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- August 21, 1978
- Vol. 10
- No. 8
One Year Later
'Elvis Was the Light That Shined on Everybody': A Glimpse into a Year of Grief, Confusion and Riches
His force and following seem undiminished. This week no less than 150,000 people are expected to converge on Memphis for the anniversary vigil and tribute. Presley enterprises continue to grow as bullishly as if he were still alive—perhaps even more so—forging a multimillion-dollar estate so complex it will take years to measure and untangle. Graceland remains as he left it. His upstairs living quarters have been locked, his clothes left hanging in the closets. His three cars stand idle.
Nothing is changed and everything is different—especially for those who were among Graceland's inner court. Dear friends and relatives are still allowed in the mansion, but few have much taste for going back. Its only inhabitants are Elvis' chronically ill grandmother, Minnie Mae Presley, 89, and her daughter, Delta Mae Biggs, 54, who cares for her. Most of the payrolled coterie are gone.
Perhaps they are the lucky ones. The people on these pages are still tied to Elvis—by love, blood and money—and they struggle with the adjustment to life without him. For some it's as simple as learning to sleep at night instead of during the day, as the nocturnal Elvis did; for others as basic as deciding what to do and how to act once the mainspring of 20 years has snapped. "Elvis was Graceland," says his cousin Billy Smith, for years one of the singer's close aides and now a maintenance man on the Illinois Central-Gulf Railroad. "He was the light that shined on everybody. Once the light's gone, you have to look for something else."
Priscilla and Lisa make a new life in Beverly Hills
"I was always a little girl to him," said Priscilla Presley recently, recalling her six-year marriage to Elvis. In fact she was a 14-year-old Air Force brat when they began their seven-year courtship during his tour as a Gl in Germany.
Yet, since their divorce in 1973, Priscilla, perhaps uniquely, has had the chance to grow up—and away from Elvis. The Memphis bouffant hairdo and thick cosmetics are long gone, and she seems to thrive on the day-and night-sports of Beverly Hills, where she lives in a three-bedroom house with Elvis' only daughter and eventual sole heir, Lisa Marie. Now 31, Priscilla dabbles at painting, photography, Eastern religion and gourmet cooking. The divorce settlement was generous. "She doesn't have to worry," a friend says. After a three-year romance with karate instructor Mike Stone, Priscilla has been dating Hollywood hairdresser Elie Erzer and model Michael Edwards. She has returned to Memphis only once since the funeral. "Elvis' death affected her deeply," says the friend. "But she's strong now—she's her own person."
Lisa apparently has no idea what riches she is heir to and is shielded from knowing too much too soon "very carefully," says Graceland security chief Dick Grobe. Still, for a normal Beverly Hills 10-year-old who goes to camp and private school and has a crush on John Travolta, a friend of Priscilla's, she seems remarkably savvy in some ways. "She's very aware of who has exploited her father's death," says Linda Thompson, who lived with Elvis for five years post-Priscilla. "She doesn't like it, but she understands." Like Grobe, Linda credits Priscilla with having raised a "happy, well-adjusted" child. "She's looking more like Elvis every day," says Linda. "She has his eyes. You know how Elvis had that very lonely, faraway gaze? She has the same look in her eyes."
Vernon and Colonel Parker keep the cash flowing
Until Lisa turns 21, the man watching over the Presley fortune is Elvis' father, Vernon, 62. Named sole executor of the estate in the will, Vernon has endured "a very traumatic year," according to one close friend. "This has been a total devastation for him. He lost more than a son; he lost his best friend. He's completely alone now except for Lisa."
For three years Vernon has lived in a five-bedroom house around the corner from Graceland with his girlfriend-nurse, Sandy Miller, 39, and her three children. But later this month they reportedly plan to move to Graceland and to get married sometime after that. Even the short commute to his office there has been taxing for Vernon. He suffers from a heart condition, a pinched nerve in his neck, diabetes and back problems that force him to lie still on the floor for hours at a time. He cannot walk more than 50 feet without a rest. But every day he climbs into a pickup truck (which he prefers to his Cadillac) and drives to Graceland. Business, after all, is booming. Record sales this year are figured at $400 million, and another $100 million or so has come in from sales of T-shirts, toys and other licensed Presliana. Vernon, meanwhile, has signed on with the William Morris Agency and now demands $25,000 for an interview.
Col. Tom Parker, the cigar-chomping, carny-smart manager who masterminded Elvis' career, is keeping other cash registers ringing as well. Parker, 67, hopes to start production soon on a film, The Elvis Presley Years. Parker's cut, according to one source, will be $5,000 per week once work gets underway.
Graceland: old retainers hustle in the name of TCB
Few people were more affected by Elvis' death than Graceland's staff and the relatives, buddies and gofers collectively known as the Memphis Mafia. Many have become minor celebrities in Elvis' reflected glory.
His Uncle Vester, 63, is an author now, and he promotes his book from a folding chair just inside the four-foot walls of Graceland. For the past 21 years Vernon Presley's peppery older brother has been the mansion's gatekeeper. A Presley Speaks, his homespun reminiscence, comes in both a $10 edition and a gold-bound $25 deluxe version that is wrapped in an Elvis scarf and signed by the author. Vester reveals that Elvis "was very sick for the last two years—liver problems, bad colon, enlarged heart," and adds, "I don't think I'll ever get over his death." Even with the book's brisk sales at the gatehouse, Vester says the job is "getting to me. When Elvis was living here, there were days when it was quiet. But now there's no rest."
Cousin Billy Smith is a different sort. For years he lived in a trailer on Graceland's 13-acre grounds, and legend has it that Elvis sometimes wouldn't go to bed without his cousin in the room. Now "I stay as far away as I can," says Billy, 36. "It brings back too many memories." Occasionally he turns up at his late cousin's old Mississippi ranch to sign autographs and chat with fans taking the $2 tour. There, inside a tiny cottage, he keeps a display of memorabilia, including motorcycle gloves once worn by Elvis and a racket Elvis gave him. But Billy accepts no pay for his appearances and says he'll be staying with the railroad. "It's a sure thing," he explains.
Pauline Nicholson, 49, a cook and maid at Graceland for the past 15 years, has stayed on to work for Grandma Minnie and Aunt Delta, but Elvis' death is still a fresh wound. If anything, she says, it's "harder on me now than it was at first." She was one of the last to speak to him before his death in an upstairs bathroom, and the memory still brings tears: "I thought maybe he was ready to eat, but he said, 'I'm not hungry, Pauline. I'm just going up and go to sleep.' " Having sold the Buick Le Sabre, a gift from him in 1964, her most prized memento is the neck pendant he gave her—and the other women close to him—shaped in the initials TLC, for Tender Loving Care.
For the men it was TCB—Taking Care of Business—and security chief Dick Grobe heeds the message. "I think the hardest job I've ever had in my entire life was to set up the security for the funeral," says Grobe, 38. Lisa Presley came to Grobe because she heard he had lost his father when he was a little boy. They went for a ride in a golf cart, and Grobe gently told Elvis' daughter: "You'll get over the loss. The world isn't going to stop. But you'll always have the memories." He adds: "She accepted that."
Grobe was a Palm Springs police sergeant when he was assigned to Elvis' honeymoon detail in 1967. Four years ago he joined the singer's Memphis staff. Elvis' death, he says, "has left a big emptiness in my life. We're just taking care of business, like the slogan says."
Part of Grobe's off-duty business is shepherding the career of Charlie Hodge, 43, the rhythm guitarist and harmony singer who performed with Elvis for nearly two decades. The 5'3" Hodge is probably most famous as the little man on the bandstand who kept Elvis draped in sweaty scarves. Charlie recently moved out of Graceland's garage apartment and into his own place in Memphis ("Mr. [Vernon] Presley made that decision—I didn't," he confesses). Hodge works Elvis conventions and record stores as a celebrity autographer and occasionally picks up $1,000 by singing at tribute concerts. There is "no animosity" about his Graceland leave-taking, he insists. "They have my phone number, and they know they can call me any hour of the day or night to do anything. I'll be there."
Linda and Ginger: His last leading ladies
After his years with Priscilla, plus a few backstage flings (with Ann-Margret, Juliet Prowse and others), Elvis turned to a pair of homegrown beauties. Linda Thompson, a striking Miss Tennessee of 1972, moved into Graceland after Elvis' divorce and stayed for five years. Ginger Alden, Memphis' Miss Traffic Safety of 1976, was the singer's last steady companion. She discovered his body on the morning he died.
Linda, 28, a sometime actress and one of the regulars on TV's Hee Haw, divides her time among Los Angeles, Memphis and Nashville. She has kept her friendly ties to the Presley clan, visits Graceland frequently and often talks by phone with Elvis' daughter, Lisa. For the past 18 months her steady beau has been David Briggs, a keyboard player at Elvis' recording sessions. "I still miss Elvis a lot," says Linda. "I'll never love that way again. But I don't really want to. I don't miss the confinement. I don't miss the restrictions and the restraining kind of lifestyle. I don't miss sleeping all day and staying up all night."
If Linda's hours are now more normal, her career in Hollywood is still erratic. She recently posed on roller-skates for some cheesecake poster art, but she insists on setting herself apart from those who have exploited the Elvis connection. "It's as if everyone was planning all the years they were with him, 'Should anything happen to Elvis, man, I could do this, I could do that,' " she complains. "Suddenly people are turning up diaries they've kept, or home movies. Everybody is writing books. It's really sad. Elvis was a human soul, not a commodity."
Ginger Alden insists that her own first movie has nothing to do with Elvis. That The Living Legend will tell of an overweight rock'n'roll superstar who keeps an entourage of karate-chopping bodyguards is, she suggests, merely coincidental. All the same, her debut role as the star's girlfriend, concedes Ginger, will probably "come naturally for me."
Alden was a 19-year-old Memphis beauty contestant when she was introduced to Elvis in 1976. "Our first date was the next night," she recalls. "We went for a ride in the Stutz, and then we flew to Las Vegas. That was a different kind of date for me." Ginger still has the three cars and headlight diamond Elvis gave her, and she is rankled by those who doubt that he planned to marry her. "Even Elvis' jeweler said we were engaged," she says.
Ginger now lives in the Memphis suburbs with her parents. Her mother has filed suit against the Presley estate, claiming that Elvis promised to pay off the family mortgage. Ginger hasn't been inside Graceland since the funeral, but says that Elvis' death "is the first thing that hits me when I wake up. It's like everything in life is different."
And so it is, for most of those who once lived so securely in Elvis' shadow. Despite the passage of time and the crowds in Memphis this week, Graceland may well be the loneliest place in town. "Everything is just as it was when he was living," says Linda Thompson. "When you come into the house, you expect Elvis to come down the stairs and say, 'Hey, what's going on, everybody?' You expect it to be lively and happy. And it's just not."
April 18, 2015
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