The story has been repeated thousands of times, with minor variations, in magazines, books, blogs and documentaries. In some versions, the heartbroken man shoots himself; in others, he leaps to his death from a hotel window. There are occasional references to a failed romance and to the destruction of all traces of identification before the fatal act. There's always a one-line suicide note: "I walk a lonely street."
But there's never a name. For 60 years, the true identity of the man whose death inspired "Heartbreak Hotel" has remained a mystery. Florida songwriters Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton always claimed the creative spark for Elvis Presley's first-ever Number One hit was a 1955 newspaper story about an anonymous man's suicide and his cryptic note about that "lonely street." (The paper cited is usually The Miami Herald.) And yet, no one has ever turned up the article, or even provided much clarifying detail.
This is surprising, considering that "Heartbreak Hotel" had a colossal impact – both on Elvis' career and on rock & roll history. It was Elvis' first nationwide hit after a string of regional successes, and it changed the lives of countless future stars – John Lennon, George Harrison, Keith Richards and Robert Plant have all proclaimed its transformative effect. Elton John, recalling the day he first heard the song, said, "That weekend, my mum came home with 'Heartbreak Hotel' and that changed my life. ... Elvis Presley changed everyone's life. I mean, there would be no Beatles, there would be no Hendrix. There would be no Dylan." Paul McCartney once declared it nothing less than the most important artistic creation of the modern era.
Axton, a teacher and publicist as well as a songwriter and radio host, went on to become a big wheel in the country-music scene – the "Queen Mother of Nashville." She'd interviewed Elvis in May 1955 during the Florida leg of a Southern tour, vowed she'd write his first million-seller. A few months later, she cajoled the singer into listening to a demo of "Heartbreak Hotel." Reluctant, at first, to hear the pitch, Elvis was soon mesmerized by the song. "Hot dog, Mae, play it again!" he is said to have exclaimed. Axton played it 10 times. "He knew the whole song before he left the room," writes Peter Guralnick, author of the highly acclaimed 1994 Elvis biography Last Train to Memphis.
Durden and Axton gave Presley the third writing credit when he agreed to record "Heartbreak Hotel" in January 1956, his first single after moving from Memphis-based Sun Records to Nashville's RCA. Elvis' sexually charged recording – combined with the singer's electrifying TV performances that spring, particularly one for a Milton Berle special in April '56 – catapulted him into a kind of celebrity orbit the world had never seen.
Axton died in 1997, Durden in 1999. To the end, they credited the brokenhearted man in that elusive newspaper article as their inspiration. Now, at last, from the digital morgues of old newspapers, comes a breakthrough. And it turns out that the story of the real-life man behind "Heartbreak Hotel" is as tragic and surreal as the gloomy scene "down at the end of Lonely Street."
The tale really began two years earlier, in November 1953, when a 25-year-old man named Alvin Krolik walked into Chicago's Albany Park police station and confessed to a string of armed robberies at Windy City hotels, restaurants and liquor stores. A former Marine Corps judo instructor, Krolik claimed to be an accomplished artist and budding author whose heartbreak over his failed marriage – to nightclub accordionist Agnes Sampson – sent him into a criminal spiral.
The guilt was getting to him, and the cops seemed to be closing in, so a sleepless, anxiety-stricken Krolik gave himself up in a manner that impressed veteran detectives – so much so that they alerted local reporters. The Chicago Daily Tribune ran an account of Krolik's surprise confession and a photograph in which the contrite crook demonstrated how he'd used oil paints to disguise his face during his crime spree.
Now, Krolik claimed, he was done with crime, and had even penned a memoir to save others from his fate. "I have to get this thing off my mind," he told police. "I'm tired of the panderers and streetwalkers I've been living with."
In wire stories that ran in dozens of papers from the Northeast to Texas and California, reporters further captured Krolik's regrets and his heartache over the split with Agnes: "I still love her madly."
Then, stories quoted a passage from Krolik's "unpublished autobiography," said to be in the hands of a New York publisher: "If you stand on a corner with a pack of cigarettes or a bottle and have nothing to do in life, I suggest you sit down and think. This is the story of a person who walked a lonely street. I hope this will help someone in the future."
News coverage in several cities highlighted the evocative metaphor Krolik had chosen to represent his life – a sad walk down "Lonely Street" – in headlines and subheads. The idea neatly summed up something percolating at that moment in America: an inchoate sense of alienation and ennui, particularly among the young, that was about to coalesce and then explode with the rock & roll revolution. Krolik, after a token jail stay ordered by a judge who'd been moved by his confession, disappeared from the public eye for nearly two years.
But by early 1955, he was helping to paint murals at a Franciscan monks' mission on the Papago Indian reserve near Tucson, Arizona. The muralist gig seems to have been arranged by the small-time Chicago filmmaker and wrestling impresario Russell Davis. Perhaps he'd befriended Krolik after seeing local news reports about the repentant armed robber, and somehow knew there was a redemptive opportunity for him in the Southwest desert.
Krolik's artistic talent, hinted at in a 1953 Chicago news story in which he claimed to have several canvases "on exhibit in a North Side cocktail lounge," was apparently no fiction. It would later emerge that his work at the Arizona monastery won praise for its quality, and even some interest from a few tourism publications.
But near the end of the summer of '55, Krolik's path in life would lurch sharply back from the sacred to the profane. There was a brief stop at a Tucson gun store to pick up a snub-nosed .38, then a road trip eastward, across the state line into New Mexico, and onward to Texas.
On August 20th – just before Durden and Axton must have found their inspiration for "Heartbreak Hotel," which Durden recalled writing that September – Krolik was about to make news again. On a cool Saturday night in El Paso, Texas, Krolik tried to rob a liquor store.
He couldn't have picked a worse place in the country to carry out the crime. The 57-year-old owner of the Busy Bee Liquor & Tackle Store, Delta Pinney, had already killed up to eight would-be robbers (there were wildly conflicting body counts) and seriously wounded numerous others.
Krolik, wearing a golfer's cap, black T-shirt and moccasins, first asked for a bottle of whiskey. Then he pulled his gun and demanded cash. Using two of the eight loaded pistols he kept "strategically sited" under the counter, Pinney shot Krolik nine times. "I had to kill him," he told the El Paso Herald-Post, "or he might have killed me. ... I don't know why I kept shooting after he went down, except he kept wriggling, like he was going to get his gun. I wanted to make sure he didn't get it."
Time covered the shooting, which was promptly ruled a "justifiable homicide." The magazine described how Pinney, a former El Paso patrolman, had "coolly mopped blood" while he told police what happened. The article, which conservatively put Pinney's total hit list since 1940 at three dead and eight wounded, presented a disturbing picture of the storekeeper, noting that his first wife had "divorced him because he threatened to shoot her," too. In the Herald-Post, Pinney insisted, "I'm not bloodthirsty." Maybe, if Alvin Krolik knew about Delta Pinney's first-strike approach to retail security in Cold War Texas, this really was a suicide.
But for music history, here's the crucial point: Some enterprising journalist made the link between the El Paso shooting and the robber who'd confessed to Chicago cops two years earlier. The miserable conclusion of Krolik's story – his death in a hail of gunfire at the end of his walk down "Lonely Street," the wasted life marked by lost love and fleeting promise – was irresistible stuff.
The phrase found its way into stories and headlines about Krolik's death in at least a dozen U.S. newspapers over the next few days in Texas, North Carolina and Alabama. More versions of the news item are likely to surface now; somehow the story of Krolik's death must have reached the "Heartbreak Hotel" songwriters in northern Florida.
The El Paso Herald-Post's own front-page version, published on August 25th, couldn't have distilled the story more perfectly for Durden and Axton. The upper-left underscored label reads "Killing Ends Heartache." Then the main headline, eerily echoed in the songwriters' accounts of their inspiration, and later in Presley's wailing voice: "Story of Person Who Walked Lonely Street."
The story doesn't appear to have been published in The Miami Herald. But that clue seems like a red herring now, in light of Krolik's emergence from the shadows, along with the multitude of other clippings throughout the Southeast about the man who'd lost his woman, "walked a lonely street," then squandered his life.
On the night Krolik was killed in El Paso, Elvis and his band were performing in Shreveport, Louisiana. A few days later, they began a week-long Texas tour with five concert dates across the state in out-of-the-way places such as Gonzales, Conroe and Bryan. "It's hard to believe," Last Train author Guralnick writes about that moment in late August 1955, "that Elvis Presley is poised on the brink of something – stardom, success, a precipice so steep that it must be at least as fearsome as it is inviting."
Shown the news stories about Krolik's death, the biographer says he's convinced Elvis' muse has finally been unmasked. "There's no question in my mind that this is the real thing," says Guralnick, adding he's "thrilled" that the probe of old newspapers has "uncovered the truth at last." The Krolik connection is "totally believable – and totally understandable that Mae and Tommy Durden would come across it," adds Guralnick. People naturally reshape their memories of events – "we all do," notes Guralnick – and after taking their spark of inspiration from the news about Krolik, the songwriters "somehow transformed it into the story that stuck."
In July 1956, with "Heartbreak Hotel" having topped both the pop and country charts and become Presley's first million-selling record – just as Axton had promised – the songwriter was interviewed for a local-girl-makes-good story in the Evening News of Ada, Oklahoma, where Axton had attended college in the 1930s. "Inspiration for the song came when a suicide was committed and a note left, 'I walk a lonely street.' Durden met with Mrs. Axton to discuss the five-word sentence," the Evening News recounted. "'But think of the heartbreak he left behind,' Mrs. Axton commented. 'Let's put a heartbreak hotel at the end of that lonely street.'"
Over the years, Durden and Axton elaborated little on the song's birth. The story always began with Durden spotting the newspaper article one morning at his home in Gainesville, being seized by the phrase a dead man had used to sum up his hollow life – "I walk a lonely street" – then reaching out to Axton, who lived in nearby Jacksonville, for help finishing the song. Another friend, Glen Reeves, agreed to voice the demo in the shaky, rumbling style of Elvis, the budding star in search of a Number One.
The story held firm for six decades, while interest in the song's origins never waned. The makers of the popular BBC documentary series Tales of Rock 'n' Roll actually concocted an image of what they imagined the Herald story looked like for their 1993 airing of an episode on the history of "Heartbreak Hotel." Elvis aficionados, including Guralnick initially, were intrigued by what seemed like a monumental discovery. Closer analysis, though, revealed fakery in the name of good storytelling. Songfacts.com, the popular website that has a team of writers crafting "the stories behind the songs" in ever-accumulating detail, more recently dispatched researchers to the Miami-Dade library in search of the Herald article, and concluded the whole story of the song's origins is "an urban legend."
Now comes Krolik, and questions about the songwriters' story naturally follow. Was there deliberate obfuscation to spare Krolik's family a painful link to a popular song? Was it a bid to better "universalize" an artistic creation by withholding the real man's name and the precise circumstances of his death? Or was it, perhaps, a simple misreading or misremembering by Durden and Axton of the exact source?
We can't know for certain. Maybe there really was a broken, lovelorn man who "rid himself of his identity," as Axton later remembered it, before taking his own life.
Maybe his suicide happened at about the same time Krolik was being shot to death in Texas, and perhaps that nameless man, too, summed up his woeful existence by scrawling the same sorrowful phrase that Krolik had crystallized. Heartbreak Hotel, as Elvis sang, is always crowded.
But that seems a stretch. The timing, the phrasing and the hurt at the end of Alvin Krolik's tortured walk down Lonely Street are too coincidental, too distinctive and too compelling. He must be the brokenhearted lover behind the song that shook the world.
At Mitchell Pomper's downtown Chicago insurance office, there's a sort of photographic shrine to his late mother, Agnes. She was an award-winning accordionist as a teenager in the late 1940s and a nightclub entertainer of some renown in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. When she died three years ago at age 80, she was remembered fondly in a Chicago Tribune death notice as a woman who "brought laughs and joy to many people with her wonderful wit, humor and musical ability."
"My mother was gorgeous, you know. Really movie-star beautiful," says Pomper, 58, describing her as an "Elizabeth Taylor lookalike." A black-and-white publicity portrait from the postwar years shows a strikingly attractive, dark-haired woman in a semi-strapless white gown. The fingers of her right hand are spread delicately across the keys of her Imperial piano accordion. There's a nameplate affixed to a panel between the grille and bellows: AGNES.
When his mother died, Pomper sorted through the "huge amount of pictures" she'd accumulated over the years. Among them was a studio portrait of a young man in an open-collared shirt. He's Hollywood handsome: thick lips; piercing, wide-set eyes; dark hair swirling in front and slicked back at the sides. "I knew him as Al Krolik," says Pomper. "My mother was married to him briefly before I was born, didn't talk about him much. He was some kind of criminal – she told me he was killed in a robbery of some sort. Her choice of men was never very good. My father was also a really handsome 'bad-boy' type."
Agnes married Seymour Pomper in 1955. They eventually divorced, too, in 1976. But when he died last year, the obituary described Agnes as "his first wife and true love." She was, it seems, a hard woman to get over.
Agnes Sampson is buried at Waldheim Jewish Cemetery in Chicago's Forest Park suburb. Alvin Krolik is there, too.
When Elvis launched into "Heartbreak Hotel" with that famous opening line ("Well, since my baby left me …"), Pomper's mother was, in a way, "my baby" – the heartbreaker who started it all. It was Agnes, calling it quits on her month-old marriage in 1953, who sent Alvin Krolik on his fateful trip down Lonely Street, into a Chicago police station, then an El Paso liquor store. And it was Krolik, still "madly" in love with Agnes, whose sad words got into the heads of two Florida songwriters – and rock & roll history.
"Really?" says Pomper, after hearing the whole story. "You're kidding."
Randy Boswell is a Canadian writer and Carleton University journalism professor. He is a former daily news reporter who conducts research using historical newspapers.