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People Top 5
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- February 12, 1996
- Vol. 45
- No. 6
Elvis Presley & Priscilla Beaulieu
As Powerful and Disturbing as a Scene from Grand Opera, the Cloying Romance of the King and His Child-Love Became An American Cautionary Tale
The ninth grader Elvis would soon call Cilia, dressed up in a navy-and-white sailor dress for that first meeting, was struck by his bedroom-heavy eyes and insolent smile. "The first six months I spent with him were filled with tenderness and affection," she would write in her sympathetic 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me. "Blinded by love, I saw none of his faults or weaknesses. He was to become the passion of my life."
The passion—and madness—would continue for 18 years, until Elvis's death in 1977. From the beginning, though, the relationship had a pathological twist. With a firm belief that marriage was forever, Elvis did not want Priscilla to be one of his party dolls. "He had a lot of girls that were trying to play up to him," says his friend and "Heartbreak Hotel" songwriter Mae Boren Axton. "But Elvis was looking for someone who was as kind and decent as his mother."
For six months, Cilia was chauffeured to Elvis's busy off-base house, where she mingled with the family members and retainers who had accompanied him to Germany for his two-year Army hitch. Priscilla's wary mother and adoptive father, Ann and Joseph Beaulieu, insisted on knowing the King's intentions. "Well, sir," Elvis told Joseph, "I happen to be very fond of her. She's a lot more mature than her age.... I guess you might say I need someone to talk to."
The couple developed a ritual for those conversations. Late in the evening, Elvis would give Priscilla a signal, and she would quietly slip away to his bedroom, where a few minutes later he would join her. Sex was not on the menu, but cuddling next to her on his bed, Elvis unburdened himself. He was lonely: grieved over his mother's death, worried that his fans had forgotten him.
The couple indulged in heavy petting, but they never went all the way. "We have plenty of time, Little One," Elvis told her. "There'll be a right time and place, and when the moment comes, I'll know it."
When Elvis left Germany—and Priscilla—six months later, he burned up the long-distance wires; she sent love letters in pink envelopes. In December 1960, Elvis arranged for Priscilla to join him for a visit at the down-market, baroque stone-pile of Graceland. By January 1963, Priscilla and Elvis had convinced her parents that she should move to Memphis and finish high school there. Cilia moved into Graceland, where her schooling in the ways of Presley went into high gear. Inside those reclusive mansion walls, the tussles in the King's round bed became more elaborate. "Instead of consummating our love in the usual way, he began teaching me other means of pleasing him," Priscilla wrote. They photographed each other with a Polaroid camera in various sexual-fantasy roles, including a teacher seducing a student.
Cilla also learned how to play a part in Elvis's public life. "He taught me everything: how to dress, how to walk, how to apply makeup and wear my hair, how to return love—his way," she wrote. A sideburned Elvis, getting into the '60s thing, had Priscilla dye her auburn locks black and pile her hair a foot high on top of her head. "She adapted to his plans and atmosphere and surroundings and lifestyle and liked it," says Memphis disc jockey George Klein, who was a groomsman at their wedding. "They liked the movies, Vegas, nightlife and parties at Graceland."
To keep up with Elvis's nocturnal lifestyle, Priscilla said she also started taking amphetamines and sleeping pills. (She stopped after a few years, while Elvis sank deeper into addiction.) She learned to keep the blacked-out bedroom freezing, burn his steaks and carry a concealed handgun like her lover. "I loved babying Elvis," Priscilla wrote. "He had a little-boy. quality that could bring out the mother instinct in any woman."
But volatile emotions were never far below the surface. When Elvis pal Jerry Schilling asked Priscilla one night how she was feeling, Elvis happened by and exploded. "If there's anyone who's going to ask her how she feels, it'll be me. You better mind your own goddamn business." When the papers were full of tales of Elvis and his Viva Las Vegas costar Ann-Margret, however, Elvis waved it off, but he insisted that Priscilla stay in Memphis and not with him in L.A. because of the bad publicity.
Elvis finally handed over a 3½-carat diamond ring in December 1966. The next May they were wed in Las Vegas. Afterward, he carried his 22-year-old bride across the threshold of their L.A. home singing "The Hawaiian Wedding Song." Later at Graceland, one of the entourage brought a fan in to meet Elvis. "He was real courteous," says Axton. "He said, 'I'd like for you to meet my wife, the most beautiful girl and the sweetest lady anybody could ever find.' "
Nine months after the ceremony, Priscilla gave birth to Lisa Marie. At first, Elvis was devoted to his daughter. But his feelings toward his wife had changed completely. It was months before he made love to her, and later their sex life was almost nonexistent.
The King retreated into pills and spent more time touring. The marriage drifted toward the shoals. Priscilla found letters from women addressed to Elvis, one signed Lizard Tongue. "The pressures of the road," says Axton, caused their marriage to founder. "She loved him and wanted to be with him and share everything with him. And he did too, but he said, 'I can't.' "
By 1976, Priscilla had washed the makeup from her eyes. "My life was his life," she told PEOPLE in 1978. "He had to be happy. My problems were secondary." But, she added, "I want to grow. I want to do things." Priscilla began an affair with Mike Stone, a karate teacher, in the early 1970s. She told an incredulous Elvis that she was leaving him in February 1972. When Priscilla asked for a divorce, "it killed him," says Axton. "It hurt his ego, and it hurt his heart." Overcome by his loss, Elvis, says Axton, sat down in a Las Vegas suite and wrote a prayer asking God to forgive him for anything he might have done to hurt Priscilla and his little girl. Sequined and stoned onstage, Elvis even sang songs that seemed to be addressed to Priscilla: "Hurt," "Separate Ways," "Always on My Mind."
The two never really said goodbye. Their divorce was amicable: Priscilla got $1.7 million plus $8,000 a month for 10 years. She was 28; he was 38. "Even though there was a divorce," says Charlie Hodge, "they were like two high school kids. They still called each other and told each other everything they were going to do."
While a single Priscilla continued to blossom, Elvis, despite two serious girlfriends, Linda Thompson and Ginger Alden, continued to decline. When she heard about his death, Priscilla wrote, "I wanted to die."
The echoes of their pairing still resound through Graceland. Priscilla, acting for Lisa Marie, Elvis's only heir, pushed to make the mansion a tourist attraction. And yet the spot still clearly pulls her. "When Lisa Marie does get it at 30 [in 1998]," Priscilla told LIFE magazine in 1988, "maybe she won't want to have it open to the public anymore. It could still be turned back into a private home."
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