Did Elvis’s tyrannical manager Colonel Tom Parker get away with murder?


Anna van den Enden had been married for just five weeks when her life was brutally ended, probably with a crowbar, on May 17, 1929.

A greengrocer’s wife aged only 23, she was standing in her kitchen when she was struck with such force that, according to the police report, ‘part of the brain came through the right ear’. The killer literally beat her brains out.

The murder took place in the Dutch city of Breda, and to this day the case has never been solved.

One suspect was a young docker, a month shy of his 20th birthday, called Andreas van Kuijk — later known to the world as Colonel Tom Parker, the irrepressible, manipulative showman who managed Elvis Presley from 1956 until the singer’s death in 1977.

Parker masterminded Elvis’s meteoric rise to fame as the ‘King of Rock and Roll’.

He drew on his experiences as a fairground huckster to turn a boy from poor white stock in Tupelo, Mississippi, into the most popular entertainer on Earth.

He promoted Elvis tirelessly, making him a TV star, then a film star. He even encouraged the young singer to enlist in the army at the height of his fame in 1958, realising that it would further enhance his reputation.

But Parker demanded a high price for his expertise, pocketing up to half of Elvis’s income and ruthlessly controlling his life.

The evidence that links Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker to Anna van den Enden’s murder is said to be circumstantial but compelling. (Pictured: Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker, signing a record contract with RCA Victor, in October 1955)

In Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic, Elvis, which is released in the UK this week, Parker is played by a scarcely recognisable Tom Hanks, who speaks in a guttural accent beneath layers of latex.

It is an unusual role for Hanks. He has two Oscars and six nominations to his name in total, but one of the unwritten laws of modern cinema is that he doesn’t play baddies.

He got pretty close in Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990) and Road To Perdition (2002), yet it is only now, at 65, that he can add an undisputed villain to his list of credits.

Luhrmann’s movie depicts Parker as a charismatic entrepreneur and brilliant showman but also an unscrupulous rascal — a degenerate gambler who shamelessly exploited his protege in order to pay his own enormous debts.

Yet, curiously, the film hardly delves into Parker’s remarkable background. In particular, it makes nothing of the claim that he abruptly fled his native Netherlands hours after committing a terrible murder, and adopted a new identity in America. 

The damning case against Parker has been laid out most notably by author Alanna Nash, a self-proclaimed Elvis nut, in her meticulously researched biography The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story Of Colonel Tom Parker And Elvis Presley.

Her theory was supported by one of Presley’s closest friends. ‘I don’t think there’s any doubt that [Parker] killed that woman,’ said Lamar Pike, one of the so-called ‘Memphis Mafia’, as Elvis’s inner circle was known.

In an earlier Elvis biography — Peter Guralnick’s acclaimed 1994 book Last Train To Memphis — Parker is not even revealed to be a Dutchman.

Guralnick seems to accept the self-styled Colonel’s own insistence that he acquired his strange accent growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains and then working in a series of American travelling carnivals.

The damning case against Parker has been laid out most notably by author Alanna Nash, a self-proclaimed Elvis nut, in her meticulously researched biography The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story Of Colonel Tom Parker And Elvis Presley. (Pictured: Elvis with manager Parker, playfully holding a gun to him, in the early 1960s)

The damning case against Parker has been laid out most notably by author Alanna Nash, a self-proclaimed Elvis nut, in her meticulously researched biography The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story Of Colonel Tom Parker And Elvis Presley. (Pictured: Elvis with manager Parker, playfully holding a gun to him, in the early 1960s)

The damning case against Parker has been laid out most notably by author Alanna Nash, a self-proclaimed Elvis nut, in her meticulously researched biography The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story Of Colonel Tom Parker And Elvis Presley. (Pictured: Elvis with manager Parker, playfully holding a gun to him, in the early 1960s)

That latter part was true; the rest was pure invention.

Parker was actually born in Breda in 1909, the seventh child of a poor but respectable delivery driver and his wife.

By the time he was nine he had attached himself to the fairs and circuses that passed through town. The key features of his character took root early.

As Nash writes, these included a need to hustle rather than make money honestly, and ‘his delight in the con as the highest form of creative achievement’.

The evidence that links him to Anna van den Enden’s murder is circumstantial but compelling. Andreas van Kuijk almost certainly knew Anna — they went to the same church.

He matched descriptions of the chief suspect, a man seen leaving her home behind the grocer’s shop at around the time of the murder. As a dock worker in nearby Rotterdam, he was always short of money and may well have been interrupted during a burglary.

Moreover, the killer sprinkled pepper around Anna’s body, presumably to stop police dogs picking up a scent. Andre or Dries, as he was known, had trained circus dogs and would have been aware of that ruse. Finally, and most damning of all, he skipped town. His next stop was America.

Parker had been to the U.S. before. Two years earlier, he had crossed the Atlantic, perhaps as a stowaway, and stayed illegally for 18 months working on travelling shows and carnivals.

It’s possible that he was deported, or maybe he saved enough money to go home. Either way, on the night of the murder he left for America again, most likely on a Dutch fishing vessel that eventually docked in Mobile, Alabama.

He slipped, illegally, into the country once more and resumed his life as a ‘carny’, working mainly as an elephant handler for a carnival based in West Virginia.

He also changed his name to Thomas A. Parker, and thereafter listed his birthplace as Huntington, West Virginia.

In Baz Luhrmann's new biopic, Elvis, which is released in the UK this week, Parker is played by a scarcely recognisable Tom Hanks (pictured), who speaks in a guttural accent beneath layers of latex

In Baz Luhrmann's new biopic, Elvis, which is released in the UK this week, Parker is played by a scarcely recognisable Tom Hanks (pictured), who speaks in a guttural accent beneath layers of latex

In Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic, Elvis, which is released in the UK this week, Parker is played by a scarcely recognisable Tom Hanks (pictured), who speaks in a guttural accent beneath layers of latex

In a sense it was true: that was where he was reborn.

Nobody knows for sure why he chose the name Tom Parker. As for the grand military title he adopted, it wasn’t entirely fake.

He was made an honorary colonel in the Louisiana State Militia in the late 1940s after he helped gospel singer Jimmie Davis become Louisiana’s governor.

It’s possible that he never served in the armed forces at all. After all, he remained a consummate liar for the rest of his life.

But there are records suggesting that he did join up, serving as a U.S. Army private for some four years in the early 1930s, before deserting and being discharged following repeated erratic behaviour. A ‘constitutional psychopathic state’ was diagnosed — another indication that Parker was a killer on the run.

In 1935, Parker married Marie Mott, a divorced beauty queen with a son. They were well suited (Marie was also a compulsive thief) and it would be a mostly harmonious marriage that lasted more than 50 years.

As well as becoming a husband, Parker was beginning to make money. After getting a job with an animal shelter in Tampa, Florida, he then founded a pet cemetery, charging bereaved owners $50 for headstones that cost him $15.

Then he made the move that would ultimately lead to fame and fortune — he became a concert promoter and talent manager. At first, his best-known client was Eddy Arnold, the country singer known as the Tennessee Plowboy.

By this time, Parker was an imposing figure, tall and immensely fat, having piled on weight as a way of avoiding the World War II draft, just in case his psychiatric diagnosis didn’t disqualify him.

He was loud, forceful and altogether impossible to ignore. Parker promoted Arnold brilliantly. He even, in the early years of television, got him his own network show.

But he was fiercely controlling, too, and old habits died hard.

In his carny days, he had ensured that the only way for an audience to leave the tent was through an exit that led them into a field ankle-deep in stinking manure. Luckily, he had donkeys available, which they were forced to rent if they wanted to stay clean.

Similarly, when Arnold tired of his control freak of a manager, he found himself forced to buy his way out of the contract. It cost him $50,000.

Austin Butler as Presley in the biopic released in cinemas across the UK this week

Austin Butler as Presley in the biopic released in cinemas across the UK this week

Austin Butler as Presley in the biopic released in cinemas across the UK this week 

In 1955, Parker heard early recordings by a trio called the Blue Moon Boys. He liked the musical style of their singer, Elvis Presley.

As an established music promoter, Parker began booking gigs for them alongside their management. He then became Presley’s ‘special adviser’ (with the permission of Presley’s parents, as he was still under 21).

Gradually, once Elvis began performing solo, Parker eased everyone else out and became his manager.

No doubt Elvis would have made it anyway, but it was Parker who masterminded his dizzyingly rapid rise to superstardom.

In doing so, he not only routinely treated people like dirt but boasted about it, adapting an old corporate maxim by saying, ‘You don’t have to be nice to people on the way up if you’re not coming back down’.

He was both a masterly promoter and a shameless con artist.

As Luhrmann’s film tells it, it was Parker who all but invented the concept of merchandising. Along with all the ‘I Love Elvis’ badges, he had ‘I Hate Elvis’ badges manufactured on the basis that not everyone would like him, so they might as well make money out of his detractors, too.

He exploited everyone, but nobody more than his handsome young charge. His deal with Elvis was for 25 per cent (rising to 50 per cent) of all profits, but he also charged him expenses.

As Luhrmann's film tells it, it was Parker who all but invented the concept of merchandising. Along with all the 'I Love Elvis' badges, he had 'I Hate Elvis' badges manufactured on the basis that not everyone would like him, so they might as well make money out of his detractors, too. (Pictured: Director Baz Luhrmann poses with cast members Austin Butler and Tom Hanks as they arrive at the London screening of Elvis)

As Luhrmann's film tells it, it was Parker who all but invented the concept of merchandising. Along with all the 'I Love Elvis' badges, he had 'I Hate Elvis' badges manufactured on the basis that not everyone would like him, so they might as well make money out of his detractors, too. (Pictured: Director Baz Luhrmann poses with cast members Austin Butler and Tom Hanks as they arrive at the London screening of Elvis)

As Luhrmann’s film tells it, it was Parker who all but invented the concept of merchandising. Along with all the ‘I Love Elvis’ badges, he had ‘I Hate Elvis’ badges manufactured on the basis that not everyone would like him, so they might as well make money out of his detractors, too. (Pictured: Director Baz Luhrmann poses with cast members Austin Butler and Tom Hanks as they arrive at the London screening of Elvis)

He paid for nothing, no matter how trivial, out of his own pocket. A sandwich, a coffee, some stationery — it was all deducted from the singer’s 75 per cent.

When he could also make money from others, he did. Anyone who wanted Elvis to appear at their venue was told to bring $50,000 in cash to the Colonel’s hotel room. Even if they couldn’t work out a deal, he would keep 10 per cent for his time.

Predictably, his time cost a fortune. Journalists were expected to pay $25,000 for ‘small talk’, $100,000 for a proper interview.

Meanwhile, the more Elvis earned, the more the Colonel pocketed. When Hollywood producer Buddy Adler suggested turning rock and roll’s biggest name into a movie star, Parker demanded the then-outrageous sum of $1 million per picture.

Adler was outraged. ‘Not even Jack Lemmon gets that,’ he protested. ‘Then maybe he needs a new manager,’ came the reply.

Parker was ferociously protective of his star, but he was motivated almost entirely by self-interest.

He wouldn’t let any other potential business advisers anywhere near him, telling Elvis that such people were either Jews or homosexuals, or both, and therefore couldn’t be trusted.

Yet he was the one who couldn’t be trusted. In 1982, almost five years after Elvis’s death, the Presley estate and Parker went into a legal battle, with the Colonel accused of ‘fraudulent business practices’.

That’s when the former Andre van Kuijk made arguably the most audacious move of his life — even by his own breathtaking standards — declaring that he could not be sued under federal law because he was ‘not a citizen of the United States’.

The thunderous irony was that he had hidden his Dutch background for decades, and had been shaken to receive a letter from a nephew back in the Netherlands in 1960.

In an Eindhoven hairdressing salon, the young man’s aunt Nel — one of Andre’s sisters — had picked up a magazine featuring Elvis, in his army uniform, waving to his fans.

But the face that really caught Nel’s eye was that of a big man standing behind Elvis, captioned as Colonel Tom Parker. She knew it was her brother Andre.

Grudgingly, Parker acknowledged the connection, but was thought to have paid off his family so they wouldn’t talk.

He couldn’t visit them in the Netherlands because he didn’t have a passport — one of two secret reasons why, according to the film, he also declined to organise the world tour that Elvis craved.

His own destructive gambling habit was the other reason. If he could instead tie his mighty star down to a residency in a Las Vegas hotel, the hotel discreetly promised to cancel his colossal debts.

Professionally imprisoned in Vegas, Elvis’s physical and mental health began to deteriorate. The Colonel looked on, not especially worried, because he knew from his handsome cut of all the music publishing and movie deals that Elvis could be just as valuable to him dead as alive.

So, in a way, the man who made Elvis Presley also killed him.

But was it a more literal killing — that of poor Anna van den Enden — that first propelled Andre van Kuijk on the road to becoming Colonel Tom Parker?

Whatever the truth is, he died in 1997, aged 87, taking perhaps his most shameful secret with him to the grave.

Elvis opens in cinemas on Friday.



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