A Mom Again, Elvis' Widow Tries to Lay His Ghost to Rest in a Painful TV Drama
By Lois Armstrong
This week, after putting her 11-month-old son to bed, a fresh-faced beauty will walk into the den of her French country-style Beverly Hills home to join her boyfriend and her 20-year-old daughter. Flopping down on the plaid couch, crossing her legs and nervously swinging one foot back and forth, as she habitually does, the woman will switch on the TV. There, amid the velvet excesses of a white-columned mansion, another beauty will appear. At one point the face of this woman will be drawn, her false black hair—ratted and swirled into a beehive one foot high—framing ghostly white lips and crudely shadowed eyes. So extreme is the contrast between the woman onscreen and the woman observing her that they will seem to have nothing in common at all. Yet Priscilla Presley, 42, will be watching Priscilla Presley, ages 14 to 32.
Yes, as Presley says, she's "reliving the past" again. The occasion this time is the four-hour ABC miniseries Elvis and Me, airing Feb. 7 and 8, which begins with their first meeting in 1959 and ends with his fatal overdose in 1977. Based on Priscilla's best-selling 1985 book of the same title, Elvis and Me has the double advantage of being both an authorized TV biography of the King (Priscilla served as one of its three executive producers) as well as a warts-and-all portrayal of his life. Within the confines of broadcast television, Elvis' paranoia, sexual dalliances and unnatural attachment to his mother are handled with a fair degree of veracity.
Priscilla will certainly watch with mixed emotions. For her any trip back to the past rekindles old conflicts. As Elvis' only wife and the mother of his only child and heir, Lisa Marie, Priscilla is forever linked to the Presley legend—and that connection has been both her boon and bane. On the downside she's tried to lead her own separate, relatively normal life while suffering the constant scrutiny of an inquisitive press and public. Yet, despite the intrusion, Priscilla won't lay the ghost of Elvis completely to rest. For one thing, it's her basic claim to fame. For another, she feels a need to set the record of Elvis' life straight.
Telling his story, she says, "wasn't something I wanted to do but had to do, because of all that's been said and written about him. I have to fight for his reputation, his ideas, his image. That's my main concern in this film. I have to protect Elvis—he was very misunderstood."
Protecting her memories led directly to battles with director Larry Peerce. Son of the late tenor Jan Peerce, Larry says Priscilla gave him plenty of input—"I heard her **** loud and clear. She said to me, There were good times and bad, like any relationship. What was bad we know already.' As far as she was concerned the good far outweighed the bad. But if I honored that, I'd be doing her and Elvis' fans a disservice. I promised her that I wouldn't make a fool of her, but I went for the reality. Priscilla did not have the last word."
Ironically the biggest clash between Presley and Peerce occurred not over Elvis' violence or womanizing, but over his waving. In the scene where Elvis (Dale Midkiff, who played Jock Ewing in 1986's Dallas: The Early Years) and Priscilla (Susan Walters, a Loving and Hotel veteran) part at the Frankfurt airport, she gets lost in the crowd. Priscilla remembers that day: "I was looking and looking for him. Then he turned and waved at me." Peerce argued that with thousands of fans there, Elvis had to be waving at them. "Priscilla's perception is lovely and romantic," he says. "But, again, I had to work at the reality of it." Peerce won, but Priscilla isn't conceding the point. His interpretation, she says, was from a man's point of view. "It was the last goodbye," she explains. "As a young girl of 14, I was sure he was going to miss me."
There was at least one area of Elvis' life where Presley and Peerce were in agreement. Elvis' drug use, including a scene in which he gives Priscilla downers that leave her unconscious for two days, is presented without gloss. "I want people to know there were reasons Elvis did what he did," says Priscilla. "It was a different time then—they gave out tranquilizers and diet pills like crazy. Today they tell you what the effects are, why people die from drug abuse. Elvis had a lot on his mind, and if something didn't go right, a sleeping pill was the only thing he had that would let him relax. It didn't seem bad to him; he didn't realize what it would lead to. I'm not defending drugs; I'm only saying that at the time that's all this man had to relieve his stress."
Stress is something Priscilla knows well. "I'm just sorry that the first project I produced was my own story," she says, believing that she would have been more objective "if I'd done this three projects down the line. This was hard. It's taken a lot out of me, physically and emotionally. I've lost weight and I have circles under my eyes I've never had before." The strain was evident to Peerce when Priscilla screened the dailies. "It upset her and drove her crazy," he says. Priscilla doesn't disagree. "It stirred up old emotions," she says. "I was literally reliving my life."
For Priscilla, just living her life—with or without Elvis—hasn't been a simple proposition. Her involvement with karate teacher Mike Stone, for whom she left Presley in 1972, lasted three years. Her next major relationship, with model-actor Michael Edwards, during which she started her well-publicized dabbling in Scientology, lasted seven years. She seems to be faring somewhat better, however, with mystery man Marco Garibaldi, her live-in lover and the father of baby son Navarone.
An Italian raised in Brazil, Garibaldi has been a U.S. resident for 12 years and a citizen for two. He met Priscilla in 1984, when a mutual friend recommended him to her as a film writer, although the movie never saw the light of day. A former computer programmer who maintains a very low profile, Garibaldi, 32, runs his own film company, Destiny Productions, from the Presley home. He claims to be getting ready to produce his first feature film, Comfortably Numb. Although Priscilla says marriage to Marco is "in the future," she continues to avoid setting a date. "We've both been married before and we both feel that a marriage contract doesn't make it any better or worse," she says. "Marriage is somewhat of a business, and as of now our relationship is not a business."
Whatever Priscilla's hesitation about making Marco her husband, she says she knew immediately that he would be "a great father. I didn't just all of a sudden get pregnant. A lot of thought went into having this baby." But a year of hoping to find "the right time" passed before Dallas interceded. Priscilla had joined the show during the 1983-84 season as Jenna Wade, and when the producers decided Wade was going to have a baby, Priscilla and Marco decided that life should imitate art. "And all of a sudden, snap, Navarone was in the works," she says.
Priscilla quickly confided the news to her daughter. "I wouldn't do anything to make Lisa feel left out," she says. "But there was never a problem." In fact Lisa was so thrilled with the pregnancy that she went to Lamaze classes with her mother and Marco, and asked to join them in the birthing room of St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. With Marco, Lisa and her Lamaze teacher attending, a drug-free 90 minutes of labor produced Navarone at 10:20 a.m. on March 1, 1987.
"This baby was really important to me," says Priscilla. "I exercised. I read books. I played classical music in the birthing room, and I had warm water for Marco to put the baby in as soon as he was born." Because she was 41, Priscilla had had amniocentesis during her fourth month of pregnancy to screen for genetic defects, and was told that she was carrying a boy. So Navarone was named before he arrived.
It was an experience far different from her first pregnancy, which she greeted with some distress. Priscilla had married Elvis only nine months before Lisa was born, and she was worried that the baby would disrupt their relationship. According to both Priscilla's book and the movie, the singer proposed a temporary separation when she was seven months pregnant, and although Elvis dropped the idea right away, his sexual fervor cooled after the baby was born. As a father, however, Presley lavished boundless affection on Lisa until his death nine years later.
His parental instinct has apparently rubbed off. In Lisa, says Priscilla, Navarone has a second mother. "The other day," Priscilla reports, "she asked, 'How old does he have to be before I can take him out? I want to show him to my friends.' "
Lisa had better pump some iron, because this is not a lightweight baby. Affectionately called Ugly Face in Italian by his father, Navarone is a solid 25-pounder. He sleeps in an all-white nursery (surrounded by furniture hand-painted with primitive farm scenes), scoots gleefully down the hall on his "choo-choo" and invests a lot of time crying out for "more," especially when eating. The gums of Navarone rarely stop working.
For the first six months, when she was breast-feeding, Priscilla took Navarone to work. Now the little guy usually stays home, watched by Marco and a daytime baby-sitter. "Marco knows Navarone as well as I do," says Priscilla. "I'm so happy I could give him a son." Adds Jerry Schilling, an old buddy of Elvis and Priscilla's from the Memphis days: "She and Marco deliberately do not have a live-in nanny. They want to be real parents."
They get a helping hand from Lisa, who recently moved from her own L.A. apartment back into the Presley home. "It was hard for her to make the adjustment to living on her own," says Priscilla. "She's with her friends half the time, but when she's home she's always doting on the baby. He's been a learning experience for her."
Priscilla, meanwhile, is learning about the problems of working parents. To help other mothers, she plans to push for day-care centers at the workplace. She's also decided to leave Dallas after this season to star in a film comedy, Paramount's The Naked Gun, and to spend more time at home. "I don't worry about spoiling Navarone," she says. "If he wants to come into our bed at 5 a.m., he's welcome. I want him to know he's loved. When he goes to school, he'll learn about hard knocks. If we can give him security until then, he'll be well adjusted."
Grandparents, of course, add to the spoiling. "Navarone is a beautiful child, and we're always happy to welcome a grandchild," says Priscilla's mother, Ann, who lives nearby with Priscilla's father, Joseph Beaulieu. Navarone visits the Beaulieus two or three times a week. He'll have to wait until he's older for the 19-hour flight to Brazil to visit Marco's parents. In the meantime Presley regularly sends them photos and videotapes.
Happy as she is with Navarone, Priscilla plans no more children. "I've had my little girl and boy," she says simply. "I'm satisfied." And that satisfaction stands for all that her life is today. "Everything was at such a fast pace when I was married to Elvis," she says. "There was always a trip, a Vegas appearance, a movie. My whole life was 'What would you like for dinner, Elvis?' His whole life was making sure he knew his lines for the next day. I was a kid then. Now I understand other people's needs. I have patience, I observe more, I appreciate things."
This week, as the world watches Elvis and Me, the focus will once again be on Priscilla's past. But her own thoughts are firmly in the present. "My baby son looks at me and points to something he wants, or he looks at me to show me the stars. It's a new time now."