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People Top 5
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- December 04, 1978
- Vol. 10
- No. 23
"Elvis Was My Life"
For the First Time, Priscilla Presley opens up about Elvis, Motherhood, and an Acting Career
It has been nearly two decades since Priscilla first caught the eye of Sgt. Elvis Presley in West Germany. She was at the time the precociously beautiful 14-year-old daughter of an Air Force captain. In 1972 she stunned Elvis—and fans everywhere—by dramatically walking out on their fairytale marriage. But even after his death, while others of the Memphis Mafia scrambled to cash in their memories, Priscilla remained private and deeply loyal. Typically, she marked the hysterical first anniversary of Presley's death last August 16 her own way, slipping unnoticed into St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. She was joined there by her current love, Michael Edwards, a 33-year-old model and sometime actor. "It meant so much to me," she muses now, "that a man in my life was sharing the moments of another man in my life." But since Elvis' death, Priscilla Presley has never—until this interview with PEOPLE'S Judy Kessler—shared it with the world.
That first August anniversary turned out to be a watershed in Priscilla's life. She and Edwards, whom she met at a party in her Beverly Hills home last June, have lived together ever since. Simultaneously, she is now making her strongest effort to escape the Presley past. "With Elvis," she says, "my life was his life. He had to be happy. We never disturbed him. My problems were secondary." Today Priscilla has decided, "I want to grow. I want to do things." Her divorce settlement—$1.7 million plus $8,000 a month until 1983—notwithstanding, one of the things Priscilla wants is an acting career. "I was just starting to get into it when Elvis died. Then I realized that I would have to wait a year. I didn't want people to say that I was capitalizing on that."
This fall Priscilla "decided I might as well give it a try." She's sold the Beverly Hills boutique she ran, signed with the William Morris Agency, studied acting and is talking of making feature films or at least a TV movie. But what was to be her debut—a guest shot on a Tony Orlando NBC special—is in limbo. The network keeps postponing the show and can't decide whether or not to drop Orlando's guest lineup in favor of a solo concert. "The pressure and rejection can pound you right down to the ground," she admits. "I don't want that to happen to me."
Priscilla's other worry is that developing her career might require too much time away from her daughter, who is now 10. With her heavy-lidded eyes and natural pout, Lisa looks startlingly like her dad. "It was extemely difficult for her when her father died—they were very, very close," says Priscilla. After considerable brooding, she decided to send Lisa away to camp both immediately after the funeral and again this past August to get her away from "all the sadness and grief. She was around playful kids and didn't hear the news all the time. She was still hurt, but she's very secure. She's a strong, strong girl."
That Lisa is so well-adjusted is a tribute to her mother, who "always felt a major responsibility, because Elvis was never really around children ever." One problem was curbing the extravagant gifts that a man who gave Cadillacs to utter strangers tried to lavish on his only child. "He wanted to give her a fur coat, a diamond ring," Priscilla recalls. "I told him there's no way I will allow her to wear a diamond ring at the age of 8. So he returned it. He just needed to be enlightened a little bit. That's the one thing Elvis used to laugh at. He'd say, 'You know, you're no fun to give presents to, because you could live in a shack and be happy.' "
Now that Lisa will be sole heir to a multimillion-dollar fortune, Priscilla (her legal guardian) feels that her sternness has paid off. "She's not aware of how much money she has," says Mother, "and I don't know myself because it's something I'm not into. Lisa goes around turning off all the lights in the house, because she knows the electric bill is high." Priscilla also filters Lisa's friends, trying to make sure "she's liked for herself at first," and nixes what she calls "label people—Lisa has no idea who Gucci is. There are children in this town who do, and I don't want her around that type of person."
Priscilla traces "my basic values to my parents—and my whole outlook on life to Elvis." Even as a child in Connecticut, where she was the eldest of six children of a strict Air Force career man, she says, "I always knew that something extraordinary was going to happen to me." It did in Bad Nauheim, Germany. When Elvis finished his hitch as an Army driver and returned to the U.S., he gave her a pearl ring, a gold-and-diamond watch and his GI jacket. When Priscilla was not yet 16 and still "a child full of dreams," Elvis sent for her.
"It was a long ordeal," remembers Priscilla of her parents' initially shocked reaction. "Elvis had to do a lot of talking on the phone to get me over there. But he promised my father that I would go to a Catholic school in Memphis, and my grades had to be up all the time. Of course they weren't." Sometimes Elvis picked her up at school in a limo, and he flew her back and forth from his movie sets in L.A. "It was a life-style so outrageous," she now senses, "that I'm just thankful I've come out sane." Then at 21, in a Las Vegas civil ceremony, she undertook the position of consort that she'd been groomed for all those years. A band played Love Me Tender. Nine months later to the day, Lisa was born.
Though her dislocations as an Air Force brat had prepared her for Elvis' peripatetic life-style, Priscilla never adjusted to his coterie of hangers-on and sycophants. "I would just take it all in," she says, "and learn from how people acted. I saw the phoniness, the bullshit, that was going on. I would sit back and think, 'My God, I don't ever want to be like that.' " In 1972 Priscilla told Elvis between shows one night in Las Vegas that she'd fallen in love with another man (Mike Stone, her karate instructor). "She was up front about it," one of Presley's bodyguard cronies later wrote in Elvis: What Happened? "She didn't want to make a fool of Elvis. I liked her for that."
Even after their split, Priscilla continued to visit Graceland with Lisa. "It was like we were never divorced," she remembers. "Elvis and I still hugged each other, still had love. We would say 'Mommy said this' and 'Daddy said that.' That helped Lisa to feel stable. There was never any arguing or bitterness." When Elvis' death came, it "was a shock," Priscilla says, "although I saw his health failing and even went back to Memphis once to see if there was anything I could do." Now Priscilla seethes at rumors of a subsequent falling-out between herself and Elvis' father, Vernon. "There is no feud," she says. "We get along beautifully." She still phones "Mr. Presley" (recently hospitalized for a heart condition) regularly and takes Lisa back to Graceland for Christmas and Easter. "I never want that contact lost," says Priscilla firmly. "It's her family."
After the romance with Stone, and another with hairdresser Elie Erzer, Priscilla has settled happily into her unwed relationship with Mike Edwards. "For the first time in my life I have been able to do and be everything I want." Mike, in turn, says, "She turned me from a gypsy into a grown-up man. This is what males search for all their lives." Edwards, who has an 11-year-old daughter by his own first marriage, feels that "Lisa likes me. But definitely her father isn't out of her mind. And it's difficult for any 10-year-old, even if she's looking for a father substitute, to replace one man with another." Not so for Priscilla. "I've never compared Elvis to anyone or them to him," she says. "Everyone has their good points and bad points." A formal commitment, though, is beyond consideration. "To me, marriage means nothing," Priscilla continues. "It makes you feel like you're glued. I think Michael and I have more in a relationship than most people have in a marriage."
The three of them live in her three-bedroom contemporary house with pool and tennis court. Her jet-black beehive and masklike makeup that Elvis once loved have given way to a soft, natural beauty, symbolic of her new freedom. Mother wakes her daughter up at 7:30 singing. Lisa writes notes to her on her blackboard like "Dear Mommy, I'll miss you today at school." It's a private school and two days a week, Priscilla drives the carpool (in a Mercedes sports car). Then she comes home to read the paper or take her daily half-hour swim with Edwards. Priscilla shuns premieres, Hollywood bashes and the modish bistros. "If I go out, I want a nice, romantic dinner with my man." Her favorite activities, aside from discoing, are horseback riding, camping in their Jeep and long "mother-daughter talks" in the bathroom. "We want to experience everything together."
Aside from acting, another possibility—though still some years away—is a book to set straight the "rumors, misconceptions and lies" Priscilla feels have been published since Elvis' death. "It's cruel, and I knew it would happen," she says. "I feel I owe it to his fans," she adds. "I just want people to know and love him." Of course, that might mean reliving some pain. "The kind of thing Priscilla's been through, what she's seen and experienced couldn't happen to any other woman in the world," says Edwards. Priscilla concurs: "I feel like I've lived four lifetimes." Even now she avoids Presley records, movies and the TV retrospectives. "I have beautiful memories—good more than bad—but I would be torturing myself, and I can't do that to myself or my child. I went through a lot at a young age. Life is so short, I don't want to dwell on the sadness. That chapter is closed."
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