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Thirty years after his death, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley still holds sway -- earning $42 million last year in marketing and product licensing, welcoming millions of visitors to Graceland, his Memphis home, and still popping up on the record charts now and then. But where the King of Rock and Roll proves most unforgettable is in the hearts of the women who loved and worked with him. Here, seven of them share their memories of the Elvis you never knew.June Juanico, early girlfriend
Elvis was the love of my life. I met him in the summer of '55, when he was just a regional star. I was 17 and he was 20. He had been in my hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi, several times before, and people said, "You need to see him," and I went on this one night. I thought he was the most gorgeous thing: big, dreamy eyes. Girls were screaming over him, and I'm just not that kind. I was passing by him, not even looking at him, and he reached through the crowd and grabbed my arm. He said, "Where are you going?"
What I remember most about that night was sitting in his car outside my house, just talking, while my mother kept an eye out to see what I was doing. The first thing I said was, "What is your real name?" I had never heard of a name like Elvis. And he said, "What do you mean my real name? My name is Elvis Aaron Presley." We sat there until the sun came up at 6 a.m. He was shocked because my parents were divorced. He thought marriage was a lifelong thing, and when he got married, it was going to be forever. And he told me all about his twin who was dead at birth. I'd never met anybody quite like him.
We got so wrapped up in kissing on our very first date -- nothing too sloppy, it was just marvelous -- a little pecking here and there, a nibble here and there, then a serious bite.
But I didn't hear from him for a while after that. It turned out he was calling and my older brother wasn't bothering to tell me. Finally, he said, "Some guy with a hillbilly accent called."
For the one and a half years I dated him, our relationship remained chaste. He was just very tender and considerate. We spent so much time together, and we started talking about marriage. Mrs. Presley liked me. She saw me as domestic and wise for my young years. She was always telling me that Elvis needed someone to take care of him.
But Elvis was becoming more famous, and [manager] Colonel Tom Parker wanted him linked with actresses and Vegas showgirls. Of course, Elvis liked legs that went on for days, and he brought one of those showgirls home for Christmas in '56. That did it for me. I decided to marry someone else. And Elvis said the Colonel said we couldn't get married, that he wouldn't dare do that to the Colonel.
The next time I saw him was in a movie theater in Memphis in the early '60s. I went down the row behind him and tapped him on the back, and he turned around and our eyes just locked. He got up and put me in a death grip. One of his guys ran over because he thought someone was abusing Elvis. But Elvis was holding on to me. Priscilla was sitting next to him, and she was very gracious. She kept her eyes glued to the screen.
In August 1977, my mother was at my house. I had laid down for a nap, and when I came out of my bedroom my mother was looking at me really strange. Finally, she said, "June!" She had tears in her eyes. She said, "I just heard on the television that Elvis Presley has died." I looked at her and said, "That can't be! That can't be!" I went over to the television and fell to my knees in front of it. I couldn't breathe. I honestly think if my mother had not been with me, I might have died. In my heart, I always thought Elvis and I would be together somewhere down the road. I was married for 36 years, and I've got two beautiful children and beautiful grandchildren. I've been blessed in many ways. But I have just never been able to stop loving Elvis.
In July '55, I'd just graduated from high school. I already had a couple of hit songs in the country music field, and Bob Neal, the talent agent who also managed Elvis before Colonel Parker, said, "I'm booking a young man named Elvis Presley who is getting popular real fast, and we could use a girl on the show." I had no idea who he was. I met him at the radio station in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, that afternoon, and I was quite impressed -- a real handsome guy. He was dressed a little flashier than the guys dressed back home in Oklahoma City -- yellow coat, for example -- and when he left the station I saw him get into a pink Cadillac. That was before the days of Mary Kay, and I had never seen a pink car before. We worked together that night. I was in my dressing room, and Elvis was going on, and all of a sudden my dad and I started hearing this screaming. My daddy said, "I wonder if there's a fire or something. Let me go look." I started getting my things, and he came back and said, "No, relax. But you've got to see this for yourself." He took me to the wings, and there was Elvis singing and moving and gyrating, and all these girls standing at the foot of the stage, screaming and reaching for him. It was quite an unusual sight for those days. And when the rest of the nation started giving him havoc, it really upset him. Mostly if they said anything too bad, he got mad, because in his mind he was having fun. I don't think he was trying to be vulgar. He was just being flirty with the girls.
We dated off and on for a little over a year on the tours. If we could get in a town early, and it was large enough to have a movie theater, we'd go to a matinee, and then after a show we'd go out to eat, usually with the other musicians and my daddy. Then sometimes we'd get a hamburger and just drive around the town and talk. We had a lot in common. He was a little older, and his career was beginning to blossom, and mine was, too. He was just a fine person. He loved to have fun and he laughed all the time. He didn't take himself seriously.
What was really sweet was the fact that he wanted to see me do good in my career. And he was just really eager that I try this kind of music like he was doing [rockabilly]. I'd say, "But Elvis, I'm just a country singer. I can't sing songs like that." He said, "You can, too. You've just gotta try."
In the early part of '56, he gave me one of his rings, a man's ring. It had little chipped diamonds. He wasn't very rich at that point. We were in Shreveport, Louisiana, and we'd done a matinee show, and he asked me if I'd step outside. We stood by his car, and he asked me if I'd be his girl. He'd just turned 21, and I was still 18. I had a crush on him, and being able to know him and know his heart made me admire him a lot. So I said I'd be his girl, and he gave me his ring. I wore it for about a year. Of course, this was before he met Priscilla. The last tour I worked with him was in January of '57, and after that he went to Hollywood to start his movie career. I think his head was just in a spin.
Roustabout in 1964 was my very first film in Hollywood. I was a bit player in the opening moments. Like many adolescents of the '50s, I had been completely gaga over Elvis. I saw him live in San Diego in one of his early shows. It was my first rock 'n' roll music concert ever. That was the first time that I ever conjured up what a sexy guy could be.
But when I saw him on the set of Roustabout, I was a little bit taken aback because something had changed about him. It seemed like he was more packaged. His clothes were not the same, his hair was obviously dyed now, and it was all sprayed into place. It was a little shocking to me because it was a whitewashed, cleaned-up Elvis. They took all the sex out of him!
He had these buddies, this group of guys that hung out with him, and you had to go through them to get to him. There was no such thing as walking up to Elvis on a set. At one point, one of his guys came over and said, "Elvis is having a little party at the house, and if you'd like to come up...." And I thought, What? I wasn't sure if the invitation was from Elvis or from them, using Elvis. I had had a very strict upbringing, and I didn't like the setup, so I didn't go. I had a feeling that Elvis related so much more to men than women. I think he certainly liked women, but I just don't think he knew how to have a real relationship with one. He was a guy's guy.
Years later, about 1972, I had a contract to perform at the Las Vegas Hilton, and lo and behold, Elvis came in right after me. At his show he was dressed all in white, with bellbottoms with a little gold slit on the side, and a lot of jewelry and brocade coming down on his jacket and a high-neck collar. He looked almost like Liberace. I went to his dressing room, and he was very sweet, very nice, and he showed me all his jewelry. But he didn't seem to be really happy in his eyes.
Elvis and I felt a common bond, coming from Mississippi. He thought I understood him. He didn't have to put on airs with me, and I wasn't after anything. This is an odd thing to say about Elvis Presley, but it was like I was working with my brother. We never dated. We were just two people from the same state. The first day I came on the set of Girl Happy, in 1964, Elvis stood up and said, "Where is Mary Ann's chair?" All of a sudden a chair appeared with my name on it. That was the beginning of our friendship. I was 25 and he was 29. He and I would talk, and he asked me did I ever wonder about things that happened in my life. I said all the time. And he said, "Well, I do, too, especially about why I lived and my twin, Jessie Garon, didn't."
I think he put women in two categories. You were either one of the girls, or you were a lady. Once Priscilla had Lisa Marie in 1968, she became a Madonna figure for him. And I think that may be one reason why they split up. In Mississippi he was taught to be kind and take care of ladies, and then he had the other constantly thrown at him.
He used to say to me, "Mary Ann, one day I'm going to have a party I can invite you to." I took that as a compliment. And I never will forget, once one of the boys said "damn" in front of me, and Elvis said, "You never cuss in front of a lady."
Elvis would joke about the movies. When we were making Harum Scarum, he said, "This isn't going to change history, is it?" The sad thing is that Elvis was a better actor than the movies allowed him to be. He could have been great. I was told that much earlier, when Elvis was dating Natalie Wood, the director Elia Kazan offered him the lead opposite Natalie in Splendor in the Grass. And Colonel Tom refused.
Elvis invited my husband, Gary Collins, and me to come to Las Vegas for one of his openings in the '70s, and we went backstage. He was into the metaphysical, willing objects to move, that sort of thing. I was worried about it, but I thought, If that works for him. He was reading books, looking for answers.
People can say what they want about him shooting up TV sets, but I think he was depressed. And he was hooked on prescription drugs. It went on too long before anybody really knew he had a problem. He loved Southern food like I do. And he'd have to lose weight to get ready for the movies, and I think every doctor wanted to be Elvis' doctor, so no one said no to him about prescriptions. If one doctor said no, he'd find another one.
I wish that my husband and I had made more of an effort to seek him out as time went on. I think had there been someone to help him, he wouldn't have given up. I think he just got tired, and whatever kept him going before finally shut off. The medication that he was giving himself kicked in, and maybe he was tired of monitoring it, and just said, "Let whatever's going to happen happen."
Sometimes Elvis was like the devil to me, because I knew the power he had over everybody who worked for him, including my husband. Billy was his first cousin, but he was more like his brother. Elvis couldn't live without Billy. Part of it was the connection to Elvis' mother, Gladys, I guess, because Billy was close to her. When he took him on trips, it was like he was taking him from me. When our first child was born, Elvis wouldn't let Billy come home. And I didn't understand that. When my second son was born, Elvis let Billy stay back for two days. Then I didn't see him again for three months.
This is a situation that all the wives of the guys who worked for Elvis went through. We threw rocks at the tour bus and wished them all dead. Elvis used to comment on how close Billy and I were. I think he wanted a similar lifestyle. But he wanted the closeness to be just on the wife's part. He never grew up. He didn't pay a lot of attention to Lisa. He didn't like to be bothered with children because he was too much of a child himself. And when she came to visit, somebody else watched her. He was protective, and he loved Lisa, but he had big things to do.
He loved you to talk babytalk to him, and we had to take care of him and cater to him like a small child. I did things I never thought I'd do -- he liked to be put to bed and be told good night, the whole send-off. If you'd get up to leave the room, he'd say, "Where are you going? Come back here." He wanted you to stay until he fell asleep. Linda [Thompson] watched over him like a baby. She lotioned him and bathed him and gave him medicine.
I don't know how she did it. He was so strong in so many ways, and if you were with him, you felt safe. But in other ways, he was like a little kid. He was such a contradiction. He was very deep into his religion, from the way he was brought up. But as selfless as he was in religion, he always had to be number one in everything else. One time, everybody wanted to go bowling. So Elvis rented Bowlhaven Lanes, right down the street from Graceland. I don't guess he'd ever been bowling. Billy had been on a team, and several of the other guys had gone bowling in California, so they were pretty good. And Elvis wasn't good at all. He guttered, and he tried to throw the ball too hard. So that's the last time we ever went bowling. If he couldn't be the best at whatever we did, we didn't do it anymore.
Elvis was a very tender soul. He had such a good heart. We literally bought out a pet shop one night. Elvis paid for about 20 dogs, just gave them out to his friends. And we kept this chow, little Get-Low. He was a beautiful dog, but Elvis was going to get rid of him because we read an article that said chows turn on their masters 80 percent of the time. Elvis said, "I don't want to have to be worried about leaving this dog with you, or come home and find you have to have plastic surgery." But I said, "Oh, give the little fella a chance. He may turn out all right." So I raised him, and he turned out to be as gentle as a kitten. He was our sweetheart. But he had a congenital kidney ailment. I don't know if that made him so lethargic he didn't feel like being mean, but he had a wonderful disposition.
About three o'clock one morning, Get- Low was acting really strange, so we had a doctor come over. He said, "I don't think the dog will make it through the night." So Elvis leased a Learjet and flew Get-Low, my girlfriend and me, and the doctor up to Boston to a special clinic for kidney dialysis. We left him up there for about three months. But he didn't live long after that. He was only about a year old. We were on tour when he died, and we were coming home on his plane when they told us. Elvis just cried.
I was with him for four and a half years, from 1972 to 1976. He surrounded himself with people whom he loved and trusted, because he was so secluded from the world, and so sheltered. But a lot of people got very greedy. I think that's one reason Elvis felt lonely at times, he realized that even if they cared about him, they still lost sight of him as a human being. He would get depressed because he felt people didn't love him for being the simple person he was. They forgot about him as just a regular person with feelings like all of us.
I think it's a terrible thing for people to say they couldn't imagine Elvis growing old. Everybody has that right, even if they're a sex symbol. He wanted to live to be an old man. He wanted to see Lisa have children, and he wanted to see his grandchildren. He had no idea he would die so young.
One morning at about seven we were lying in bed, and I felt something wasn't right. His breathing was strange. I shook him, and I said, "Honey, are you okay?" And he said, "I can't get my breath!" He had pneumonia. I called for the nurse, and she brought some oxygen over, and we had to rush him to the hospital. I stayed with him for two and a half weeks. Whenever he went to the hospital, I went to the hospital. So it was "we" went to the hospital.
Elvis needed more love and care than anybody I've ever met. Probably more than anybody in this world ever has. Because he was who he was, and what he was, and yet he had come from obscurity, from Tupelo, Mississippi, and poor parents. And he did enjoy having a mother image around him. But I think it's wonderful if you can be all things to each other. And he and I were. He called me "Mommy." And he was like my father at times. And we were like brother and sister at times, and we were like lovers at times. It was a full, rich relationship. For a long time, we didn't need anybody else, really. I truly, truly loved him, and I wouldn't have cared if he were John Doe. I loved him as a human soul. He was really a wonderful person. We often thought it would be fun to just go away and live in a little shack on a farm and just forget fame and fortune and all the craziness that goes with it.
Everybody blames the Colonel for working Elvis too hard. But the Colonel got mixed signals from Elvis on how much to tour, because Elvis would say, "I'm tired, I want to take some time off." And then at the same time he would say, "I'm home for two weeks and I'm bored. I have nothing to do." So the Colonel would go ahead and book shows, and then Elvis would end up tired. But then he'd say, "People have waited 20 years to see me, so I can't disappoint them." Or, "I have 300 people working for me. Their families depend on me working."
My last in-depth conversation with Elvis was just a few weeks before he died. I remember he said, "Kathy, what's it all about?" And I said, "I think that is for you to find out for yourself." He laughed and said, "That's the same answer I would have given you." And then he said, "People aren't going to remember me. I've never done anything lasting. I've never done a classic film. What can I do?" I said, "You've already done it. Just rest." He started talking about writing a book called Through My Eyes, and he talked about maybe producing.
At one of his last concerts, in Rapid City, South Dakota, there was a blue suit hanging on the wall that he was going to have to wear, and he was afraid he would look big in it. He said, "I'm going to look fat in that little suit, but I'll look good in my coffin." I didn't say anything because I knew that it was inevitable and could happen at any moment.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2007.