The marriage of the king of rock’n’roll seemed a fairytale romance but, according to a new book, behind the glamour lurked a womaniser obsessed with teenage girls.
High in the annals of American cultural mythology is Elvis Presley’s courtship of a 14-year-old doll-faced schoolgirl who later became his virgin bride. As a modern fairy tale, spanning the awkward transition between 1950s puritanism and the hedonism of the 1960s, it had something to appeal to every fan.
True, Priscilla Beaulieu was a mere child when she was introduced to the 24-year-old rock god, then doing his military service in Germany. But Elvis, for all his dangerous pelvic gyrations, was a good old-fashioned Southern boy at heart: never once, he claimed, did he take advantage of her, even after her parents allowed her to move in with him.
The pictures of their May 1967 wedding, eight years after they met, became a defining image of the decade — not least because of Priscilla’s extraordinary appearance. The massive bouffant of black hair and Cleopatra eyeliner would not have seemed out of place on a streetwalker, yet her tiny pinched face and demure white wedding gown — a loose-fitting affair that covered her neck, arms and bust — suggested that every propriety had indeed been observed.
Well, perhaps not every. Priscilla herself admitted in 2002 that “instead of consummating our love in a usual way, he began teaching me other ways of pleasing him. We had a strong connection, much of it sexual”. But when a 1997 biography dared to suggest she had not been virgo intacta on her wedding night, she promptly sued for $10m (£6.6m).
The lawsuit for defamation was filed against Currie Grant, a former airman who had been friends with Elvis, for his claim that he had had sex with Priscilla in exchange for introducing her to Elvis. Priscilla was incandescent: far from taking her virginity, she said, Grant had attempted to rape her — and she had escaped.
Grant lost the case and was ordered to pay $75,000. The allegation had been proved false; the myth of the virgin princess could be reburnished for future generations and all the hordes of Elvis tourists who every year make pilgrimages to Graceland, his Memphis home.
Now another biographer has dared to enter the arena. According to Alanna Nash, author of Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women who Loved Him, which has been published in America and will come out in Britain in May, there was something odd about the damages awarded against Grant. In fact, she claims, he never paid them. And, odder still, Priscilla herself agreed he should not do so.
Nash — an American country music author who has written books on Elvis and Dolly Parton — has unearthed a 1998 confidential settlement agreement between Grant and Priscilla that puts a different light on the outcome of the court case. On the one hand, it says, Priscilla can tell the media that she feels “vindicated” by the result of her lawsuit. On the other, Grant will not have to pay a cent in damages provided he never discusses her again in public. Furthermore, while Grant will no longer claim to have had sex with Priscilla, she will no longer accuse him of attempted rape and will pay him $15,000 for pictures he took when she was a teenager.
What to make of this? Nash argues: “Clearly Priscilla has taken extraordinary measures to silence Currie Grant, presumably to protect the myth of how she met Elvis and whether she was a virgin at the time.” There is another possibility. Could it be that, despite the alleged rape, the massively rich former Mrs Presley simply took pity on a man who had, after all, introduced her to her future husband?
In her book, Nash claims that the Priscilla of 1959 — the year she met Elvis — was not exactly the innocent schoolgirl of the accepted fairytale romance. Miserable at being uprooted from Texas to Wiesbaden, Germany, where her stepfather was serving in the American air force, she was soon flirting with a crowd of black-leather-jacketed boys at an air force club.
Nor was Elvis quite the Southern gentleman. Since his arrival in Germany, the sheer volume of women with whom he’d had some kind of relationship, whether sexual or emotional, bordered on the pathological. According to his friend Lamar Fike: “In Germany Elvis was fascinated with the idea of real young teenage girls, which scared the crap out of all of us.” There was at least one affair with a 15-year-old, and a 23-year-old he met was deemed “too old”.
On the evening that Grant introduced Priscilla to Elvis, it was immediately apparent that the singer was enchanted with the schoolgirl. Indeed, Grant found him kissing her against a wall. By 8.30pm, according to several people in the house, says Nash, Elvis had taken her up to his bedroom. They did not emerge until after 1am.
At the time, Elvis was still in grief after the death of his mother, Gladys, to whom he had been exceptionally close. Nash notes that from the first he wore eye shadow and mascara when performing to accentuate his likeness to her. One of his friends, Joe Esposito, who was there on the night that Priscilla met Elvis, said: “He was attracted to women who reminded him of his mother, as Priscilla did with [her][ dark hair and beautiful eyes.”
Nash — who has spoken to dozens of Elvis’s friends and members of his former entourage — believes the star transferred all his “symbolic feelings” for his mother to Priscilla; indeed he would later tell Priscilla that he knew when he first saw her that she was his “twin soul”.
As she continued to visit him at the house he was renting while he served as a GI, she made Grant her confidant. Excited by her tales, he tried to kiss and fondle her one day in his car, he says, but stopped when she made it clear his attentions were unwanted. Much later, when told what he had said, Priscilla claimed she’d been so terrified that she’d blown the horn and kicked the doors open. When he tried either to fondle or to rape her again — depending on whom you believe — she says she told her parents and Elvis what had happened. Grant disputes this: he remained part of her circle, he insists, and still gave her lifts in his car. These were the accusations that led to her lawsuit many years later.
She was now seeing Elvis three or four nights a week and grew so sleepy in class that he gave her pills to keep her awake. Aware that Elvis was also entertaining other girlfriends — one or two in their teens — she felt pressure to please him.
The rest of the story is less romantic than that usually put forward by the multi-million-dollar Elvis industry. In 1960 his army service came to an end. Priscilla remained with her parents in Germany while Elvis started making a long string of undistinguished Hollywood movies. While filming GI Blues he became obsessed with the 14-year-old daughter of the owner of a nightclub-restaurant. Sandy Ferra was better protected than Priscilla — her mother accompanied them on every date. Finally, according to Nash, Elvis asked to have a word with her mother, Mary Lou. “I would like for you and your daughter to move to Graceland,” he said. Taken aback, Mary Lou told him her daughter was too young. “That’s all right,” said Elvis. “I’m not going to do anything. I just want to raise her. I want her there as my wife.”
The offer was turned down, but the romance with Sandy lasted for six years, although their affair was threaded in between sexual rendezvous with many other women. Some of them have talked to Nash about the jokes he made about “little Elvis”, as he dubbed his penis, and his unselfish approach to sex.
Meanwhile, he was talking frequently to Priscilla on the phone — and sometimes the calls lasted all night. But she, too, was having fun. Her new boyfriend was Tommy Stewart, a student at the American military high school, who sported a leather jacket and slicked-back hair. He smoked, drank and “wasn’t afraid to let people know that he was a dangerous sort of guy”, according to his friend Tom Muldoon.
According to Suzanne Finstad, another biographer, Tommy and Priscilla were very close. She says she was told by Muldoon after her book was published that Priscilla’s mother was very concerned about their relationship. Priscilla had another boyfriend, Al Corey, during a brief break-up with Tommy, who remembers being told by her parents: “Our daughter is with Elvis Presley; you need to find someone else.” Clearly, the Beaulieus not only approved of Elvis’s courtship but also encouraged it.
As the star’s phone calls to Priscilla grew more sporadic, her interest in him returned — or, as Nash says, it may have been prompted by her mother’s fear that she would lose the star for good. In 1962 Priscilla wrote to him begging for an invitation to America. When a girlfriend found the letter, he said it was from a 14-year-old fan. Nash speculates that Elvis perhaps preferred to think of Priscilla as still 14; in reality she was a far from inexperienced 17-year-old.
He sent her a first-class round ticket to Los Angeles, wiring her stepfather a detailed itinerary of where she would be during every moment of her trip, and promising she would have round-the-clock chaperones.
While there, Priscilla consented to be “made over” by a hotel hairdresser, who teased her hair into what Nash describes as “an architectural monstrosity”, lined her eyes with black and glued on two pairs of false eyelashes. She looked like a Las Vegas stripper. Elvis was delighted. Her stepfather, on her return to Germany, made her wipe off all the slap. “Her eyes looked like two piss-holes in the snow,” he said later. But the Beaulieus still let her go back to Elvis at Christmas. Perhaps even they might have been shocked to learn that Elvis gave her two 500mg tranquillisers to “relax” her when she complained of jetlag. She was out cold for two days.
Back in Germany again, Priscilla started flunking classes, which gave Elvis an idea: she could come to Memphis, live with his father and stepmother and attend an excellent Catholic girls’ school to finish her education. It was a bizarre idea, particularly as she was only a few months away from graduating. Astonishingly, her parents agreed and she was delivered into Vernon Presley’s care. According to Nash, Priscilla’s friends in Germany say she never really wanted to go. She had a new boyfriend by then, Jamie Lindberg; Elvis was no longer a round-the-clock obsession.
Was there parental pressure to drive her into the arms of the rich rock star? Priscilla has always claimed there was not, though she has admitted to mixed feelings about leaving her life in Germany. What seems highly likely, though, is that her stepfather extracted a promise from Elvis that he would marry her when she was of age.
Elvis, for his part, considered Priscilla merely “an add-on”, says Nash. He spent much of his time far from Memphis in a house in Los Angeles where he had nightly parties and several lovers, the most important of whom was the Swedish-born actress Ann-Margret Olsson. Even Priscilla was aware that she was not wanted in Hollywood.
When he came home to Memphis, he would take her to Graceland and ask Priscilla to dress up as a schoolgirl or secretary. Eventually he roped in another girl — a hairdresser — to join his teenage girlfriend for videotaped sessions of simulated lesbian sex. Priscilla has said these sessions brought them closer. His tastes grew wilder, too, when they were apart. Now he started spending weekends in Palm Springs and Las Vegas, primarily for bacchanals. Esposito recalls: “Every night we were out chasing showgirls, partying with them all night, going to all the different lounges ... and finally going to sleep in the morning. Then we’d wake up in the afternoon and start all over again.”
Elvis’s friends would trawl the streets for women, using him as bait, and come home with carloads of them. “We talked, smoked grass, drank, went for late swims and even had orgies,” says Esposito.
In 1966 Elvis finally proposed to Priscilla as she was brushing her hair in her ornate dressing-room. According to Sonny West, also in his entourage, he did not really want to marry her at all: “There was still love there but the intensity was gone.” Now that she was 21, her stepfather had asked him to fulfill his obligations. Elvis had resisted for a while; then Beaulieu spoke to Elvis’s powerful manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who told the singer: “You can do one of two things: marry her or break it off.”
Still Elvis dallied about setting a date. In the end, according to Nash, his manager, father and Priscilla formed a triumvirate whose sole aim was to make him walk down the aisle. His father and manager thought marriage might help him to clean up his life, and Priscilla thought that if he had a ring on his finger the philandering might stop.
No such luck. Within a week of the wedding, Elvis knew he had made a mistake, says Nash, and was down on one knee telling Ann-Margret he loved her. A few months on he was romancing the singer Nancy Sinatra. When Priscilla announced she was pregnant, his sexual interest in her all but disappeared, according to Nash. Less than seven years later the modern fairy tale of the virgin bride and the king of rock ended in divorce.
Elvis’s love life continued at a hectic pace. Nash suggests his “rampant sexual conquests” were emotional self-sabotage linked to his continued grief for his mother: “He never seemed to learn from his mistakes, which remained unexamined as he moved on immediately to the next woman, just as he went from doctor to doctor for another supply of pills without investigating ways to quell his urges or take control of his life.”
Just before his 40th birthday he started seeing a 14-year-old girl called Reeca Smith, whom he called his L’il Lioness. She insists he “didn’t take advantage of me”, but she broke off the relationship after a few months because she was upset by his increasing weight and deteriorating health. She told Nash she had once witnessed a seance at which he appeared to make contact with his mother, telling her “how much he missed her and that he loved her and he couldn’t wait to see her”. He died two years later.
A lot of stuff that was already known, but there's still some new info that's...yeah.