Frank A. Mills

story-weaving


The Henderson Hotel (Duncan, Oklahoma)
The Original Heartbreak Hotel?

Heartbreak Hotel

Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell
Down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel
Well I get so lonely, baby, I get so lonely, I get so lonely I could die
Always though it's crowded, you still can find some room.

Was there ever really a Heartbreak Hotel? Perhaps. Was there a man so lonely that he could die? Maybe.

Is this building the original Heartbreak Hotel?

The folks in Duncan, Oklahoma believe so. In fact, according to the Duncan Chamber of Commerce, it was the hotel* in the (now) Henderson Building that served as the inspiration for Elvis’ first hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Some go so far as to claim that the lyrics were written inside the hotel.

But is it true?

At best, the link is tenuous. There is little to support it. What is the story behind the hotel that Elvis’ made famous? What is known for sure is that Mae Boren Axton, who penned the lyrics, lived in and around Duncan before moving to Florida. Local lore claims that the Henderson (although then known by another name) was the hotel that Axton had in mind when she wrote the words about the man all alone and lonely who walked “a lonely street.” Certainly S.7th. Street which runs along side of the hotel is a lonely street, then and now.

Still, is this the Heartbreak Hotel? The few remaining family and friends of Mae Axton or her son, musician and film producer Hoyt Axton, do not recall the Axtons or other family members, saying that the Henderson was the inspiration for the hotel of the lyrics. There is a hint -- a flimsy one at best -- a mention of the hotel by Lowell Fulson, a “big-voiced guitarist” and friend of Elvis,’ in Roll’ and Tumblin’: The Postwar Blues Guitarists. Fulson worked at the Wade Hotel, which was directly across the street from the Wade Annex (as Henderson Building was then known) before heading off to California and penning, “Reconsider Baby,” which was recorded by Presley in 1960.

As I said, a flimsy connection.

Now, what about the lonely man who resided at the Heartbreak Hotel?

Axton and Thomas R. Durden who wrote the score both claimed that Axton was inspired to write the lyrics by a story Durden read in the Miami Herald about a man who destroyed all of his identification papers before jumping to his death from a third story window. All he left was a note with a single scribbled line, “I walk a lonely street.”

In her memoir, “Country Singers As I Know ‘em,” Axton writes, "I reacted as strongly as Tommy, who paced the floor as I read the story.” She recalls saying to Tommy, “Everyone has someone who cares, and when those who love him learn of his death, they'll be broken-hearted, so let's put a Heartbreak Hotel at the end of that lonely street."

If it was in part inspired by a suicide in Duncan or even a hotel in Duncan, Axton made no mention of it in her memoir. No doubt, though, Axton’s time in and around Duncan influenced her feeling about life and how life should be lived. It is these feelings perhaps, that made her feel for the lonely man who walked a “lonely street.”

But, what about the “lonely man” himself? Researchers who have examined the archives of the Miami Herald during the time that Durden would have read the article can find no mention of such a story

Whatever the truth, the good folk in Duncan play it up for all it’s worth. It was placing the Heartbreak Hotel that inspired Oklahoma’s “Rhythm & Blues Trail.”

* The hotel in the Henderson building was known as the Collinwood Hotel in the early 1920s and advertised itself as "European-style, all-modern with a window in every room." In 1938, the second floor became known as “The Traveler’s Hotel,” and by the mid-50s, as the “Alexander.” In the 1960s it became the “Wade Annex,” an auxiliary to the Wade Hotel across the street.

Postscript:

Apart from a weak Heartbreak Hotel connection, it was in front of the hotel where in 1896, U.S. Marshal, Ed. Thurlow gunned down -- “Without justification,” some accounts say -- a “desperado, either a Dave Putty or D.V. Jones. History indicates that this was probably Duncan’s first murder.

The Wade and the Wade Annex were once owned by Julia Speegle, an aunt of Hollywood Director Ron Howard who was born in Duncan in 1954. It is said that she had a large collections of ceramic dogs which she placed throughout the hotel. I wonder if they were hounddogs?

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