The Heartbreaking Truth About Elvis and Priscilla Presley's Love Story

Though she knew life with the "King of Rock and Roll" wouldn't be a smooth ride, Priscilla fell in love with Elvis Presley when she was a teenager and held on as long as she could.

By Natalie Finn Jun 25, 2022 12:00 PMTags
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Not all epic love stories are long.

Almost 45 years after his death, Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley remain embedded in our culture as a unit, from the footage of their 1967 wedding, the bouffant-sporting bride's kohl-rimmed eyes gazing at her heartthrob husband, to their family photos with daughter Lisa Marie.

The good times didn't last forever, to say the least, but Priscilla remains the keeper of Elvis' legacy. She became a co-executor of the "King of Rock and Roll's" estate after the death of the singer's father, Vernon Presley, in 1979 and has been instrumental in keeping Graceland up and running as a tourist destination (though pilgrimage site may be more accurate) and her ex one of the highest-earning deceased celebrities of all time. 

But even if Vernon had handed the keys to the castle to someone else, it's not as if the experience of being in love with one of the most magnetic people ever to walk the earth was just going to fade away.

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"He was such an impact in my life, in every way," Priscilla told Entertainment Tonight in 2017. "He was my mentor, he was my confidant. I wrote this in my book [Elvis and Me]. He was everything. In my book I wrote 'my God,' because I lived and breathed him."

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How Did Elvis Presley and Priscilla Meet?

Priscilla Beaulieu was 14 when she first met Elvis Presley at a party in West Germany in September 1959.

The teen's father, Navy pilot Lt. James Wagner, died in a plane crash when she was six months old. The Beaulieus—mom Ann, U.S. Air Force officer stepdad Capt. Paul Bealieu, Priscilla and five younger half-siblings—moved around a lot, as military families often do, Wiesbaden being only their latest stop.

Elvis was 24. He had been drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1958, a regular-guy turn of events that the "Hound Dog" singer worried would put a damper on his skyrocketing career. It had barely been a year-and-a-half since he'd made his world-rattling debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, sending his fans into hysterics and scaring the puritanical types with his swiveling hips, and he had already sold millions of records and purchased his 18-room Memphis mansion known as Graceland.

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He had a tendency toward excess as his lavish home decor and bespoke wardrobe would later attest, but he was also a mama's boy with an old-fashioned streak—especially when it came to ladies acting like ladies (even while boys would be boys). The death of his mother, Gladys, on Aug. 14, 1958, was a huge blow that many close to him said he never got over.

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In a first-person account for People in 1985 coinciding with the release of her memoir, Priscilla recalled being introduced to Elvis at his rental house near the Army base in Bad Nauheim: The star asked her, "Well, what have we here? What are you, about a junior or senior in high school?" When she told him she was in ninth grade, he chuckled and said, "Why, you're just a baby."

Then he strolled over to the piano and started singing. "I saw Elvis trying to get my attention," Priscilla remembered. "I noticed that the less response I showed, the more he began singing just for me. I couldn't believe that Elvis Presley was trying to impress me."

She was just wearing "a little sailor dress" that night, she later remembered to UPI, because she could still barely believe she was going to meet Elvis.

Priscilla was invited back to his house for another gathering. And another. On that third night, he invited her upstairs to be alone, she recalled to People, assuring her, "I swear I'll never do anything to harm you. I'll treat you just like a sister."

When Did Elvis Start Dating Priscilla?

Her parents didn't like it at all, but when it became clear she wasn't going to stay away, Priscilla's stepfather insisted they at least meet the man, and when Elvis came for dinner, dressed to impress in full uniform, Paul leveled with him: What do you want?

"'Well, sir, I happen to be very fond of her,'" Priscilla remembered the man whose lower half was censored during his third appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show telling her father. "'She's a lot more mature than her age and I enjoy her company. It hasn't been easy for me, being away from home and all. It gets kinda lonely. I guess you might say I need someone to talk to. You don't have to worry about her, Captain. I'll take good care of her.'"

Despite their technically unconsummated relationship, they became "deeply involved," Priscilla told People. "Something in his Southern upbringing had taught him that the 'right' girl was to be saved for marriage. I was that girl. At the same time, he molded me into his woman. I wore the clothes, hairstyle and makeup of his careful choosing."

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Early on she also started to resent having to share him with so many admirers.

"It was only late in the evening, when we were in his bedroom, that I was truly happy," she told People. Where, she described, they'd kiss and talk for hours. Priscilla has maintained that they never had sex until their wedding night.

But she started to have trouble keeping up in school, and one night he gave her a handful of pills to help her stay awake the next day. She didn't take them, only finding out later it was Dexedrine—amphetamines, that is, which Elvis started using when he got to the Army.

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When Did Elvis and Priscilla Reunite?

When Elvis returned to the U.S. in March 1960, Priscilla was informed by paparazzi that Elvis had started dating Nancy Sinatra (the first of many stars he'd be linked to) before she got a call from him. Three weeks after he left Germany, he finally did get in touch, and so began Priscilla's "state of suspended animation," she told People, "waiting for his infrequent calls."

Sometimes it would be a few weeks, sometimes more. They hadn't talked in months or seen each other in two years, Priscilla recalled, when in February 1962 he invited her to fly out to Los Angeles. Once they'd convinced her dad, Elvis sent her a round-trip first-class ticket for a two-week stay.

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Yet even after some cuddle time when she first arrived, he told her she couldn't stay overnight at his house and had a member of his entourage drive her to the home of some friends. Priscilla later found out that he had only recently shipped his supposedly former girlfriend Anita Wood back to Memphis, and he was trying to avoid his guest from out of town being present for any late-night phone calls.

But the visit, including a decadent road trip to Las Vegas, where Elvis bought her more clothes and let her know that he would know if she was with any guy other than him, was intoxicating enough.

When Did Priscilla Presley First Move to Graceland?

Priscilla spent Christmas of 1962 at Graceland, and when she went back to Germany, she told her mother that Elvis wanted her to move to Memphis to finish high school. 

Priscilla could live with his father and stepmother, Elvis told Paul.

"Declaring his intentions honorable, he swore that he loved and needed and respected me," Priscilla told People. "In fact, he couldn't live without me, he said, intimating that one day we'd marry. In that light, there was little my parents could do but say yes, and eventually they did."

Priscilla did move in with Vernon and Dee Presley, technically, while she attended the all-girl Immaculate Conception Cathedral High School in Memphis, but spent so much time at Graceland with Elvis, she was eventually just living there.

"People have said, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe your parents let you go with this stranger,'" Priscilla said on Good Morning America in 2017. "But it was a very innocent time. I liked him very much. I certainly felt safe...We cannot compare it to today. We still had morals, high standard. There was a lot of care."

But Elvis was also making multiple movies a year, all with beautiful leading ladies, and even if he wasn't having as many flings with his co-stars as rumor would have it, he also wasn't living the life of a man who was spoken for.

Life at Graceland "was lonely" for her in those first years, Priscilla admitted to Closer Weekly in 2017. Elvis' very involved manager, Col. Tom Parker, didn't want it known that his valuable client had a steady girlfriend, for fear they'd give up their own hopes of being with Elvis and stop buying records, and there weren't even any pictures of the pair around the house.

Parker was "kind" to her, Priscilla added, but "he just didn't want [fans] to know I was 'the one.'"

And yet sometimes Elvis picked her up from school in a limo and flew her out to L.A. when he was making movies. "It was a life-style so outrageous," Priscilla told People in 1978, "that I'm just thankful I've come out sane."

Ultimately Elvis never veered from the course he decided on with Priscilla, getting down on one knee in her bedroom at Graceland shortly before Christmas in 1966 and proposing with a 3 1/2-carat diamond surrounded by 20 more diamonds, the ring by Memphis jeweler Harry Levitch. 

The Original Elvis-Themed Las Vegas Wedding

Trying to keep everything under wraps as much as possible, Parker had the betroth

ed duo fly from Palm Springs to Las Vegas at around midnight on May 1, 1967, their wedding day. Frank Sinatra loaned his private jet.

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They got their license at about 3 a.m., Priscilla remembered to Closer, and tied the knot in a room at the Aladdin Hotel in front of 14 people, the ceremony officiated by Nevada Supreme Court Judge David Zenoff. A quick press conference and a champagne breakfast for 100 guests followed downstairs. (They later threw a bigger party at Graceland.)

"My wedding was very unusual," Priscilla recalled last year, per Vogue. "It was the people closest to us, and private, and that's how we wanted it. We didn't want a fan club. We didn't want a circus."

After the ceremony, Elvis quipped, "Well, I guess it was about time. With the life I had, I decided it would be best to wait."

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What Was Elvis and Priscilla Presley's Marriage Really Like?

Nine months to the day after they became husband and wife, their daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, was born in Memphis.

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Elvis was a doting, loving father, Priscilla told Closer, but he didn't change diapers—"That wasn't a man's job"—and had a hard time watching the baby eat, due to the inevitable drool. He did, however, buy Lisa Marie a fur coat when she was 3 and hand out $5 for lost baby teeth. When he bought his own jet in 1975, he christened it the "Lisa Marie."

But "with Elvis," Priscilla explained to People in 1978, "my life was his life. He had to be happy. We never disturbed him. My problems were secondary."

Moreover, she recalled to People last September, "Women gravitated to him, so I would be nervous when he had to go places alone. I would even go with him to get his teeth cleaned! I always had an eye on him because everyone in the world was after him."

While they were married, though, "I was always ready to greet him at the door and pamper him," she said. "I loved taking care of Elvis very much. I loved tending to him. I loved feeding him. We would baby talk, because you have to have your own language when you have that many people around. It was a good life. It was different, but it was ours."

 

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Why Did Elvis and Priscilla Divorce?

Elvis was a chronic cheater and, eventually, Priscilla told Closer, she stepped out, too. She tried to ignore what was happening for "as long as I could," she said. "But I did know that there was some finagling going on."

His prescription drug use also became more of a problem, and Priscilla said on Good Morning America recently that seeing a scene in the new Baz Luhrmann-directed biopic Elvis in which her younger self (played by Olivia DeJonge) tells her husband (an "unbelievable" Austin Butler) to seek help for his "dependency" touched a nerve.

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"It was getting more and more frightening as time went by," Priscilla recalled, "where he just was like, rebelling."

Elvis also had a temper, and wasn't used to anyone telling him no.

"If he saw somebody he didn't like on the TV, he'd get his gun out and blow it up," Priscilla said. "Then he would tell his daddy to go get another TV."

Did Elvis and Priscilla Presley Have a Friendly Divorce?

When their divorce was finalized in 1973, they left the courtroom hand in hand. Priscilla was still only 28. (The Naked Gun star went on to marry Marco Garibaldi in 1984. They welcomed son Navarone in 1987 and divorced in 2006.)

Priscilla brought Lisa Marie to one of Elvis' Las Vegas shows later that year, and as part of a long off-the-cuff monologue that had become part of his act of late, the entertainer paid tribute to his ex ("She's a beautiful chick, I'll tell you for sure, boy") and told the audience they remained "the best of friends." 

"Our divorce came about, not because of another man or another woman," he continued, "but because of the circumstances involving my career. I was traveling too much, gone too much...I didn't think it was fair to her."

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He joked about their $2 million divorce settlement, after which he gave her a white mink coat—and she gave him, he bragged, a $42,000 Rolls Royce.

"That's the type of relationship we have," he quipped.

Priscilla told People in 1978 that she continued to go to Graceland with Lisa Marie "like we were never divorced. Elvis and I still hugged each other, still had love. We would say ‘Mommy said this' and 'Daddy said that.' That helped Lisa to feel stable. There was never any arguing or bitterness."

Looking back decades later, "I truly cherish the great times," she told People last year. "As you grow up, there are always fears and insecurities. But as you get older you understand it all."

Sadly, Elvis didn't get much older. Hooked on pills, surrounded by yes-men and eating enough fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches to ensure that combination would always be referred to as "The Elvis" ever after, his health started to deteriorate. The living legend died of a heart attack at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977, when he was only 42.

What Happened to Priscilla Presley After Elvis Died?

Priscilla was heartbroken.

"We never thought he'd pass," she reflected to Entertainment Tonight in 2017 ahead of the 40th anniversary of Elvis' death. "We just never, ever had that in our minds."

That day she was headed out on an errand with her sister when their father called and told her that Elvis' longtime road manager, Joe Esposito, was trying to get in touch with her.

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"The first thing I thought about was [Lisa Marie], because my daughter was visiting and was supposed to come home that day because school started, so I was trying to rush home," Priscilla said. "I think I ran every red light. I felt this urgency, so when I pulled into my driveway, my phone was ringing and I ran in and could hardly get the key in the door trying to get to the phone. And then it was Joe and he told me the news, and it was so devastating that I just went to my room and tried to contemplate how this happened, and what happened, and just stayed there until they sent a plane for me.

"They sent a jet to come, and going into that house and hearing all the people—especially his father, who I will, to this day, still remember him crying in such grief, howling—that it still resonates the loss and the impact."

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Priscilla has applauded Butler's all-out turn as her tirelessly impersonated and yet entirely unique ex-husband in Elvis, writing on Facebook in April after a private preview that it was "a true story told brilliantly and creatively that only Baz, in his unique artistic way, could have delivered."

The only person alive who truly knows what happened between her and Elvis behind closed doors, Priscilla also attended the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and earlier this month Lisa Marie and granddaughter Riley Keough joined her for the U.S. premiere held at Graceland.

Priscilla said on Good Morning America June 17 that she was "pleasantly surprised" by De Jonge's portrayal of her, appreciating that the character "was sensitive and...caring and...a little strong with him as well."

But admittedly, Priscilla said, "I'm sitting there watching this movie and going, 'God I wish he could see this.'"

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