The confusion and hostility of their sudden encounter should hardly surprise in view of their separate—and melodramatic—claims. If both their stories are true, then Deborah Presley, 31, a Hollywood movie extra and part-time law clerk, and Desirée Presley, 28, a Los Angeles model, are half sisters—each a long-lost, out-of-wedlock daughter of the King himself, Elvis Presley.
Neither Desirée nor Deborah was known to Elvis nor, until recently, had either suspected the existence of the other. As also might be expected, neither woman fully accepts the other's assertion of a common patrimony. Now, as the 10th anniversary of Elvis' death approaches, each woman seeks to buttress her position through a book—one just published, the other still in manuscript—amid understandable public skepticism. Deborah and Desirée are, after all, the latest in a handful of young women and men to claim illegitimate descent from the Pelvis. The field is getting so crowded that on a recent Late Night show, David Letterman asked all members of the audience who were not Elvis' illegitimate children to please stand up.
So are these two princesses or pretenders? For the moment Desirée appears to have the more solid case, thanks to a book due in stores this week, by her mother, Lucy de Barbin. Recalling one of Elvis' sad songs, de Barbin, now 50, titled her story Are You Lonesome Tonight? in it she claims to have had a sporadic 24-year secret romance as the King's "one true love," producing a "child he never knew."
Written with co-author Dary Matera, a former reporter for the Miami News and the sensationalistic National Enquirer, de Barbin's tale is sentimental and convoluted, with a certain flavor of soap opera. Born in Louisiana to a family of French ancestry, she was all but sold as a child bride at age 11 to a 45-year-old husband whom she describes as violent and abusive. She had three daughters by him before she was 19. "The Man, "as Lucy refers to him throughout, was Richard "Dixie" W.D. Ware, whose ill-explained business trips often took him away from their Monroe, La. home. In his absence Lucy worked as a teenage dancer on local TV. During a lavish party hosted by the station owner in 1953, she says she met an 18-year-old singer/guitar player, then regarded as hardly more than a striving hillbilly. He said he was Elvis Presley. What a strange name, Lucy thought.
As luck would have it, by de Barbin's account, she got an assignment as a photographer's model shortly afterward in Memphis, where one of her sisters had a home near Presley's. Lucy says she and the aspiring rock 'n' roller began to meet. Out of fear of losing him, de Barbin says, she could not bring herself to tell Presley that she was already married and a mother. In perfervid prose Lucy tells how they pledged undying devotion to each other and consummated their vows with passion on a grassy hilltop. As Presley's career began its spectacular ascent, Lucy says, their affair continued to thrive. Then came Elvis' well-publicized entry into the Army in March 1958 and his eventual posting to West Germany. Unbeknownst to Presley or to her husband (whom Lucy had fled by then and would ultimately divorce), de Barbin quietly gave birth to her fourth daughter in Alexandria, La., on Aug. 24, 1958. The birth certificate listed the child's name as Desirée Romaine Presley. (Desirée was Elvis' pet name for Lucy, she explains, derived from a movie they saw together.) Nearly everything else—the father was listed as Randolph Presley, civil engineer—was falsified.
Circumstances changed. Elvis found a new love in Germany, a Captain's daughter named Priscilla Beaulieu. "At that time I was so anguished and hurt," de Barbin says, "I decided, 'All right, so he'll never know about his daughter.' " In 1960 de Barbin married her second husband, Alexandria businessman Jack Greer. The family moved to Dallas that year. Though she claims there was little affection in their relationship, she bore two more children, a son and a daughter.
In 1967 Elvis finally married Priscilla. But just three months later, according to Lucy, he came back into her life as well. She says he somehow located her and phoned, using his private—if unimaginative—code name of "John Jones." Their affair resumed, off and on, over the next 10 years, Lucy says, in this city or that, in hotel rooms and parks, often under pseudonyms and other disguises. She called him "El" or, more expansively, "El Lancelot." She remained his Desirée.
She says she never told him about the daughter she named Desirée, though she came close near the end of his life. By then he appeared physically bloated while his career seemed to be sliding downhill. Lucy reports they had one last phone conversation, shortly before he died. "I told him, 'El, I have this wonderful secret that will make you so happy.' There was silence on the other end, and then El said, 'I hope it's true what I'm thinking.' "
De Barbin says she never confided in her children, though they had begun to suspect her secret years before. In retellings of the family chronology, Desirée says, she noticed that her siblings' origins sounded more clear than hers did. Then there were her looks, particularly a nose that sister Denise said looked exactly like Presley's before it was bashed in a car accident when Desirée was 18. Desirée says she also remembers those mysterious "John Jones" phone calls, the dozen roses that came on Lucy's birthdays, the old Elvis movies on TV that mother refused to watch and Lucy's mournful expression when she beheld the Elvis posters her daughters hung on their walls. When Desirée applied for a passport at 19, she obtained a copy of her birth certificate—and saw, for the first time, that startling surname. Moving to Los Angeles, she began to call herself by her given name. That created a rift with Lucy, who, says Desirée, never gave her all the details until she wrote her book.
Why the delay? Lucy claims it was fear of scandal. "I wanted to be a good mother, first," she says. "Elvis understood that we should not jeopardize anything or anyone we loved because of ourselves. With my childhood marriage, children almost my own age, I knew others would try to exploit our relationship and say bad things." Particularly after the 1968 birth of Lisa Marie, Presley's daughter with wife Priscilla, she says, "It would not have been pleasant."
De Barbin has finally gone public in part "to give Desirée her rightful heritage" and in part, she says, because of the persistence of co-author Matera, who had picked up the illegitimate-Presley-daughter rumor. Lucy scoffs at reports of a million-dollar advance, admitting only to a payment "in five figures" that helped her through four years of authorship. (She is separated from her second husband and lists "clothing designer" as her usual occupation.) "Elvis never had to buy my love," says de Barbin, who claims to have turned down many expensive gifts from Elvis. Moreover mother and daughter have publicly disavowed any claim on the Graceland estate. Even so, as they make the talk show rounds promoting the book, the financial fallout could be substantial. Anticipating blockbuster sales, de Barbin's publisher, Villard, began with a 175,000 first printing, and rights have been sold to NBC for a miniseries.
In distinct contrast to Desirée, who tends to be reticent in public, Deborah Presley is unabashedly direct in her assertion that she is Elvis' firstborn. As she tells it, her mother, Barbara Jean Lewis, then 15, met Presley in 1954 when he was in Charlotte, N.C. to sing background jingles in a studio near her home. Deborah contends that she was conceived the following year, when Presley and her mother, a singer, spent a week in Jackson, Miss. "It was not a long, big affair," says Deborah, and Barbara Jean never again saw Presley, except at a distance.
Shortly thereafter her mother married a 17-year-old named Don Yandel, and he was listed as the father on Deborah's birth certificate. Though her mother steadfastly refused to talk about it, Deborah also harbored suspicions, largely, she says, because of similarities in her appearance to Elvis. Then, according to Deborah, there came a striking occurence when she was 21. Four months before Elvis' death, her mother was in the hospital recovering from gall bladder surgery. A magazine with a photo of Elvis on the cover lay on a table in the room. "Is that my daddy?" Deborah finally demanded. "My mother burst into tears, and I said, 'It's okay; I know.' "
She did little about it for years. First married when she was 15 and twice divorced, Deborah says she kept quiet to protect her two daughters at least until they were 12 years old. She also used the time to produce a rambling manuscript, tentatively titled The Lost Princess, now making the rounds at publishing houses but still unbought. Unlike Desirée, Deborah plans to stake out a claim to any inheritance from Elvis' estate that she believes to be rightly hers.
One problem shared by both claimants is that they lack substantiated proof of their heritage. "What do they want?" snaps Deborah. "I don't have pictures of my mama and my real father together, but I can put them together at the same place and the same time." Echoes de Barbin: "If I'd known I had to have proof, I would have taken pictures." Both say blood tests show that they are of the same or compatible type as that of Elvis, but that settles nothing: Blood tests can definitively exclude candidates for paternity but cannot prove the identity of a father.
New rumblings have emerged from the Graceland estate, where a representative revealed that a letter was being sent to Random House (of which Villard Books is a division) requesting specific items of proof that Desirée is Presley's daughter. Even if de Barbin's mementos—a poem she says he wrote for her, tapes of what she says were their phone conversations—can be authenticated, they will not actually prove paternity. As biographers have noted, Elvis had many playmates and peccadilloes. Even de Barbin concedes, "I read about his women, and that hurt a lot. A man's a man, but Elvis was not promiscuous like they painted him." Deborah Presley, though, is not so certain. "It's not impossible there's another half-sister out there," she observes. "I've said he could have had a legion of us."
And so the legend of the King—sometimes enigmatic, always bigger than life—continues to grow. As, apparently, does his family, even 10 years post mortem.
- Lois Armstrong.
They met for the first time last week outside the ABC studios in Hollywood, where Desirée Presley and her mother had just appeared on Good Morning America. "Hi, Desirée," said Deborah Presley, introducing herself and offering her hand. "Now I see we do look like our Daddy." A stunned Desirée just stared, said nothing, then hurried off.