With his acclaimed 1994 biography Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, author Peter Guralnick restored considerable luster to the King’s tarnished crown. “Instead of writing from the outside,” says Guralnick, “I started talking to the people who made the music, in order to write about Elvis as a human being.” Now, 11 years after beginning his research, Guralnick, 55, follows The Rise with the fall. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley tells a much darker tale. “Elvis’s story is both an American success story and an American tragedy,” says Guralnick, who lives outside Boston with his wife, Alexandra. (They have two grown children.) At the beginning of the new book, excerpted below, Elvis is posted to Germany after the August 1958 death of his beloved mother, Gladys.
It had been a strange and solitary ocean crossing—with his mother gone, Elvis was truly alone in the world. Seeking solace, he read and reread some of the poems about death and motherhood in the book he had been given by a fellow GI, Poems That Touch the Heart. He requested to bunk with Charlie Hodge, a fellow southerner, singer, and veteran of show business himself. At night, Charlie said, he could hear Elvis thinking about his mother and he would try to cheer him up, telling him jokes, running through old vaudeville routines, until at last his friend dropped off to sleep.
Living off-base with his father, Vernon Elvis Presley, and his grandmother Minnie Mae, Elvis invited many girls to his home. But it quickly became clear that he was smitten by one in particular, Priscilla Beaulieu, the 14-year-old daughter of a U.S. Air Force captain.
He played the piano for her, singing some of his own songs, but also, to her surprise, big, expressive numbers like Tony Bennett’s 1953 hit, “Rags to Riches,” and Mahalia Jackson’s “I Asked the Lord.” The way he looked at her, it was obvious he was trying to impress her. He took her into the kitchen, where she met his grandmother, and he consumed the first of five bacon sandwiches smothered with mustard.
Every night they ended up in his bedroom and in each other’s arms. He proved true to his promise: he didn’t harm her, he wouldn’t harm her even if she begged him to—she was too young, he told her; he wanted her to remain pure. She felt closer to him than anyone she had ever known. Through Grandma, whom she called Dodger now, just as he did, she got to hear all about what he was like as a child, she heard how hard his mother could be on him sometimes, but how she protected him from all harm. Priscilla felt totally a part of him, and yet she didn’t know what her own role was supposed to be. She knew he had other girls, much as he might deny it. When she told him she loved him, he put his fingers to her lips and said he didn’t understand what he was feeling himself. “Daddy keeps reminding me of your age and that it can’t be possible,” he told her. “When I go home…Only time will tell.”
Discharged and back in Memphis by March 1960, Elvis made his first post-Army television appearance on former rock-music basher Frank Sinatra’s ABC-TV special that May.
The night of the taping, it was Frank—forced to swallow his intemperate criticism of rock ‘n’ roll to build a show around its principal representative—who appeared the more embarrassed of the two.
“Well, Elvis, that’s our little welcome home gift,” Sinatra declares. “All you seem to have lost is your sideburns.” And then, turning to the audience: “Now, folks, what would you say if I was to sing another song now?” “No,” come the carefully cued screams from the four hundred fan club presidents and members who have gotten their tickets from Elvis’s manager. “WE WANT ELVIS!!” And with that the man of the hour comes slinking out from the wings, ducking his head and laughing self-consciously, his hair piled up like a waterfall, looking impossibly fresh, impossibly elegant in his perfectly draped tuxedo.
Then as he launches into “Stuck On You,” we see a new Elvis, a modified Elvis who suggests motion without precipitating it, who elicits genuine screams by indirection rather than assault. It is an amazing performance and one that must have been deeply satisfying to a performer who had worried whether he still had a place in show business.
Things were not so sweet in Hollywood, where Elvis, by his manager Col. Tom Parker’s design, next focused his career, making even his music subservient to the needs of the production at hand. The first of his post-Army pictures, G.I. Blues, set the tone for what was to come.
Elvis seemed to sense that there was something missing from the movie from the start. The songs were mostly an undistinguished lot, and Elvis was disappointed at the exclusion of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s compositions from the soundtrack for what the Colonel described as “business” reasons. In a phone call to Priscilla in Germany, amid fond endearments, he expressed his bitter frustration about the score. He had just had a meeting with Colonel Parker, he said, and informed him that half the songs in the picture should be cut. What did the Colonel say? Priscilla wondered. “Hell, what could he say? I’m locked into this thing,” Elvis replied miserably, and they went back to talking about how someday she would be able to come over and see all of this for herself, dreamily planning for a future that was hard for either of them to believe would ever exist.
He remained resolutely professional in his commitment to the film, though it became harder to hide his underlying resentment with each passing day. Parker kept reassuring him that it was going to be a big success, that it would enable him to reach an older audience at a time when his own audience was growing older—but that didn’t make him feel any better about the script. The character Elvis played was at odds not just with those in all of his pre-army films but with the very image of rebellion that had always defined him. Far from being an outcast, this Elvis Presley was safe, “social,” and cheerfully domesticated, a conventionally bland Hollywood stick figure.
Whether at Graceland or in a series of homes he rented or owned in Hollywood, Elvis lived in a movable cocoon, surrounded by family and a core group of friends that became known as his Memphis Mafia.
Elvis took special pride in the guys he had around him. They proved you didn’t need to surround yourself with college-educated “intellectuals.” These down-home southern boys were all smart, dedicated, and could take care of themselves. As Sonny West put it, “I guess you could say we were a bunch of hicks, [but] there was a great warmth between us. No pettiness, just a bunch of young guys setting out for some excitement and going to conquer the world. It was fantastic, and the guy who was most fantastic was Elvis.”
For Elvis and his pals Hollywood was an open invitation to party all night long. Sometimes they would hang out with Sammy Davis, Jr., or check out Bobby Darin at the Cloister. Elvis outfitted all the guys in sunglasses and dark clothing, and they carried briefcases so it would look like they had something to do. Elvis’s cousin Gene Smith’s briefcase contained a hairbrush and a doorknob, and he had taken to wearing makeup and calling himself El Gino Stone; if anyone ever asked him about his duties, he said, “I don’t do a goddam thing. I’m Elvis Presley’s cousin.”
“None of us,” by Joe Esposito’s account, “slept more than a few hours at a time. We lived on amphetamines. We woke at five o’clock each morning to report to the set, then spent the rest of our time screwing around. We ferried Hollywood starlets up and down in the elevators all day and all night. Elvis was breaking boards in his suite and trying to teach the rest of us karate, [and] when we weren’t trying to break boards, we were running around the halls, waging water-gun fights that escalated into full-scale battles.”
At one rented house in Los Angeles, Elvis installed a two-way mirror in the swimming pool cabana that served as a ladies’ dressing room. The only way to gain access to it was by crawling under the house, but Elvis and the guys just took that as part of the game.
But the game, like Elvis himself, began to tire. And by the mid-’60s, his career had gone into decline.
There was no getting past the fact that the records were no longer selling as they once had, they no longer mattered as they used to. He admired the Beatles yet felt threatened by them—sometimes it made him angry how disrespectful the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were toward the public and their fans—but most of all he was envious of the freedom that they evidently seemed to feel and to flaunt. He, too, had once enjoyed that freedom, he too had once been in the vanguard of the revolution, and now he was embarrassed to listen to his own music, to watch his own films.
There would be more musical highlights for Elvis—gospel albums, his 1968 NBC-TV “comeback” special, his 1969 LP From Elvis in Memphis, his early-1970s tours. And there would be moments of great happiness, including his 1967 marriage to Priscilla and the birth of their only child, Lisa Marie, in 1968. But following his 1972 separation from Priscilla—they divorced in October 1973—with his increasing dependency on amphetamines to stay awake and depressants to sleep and deaden the pain, Elvis suffered an emotional and physical down-draft that alarmed intimates and fans alike.
Even Muhammad Ali, whom Elvis had met in Vegas, couldn’t miss the sadness at Elvis’s core. “I felt sorry for [him], because he didn’t enjoy life the way he should. He stayed indoors all the time. I told him he should go out and see people. He said he couldn’t, because everywhere he went, they mobbed him. He didn’t understand,” said Ali, a lifelong fan, who probably more than anyone else in the world was able to empathize and understand. “No one wanted to hurt him. All they wanted was to be friendly and tell him how much they loved him.”
On Elvis’s 40th birthday, January 8, 1975, a pall descended upon the house. The bustling kitchen remained ready to cater to his every whim; the guys all gathered downstairs to pay anniversary tribute and perhaps to share in birthday largesse. But Elvis never came down. Only Linda Thompson, his longtime girlfriend, and his cousin Billy had unrestricted access to his bedroom upstairs. The world seemed to be mocking him for failing to uphold the promise of eternal youth. Even Johnny Carson, whom he had long admired, made jokes about his being “fat and forty,” and Elvis told Billy that he could hardly watch the program anymore.
To Elvis, Linda was beginning to express her true feelings for the first time, telling him tearfully that he was killing himself. The Elvis she saw every day was a man suffering from severe depression, someone who was often barely able to get out of bed. What scared her most of all was that he seemed a willing partner in his self-immolation, a secret conspirator who simply didn’t care.
To make matters worse, a perpetually cash-strapped Elvis embarked on a sad series of tours that would end just weeks before his death.
In Long Beach, Calif., the local paper reported, “An eerie silence filled the concert hall when he sang ‘And now the end is near’—the opening line to the Frank Sinatra favorite, ‘My Way’ It was like witnessing a chilling prophecy.” Even hard-boiled private investigator and Elvis pal John O’Grady could not suppress an instinctive emotional reaction when he visited Elvis in Tahoe. “I felt so strongly for him I cried. He was fat. He had locomotive attacks where he couldn’t walk. He forgot the words to his songs. I went backstage and looked at him, and I really thought he was going to die.”
Following what would be his final performance, on June 26, 1977, in Indianapolis, Elvis returned to Graceland.
It was a hot summer, but Elvis rarely ventured outside his air-conditioned room. Once in a while some friend from the old days might stop by, but the singer generally just watched them on surveillance cameras and sent down word that he was tied up right now, maybe they could come back later. On August 14th, the 19th anniversary of his mother’s death, he sent flowers to her grave, as he had at least once a week since the day she died.
Rising Aug. 15 at 4 p.m., Elvis had his teeth cleaned, watched TV and played racquetball. Restless in the early hours of the 16th, he told his girlfriend of nine months, 20-year-old Ginger Alden, he was going into the bathroom to read.
Ginger woke around 1:30 p.m. She washed and put on her makeup, then knocked on Elvis’s bathroom door. When there was no answer she pushed on it and discovered him lying on the floor, his gold pajama bottoms around his ankles, his face buried in a pool of vomit on the thick shag carpet. In a daze she called downstairs. It seemed for a moment as if time were suspended, but then everything started happening at once, as the bedroom quickly filled with people. Vernon arrived, his face a mask of fear as he cried out, “Oh, God, son, please don’t go, please don’t die.” Lisa Marie arrived in the midst of it all. “What’s wrong with my daddy?” she demanded, as Ginger closed the bathroom door. There were no vital signs, and there seemed little doubt of the outcome as they loaded the body onto a stretcher and carried it out the front door to a waiting ambulance. Vernon tried to join them but was gently restrained. “I’m coming, son,” he called out desperately. “I’ll be there.”