It was August 16, 1977, overcast and dreary, not a typical Southern California day. When I walked outside, there was a stillness, an unnatural calm in the air that I have not experienced since. I almost went back into the house, unable to shake my uneasiness. I had a meeting that morning and by noon I was racing to meet my sister, Michelle. On my way into Hollywood I noticed the atmosphere had not changed. It still seemed unusually silent and depressing and it had begun to drizzle. As I drove down Melrose Avenue, I saw Michelle standing on the corner, a look of concern on her face. "Cilla, I just got a call from Dad," she said as I pulled up. "Joe's been trying to reach you. It's something about Elvis in the hospital." Joe Esposito was Elvis's road manager and right-hand man. I froze. If he was trying to reach me, something must be terribly wrong. I told Michelle to take her car and quickly follow me home.
I made a U-turn in the middle of the street and raced back to the house like a madwoman. Every conceivable possibility went through my mind. Elvis had been in and out of the hospital all year; there were times when he wasn't even sick that he'd check in for a rest, to get away from pressures, or just out of boredom. It had never been anything too serious.
I thought about our daughter, Lisa, who was visiting Elvis at Graceland and was supposed to come home that very day. Oh, God, I prayed. Please let everything be all right. Don't let anything happen, please, dear God.
I ran every red light and nearly hit a dozen cars. At last, I reached home, and as I swerved down the driveway, I could hear the phone ringing from inside the house. Please don't hang up, I prayed, jumping out of the car and running toward the door. "I'm coming," I yelled. I tried to get my key in the lock, but my hand wouldn't stop shaking.
Finally I got into the house, grabbed the receiver, and yelled, "Hello, hello?"
All I could hear was the hum of a long-distance line, then a stricken, faint voice. "Cilla. It's Joe."
"What's happened, Joe?"
"Oh, my God. Don't tell me."
"Cilla, he's dead."
"Joe, don't tell me that. Please!"
"We've lost him."
"No. NO!" I begged him to take back his words. Instead, he was silent. "We've lost him-" His voice broke and we both began to cry. "Joe, where's Lisa?" I asked.
"She's okay. She's with Grandma."
"Thank God. Joe, send a plane for me, please. And hurry. I want to come home."
As I hung up, Michelle and Mother, who had just arrived, embraced me and we cried in one another's arms. Within minutes the phone rang again. For a moment I hoped for a miracle; they were calling me back to tell me that Elvis was still alive, that it was all right, that it had all been a bad dream.
But there were no miracles. "Mommy, Mommy," Lisa was saying. "Something's happened to Daddy."
"I know, Baby," I whispered. "I'll be there soon. I'm waiting for the plane now."
"Everybody's crying, Mommy."
I felt helpless. What could I say to her? I couldn't even find words to comfort myself. I feared what she would be hearing. She didn't yet know that he had died. All I kept saying over and over was, "I'll be there as soon as I can. Try to stay in Grandma's room, away from everyone." In the background I could hear a grief-stricken Vernon moaning in agony. "My son's gone. Dear God, I've lost my son."
Fortunately a child's innocence provides its own protection. Death was not yet a reality to her. She said she'd go out and play with Laura, her friend.
I hung up and walked around in a daze, still numb with shock. The news hit the media instantly. My phones did not stop ringing, with friends trying to cope with the shock, members of the family grasping for explanations, and the press demanding statements. I locked myself in the bedroom and left instructions that I would not speak to anyone, that I wanted to be alone.
In fact, I wanted to die. Love is very deceiving. Though we were divorced, Elvis was still an essential part of my life. Over the last years we'd become good friends, admitting the mistakes we'd made in the past and just beginning to laugh at our shortcomings. I could not face the reality that I would never see him alive again. He had always been there for me. I depended on him, just as he depended on me. We had a bond: We'd become closer and had more understanding and patience for each other than in our married life. We had even talked of one day . . . And now he was gone.
I remembered our last phone conversation, just a few days before. His mood had been good as he talked about the twelve-day tour he was about to begin. He even laughed when he told me that, as usual, the Colonel had papered the first city they were scheduled to hit with his posters and that his records were being played constantly in advance of his arrival.
"Good old Colonel," Elvis had said. "We've come a long way. He's still puttin' out that same old stuff. It's a wonder people are still buying it."
I loved hearing Elvis laugh, something he had been doing less and less. Just days before that last call, I'd heard that his spirits were down and he was contemplating breaking up with Ginger Alden, his girlfriend. I knew him well enough to realize that this was not an easy move for him to make. If only I'd known that would be the last time I'd talk to him, I'd have said so much more: things I wanted to say and never had, things I'd held inside me for so many years because the timing was always wrong.
He had been a part of my life for eighteen years. When we met, I had just turned fourteen. The first six months I spent with him were filled with tenderness and affection. Blinded by love, I saw none of his faults or weaknesses. He was to become the passion of my life.
He taught me everything: how to dress, how to walk, how to apply makeup and wear my hair, how to behave, how to return love-his way. Over the years he became my father, husband, and very nearly God. Now he was gone and I felt more alone and afraid than ever in my life.
The hours went by slowly before Elvis's private plane, the Lisa Marie, arrived. Behind closed doors I sat and waited, remembering our life together-the joy, the pain, the sadness, and the triumphs-from the very first time I heard his name.
It was 1956. I was living with my family at the Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas, where my father, then Captain Joseph Paul Beaulieu, a career officer, was stationed. He came home late for dinner one evening and handed me a record album.
"I don't know what this Elvis guy is all about," he said, "but he must be something special. I stood in line with half the Air Force at the PX to get this for you; everybody wants it."
I put the record on the hi-fi and heard the rocking music of "Blue Suede Shoes." The album was titled Elvis Presley. It was his first.
Like almost every other kid in America, I liked Elvis but not as fanatically as many of my girlfriends at Del Valley Junior High. They all had Elvis T-shirts and Elvis hats and Elvis bobby sox and even lipstick in colors with names like Hound Dog Orange and Heartbreak Pink. Elvis was everywhere, on bubble gum cards and Bermuda shorts, on diaries and wallets and pictures that glowed in the dark. The boys at school began trying to look like him, with their slicked-back pompadours and long sideburns and turned-up collars.
One girl was so crazy about him that she was running his local fan club. She said I could join for twenty-five cents, the price of a book she'd ordered for me by mail. When I received it, I was shocked to see a picture of Elvis signing the bare chests of a couple of girls, at that time an unheard-of act.
Then I saw him on television on Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey's Stage Show. He was sexy and handsome, with his deep brooding eyes, pouty lips, and crooked smile. He strutted out to the microphone, spread his legs, leaned back, and strummed his guitar. Then he began singing with such confidence, moving his body with unbridled sexuality. Despite myself, I was attracted.
Some members of his adult audience were less enthusiastic. Soon his performances were labeled obscene. My mother stated emphatically that he was "a bad influence for teenage girls. He arouses things in them that shouldn't be aroused. If there's ever a mothers' march against Elvis Presley, I'll be the first in line."
But I'd heard that despite all of his stage antics and lustful, tough-guy looks, Elvis came from a strict Southern Christian background. He was a country boy who didn't smoke or drink, who loved and honored his parents, and who addressed all adults as "sir" or "ma'am."
I was an Air Force child, a shy, pretty little girl, unhappily accustomed to moving from base to base every two or three years. By the time I was eleven, I had lived in six different cities, and fearful of not being accepted, I either kept to myself or waited for someone to befriend me. I found it especially difficult entering a new school in the middle of the year, when cliques had already been established and newcomers were considered outsiders.
Small and petite, with long brown hair, blue eyes, and an upturned nose, I was always stared at by the other students. At first girls would see me as a rival, afraid I'd take their boyfriends away. I seemed to feel more comfortable with boys-and they were usually friendlier.
People always said I was the prettiest girl in school, but I never felt that way. I was skinny, practically scrawny, and even if I was as cute as people said, I wanted to have more than just good looks. Only with my family did I really feel totally protected and loved. Close and supportive, they provided my stability.
A photographer's model before her marriage, my mother was totally devoted to her family. As the oldest, it was my responsibility to help her with the kids. After me, there were Don, four years my junior, and Michelle, my only sister, who was five years younger than Don. Jeff and the twins, Tim and Tom, hadn't yet been born.
My mother was too shy to talk about the facts of life, so my sex education came in school, when I was in the sixth grade. Some kids were passing around a book that looked like the Bible from the outside, but when you opened it, there were pictures of men making love to women, and women making love to one another.
My body was changing and stirring with new feelings. I'd gotten looks from boys at school, and once a picture of me in a tight turtleneck sweater was stolen from the school bulletin board. Yet I was still a child, embarrassed about my own sexuality. I fantasized endlessly about French-kissing, but when my friends who hung around our house played spin the bottle, it would take me half an hour to let a boy kiss my pursed lips.
My strong, handsome father was the center of our world. He was a hard worker who had earned his degree in Business Administration at the University of Texas. At home he ran a tight ship. He was a firm believer in discipline and responsibility, and he and I frequently knocked heads. When I became a cheerleader at thirteen, it was all I could do to convince him to let me go to out-of-town games. Other times no amount of crying, pleading, or appealing to my mother would change his mind. When he laid down the law, that was that.
I managed to get around him occasionally. When he refused to let me wear a tight skirt, I joined the Girl Scouts specifically so I could wear their tight uniform.
My parents were survivors. Although they often had to struggle financially, we children were the last to feel it. When I was a little girl my mother sewed pretty tablecloths to cover the orange crates that we used as end tables. Rather than do without, we made the best of what we had.
Dinner was strictly group participation: Mother cooked, one of us set the table, and the rest cleaned up. Nobody got away with anything, but we were very supportive of one another. I felt fortunate to have a close-knit family.
Going through old albums of family photographs showing my parents when they were young fascinated me. I was curious about the past. World War II intrigued me, especially since my father had fought with the Marines on Okinawa. He looked handsome in his uniform-you could tell he was posing for my mother-but somehow his smile looked out of place, especially when you realized where he was. When I read the note on the back of the picture about how much he missed my mother, my eyes filled with tears.
While rummaging through the family keepsakes I came upon a small wooden box. Inside was a carefully folded American flag, the kind that I knew was given to servicemen's widows. Also inside the box was a picture of my mother with her arm around a strange man and, sitting on her lap, an infant. On the back of the photo was inscribed "Mommy, Daddy, Priscilla." I had discovered a family secret.
Feeling betrayed, I ran to phone my mother, who was at a party nearby. Within minutes I was in her arms, crying as she calmed me and explained that when I was six months old, my real father, Lieutenant James Wagner, a handsome Navy pilot, had been killed in a plane crash while returning home on leave. Two and a half years later, she married Paul Beaulieu, who adopted me and had always loved me as his own.
Mother suggested I keep my discovery from the other children. She felt it would endanger our family closeness, though when it did become known, it had no effect on our feelings for one another. She gave me a gold locket that my father had given her. I cherished that locket and wore it for years and fantasized that my father died a great hero. In times of emotional pain and loneliness he would become my guardian angel.
Copyright © 2023 by Priscilla Presley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.