s monogrammed stationery.
“I wasn’t a good criminal,” Carol admits now.
“We had a joke in our house, whenever I would do something [bad]: ‘What would the Grennans, the Walshes and the Tapskis say?’ ” she remembers. “ Those were prominent families in the neighborhood whom my parents didn’t want to disappoint. But I disappointed.”
Carol didn’t fit in at Woodrow Wilson High School, but found company in a kid four years her junior who lived down the street. “Jeanne was much younger than me age-wise, but far more mature,” Carol says. “She was something.”
Jeanne was similarly miserable after transferring from the Maret School to Immaculata Preparatory School. “Carol, she really got me,” remembers Jeanne. “Nobody else in the neighborhood did. Carol and I were different from all the other kids.”
The two outcasts and their families were among the 60 million viewers who watched Presley’s Sept. 9, 1956, debut on “ The Ed Sullivan Show.” The New York Times’ write-up of the performance said Presley’s “overstimulation of youth’s physical impulses” constituted a “gross national disservice.”
“Elvis was cool,” Jeanne says. “ The swiveled hips! That was verboten. The parents didn’t like Elvis. We hadn’t had anybody like that before. Only hoodlums wore their hair like that.”
An idea was born: The Wesley Heights black sheep, who between them had 46 Elvis records, would run away to Memphis to meet their idol, then start new lives as secretaries in Texas.
What would the Walshes think?
Once they’d made it out of their neighborhood undetected, the girls set their sights on Tennessee. Or thought they did. They didn’t know where their music idol lived in Memphis — or if he was even in the city. Twitter wasn’t around yet to alert them to celebrities’ every move, and there was no GPS system to guide them there. In fact, there weren’t a lot of highways for them to drive on at all. The first paving on the Interstate Highway System had taken place Sept. 26, 1956 — just before the runaways took off. The America they headed into was a nation of back roads.
By their first morning of freedom, Carol and Jeanne were hopelessly lost. “We spent a day in the mountains, driving, and after a whole day of driving, we were going by places we’d already been to,” Carol recalls.
“I was 12!” Jeanne says with a laugh. “What the hell. We thought we were heading somewhere south.” (Actually, they were in northwest North Carolina.)
They stopped at a diner after a night of driving. A suspicious waitress asked why they weren’t in school. They knew better than to mention Elvis.
“We’re going to visit my cousin!” Carol said.
“We’re going to visit our aunt!” Jeanne blurted out at the same moment.
“I saw the waitress go back and start talking to co-workers, and then they were looking at our car,” Carol recalls. “I said to Jeanne, ‘ Uh oh! We gotta get out of here!’ ”
The pressure of being lost in the mountains and away from the family got to Jeanne after only a day; she began thinking neither getting away from Immaculata nor getting to Elvis was worth it. Carol told Jeanne she’d take her to a bus station when they got to a town and figured she’d forge ahead on her own.
But they never made it to a bus station.
That night, Carol was behind the wheel while Jeanne napped in the back seat. Rain splattered down on the winding mountain road. “I couldn’t really see anything, and this was before roads had white lines on the side,” Carol says.
Suddenly, an oncoming car sideswiped the Beetle. Carol let go of the steering wheel. She screamed as the car started rolling. The Volkswagen didn’t have seat belts, so the girls rolled with it, until it settled in a roadside ditch.
As they crawled from the wreckage with the help of the driver who had hit them, Carol and Jeanne were shocked to find they’d gotten through the accident with just a few bruises.
The car, however, was totaled. So was their plan to meet the King in Memphis.
The police from nearby Murphy, N.C., arrived on the scene. As it turned out, cops in the region were already on the lookout for a couple of kids driving south in an oddball Beetle.
Carol and Jeanne had revealed their plan to only one person: Jeanne’s 9-yearold brother, Donnie. He’d thought it was very cool. So cool he couldn’t keep it to himself. Donnie had told parents, cops, reporters, neighbors and anyone else who asked where the runaways were headed.
“My sister’s still mad at me,” says a laughing Don DeGuibert, now 63 and living in Phoenix.
The cops took Carol’s knife away, but let her keep the rag doll. The girls weren’t charged with any crime, but spent the day in a jail cell, eating grits and biscuits and waiting for Carol’s parents to pick them up. The adventure was officially over.
Though they never got within a few hundred miles of Memphis, the newspaper accounts about their running away to meet Elvis had done considerable damage.
“For my family’s social set, what we had done, and having it broadcast the way it was, that was intolerable,” Jeanne says. “I was shunned by everybody when I came back, it was like nobody knew how to deal with me.”
Carol was sent to boarding school in Vermont. Jeanne stayed in Washington and graduated from Maret. Their parents forbade the girls to see each other, an order they obeyed.
The two haven’t talked in the 54 years since their adventure, but they still speak fondly of each other. Separately, however, they both say they remember that period as mostly unhappy, no matter how cool running away for Elvis looks on paper. Jeanne, 66, now lives in Huntingtown, Md., and goes by her married name of Jeanne Von Schwerdtner; though she retains some vestiges of her rock-and-roll youth (she runs a custom motorcycle business), she says she might never think about her pre-teen excursion and all the trouble it caused, if only her brother would stop bringing up the tale at every family gathering.
Carol, who still lives in the District, says she hadn’t dwelled on the trip for decades until contacted by this reporter. “I can laugh a little at what we did, the silliness of telling people we were going to run away to see Elvis. Good God,” Carol says. “But I also think about a young girl, carrying a rag doll to hold on to childhood and a knife for protection, who was miserable and probably wasn’t getting the help she needed.”
Carol, 70, is now retired after a career in the mortgage business. She still has some of the keepsakes from her runaway days, including her Elvis records.
“I’ve gotten very conservative as I’ve gotten older,” she says. “But when I listen to Elvis, hear the young Elvis, I can still translate the feelings I had back then when I first listened to him.”