September 05, 1977 12:00 PM

Onstage, he was a powerhouse—every woman’s dream. Off, he was like a little child who needed more care than anyone I ever met.

When Elvis leapt into the spotlight and, at the end, into the by-rote grinds that still sent his following into frenzy, Linda Thompson could watch from backstage and know she was where all those screaming, trembling women wished they were—in his bed. Presley had a former wife, Priscilla (who gave him a daughter), and a strong mother-presence, but of all the women who were current in his life, Linda was preeminent, having shared the tempestuous five-year passage between his separation and their own tentative break just months before his sudden death. When they found him in his bathroom (with a book beside him relating the supposed discovery of Christ’s skeleton), it was Linda whom his daughter, Lisa, called before anyone else. “Linda, my daddy is dead,” she said. “No he’s not, baby,” Linda heard herself saying. “God, please don’t let it be.”

Born, as Elvis was, to the God-and-country South, Linda, 25, helped decorate and became a fixture herself in Graceland, the splendiferously overtasteful Memphis mansion that housed the hillbilly Howard Hughes. There she got to know not only the superstar but also the terrified human within: a man she called “Button” and who called her “Precious.” He played robustious bumper cars in golf carts on the lawn. Gun-happy, he shot out bedroom TV sets in fits of fury, but he could laugh out loud at Peter Sellers and Monty Python or sob at the songs that moved him. He abhorred the hard rock he helped make possible and blue jeans (“field clothes,” the Mississippi-born poorboy called them) and loved his long-dead mother more than anything in his life.

Linda was a 20-year-old beauty queen (she got as far as Miss Tennessee in the Miss U.S.A. contest) when a friend brought her to the Memphis theater Presley had rented for an evening’s screening with friends. “When the movie started he came and sat next to me and started getting a little friendly—you know, the old yawn and stretch of the arm behind the seat,” she recalls. After he explained his marital status (six months’ separation), that sanctified their overnight connection. “We were together almost 24 hours a day,” she remembers. “He was a super-romantic—he showers you with gifts and loving little gestures and pet names. He was very manly, very powerful, and he would put you in your place if you needed it. But he was every woman’s dream in every way.” Women always asked her what his kiss was really like. Her answer: “Real good.”

There was also the avalanche of gifts: Cadillacs, jewels, even houses for her and her parents nearby. Until last December Linda rarely used hers, acclimating instead to the scrambled routine of life in the mansion, which began after dark. “I saw him mostly in his pajamas,” she recalls. “We would show films in the downstairs projection room and watch TV a lot. We had friends in to discuss spiritual things—Elvis belonged to a Self-Realization church. We read the Bible to each other and wrestled with each other and sang together [he on harmony]. We were little children with each other. We literally talked like babies, and that’s how we thought of each other, like babies.”

He felt no embarrassment for his riches—”If God didn’t want me to have these things,” he told her, “I wouldn’t have them”—but on occasion a feeling of isolation descended on him like a dense cloud. “He loved so deeply,” she says, “but he could reverse that and become very angry, and that’s where all the rumors about a violent temper came in. He had high blood pressure, you know, so I would just say, ‘Button, go take your medicine.’ He’d say, ‘You’re right,’ and soon it would be over.” Periodic bouts of intense loneliness were the reason why he surrounded himself with the Memphis mafia, she figures—and why he saw other women, while insisting she be faithful. “He needed that, the interaction of sitting down and talking and getting feedback,” she remembers. “He needed and wanted more love than anyone I’ve ever met. I lived with that as long as I could.”

Still, she says, the dark syndicated portrait of Elvis as a pill-popping, pistol-packing womanizer (which is painted by three former bodyguards in a new book) is “horribly overexaggerated.” “Elvis never even drank or smoked,” she says. While admitting he took sleeping pills and amphetamines on occasion, his personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos of Memphis, says flatly that Elvis “was not abusing drugs.” The strength of his fundamentalist mother’s hold on him would not seem to have allowed it. “She had always told him to marry a brown-eyed woman—they were more loyal. Maybe, because I was a Southern girl, I reminded him of his mother,” says the brown-eyed Linda.

But during his last year, life in the mansion began to chafe. “He had the same people around all the time,” Linda found. “There was no interaction with outside people, the hours were totally reversed—up all night, asleep in the daytime—and I didn’t get to see my friends and family. I did that for five years, thinking ‘he’ll change,’ but he never did. He had lived that way for 25 years. Neither of us wanted to part, but it was time.” That was December, and she played in Hee Haw and a bit in Starsky & Hutch.

Then he was gone, and gone in a way that plagues her. “He was dead for three hours before anybody found him,” she says. “People should have been checking on him. He was never five minutes out of my sight. He needed that smothering affection. Where was everybody when he needed them?” Like other Presley intimates—including his dad, doctor and road manager—Linda doubts he was about to marry Ginger Alden, who was there when he died, and she says the notion is nonsense that he foresaw his death at 42 (the same age his mother died in 1958). Just a few months ago, Linda remembers telling him, “Button, you need to take better care of yourself. You know, you’re not immortal.” “Ah, don’t worry about me,” Elvis replied. “I’m going to live a long time. There’s a lot for me to do yet.”

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