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IN person, you don't call her Ms. Margret or Ann, but the name her mother calls her: Ann-Margret. And even now, at 52, she wants to be the good girl.
"Isn't it interesting how we set these impossible standards for ourselves?" she asks over tea in her Benedict Canyon living room, her voice a whispered purr. "I always tried to be the perfect little girl. Always tried to have the perfect little manners. Never wanted to displease my parents. But you're setting yourself up." She laughs a deep, full-bodied chuckle of the heh-heh-heh variety.
Then, with her lavender-blue eyes looking straight through you, she adds, "I mean, you're cruisin' for a bruisin'."
Ann-Margret has had her share of bruisings, starting with her movie debut in 1961 in "Pocketful of Miracles," in which she survived playing against the demanding Bette Davis. By the time she met critical success in "Carnal Knowledge" in 1971, she was fueled by pills and alcohol and was incapable of "separating fantasy from reality," she admits. And in 1972, she fell 22 feet off a stage in Lake Tahoe, Nev., breaking nearly every bone in her face.
Now, with the publication of "Ann-Margret: My Story" (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $23.95), written with Todd Gold in the kiss-and-don't-tell school of celebrity best sellers, she suggests that she suffered the romantic bruising of a lifetime in her 14-year relationship with Elvis Presley, which ended at his death in 1977.
But what a bruising it was. Elvis (or E.P., as she calls him) wooed her with guitar-shaped flower arrangements whenever she opened in Las Vegas, Nev., even after her marriage to the actor Roger Smith. Pre-Roger, the king of rock-and-roll bought her a round pink bed for her apartment in Beverly Hills. And together, just to amuse Elvis's entourage, they'd cat-dance across the floor, with Elvis growling, "You've got me running," and Ann-Margret snarling, "You've got me hiding."
"I did not wish to write it," she says of the book, explaining that it was an end run around an unauthorized biography. She makes it sound as if she was dragged to the publisher's offices, and does not mention the reported $1 million advance she received or whether it was written to help bolster her film career. "But I spoke with Roger and my mother and a lot of people and decided to get the truth out there," she adds.
The truth, Ann-Margret says, is infused with a slightly crazed duality. She has a polite, sweet side and a dark, wild side, the one that had her tooling around Los Angeles in her pink Cadillac or roaring off, drunk, on her Harley. The book is a coy, if campy, chronicle of her life, part "Valley of the Dolls," part "Romeo and Juliet," with some favorite Ann-Margretisms thrown in, like "diamonds are better than Darvon."
And then there is Elvis, the man she saw as her mirror image. "We both felt a current, an electricity that went straight through us," she writes of her co-star in "Viva Las Vegas." "It would become a force we couldn't control." Never once, though, does she mention Priscilla, Elvis's fiancee at the time.
Why not? "She wasn't here," she replies, referring to Los Angeles, and then shoots a dagger look. Apparently, the jealousy was mutual. In "Elvis and Me" (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1985) Priscilla Beaulieu Presley wrote that when she learned of the seriousness of the liaison between Elvis and Ann-Margret, she "picked up a flower vase and threw it across the room, shattering it against the wall."
But Ann-Margret remains unfailingly polite and prim, a lady in pink. On an 80-degree day, she is dressed in a long pink cashmere sweater, cashmere pants, a matching pink shawl, heels and hose. She wears a giant heart-shaped diamond ring on each hand and oversize gold earrings. Her perfume is thick, as is her coral-pink lipstick, which matches her nail polish. The effect is a curious mix of diva elegance and floozy fantasy, a study in glamour from the old school.
She wants everything to be just so. Poised on a pink floral couch, she has her maid serve tea in gold-rimmed china cups. The pastel room with a grand piano, overlooking the canyon below, is ornamented with silk flowers and a crystal chandelier. On the coffee table, there appear to be enough crystal pieces for her to open her own Lalique franchise, especially of crystal cats.
She looks displeased. "Too many things on the table," she whispers, and then removes the crystal bowls and kitties to another room. She sits back down, but then decides that the mid-afternoon lighting is all off. Her heels clatter against the wooden floor, and she fiddles with the light panel from the hallway.
"Tell me when the painting lights are on!" she yells. The lights flick on over impressionistic oil paintings and cast a warm, theatrical glow. On a sideboard, there is a large wedding photograph of her parents, Gustav and Anna Olsson. The only other photograph is of the King and Queen of Sweden, her native country. The adjoining office has a wall that looks like an Ann-Margret shrine, with framed magazine covers.
"That's his room," she says, rolling her eyes and looking embarrassed by the display. She refers to her husband of 25 years and manager, Roger Smith, formerly of the 1960's television show "77 Sunset Strip." "I have nothing to do with that room."
The guest bathroom is another story. Beside the sink is a blue rhinestone and sequin teddy bear from the producer Allan Carr and a set of maracas that belonged to the songwriter and entertainer Peter Allen, a friend, who died of AIDS in 1992.
Uh, oh. The aromatic candle isn't lighted. She runs off for a match.
Appearances still mean everything to Ann-Margret. But this comes as little surprise. Who can forget her tour de force in the 1963 film "Bye Bye Birdie," when, singing the lyrics of Lee Adams, she gleefully convinced a generation of teen-agers that womanhood equals the ability to wear makeup?
How lovely to be a woman
The wait was well worthwhile
How lovely to wear mascara and smile a woman's smile
How lovely to have a figure that's round instead of flat
Whenever you hear boys whistling, you're what they're whistling at
How wonderful to feel
The way a woman feels
It gives you such a glow
Just to know
You're wearing lipstick and heels.
Her red hair has been teased to perfection. "I mostly wear hats or put scarfs over my head because I like to have a low profile when I go out," she says, petting her cat, Birdie. It would be indelicate to point out that anyone wearing a scarf in Beverly Hills is undoubtedly a starlet in disguise.
The 5-foot-5 sex-kitten-cum-biker-chick is a grandmother of four now. (Unable to have children of her own, she is exceedingly proud of her three stepchildren and their offspring.) In her latest film, "Grumpy Old Men," she takes a romp in the snow in a bathing suit and looks downright zaftig. Yet another reason to like her, this cult icon from the go-go 60's.
She has made 42 films, ranging from B movies like "Kitten With a Whip" to "Carnal Knowledge," for which she was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress. So deeply ingrained is she in the American consciousness that she's been immortalized on "The Flintstones" as Ann-Margrock.
In the 70's, she was dubbed the Queen of Vegas and received her second Academy Award nomination, this one for best actress for her memorable writhing in a sea of baked beans and soap suds in Ken Russell's "Tommy." In the 80's, she became the queen of television movies. When her husband was found to have myasthenia gravis, a rare muscle disease, she cut back her work to care for him.
His illness is in remission now, but she continues to base her career choices on the state of his health. Recently she shot a cameo role in the television mini-series "Scarlett," the sequel to "Gone With the Wind," in which she plays Belle Watling, the prostitute with a heart of gold.
To interview her is to interview Mr. Smith as well, since he is almost always within earshot. It is he who answers the intercom at the gate to their 10-acre hilltop spread, once owned by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It is Mr. Smith who jauntily answers the door, his hair and mustache now white. Though often described as her Svengali, he seems more like a Ricky to her Lucy, filling in on memory lapses.
"Was it pliers, Roger?" she yells at him, trying to remember what he'd make her friends take along on shopping sprees when her jaws were wired shut after her 1972 accident.
"It was wire cutters!" he shouts from his office. In case of emergency, someone could cut her wires.
When the questions turn to Elvis, he drifts back into the room, standing off by the patio door with his back to her. It is just like her description of him in her book, where she says he tinkered with a thermostat as she and Elvis made eyes at each other at a party -- even though she was married to Roger by then.
Asked why she decided to tell her story about Elvis now, she says, "There's been so much, for some reason, negative situations surrounding his name that I wanted to show the man that I knew -- generous, loving, funny, talented, gifted -- and only show complete respect."
Ann-Margret writes that her love affair with Elvis was doomed from the start because of his "commitments," presumably meaning his engagement to Priscilla. Still, she writes that they discussed marriage, that "his wish was that we could stay together." She describes how they talked all night, zoomed around town on a motorcycle that ran out of gas, mourned President John F. Kennedy's death together. But there is no mention of whether or when their relationship was consummated. She never even mentions a kiss.
It all came crashing to a halt in 1964. She denies ever saying anything to the press other than that she and Elvis were "seeing each other." But Elvis apparently thought she had talked when the British tabloids reported that they planned to marry, and he called it quits.
Even now, she refuses to talk about the end of their affair. "It was extremely difficult for me to write," she says, "and it's even harder for me to talk about. I just wanted to do this out of respect for his life."
"I know," she adds, "he's finally at peace."
Asked how she knows, she replies: "I don't want to say."
Was Elvis the love of her life?
"I don't want to hurt . . . ," she says, stopping in mid-sentence. "The man that I married is the man I knew I was going to marry on the third date. We've been together now 30 years. Eee gad." As if on cue, her husband silently pads out of the room.
Suddenly, she begins hissing like a cat. She's realized that he has taken it upon himself to serve as a tour director of her huge cedar-lined closet for a film crew from NBC.
"Roger!" she screams. Then whines: "Roger, you know how messy that is? I can't believe he's showing that. ROGER!"
Not one to be upstaged, she takes a reporter into the bowels of her pink-carpeted closet. This must be her "safe room," the latest Los Angeles anti-crime trend, sort of like a bomb shelter. There is a secret latch beneath the closet floor. Just as Mr. Smith warns her that she doesn't know how to handle the trap door, she flings it open, revealing a small room lined with gifts from fans and a door leading to a patio.
"I'm gonna get you, Smith," she says, threatening to reveal his middle name, which he apparently hates. But the threat is a goof.
She brightens at the thought of how her husband can pay her back for this minor humiliation: "I'm going to get a ski outfit out of this."
By JOY HOROWITZ