Elvis: End of an Era
The story of the King's passing, as told in our September 1977 issue.
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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.