In the dark doorway of a faux haunted house with lightning striking and coyotes howling in the background, the undisputed Queen of Halloween and Mistress of the Dark, Elvira, appears on the TV screen with her witchy long black hair, heavy makeup and deep cleavage. She beckons the late-night viewer to come closer before launching into a vintage Saturday midnight movie “crème de la crap” horror film, as she calls it, many of which were shot low-budget in Mexico or Italy.
The woman behind the Elvira brand, Cassandra Peterson, now 70, spent four decades building her iconic macabre persona into an international cult icon. Now, in “Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark” (Hachette, out September 21), she details her trick-or-treat life in a candid memoir revealing her 19-year relationship with a woman — a female whom she only identifies as “T” — as well as encounters with some of the celebrity world’s biggest names — among them late basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, whom she claims forced oral sex on her.
“When a 7-foot-1, 300-pound man has his hand wrapped around your neck, there’s really not a lot you can do,” she writes of the athlete, who boasted in his 1991 memoir “A View From Above” that he had slept with 20,000 women in his lifetime.
“I had to wonder how many of those women actually consented to having sex with him,” writes Peterson.
Born in 1951 in Manhattan, Kansas, Cassandra’s parents were farmers in the neighboring, smaller town of Randolph. An accident that occurred when 18-month-old Cassandra was home alone would later, ironically, turn out to be “one of the best things to ever happen to me.” The toddler had dragged a kitchen chair over to the stove to inspect eggs her mother was boiling for Easter. She lost her balance and grabbed onto the handle of the cast-iron pot, pulling it over on her. The scalding water etched third-degree burns into her skin, melted the hair on her head and fused her eyelids shut. Skin on her stomach and thighs was grafted onto her badly burned body and required months of painful healing – and left permanent scars.
After the accident, her mother, who had long hated the farm, insisted that Cassandra’s father, Dale, find himself a normal job and “get them the hell out of there.” Shortly after, they moved into the nearby town of Manhattan.
An obsession with dressing up in costumes, heels and fishnets won her a $100 bond in a costume contest when she was 8 years old. “I knew when I put on that skin-tight, sequined gown and red bouffant wig, I was home!” she writes.
The Beatles came on the scene when she was in seventh grade and their influence on her was “staggering.” She became a “mod,” adopted a British accent and spent hours listening to the band.
A push-up bra from Frederick’s of Hollywood helped kick-start her hormones, and she became boy crazy, music crazy and band crazy in short order, following around bands who came to town — first backstage, and then in their hotel rooms. “This was the beginning of my junior groupie escapades,” she writes. By age 14, she frequented nightclubs, won second place in a go-go girl contest and got a gig “shaking my ass in a glass cage” at night, wearing a tassel-twirling bra while swilling White Russians and smoking cigarettes.
“I was a hormonally charged know-it-all rebellious teenager,” she writes. “Every parent’s worst nightmare.”
Indeed, her parents were furious with Cassandra’s lifestyle. There were frequent fights, slaps in the face and orders to leave the house.
She moved on to checking out drag queen bars in Fort Carson, Colorado, and realized the performers were doing what she had been doing as a youngster — “mouthing the words to songs.”
For a time, she took on the role of a hippie, trying magic mushrooms, opium and LSD. The Denver Pop Festival in June 1969, a precursor to Woodstock, brought in the big rockers such as Joe Cocker, Iron Butterfly, Three Dog Night and Jimi Hendrix. Cassandra and her friend Cindy wandered through hotel rooms looking for bands; she got into bed with a famous drummer, but was kicked out of his room when she refused to have sex with him. Later, she was invited into Hendrix’s trailer. He was strumming his guitar, and they smoked a doobie together before he got called to go onstage. He asked her to call him after the show and wrapped his arms around her and kissed her “so sweet and slow.”
On their last family vacation, during Cassandra’s senior year of high school, they headed to California, stopping first in Las Vegas, where she begged and pleaded to go to a “tits and feathers” show. She exposed her breasts to the producer in exchange for a part in the Dunes hotel production of “Vive Les Girls”! Cassandra was in heaven, donning three pairs of eyelashes, feathers, rhinestones, high heels and bare breasts.
While in Las Vegas, she had numerous celebrity run-ins, to wit:
Crooner Andy Williams who asked her to call him Daddy and forced “an open-mouthed, tongue down your throat” kiss. She bit his lip and he cried, “You little bitch!”
On meeting Sinatra, he said, “Nice tits.”
A consensual romp in bed with Tom Jones sent her to the emergency room for an internal injury (the singer was, alas, a bit too well endowed). Several years later, she was in Las Vegas, saw his show and went backstage again. “Remember me?” she asked Jones. “You’re the one with the scars on your back [from the childhood burn],” he said, still annoyed.
Of all people, it was a long conversation with Elvis, who was making his ’69 comeback in Vegas that changed her life: he wrapped his arms around her, kissed her tenderly, and advised: “If you ever want to make anything out of yourself, never do drugs. Take vocal lessons….and get the heck outta Dodge.”
For Peterson, the thrill was gone. She realized that “Vegas was no place for a teenage girl.”
After stints in Paris and Rome as a hostess at a dime-a-dance club, she followed a guy she met to Hollywood and has never looked back.
She studied with the improv comedy troupe, The Groundlings, and eventually acting gigs on TV followed. When the call came from a friend urging her to audition for the hostess job for the late night vintage horror movies, she initially balked, but agreed to go and aced the interview. Virtually overnight, Elvira became famous as the undisputed Queen of Halloween. Soon a wax figure of her appeared at Movieland Wax Museum. She was drawn as a comic book character, appeared in TV commercials, feature films, and guested on talk shows.
But life wasn’t all champagne and limos.
Alcohol, cocaine, agoraphobia and therapy found their way into her life. Her one and only marriage was in 1981 to a man who became her manager and producer, a union that would last 25 years.
Somehow the Midwest farm girl who had transformed herself into the iconic figure of the macabre became a lesbian and that was the deep dark secret she has kept from her fans – until now.
But it ended when Cassandra reveals to her readers that she fell in love with her female trainer “T” nearly 20 years ago.
“I felt the need to protect Elvira in order to keep my career alive.”