Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark
Growing up, Elvira: Mistress of The Dark was everywhere. We played the video game, we watched the movie. She popped up in pro-wrestling (Wrestlemania II) and was a fan of, and tagged alongside, horror movies and heavy metal. What wasn’t to like? I was a fan of Elvira before I really understand her role. She was in comic books and there were cardboard cut-outs in the video store. She was referenced in other films and TV shows….
The character of “Elvira” played now for 40 years by Cassandra Peterson is a legend – a genuine pop-cultural phenomenon. And what a talent – she has proper improv training, actual comic timing and many things going for her as well as a genuine love of horror and music and of course she recognised early on how to use her best assets. She is a licensing queen – to put Gene Simmons to shame. (The only place for Gene Simmons by the way).
So I was excited about Peterson’s memoir. And it does not disappoint.
Running away as a teen – to Vegas to be a showgirl. Working the hats and coats, dancing go-go, dalliances with Elvis Presley and Tom Jones. It’s a whirlwind early on.
Peterson learned to hide behind characters long before Elvira – she was basically playing one on various platforms and in cages and on dancefloors in clubs all across Sin City. A traumatic childhood event – scarred by boiling water – left her with reasons to dress up, to cover parts of her body with wigs and make-up; to be flamboyant and ‘out there’ but always under the cover of a persona.
She describes innocent groupie-dom, being so hooked on the music that she dresses ‘older’ but of course appeals for being much younger; meeting Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. Backstage with The Yardbirds. Eventually on the front cover of a Tom Waits album.
There are stories for days. And we’re barely into the 1970s…
There’s also the cautionary tale of running into basketball legend, Wilt Chamberlain. Now, long deceased, Chamberlain was a legend on and off the court and his own memoir boasts of some 20,000 sexual conquests. The assault that Peterson mentions in her book is a shocking reminder of toxic masculinity; of the many things somehow justified as being ‘from a different time’. She owns her mistakes – when they were hers. The only thing wrong she did in this story was be there. You can’t guard against that, nor should you have to. Of Chamberlain though, she explains the power imbalance (he was 7ft 1 and 300 pounds) and wonders how many of the 20,000 were happy notches and how many were victims. The way she writes it is subtle and measured – but still carries the right sting.
It’s a dark reminder of how awful men can be – particularly as Peterson owns her sexuality so thoroughly here, owns her behaviour, and describes so many scenarios where, as a teen, she was able to call time on an encounter. She couldn’t do that with Chamberlain – a giant coil of sexual dominance, a predator using hero worship as his biggest and best-available tool.
When Peterson moves on from the dancing days and decides she doesn’t want to be a showgirl forever it’s to the Groundlings, the famous improv-comedy training ground. She’s there with Pee Wee Herman and Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) and Phil Hartman (SNL, The Simpsons). She then takes the audition that changes her life.
As Elvira, the book slows down. But there are still so many great stories and encounters. The revelation that is selling the book is that Peterson has been in a lesbian relationship for the last 18 years. She kept it secret to protect the allure of her character, Elvira. Loved and lusted after by women, absolutely. But predominantly men.
By coming out – at age 70 – Peterson continues to be a role-model, a spokesperson, a person committed to using the platform she’s created to share stories.
I was an Elvira fan going into this book. I’m a huge Cassandra Peterson fan now, having finished one of the best Hollywood Gossip-styled memoirs I’ve read in years.