Elvis: End of an Era
The story of the King's passing, as told in our September 1977 issue.
Editor’s note: In putting together this 35th anniversary issue of Memphis, we posed this obvious question to ourselves: What was the single most significant story ever published in this magazine? There are literally dozens to choose from, as the scores of national awards Memphis has won over these three-plus decades clearly testify.
But, actually, choosing a “winner” in this competition was not much of a contest. The cover story of our September 1977 issue — back in this magazine’s infancy, when it was called City of Memphis — stands out from the crowd, ironically, perhaps, just like that story’s subject.
Elvis Presley left the building on August 16, 1977. The September issue of City of Memphis had already done the same, and was sitting at the printer. Elvis’ sudden death stopped the presses; the cover was pulled, and the magazine’s staff scrambled to put together timely coverage of the King of Rock-and-Roll’s unexpected death.
At the same time, a young Memphis State English professor named Jackson Baker was deeply affected by Elvis’ passing; he had spent a good several months of his late childhood as the Presleys’ next-door neighbor on Lamar Avenue, observing the meteoric rise of the new Sun Records star with keen interest and no little adulation. When the shocking news of his death broke, Jackson resolved to write about it, and spent the following days, as he now recalls, “trying not so much to ‘write an article’ as to do my testament.” Over the next frantic week, Jackson worked with editor Ken DeCell and publisher Bob Towery to craft an Elvis eulogy. By any standard, the result was a remarkable journalistic achievement, a replacement City of Memphis September cover story that was, truly, fit for a King.
Better known to Memphis readers today as the dean of Tennessee’s political reporters, Jackson Baker for the past two decades has been the politics editor of the Memphis Flyer, our sister publication, as well as a frequent contributor to the pages of this magazine. “I have often reflected on the good fortune or karma or whatever,” he says today, “that allowed me such a close-up look at a bona fide avatar whose cosmic qualities arose somehow from a background that couldn’t have been more plain and ordinary. I’ve been lucky enough to experience, and to write about, many larger-than-life types — Bill Clinton being one of the most remarkable, for the power of his energy field. But nobody beats Elvis.”
It was Monday evening, August 15th, at the Graceland Mansion, and Elvis Presley’s aides had just informed him that they were unable to arrange a private screening of MacArthur, because a projectionist from the Ridgeway Theater, where the film was playing, would not be available at the late hour which Elvis had requested. It was the night before Elvis and his sizeable entourage were scheduled to leave for a 13-day national tour, and he was looking for a way to relieve some of the tension that normally preceded such departures.
Attendance at any of the theater’s regular public showings was, of course, out of the question. The security problems would be nightmarish; for the twenty-odd years of his public prominence, the man who had entertained tens of millions in countless auditoriums and theaters could not himself enter such a place, except by private rental and usually under cover of darkness. In the six weeks that he had been in Memphis since completing his previous tour, he had rarely left the mansion. Two weeks before, he had rented the Libertyland amusement park between midnight and dawn for an outing with his nine-year-old daughter Lisa Marie, and the previous Wednesday he had taken a party to see The Spy Who Loved Me, the latest James Bond offering, at the UA Southbrook 4. Other than that, he pretty much stayed home — although he had recently spent an evening with his 20-year-old girlfriend, Ginger Alden, at her mother’s home in southeast Memphis.
Ginger, a local beauty queen who had most recently been “Fairest of the Mid-South Fair,” was with Elvis now, and an idea struck him for an alternate evening out. Picking up a telephone, he dialed a familiar number, that of Dr. Lester Hofman, the Memphis dentist who had treated Elvis for almost as long as he had been in show business. Reaching Dr. Hofman at home, Elvis apologized for the time of his call and wondered: Could he come by the office a little later and bring Ginger with him? They wanted some work done before leaving on the tour, he explained.
Dr. Hofman, always happy to oblige the man whom he regarded fondly as “the Pied Piper of Love,” said sure, naturally, no problem, and the appointment was set for 10:30 that night. Shortly afterward, Elvis, wearing a pair of black slacks and a matching loose-fitting shirt-blouse, gathered up a group that included Ginger, his cousin Billy Smith, and Charlie Hodge, a guitarist in his touring band. They left in Elvis’ custom-made Stutz Blackhawk. As was the case so often, the front gate area was crowded with tourists, mainly women straining for a look at Elvis. He waved to them gallantly, and, tires squealing slightly, the fabulous car moved out and down the street.
They came to Memphis from all over, matrons from Detroit, adolescents from Florida and Alaska, students from Germany and France — indeed, all kinds of people from every manner of place all over the world. They had an uncanny way of knowing when their idol would be in town — by some sort of psychic grapevine, it would seem. Their intentions upon getting to the house on Elvis Presley Boulevard were obscure, even to them, but they were summoned by his presence all the same. For most, the journey would end at a pair of closed wrought-iron gates with a motif of musical notes woven into them. Some would scale the brick walls and travel up the sloping yard, getting as far as the front of the 18-room house itself, only to be turned away there by the bodyguard who invariably answered all knocks at the door. This had been going on since 1957, when Elvis Presley, already as famous as anybody ever had been, purchased the house for himself and his parents. It was quite a step up from his beginning, about as American a story as could be imagined.
Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 — a Capricorn, sharing his sign with such other personages as Joan of Arc, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Carl Sandburg, and Albert Schweitzer — in a shotgun house on the outskirts of Tupelo, Mississippi. His identical twin, Jesse Garon Presley, was dead at birth. The parents, Vernon and Gladys Presley, like so many of their neighbors and family in the Depression-ridden agricultural area, earned a meager living from sharecropping and any other available labor.
Gladys Presley, who quickly became the dominant influence in her only child’s life, spoiled him as much as circumstances allowed, taking pains (often to her neighbors’ amusement) never to let her most precious possession out of her sight. She was firm in her affection, however, and the youngster early assumed a respectful and courteous manner with his elders. The Presleys were regular attendees at the fundamentalist First Assembly of God Church in Tupelo, and it was probably here that Elvis heard — and sang — his first music. (It was also here, Elvis was later to claim, that he picked up the germ of the style that was to inspire — and outrage — millions. At the frequent prayer meetings, Elvis told an interviewer, “There were these singers, perfectly fine singers, but nobody responded to them. Then there was the preachers and they cut up all over the place, jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ ever’ which way. And the audience liked ’em. I guess I learned from them.”)
At the age of ten, Elvis was entered in the talent competition at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair; his a capella rendition of “Old Shep” earned him second place. Shortly thereafter, his parents presented him with a $12.95 guitar, and, with the help of his uncles, Johnny Smith and Vester Presley, the boy began teaching himself to play. In addition to the spirituals, he began listening to and imitating the popular country and western sounds of such artists as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and Jimmie Rodgers.
In 1948, when Elvis was 13, Vernon Presley loaded his family’s belongings into an old Plymouth and moved them to Memphis. It was not much of a step — even after they took up residence in Lauderdale Courts, a public assistance housing project just north of downtown — but in Memphis at least the elder Presleys could find regular work. Elvis enrolled in nearby Humes High School, where the reserved country boy seemed overwhelmed at first by the size and character of the “tough” big city school. In a relatively nondescript high school career, during which he worked at odd jobs after school and played football his junior year, Elvis’ most distinguishing characteristics were his long ducktail hairstyle (most of his peers sported crewcuts) and the loud clothes — generally some combination of pink and black — he purchased at Lansky’s on Beale Street.
His sartorial flamboyance contrasted somewhat with his generally reserved manner, but he got along amicably enough with his fellow students. And though he was also reticent about showing off his musical talents, he continued to play and sing by himself, or, when pressed, in the presence of a few friends. The highlight of his high school years, perhaps, was his encore-inspiring performance in the annual student variety show his senior year. “They really liked me!” he exclaimed offstage, somewhat amazed, as the applause continued. “They really liked me.”
Inside the dentist’s office at 620 Estate Drive in a posh section of East Memphis, Elvis Presley was in a jocular mood. “Isn’t this an ugly girl here?” Elvis said as he introduced the bashful, dark-haired Ginger, whom he called by the pet name “Gingerbread.” During the course of the session, Dr. Hofman would clean Elvis’ teeth, marveling once again at the scrupulous care which his famous patient took of his mouth, and fill an upper right first bicuspid and an upper left molar. He would also X-ray Ginger’s teeth and set up a later appointment for cleaning and some additional work.
As was his custom, Elvis asked about Dr. Hofman’s wife, Sterling. “When he talked to my wife, it was as if no one else existed,” Dr. Hofman would recall later. His own relations with Elvis were equally sunny, but he could never persuade the entertainer to call him by his first name. “What’s all this ‘Dr. Hofman’ stuff?” he once asked in mock exasperation, whereupon Elvis replied, “Well, you went to school and got yourself an education, and you’re entitled to respect.” And, despite the easy camaraderie born of their long acquaintance, that was that.
Dr. Hofman was one of the countless friends to whom Elvis had at some point over the years given a new Cadillac (“He was a fairy godfather,” as Dr. Hofman said), and the talk turned to cars on this last evening the two would see each other. “Dr. Hofman, you’ve got to see my new car. I’ve got a Ferrari you won’t believe,” Elvis said. “What? You’re not getting rid of the Stutz, are you?” the dentist replied, knowing that Elvis would buy a dozen new cars in an hour, and give as many away, if the fancy struck him.
“No,” said Elvis, “but you’ll really like the Ferrari. Come on out to Graceland and see it.”
More small talk followed, and, as Elvis prepared to leave with his three companions, Dr. Hofman asked a favor.
“Listen,” he said. “The next time you’re going out to California, I’d like to come. It would be a nice surprise if I could drop in on my daughter out there.”
“Sure,” Elvis agreed. “There’s always room on the plane. You know that.”
The two said goodbye. It was about one-thirty Tuesday morning, and Dr. Hofman put away his patient’s folder. There was one more appointment scheduled soon. Elvis needed some repair work done on a crown.
He was, in the ubiquitous phrase, the “King of Rock-and-Roll.” It was a term, however, that both understated and overstated the nature of his talent. In fact, his singing range was enormous, transcending any classification by genre. Rock had, for most of his career, been only a small part of his repertoire. He could do blues, ballads, country, gospel, patriotic anthems — indeed, practically any type of music that could be sung he put his stamp on somewhere along the line.
The serendipitous odyssey which brought these talents to light began on a Saturday afternoon in August of 1953, when, during a lunch break from his newly acquired job as a truck driver for Crown Electric Company, Elvis Presley stopped by the Memphis Recording Service, a sideline of Sam Phillips’ Sun Record Company, and plunked down $4 to record two sides of a record as a birthday gift for his mother.
The tiny studio was packed with do-it-yourself songsters that particular day, but Marion Keisker, the sole person on duty, thought she heard something special in the 18-year-old’s rendition of the Ink Spots’ “My Happiness” and the sentimental ballad “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” Her boss, who specialized in recording black blues and rhythm-and-blues musicians on his Sun label, had remarked before that if he could find “a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel,” he could make “a billion dollars.” This boyish truck driver with long hair, an easy smile, and a battered guitar — who said he “didn’t sound like nobody” — seemed to fit the bill. Keisker did something she had never done before. She made a copy of the recording for Phillips to hear.
Eight months later, Elvis was back in the studio along with bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore, trying to find a sound. Despite Marion Keisker’s earliest impression, Elvis saw himself as a crooner much in the mold of Dean Martin. However, it was his feeling for the powerful rhythm-and-blues of such artists as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, B.B. King, and Big Mama Thornton that was to spark his career. During several months of work, the pop, country, and blues influences in the trio evolved into a startling new sound. The result was a unique mixture of the sounds, and the effect was instantaneous.
The word “charismatic” has come in for much abuse since 1954 — ditto with “electric” as applied to personality — but the Memphians who first heard “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the old Dewey Phillips radio show, Red, Hot & Blue, would underwrite both terms as a fair description of the experience. They knew without having to be told that a phenomenon was under way. Elvis went on to buttress his growing regional reputation by tours and more releases and by appearances on the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport, and in 1955 he was named County & Western “Newcomer of the Year” by a trade magazine.
In the late winter of 1956, Elvis appeared, without much advance fanfare, on the old Dorsey Brothers Stage Show on national television, singing “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Tutti Frutti” among other numbers. A former neighbor, watching the show, listening to the spontaneous screams coming from the TV audience, turned to his wife and children and said matter-of-factly, “Elvis is going to be a great big star.” It was that obvious.
The erstwhile truck driver, by now recording for RCA Victor and under the expert management of “Colonel” Tom Parker, followed up that first national exposure with appearances on the Milton Berle Show, the Steve Allen Show, and ultimately, the Ed Sullivan Show, whose impresario had first reacted to the growing Elvis boom as “not my cup of tea” and now was forced to drink the cup for what was at the time a record personal appearance fee of $15,000. Whatever was happening — and no one in those staid Eisenhower years was quite sure how to regard it — was unprecedented.
It was four o’clock Tuesday morn ing at the mansion, Elvis and Ginger had been alone upstairs. They were talking about their own future and about the tour, which was due to end with two concerts at the Mid-South Coliseum, Saturday, August 27th, and Sunday, August 28th. Ginger, who had been introduced to Elvis by his long-term friend George Klein as recently as November, would subsequently say that Elvis had intended to announce their engagement publicly at the Saturday-night concert. There were those who were skeptical, including at least one member of the entourage who would quote Elvis as denying explicitly any marriage plans, but she had been given an 11-karat diamond ring by Elvis, and the singer’s father Vernon would make comments later that seemed to confirm the engagement. The senior Presley had been especially distressed about the breakup in 1973 of Elvis’ first marriage, and he had talked to Ginger often about his wish that his son would have more children.
On first arriving back at the mansion from his trip to the dentist, Elvis had bustled about, engaging various aides in conversation about details of the imminent tour. He now used a house phone to dial Dick Grob downstairs, asking him to join him. Grob was one of two chief security men for Elvis and was responsible, among other things, for the singer’s safety during concert appearances. Elvis was in an ebullient mood and told Grob, when he arrived, that he had decided to add five or six numbers to his repertory for the tour. He gave Grob a list of the new songs and asked him to locate the words and music and chord changes for the stage versions of them. As always, Elvis’ last number at each stop was to be “I Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Grob, whose business it was to read Presley’s moods accurately, was satisfied that his man was on the upbeat — more chipper and more alert, in fact, than he had been in a long time. There had been reports here and there that Elvis was not in the best possible shape for making this tour, and that his performance might be sub-par. As Grob was turning away with the list of songs, Elvis said, “Dick, we’ll just show them how wrong they are. We’ll make this one the best one ever.”
Still before dawn, Elvis changed into a striped gym suit and rounded up cousin Billy Smith and his wife Jo to go a round of racquetball with him and Ginger. The four of them adjourned to the luxurious gymnasium which was located just behind the main house. The building was equipped with sauna rooms, whirlpool baths, and an elaborate music system. As they walked over, Elvis waved toward another part of the grounds, where, in days to come, he said, he would build Ginger, an aspiring oil painter, a special studio to house her artwork.
The game itself was played without much competitive zeal. Elvis prided himself on his athletic ability, and he could bear down if need be, but mainly he was just interested in loosening up this morning. As so many people had reported, and as he himself was painfully aware, he was battling a weight problem. He still had not rid himself of the excess poundage that had accumulated over the sedentary weeks since his last tour had ended in late June. After a brief spell of fast activity, the others began to ease back and let Elvis clown around by himself. Ginger withdrew to a seat behind the glass walls of the court, as Elvis performed one trick shot after another. “Look at this,” he would say, drawing mixed giggles and expressions of awe from Ginger. He continued bouncing the ball around and laughing at his own efforts, growing, it seemed, increasingly loose and relaxed. Ginger, who knew the chronic problems that Elvis had with insomnia and who was apprehensive about his condition for the tour, was hoping that he would be able now to sleep well. Finally, Elvis tired of the game and, bidding farewell to the Smiths, he and Ginger withdrew again to the upstairs area.
At nine a.m., Elvis, wearing a pair of blue pajamas, told Ginger that he was going into the lounge area of the bathroom which adjoined his bedroom. He took with him a book that reportedly documented the discovery of the skeleton of Christ. Ginger turned on the television set and stretched out. Within moments she was asleep.
Beginning with Love Me Tender in late 1956, Elvis became a movie idol as well. (Through 1977, he had made some 33 features, all of them money-makers, some of them monumentally so.) However, by 1958, when Elvis — with the help of Colonel Tom Parker — had reached the pinnacle of his career, a two-year stint in the army did alter indelibly the way the public perceived him and perhaps the way he perceived himself. He seemed to have become almost overnight an All-American Boy and although the accuracy of that description did not go unchallenged, his induction into the army and shortly thereafter the death of his mother did dampen the spirit of youthful rebellion which had been the hallmark of his success. The Elvis that emerged during the ensuing years was no longer the rowdy rock-and-roller of his pre-induction days; he was instead a “professional” movie and recording star, cast in an almost suburban mold. In 1967, he was married to 21-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he had met in Germany, where her father, an Army colonel, was stationed. In 1968, Lisa Marie Presley was born. And in 1969, after a cessation of nine years, he resumed concert engagements. The annual pattern would include at least two extended stays in Las Vegas and two or three tours through the nation. In response to the post-Woodstock shape of things, he now affected a tousled Prince Valiant haircut. He wore jewelry and appeared in a blinding variety of open-chested, skin-tight sequined costumes. Every concert was a sellout, and critical praise was practically unstinted. In defiance of the presumed laws of nature, it seemed for all the world that Elvis Presley would never grow old.
But along the way an extraordinary event occurred — something incomprehensible to millions of women. Priscilla Presley left her husband, and for another man.
For her classmates at Immaculate Conception back in the early 1960s, Priscilla Ann Beaulieu was an enigma. She would come to school with an unusual degree of dark eye makeup and super-teased hair (this was, as she would recall, related to a “self-improvement” course she was taking at Patricia Stevens Finishing School). She avoided much in the way of personal relationships with the other girls at I.C., and every afternoon at three o’clock, Vernon Presley would come to pick her up in a black Cadillac. She lived at Graceland Mansion and was Elvis Presley’s lady-in-waiting. That much the other I.C. students knew, but not much else.
As it happened, and as Priscilla would later confess, she knew very little about herself in those days. She was only 13 when she had met Elvis in Germany, and the singer was — no other way to put it — fascinated. As a Presley aide noted, the petite wide-eyed brunette had a striking resemblance to the actress Debra Paget, who had been Elvis’ co-star in his first movie and for whom supposedly he had developed an unrequited passion.
Almost from the very first moment, Priscilla was tacitly being groomed for the role of Elvis’ wife. In 1960, Presley returned to the States, and, upon Elvis’ assurances to her parents that his intentions regarding their daughter were sincere, if still unspecified, Priscilla followed soon thereafter, taking up residence in the mansion. She would occasionally join Elvis on his travels, especially when her Distant Early Warning System brought reports of this or that romance that Elvis was supposed to be having elsewhere. But mainly she waited, meanwhile impressing the Presley family and the singer’s aides with what seemed to them to be an unusual sense of maturity.
On May 1, 1967, the wedding finally took place, before 14 guests at the Las Vegas Aladdin Hotel. Her veil was held by a crown of rhinestones. With very few limits, what she wanted was hers to enjoy. Her new husband presented her with a horse, and, when the 13 acres of Graceland proved to be restrictive of her riding, Elvis purchased a 150-acre ranch just over the Mississippi line. By all accounts, the couple’s life together continued for the next several years to be one of mutual affection and regard, but at some point Priscilla began to tire of the pedestal and the confinement. In particular, the lengthy absences dictated by Elvis’ career proved to be unbearable. She would later tell a reporter, “I kept thinking, ‘It’s going to work itself out — We’ll make it somehow!’ I had to, because if you think, ‘I’m always going to be alone,’ you’ll go crazy.” Elvis was a well-known devotee of karate, and, at his suggestion, Priscilla took up the study of the art under a Los Angeles instructor named Mike Stone.
Sometime in the late spring of 1972, when the Presleys were spending most of their time on the West Coast, Priscilla informed her husband that she wanted a separation. She wanted a life of her own, and, besides, she said forthrightly, she had become involved with someone. It was weeks before the anguished Elvis learned that Stone, whom he had personally recommended as Priscilla’s tutor, was the man. It was a drama with Arthurian dimensions, although, as one Elvis loyalist remarked, “Stone was no Lancelot.”
On January 8, 1973, Elvis’ 38th birthday, he filed for divorce, eventually bestowing a $2 million settlement on Priscilla. All things considered, it was an amicable parting. The two continued to talk frequently and cooperated without friction in the raising of Lisa Marie, who generally spent nine months out of the year with her mother and the summers with her father. Priscilla plunged into the life of a liberated woman, West Coast style. By now, her makeup ran to the natural, and for a while she operated a boutique that catered to the well-to-do.
By 1977, Stone was no longer in her life, and there would be frequent, if unconfirmed, rumors of a reconciliation between her and Presley. On Monday, August 15th, Elvis telephoned to let her know that he was sending their daughter out the next day by an aide. On Tuesday, Priscilla went shopping for a new fall wardrobe for the child, buying, among other things, the uniforms required by the private school which Lisa would be attending in a few days. She returned with her packages to her Beverly Hills mansion shortly after one o’clock, California time. The telephone rang. On the other end was Joe Esposito, a close aide of her husband’s back in Memphis. And the terrible news he conveyed would change everything.
It was “well after lunch,” as the receptionist at the Whitehaven offices of Dr. Perry Holmes recollected afterward. She had just taken a call from Al Strada, whom she had dealt with before in his capacity as personal aide to Elvis Presley. Over the years the entertainer had frequented the clinic on Faronia Road often, usually for minor complaints. The last treatment on Presley’s medical record was in 1974, and the occasion was a lacerated hand. The injury had apparently been sustained in the course of a karate exhibition. Since then, Dr. Holmes had chosen to treat Presley off the record, in deference to Elvis’ privacy, he explained. Elvis’ visits were always routine, he said, “never anything out of the ordinary.”
On this Tuesday afternoon, Strada’s voice on the telephone had been agitated and almost unintelligible, and, upon being informed that Dr. Holmes was out of the office and unavailable, he had hung up abruptly. Upon being told of the call, Dr. James Campbell, an associate of Dr. Holmes’, telephoned the mansion and, with some difficulty, reached Elvis’ aunt, Mrs. Delta Mae Biggs. Amidst some confusion, she told the doctor her nephew was having difficulty, she thought, and requested an emergency house call. She said that they were trying also to contact another physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos. Dr. Campbell suggested that Elvis might be transported to the nearby clinic, and Mrs. Biggs said she would call back. That was the last anybody at the clinic heard from the mansion.
For Sam Thompson, one of Elvis Presley’s two chief bodyguards, his trip to the singer’s mansion on the afternoon of the scheduled departure for Portland involved a routine to which he had grown accustomed. He was to pick up 9-year-old Lisa Marie and return Elvis’ daughter by commercial air flight to the custody of her mother in Los Angeles. Thompson had done it often enough before, served as chaperone for Lisa on those flights back and forth between the child’s parents. He knew of the many threats that had been directed against Presley and his family, and in Lisa’s case he was particularly aware of the danger of kidnapping, one of Elvis’ most acute worries. Bound by affection as well as duty to his employer, the 29-year-old ex-sheriff’s deputy felt that he was prepared, if need be, to take a bullet for Elvis.
He had met Presley a few years back when, in the wake of the split-up with Priscilla, Thompson’s sister Linda, a former Miss Tennessee-Universe, had become Elvis’ major female interest. In the last year or so, he had gone to work full-time for Presley. Though his sister no longer owned the pre-eminent position in Elvis’ life, she remained loyal to him, and Thompson himself was totally committed.
Thompson was driving a late-model blue Lincoln belonging to his father, Sanford Thompson, up the long sloping driveway. The elder Thompson was along to take the car back home after dropping his son and Lisa off at the airport. About halfway up the drive, a Datsun which they recognized as belonging to David Stanley, a stepbrother of Elvis’, was driving down. Stanley slowed the car briefly, as he passed the Lincoln, shouted something, then continued on. “What was that he said?” Thompson asked his father, who wasn’t sure, either.
As they parked the car in the large lot off to the left side of the mansion and walked to the front door, the Thompsons became apprehensive. When the young bodyguard entered the house, he encountered Lisa Marie, the child’s blond hair askew across her high wide forehead, the sensitive blue eyes, so much like her father’s, streaming with tears. “Sam!” she screamed, rushing to embrace this known quantity in her life. “Sam! My daddy’s dead! My daddy’s dead!”
As it was recounted later, Ginger awakened at about two o’clock and went looking for Elvis. She went to the bathroom door and called his name. When there was no answer, she entered and found him lying face down on the bathroom carpet. He had apparently fallen out of the black lounging chair where he had been reading. Ginger alerted Al Strada and Joe Esposito, who suggested that she leave the bathroom and then began frantically trying to revive Elvis with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Esposito called downstairs to Vernon Presley, and, appearing on the scene as the efforts to revive Elvis continued, he sensed immediately that the worst had happened.
Eventually, Dr. Nichopoulos was reached. He arrived, as did an ambulance, and a small group took the last fast ride with Elvis to Baptist Hospital, resuscitation attempts continuing all the while. No one had much hope. Though the adoring outer world was as yet unaware of any problem (not even the small throng at the gates knew what to make of the ambulance), a life — indeed, it would seem, an era — had already ended. At 3:30 p.m., at Baptist Hospital, Elvis Aron Presley was pronounced dead. The cause of death was given as “cardiac arrhythmia,” and the vaguely musical sound of that was somehow consoling, in a way that a diagnosis of simple heart failure would not have been. For who could associate the word “failure” with the heartbeat that for so many years had caused a generation to throb to its rhythm?
Needless to document was the dramatic response when Elvis Presley’s death was announced, beginning in trickles shortly after four o’clock Memphis time — with news bulletins that in some places interrupted the playing of Elvis’ records — and becoming torrents by evening. The networks presented special broadcasts that night, and the front pages of the great majority of the world’s newspapers had but one prominent story to display.
There is no way of counting the thousands everywhere who left whatever they were doing and drove all night or cashed in their savings to fly to Memphis to pay homage. Before it was all over, an estimated 200,000 people, both local and otherwise, were to pay their respects, either at the mansion, where the body lay in state on Wednesday, or at Forest Hill Cemetery, where Elvis was interred Thursday. Two female admirers were to pay with their lives when they were run down by an intoxicated youth as they stood on darkened Elvis Presley Boulevard outside the mansion on Wednesday night.
Vignettes from late Tuesday afternoon in Memphis: a driver honking his horn incessantly when he got the news on his radio; a child, on being asked if he knew anything about the deceased, saying, “Yeah, he’s the man who broke a record singing for 40 years”; an American flag at half-mast in front of a McDonald’s on Winchester within minutes after the death had been announced; an endless line of cars driving slowly in both directions past Graceland with their parking lights on at twilight, combining with the driveway lights to produce an eerie, other-worldly, effect.
All morning on Wednesday, the crowd had gathered outside Graceland, waiting impatiently for the gates to be opened so that mourners could file up into the house to see the body, which would be lying in state. A woman shouted, “They’ve got to bring him out,” and other women suffered apparent heat-strokes or fainted — some of them carefully brushing their hair back into place as they were carried to a first-aid area just inside the gates. City policemen and sheriff’s deputies, along with Air National Guardsmen, stood at the fences to maintain order. In an area on the Graceland lawn roped off for the news media, there was a babel of tongues, reporters speaking with all varieties of American accents and in French, in German, in Spanish, and in languages no one else could identify.
At three o’clock, the mourners were allowed to enter in single file, and they walked slowly, in surprisingly good order, up the driveway, past the towering oak and maple trees, past the wreaths on the front lawn — some of them conventional, others in the shapes of hearts and guitars — up the steps that were flanked by stone lions, and into the alcove of the house, where, under the watchful eyes of guards, they stole brief glimpses of Elvis in the casket. Many of them left the house in tears, assisted by companions as they walked back down the driveway.
There was not just one Elvis on display up there; rather, he seemed to be a montage of the several phases of his career. He did indeed look heavy and no longer young in the casket, even distressed, but the plain silver tie, modest blue shirt, and white suit — the latter a present from his father — harkened back to the almost suburban Elvis of the early Sixties, and the hair, combed back from his forehead and close to his scalp, was a remainder of the raunchy ducktailed kid from Humes High. He did not seem so much a king lying there as he did a sad, sweet prince, an aging Hamlet. Really, there was every reason to cry.
As might have been expected, bizarre stories were being circulated in the days after Elvis’ death. A speed-freaky youth who had somehow infiltrated the crowd of newspeople at Graceland was busy telling anyone who would listen that he had evidence that Elvis was murdered. Poisoned, in fact, and he was prepared to be quite detailed as to who had done it and why. And there were those among the mourners who argued, conversely, that Elvis had not died at all, that the man in the casket was someone else, the innocent look-alike victim of a gigantic conspiracy, an infernal hoax.
There were others, at closer range, who claimed knowledge of another Elvis — not a double or an imposter, but a personality that lurked behind the façade of the public man. A paperback book entitled Elvis – What Happened? had surfaced in stores, ironically, only a week or so before Presley’s death. The authors were Red West, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler, longtime Presley insiders who were fired from their jobs with Elvis Presley Enterprises the previous year for reasons that remain obscure.
The book alleges numerous personal flaws and much that is there seems, even on the face of things, to be overblown, but what can be distilled from the account is a portrait of a man who was often, like the rest of us, troubled by adversity, and whose pursuit of the Good Life had, on occasion, Rabelaisian overtones. Members of Elvis’ entourage do not deny that, as the three ex-bodyguards allege, he was to some degree dependent on “prescription” drugs, nor that he had a passion for firearms. Elvis, who excelled at many things besides those for which he was famous, was reputed to be something of a marksman. One incident from Elvis – What Happened? deserves attention: The book relates how Elvis sat down to a snack one day and was watching a TV variety show when Robert Goulet appeared on the screen and began to wail a contemporary ballad. Elvis listened for a while and then fetched a gun, aimed at the television set, and drilled a bullet into the screen, silencing Goulet in mid-phrase, muttering something as if to say, That’s enough of that. There are many, in this age of the Gong Show, who would not quarrel with his aim.
And there was yet another Elvis, the movie star who, though something of a film freak, could not bear to watch his own movies. In most of the productions he starred in, he would alternately sing songs and engage in action-movie heroics, always, in the last reel, winning the girl. He did not begrudge the pleasure which these formula films gave his legions of admirers, and he understood the relationship they had to his legend. But he had been a great admirer of Marlon Brando, and he had waited in vain for the role or the script which he thought would properly challenge his own dramatic gifts. He believed, not without reason, that he understood the nature of human hopes and fears as well as anyone. In more than one way, his career had forced him behind various cordons of protection, and it was this fact of his life he regretted above all.
It will take a long time before the respective accounts of Elvis Presley, converging from the separate directions of idolatry and resentment, merge into an authentic record of his personality. Meanwhile, his vast public relies, not on biographers, but on his own deep intuitive belief in the Myth of Elvis — not “myth” in the sense of misstatement of fact; rather, myth in the archetypal sense, of something profoundly true.
And although the Elvis Presley story is not now, and may never be, complete, his funeral and burial on Thursday, August 16th, certainly concluded one cycle of things. For all of the celebrities who had been reported by the Presley staff as coming, the burden of grief was borne by the thousands of ordinary folk from whose ranks Elvis had sprung. It was they who had accounted for the tens of thousands of wreaths that arrived at Forest Hill Cemetery and were placed in front of the mausoleum where Elvis Presley was laid to rest in the company of 300 other departed souls, many of them from similar backgrounds. It was they who had left hundreds of pencil scrawlings on the wall at Graceland, like the one from Sandy Farr which said: “August 18, 1977. I Was Here. You Were Gone. Love You Always.” It was they, too, who had forced the funeral cortege to a crawl as it proceeded down the street named for him, who charged the hearse as if to embrace it. And it was they who would appear at the cemetery the next day, at the generous invitation of the Presley family, collecting the wreaths as long as they held out and then leftover flowers from them as souvenirs, leaving the ground around the mausoleum at last strewn with a blanket of laurel leaves.
Around a curve in the road at Forest Hill is another memorial. In front of the plot where the remains of Elvis’ mother were laid is a stone cross which shows the Savior flanked by two adoring angels. In front of that is a simple plaque which reads: SUNSHINE OF OUR HOME. GLADYS LOVE PRESLEY. April 25, 1912 – August 14, 1958. NOT MINE BUT THY WILL BE DONE.”
Elvis had died within two days of the anniversary of his mother’s passing. Perhaps this circumstance was propitious. He had believed in the eventual reincarnation of himself and his mother, who was beyond doubt the strongest single influence in his life. It was she who had taught him the essence of belief — belief in self and belief in a benevolent, ever-watchful God. For all the cynics and carpers who were skeptical of Elvis’ spirituality, those closest to him entertained few doubts. They would speak of a man with a far-reaching intelligence, who probed deeply into the things of heaven and earth, who was a student of Zen and the prophecies of Nostradamus, and who, they said, was himself possessed of profound psychic abilities — including, on occasion, the gift of healing. At least one member of Elvis’ entourage would not discount the possibility that Elvis himself somehow was of divine origin.
That, after all the splendor of his career, Elvis would die in his own home of natural causes like many another middle-aged American male before him is something that probably never crossed his mind. And perhaps it was this circumstance which gave his face the look of surprise which so many thought they observed as he lay in his casket. Many of his former hit songs were played on radio and television in the days after his death, but one of them received singular attention and sounded especially haunting. It was the ballad which began, “Are you lonesome tonight? / Do you miss me tonight? . . .” For much of the world at large, the answer was, and would continue to be, Yes.