THE LONELY BIRTHDAY BOY
Sixty-four years ago, January 8, 1946, Gladys Presley gave her beloved only son a guitar for his 11th birthday. The high-spirited boy had wanted a bicycle, but his ever-protective mother had feared he might hurt himself.
A decade later, Elvis rehearsed “Heartbreak Hotel” on his birthday and, two days later, recorded it at RCA Studios in Nashville. The tune became the biggest hit of 1956, turning the former Crown Electric truck driver into the King of Rock and Roll himself.
Thomas Durden, a Nashville steel-guitarist, had composed the historic song after reading a Miami Herald story about a man who had killed himself over a lost love. His suicide note simply read: “I walk lonely street.”
“Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell,” sang Elvis. “It’s down at the end of lonely street at Heartbreak Hotel.”
After the release of his birthday song, the young King – every man’s envy and every girl’s dream – seemed the least lonely mortal in the world.
Then, in 1958, his lost his mother. “Please don’t take my baby away!” he had sobbed, throwing himself over her coffin and refusing to let go. “She’s not dead. She’s just sleeping.” Then as she was lowered to her resting place, “Goodbye, darling. I love you so much. I lived my whole life just for you.”
Later, Elvis said, “I lost the only person I ever loved.”
At last his grief subsided when he met Priscilla Beaulieus. His family and friends marveled at how the beautiful 14-year-old ingénue resembled Gladys in her own youth.
Priscilla became what she called Elvis’s “Pygmalion.” “He relished the role of recreating me,” she later wrote. “Like a sculptor, he could shape my image and design my demeanor in ways that would bring him delight.”
After an eight-year courtship, the King at last tied the knot with his completed creation. “I’ll give you Elvis’s relationship with her in a nutshell,” later wrote his Man Friday, Lamar Fike. “You create a statue. And then you get tired of looking at it.”
But that wasn’t all. Elvis had confided to other friends that he could not consummate with a mother. Within a year of the marriage, Priscilla had given birth to their daughter, Lisa Marie. By this time Elvis was calling her “Satnin,” his nickname for his satin-skinned mother.
On his 37th birthday, the King announced that Priscilla was leaving Graceland and taking Lisa Marie with her. On his 39th birthday, he signed the final divorce papers.
Perhaps then he recalled “I Was the One,” the flipside of “Heartbreak Hotel.” Though he taught her how to kiss and how to cry, he sang, “I’ll never know who taught her to lie. Now that it’s over and done, who learned the lesson when she broke my heart? I was the one.”
Elvis had been repeatedly unfaithful to Priscilla, driving her at last into the arms of her karate instructor.
The King burned with jealousy. Though almost any other woman could still be his, he now walked lonely street. He moved his fans to tears with his other laments – Just Call Me Mr. Lonesome, Are You Lonesome Tonight? Lonely Man, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
In signing the divorce on his birthday, surely he hoped for a new beginning. But on his birthday the next year, Walter Cronkite, flashing a recent photo, announced on the Six o’Clock News: “Elvis – fat and 40!”
The King collapsed and had to be carried to his bedroom. Weeks later he was checked into Baptist Memorial as “Aaron Silvie.” Here he underwent a second narcotic detox.
When once asked his secret for looking so young, Elvis had replied, “Vitamin E!”
In the last twenty months of his life, he was written 12,000 prescriptions for pills & injectibles – mostly narcotics. Eleven different kinds were found in his system by the coroner. The King died of a massive overdose.
Shortly before the tragedy, he’d phoned his long-lost friend and bodyguard, Red West. By this time he had lost not only his mother and his wife, but many of his old friends. “I feel terribly alone, like that Number 8,” he told Red.
A long time student of Cheiro’s numerology, Elvis, due to his birthday, identified himself as a Number 8 person. “These people… feel intensely lonely at heart,” wrote Cheiro. “… They are either great successes or great failures, and often face the very greatest sorrows and losses.”
Weeks after Elvis’s last birthday, he gave a $70,000 engagement ring to the stunning young Ginger Alden. “She didn’t give a rat’s ass about him,” said Lamar Fike. Soon Elvis seemed to realize this, even suspecting that she was having an affair with his step-brother, David.
The King’s fiancée was the one who found his body on the bathroom floor. Before she alerted his father and the Graceland staff, she placed a call to the Enquirer.
“THERE GOES MY EVERYTHING”
ELVIS & GLADYS: RIP
In 1934, Vernon Presley, age 18, recalled blacking out at the instant of his son’s conception; then, regaining consciousness, he had seen the night sky thronged with brilliant blue stars. Elvis Aron’s twin brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn. The future King’s God-fearing mother, Gladys –- who herself almost died in the delivery — believed he had inherited Jesse’s soul, and was “the One.”
Years later, Gladys would suffer a miscarriage, making her all the more protective of her only surviving child.
“My mama never let me out of her sight,” said Elvis.
Vernon told biographer, Peter Guralnick (Last Train to Memphis): “He never spent a night away from home until he was seventeen. The three of us formed our own private world.”
The security of that world was shattered when Vernon was convicted of check fraud on a hog sale and was sent Parchman, the most medieval of the Mississippi penitentiaries. Her husband’s imprisonment galvanized Gladys’s obsessive fear that loved ones could without warning be taken from her or senselessly stricken down.
When she was 18, her father, Bob, died suddenly of pneumonia. Months after the birth of Elvis, her mother, Doll, was claimed by tuberculosis. Her parents had been first cousins. Many of her other siblings were stricken with mental and physical disabilities. Gladys, Vernon, and Elvis were sleepwalkers and all suffered from terrifying nightmares of impending doom.
Gladys Presley had once been a vivacious and fun-loving party girl and buck dancer. But, after all the family losses, protecting her only son became her life. She slept with Elvis until he was thirteen. For his eleventh birthday, Elvis had wanted a bicycle but, fearing that he might get run over on the way to school, Gladys gave him a guitar instead.
Elvis called his satin-skinned mother “Satnin” and the two communicated in a babytalk no one else could understand. “Elvis saw his parents as his ‘babies,’” recalled his friend and future manager, Lamar Fike (Elvis and the Memphis Mafia). “He called his mother his baby.”
In 1953, Elvis, now a truck driver for Crown Electric, gave Satnin a special birthday gift: his first recording, “My Happiness,” for which he paid the studio $2. The next year, “That’s Alright, Mama” put him on the charts and soon he was rich beyond his wildest dreams.
Long before, reported Elaine Dundy (Elvis and Gladys), he and Satnin had marveled at a Memphis mansion on one of their walks to school. “Mama,” he told her, “some day I’m gonna buy you a house just like that!”
In 1957, he gave her Graceland, plus a pink Cadillac though she couldn’t drive.
Gladys had never known anything but shotgun shacks, jalopies and public housing. When her father died, her family couldn’t afford a marker or a winding sheet. When Elvis was born, Welfare paid the doctor’s $15 delivery fee. Now, to be under the same magnificent roof at Graceland with her boy was like a dream come true. But, the dream soon became one of her nightmares.
“After Elvis became famous, Gladys was never happy another day,” remembered her best friend, Lillian. “She never had peace no more.”
When her son was touring, as he always seemed to be now, the fans mobbed and tore at him. She forbade him to fly airplanes after his chartered prop lost an engine over the Ozarks and crash-landed. So he drove to all his gigs, but she feared he’d have a fatal accident. “If you don’t slow down, you won’t live to 30!” she warned him.
One night Gladys suddenly bolted out of bed and cried to Vernon, “I see our boy – he’s in a blazing car!” The next day, Elvis called her from Texarcana and said his rented Cadillac had burst into flames and he’d narrowly escaped.
The overwrought, now alcoholic Gladys started popping pills to sleep, speed to wake up, and greater quantities of vodka to cope. When Elvis returned to Graceland, he would shower her with gifts but even the most extravagant now left her cold.
“Mama, what do you want?” pleaded Elvis.
“For you to say home, baby!” Gladys would cry.
During one of his absences, a friend of the family, Frank Richards, dropped by Graceland for the first time and said to Elvis’ mother: “I guess you must be about the happiest woman in the world!”
“You got it wrong,” she said. “I’m the most miserable woman in the world… I’m guarded. I can’t buy my own groceries. I can’t see my neighbor.”
Soon after moving to Graceland, her son received a draft notice from the Army. Remembering how her cousin, Junior, had lost his mind in Korea and massacred innocents, she begged Elvis not to go. But he felt it his duty.
After he left for Basic Training, Gladys suddenly died of cirrhosis of the liver. She was buried on August 16, 1958.
“Please don’t take my baby away!” Elvis sobbed, throwing himself over her coffin and refusing to let go, as detailed by biographer Charles L. Ponce de Leon. “She’s not dead. She’s just sleeping.” Then as she was lowered to her resting place, “Goodbye, darling. I love you so much. I lived my whole life just for you!”
Later, the King of Rock and Roll would say of his mother. “I lost the only person I ever loved.” Her death was the greatest tragedy in his life. From that day on, according to his friends, he became an utterly different person.
“Basically, Elvis’ personality was that of Gladys’,” Lamar wrote. “There wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them.”
In 1975, Vernon Presley suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. Elvis occupied the next bed, detoxing from another near fatal narcotic overdose. He and his father had grown apart since Gladys’ passing, largely due to Vernon’s brief mourning and hasty remarriage. For Vernon’s part, something had been burning in his chest all these years. That day in hospital, he suddenly spit it out. “You worried your mama right into the grave!”
“Elvis broke down and cried,” remembered his cousin, Billy Smith. “It about killed him.”
Two years later, The King of Rock and Roll fatally overdosed himself. The date was August 16 — the very same day he had buried his beloved mother nineteen years before and inconsolably wept, “Oh, God, everything I have is gone!”
KING OF ROCK/ PRINCE OF POP
THE STRAIGHT DOPE
After his landslide reelection in 1968, President Richard Nixon decided to extend an olive branch to America’s disaffected youth, hoping to show them he wasn’t quite as unhip and belligerent as thought. Having identified youth drug abuse as America’s “Number 1 Problem,” he hoped to thaw the generational cold war by rapping with a rock star.
In April, 1969, his press secretary, Ron Zeigler, invited Jimi Hendrix to the White House for a Fireside Chat. The guitarist’s manager, Mike Jeffery, formerly a British MI6 spy/assassin, turned the offer down without informing Jimi who, at the time was finishing his last tour with the Experience. Weeks later, Hendrix was busted for heroin possession in Toronto. By the end of the year – due to the bust and his association with the Black Panthers — the star earned himself a place on the Nixon’s “Security Index,” a list of celebrity “subversives” to be rounded up and placed in detainment camps in the event of a national emergency.
The two prime candidates for the Voodoo Child’s replacement were now James Douglas Morrison and Janis Lyn Joplin. The son of the Navy’s youngest admiral, Jim –named after General Douglas MacArthur himself — seemed a likely candidate in spite of the being a draft dogger, a cop baiter, and a loose canon. But that spring of 1969 the “Erotic Politician” scandalized all decent Americans by allegedly exposing himself at a Miami concert. Supporting the guardians of national decency –Jackie Gleason, Pat Boone, and Anita Bryant, the orange juice queen — Nixon condemned the singer.
So that just left Janis. Coincidentally, the Queen of the Blues was to grace the cover of that April 7 Newsweek. But bad luck struck again. Nixon’s predecessor, President Eisenhower, suffered a fatal heart attack days before and bumped her from the cover.
“Motherfucker!” exclaimed Janis publicly. “Fourteen heart attacks and the son of a bitch has to croak in my week. MY week!”
Discouraged, Nixon backburnered the idea of a détente summit with a rock idol. Then, at last, a stroke of luck: at Christmastime, 1970, he received a handwritten note from the King of Rock and Roll himself. In it, Elvis denounced the Beatles and Jane Fonda, and offered his services as “ambassador to America’s troubled youth.” Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had both fatally OD’d only months before.
So the President was only too happy to invite the King to the Oval Office for an impromptu summit….
Elvis arrived decked out in a black suede jumpsuit and his Captain Marvel cape festooned with gold chains. The ensemble was accessorized with amber aviator shades disguising his Revlon eye-shadow and mascara.
“You dress pretty wild, don’t you?” ventured the Quaker chief executive as an icebreaker.
“Mr. President,” responded the heavily medicated King, “you got your show to run, I got mine.”
The two proceeded to discuss the scourge of drugs ravaging America’s youth. For some time now, the King had been taking liquid cocaine for performances, and massive quantities of narcotics throughout the day. As for the President, he had a bourbon monkey on his back, as well as a soft spot for Dilantin, a drug usually administered to epileptics, but which he found helpful for his nerves, his mood swings, and depression.
After the meeting of minds, both shook hands for a photo-op before a bank of American flags. Then Nixon give Elvis a federal narcotics agent badge which for the King – who carried 40 honorary precinct badges from around the nation – was a true jewel in his crown. In exchange, Elvis – who had just dropped $20,000 on firepower that Christmas — gave Tricky Dick a commemorative Colt .45 revolver.
The singer later laid a Colt .357 snubnose on Spiro Agnew who had visited him four years ago on the set of Spinout. But the vice-president — who would resign due to income tax evasion — turned the piece down on principle. Elvis also tried to offer his services to the man whom he considered “the greatest living American”: J. Edgar Hoover. The cross-dressing FBI head, however, refused the King an audience due his “exotic dress” and the length of his hair.
When the King returned to Graceland with his trophy narc badge, his kid step-brother, David Stanley, asked how much he had paid for it.
“That’s not funny!” snapped Elvis. “I am the ears and eyes of President Richard Nixon!” Then he broke out his artillery, mustered The Guys – the Memphis Mafia – and told them, “All these dope smoking hippies should be arrested!”
He ordered David to draw up a list of all the dealers at his Memphis high school, then he called his friends at the MPD and had them send over rap sheets of the other pushers in town. But soon he was back on the road and never got around to collaring anybody.
He did, however, shoot his own primary care pusher, Dr. George Nichopolous. When Dr. Nick threatened to cut back on his narcotic injections, the King pulled his piece and sprayed his hotel suite. One slug ricocheted off the TV and wound up in Nick’s chest.
“Son, good God almighty!” cried his father, Vernon. “What in the world made you do a thing like that?”
The loaded King snickered: “Aw, hell, daddy, so I shot the doc. No big deal. He’s not dead.”
But the President Nixon’s eyes and ears gave his pusher a gold Mercedes for the inconvenience.
On May 14, 1984, Michael Jackson visited the White House to accept an “appreciation plaque” from President Ronald Reagan and his Secretary of Transportation, Elizabeth Dole. The honor was a token of gratitude to the King of Pop for donating his Beat It as background music for the administration’s Just Say No and drunk driving campaign advertisements.
Five months earlier, the pop star had suffered burns during a pyrotechnic Pepsi video shoot. Afterward he began taking painkillers which escalated into narcotic abuse. The soft drink giant paid $1.4 million for the accident. Though formerly a teetotaler and strict Jehovah’s Witness, the Beat It star began to fill his Pepsi cans with what he called “Jesus Juice.”
“Isn’t this a Thriller!” declared President Reagan on the South Lawn that bright spring afternoon, beaming at the King of Pop and the 2,000 guests, reminding all of the unprecedented eight Grammies the album had recently garnered. “Michael is proof of what a person can accomplish through a lifestyle free of alcohol or drug abuse,” he continued.
Indeed, the former actor had prospered from his own sobriety, indulging only in a sip for state occasions or for the Eucharist on Sundays at the First Presbyterian.
Like his father-in-law, Elvis, whom President Nixon had decorated fourteen years before, Michael donned his Sunday best that afternoon. In stunning contrast to Reagan’s own staid navy blue suit and the First Lady’s gold-buttoned Adolfo ensemble, the King of Pop sported a sequined cobalt blue parade military doublet with gold sash and epaulets, accessorized by his signature white rhinestone glove.
The White House ceremony for the star went smoothly until it moved indoors to the Diplomatic Reception Room. Michael took one peek inside, then suddenly fled to the Presidential Library bathroom, his handlers hurrying after him in confusion. When the singer did not emerge for several moments, they began to knock urgently on the locked bathroom door begging him to return to the festivities.
“Not till you clear all of those adults out!” came a cry.
A full seventy-five grown-ups – the president’s cabinet, plus other statesmen and dignitaries – were anxiously waiting to meet the King of Pop in the Diplomatic Room. He had apparently been promised their children, not them.
“Done!” cried his retainers. So they hurried back, evacked the reception area and quickly mustered some official kids – Chief of Staff, James Baker’s, little six-year-old, Mary, the first.
Michael’s own chief of staff, Norman Winter, hustled back to the bathroom door. “OK, you can come out now, Mike,” he called.
“Are you sure?” demanded his employer. Michael had been prone to panic attacks for some time, and was now Beating It with downers and his Pepsi Jesus Juice.
“Sure!” Winter assured him.
The King of Pop emerged warily and allowed himself to be shouldered back to the reception area. To his relief, the room was now empty except for a handful of saucer-eyed children and the Transportation head herself who prevailed on him to sign her copy of Thriller.
Then the King, the kids, and Ms. Dole proceeded to the Roosevelt Room to rendezvous with the First Couple.
While Michael played with the children here, Nancy Reagan took a bodyguard aside and discreetly inquired about his boss’s surgery. She said she could see that he’d had his nose done, but was wondering if he’d had eye and cheekbone work too. The aide smiled sphinx-like.
“It’s all so peculiar, really,” mused the Just Say No First Lady. “A boy who looks just like a girl.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” replied the King’s man who now looked like he needed some Jesus Juice himself.
When The Two Kings Became One
“The way Elvis destroyed himself interests me, because
I don’t ever want to walk those grounds myself.”
Michael Jackson, Moon Walk (1988)
But apparently the King of Pop changed his mind about The King of Rock, the father-in-law he never met.
In MySpace, Lisa Marie Presley, recalled how one day in 1993, her husband told her “with an almost calm certainty, ‘I am afraid that I am going to end up like him, the way he did.” The King’s daughter concluded: “The exact scenario I saw happen on August 16th, 1977, happened again with Michael just as he predicted.
Who else might have foreseen that such a bright star, in his attempt to surpass even Elvis, would become so much like him that he would suffer the same tragic fate?
From the beginning of his career at age 6, “I dreamed of creating the biggest-selling record of all time,” Michael wrote. He achieved this goal in 1984 with his historic Thriller. But his appetite for the throne was only whetted.
“If Elvis is supposed to be the King, what about me?” he would often say. Then, in 1989, after his chart-topping Bad, Michael was proclaimed the “King of Pop.” But he still felt he hadn’t surpassed the King of Rock.
“The most important thing to him was his legacy,” declared his longtime manager, Bob Jones. “He feared the fates of Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr…. Michael desired to be remembered and worshipped like Elvis.
The future King of Pop had met the King of Rock and his daughter in late 1974 while performing with the Jackson Five in Las Vegas. Michael, 16 then, was on his way up; Elvis, pushing 40 and terminally addicted, was on his way down.
Elvis’s drug habit had begun for professional reasons: he took speed in the late fifties to keep up his exhausting national tours. Michael started taking painkillers to endure his own demanding schedule after his Pepsi burn accident.
Both stars were blessed and cursed with an unstoppable, all-consuming drive. The once poor boy from Tupelo called ambition “a dream with a V8 engine,” and the once poor boy from Gary would surely have agreed. The superhuman aspirations of both kings had originally been spurred by two musical visionaries.
Sam Phillips, the Sun records head who recorded Elvis’s break-out hit, “That’s Alright,” had famously remarked: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
Berry Gordy, the Motown records head who discovered the Jackson Five, told the brothers he would make them “the biggest thing in the world.” Michael recalled: “I’ll never forget that… it was like a fairy tale come true.”
Indeed, the kings grew up on make-believe
When receiving the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Nation Awards, Elvis told the crowd that he had always been the hero of every comic book he read so insatiably as a boy. “Every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times,” he concluded.” His hero was Captain Marvel. On stage the King wore the superhero’s capes and a golden thunderbolt necklace.
Michael said he was “a fantasy fanatic,” and “not to crazy about the reality of things.” At age 44, the King of Pop later told BBC’s Martin Bashir that he was Peter Pan.
“No you’re not. You’re Michael Jackson,” Bashir reminded him.
The ageless star and architect of Neverland, more fantastic than Graceland itself, replied: “I’m Peter Pan in my heart.”
Both boy kings lived by the same credo: If you believe with all your heart, anything can come true. This childlike faith came from their beloved, southern Baptist mothers: Gladys from Mississippi, and Katherine – who later became a Jehovah’s Witness –from Alabama.
The fathers of the two mother’s boys were firm realists. Elvis had little respect for Vernon, a sharecropper and moonshiner, but later hired him as his financial manager. Michael feared and hated Joe, a crane operator and frustrated musician who managed his five sons with merciless purpose.
“There are winners and losers in this world,” he would lecture them, belt in hand, “and you’re going to be winners!”
But, in striving to become not just a winner, but a superstar bigger than Elvis himself, Michael felt unfairly handicapped. According to Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth, he complained to his managers that record stores carried Elvis but few black artists. He added that the industry had “conspired” against him “after I broke Elvis’s sales and the Beatles’ sales.
“They don’t give me my due because I’m black,” biographer, Darwin Porter, quoted the star as saying. “So maybe I’ll try to become white.” Critics accuse him of having done exactly that, calling him “Wacko Jacko,” for this and other presumed oddities, and professionally hobbling him further.
Elvis, whose ID bracelet read “CRAZY,” had weathered his share of criticism too. Detractors dubbed him “Elvis the Pelvis,” the Catholic church denounced his music, and Frank Sinatra himself called it a “rancid-smelling aphrodisiac.”
In spite of their great personal differences, the kings became mirror images in their extravagances, excesses, ailments, and their struggles with the pressures of superfame. They gave away Cadillacs, houses, and donated millions to charities. They were shopaholics and built fairytale Camelots. And they spent kings’ ransoms for prescription steroids, sedatives, and painkillers to treat their increasing ailments, most stress-related.
Both were tortured with severe migraine headaches and insomnia. In drug-induced half sleep, they had nightmares of being murdered, triggered by the death threats they received regularly. Both were diagnosed with Lupus, pleurisy, immune deficiency, anemia and glaucoma too.
The kings’ favorite pain reliever became Demerol, then Oxycontin. Elvis doctor-shopped and amassed coast-to-coast drug enablers. Michael used two of them himself – Dr. George Nichopoulos and Dr. Elias Ghanem. Prescriptions were written for the kings using pseudonyms and the names of their handlers. In the end, both were playing Russian roulette: Elvis with Dilaudid, a super-strength morphine used for terminal cancer patients; Michael with Propofol, used for general anesthesia.
A few years before his final sleep, the King of Pop confided to his friend and spiritual advisor, Dr. Deepak Chopra, that he had found something “that takes you to the valley of death and then takes you back.” The new age guru was horrified and, with Michael’s other spiritualist friend, Uri Geller, begged him to seek help. Under duress, the star had entered rehab twice. Otherwise he refused the repeated intervention attempts by his own brothers.
Elvis, too, had detoxed numerous times and fallen off the wagon. His own spiritual advisor, Larry Geller, and his bodyguards – old school friends whom he called brothers– tried to intervene. But, according to biographers, Thompson and Cole (The Death of Elvis: What Really Happened), he raged, “I’ll buy the goddamned drugstore if I have to. I’m going to get what I want. People have to realize either they’re for me or against me!”
The King fired his beloved bodyguards, replacing them with his young step-brothers who became addicted themselves. In desperation, his father, Vernon, and his manager, Colonel Parker, begged his ex-wife to intervene and get him help. But Priscilla too failed.
It was déjà vu for their daughter, Lisa Marie, who married Michael seven months after his first detox. “I became very ill and emotionally/spiritually exhausted in my quest to save Michael from certain self-destructive behavior,” she wrote. Before they were divorced, he had begged her to join him in a séance to reach Elvis.
Before their untimely deaths, the King of Rock and the King of Pop – though one had become a behemoth and the other skeletal –had become much the same person. Both were on the verge of bankruptcy. Both were being called has-beens.
Elvis was about to return to the road, but feared he hadn’t the strength. At the end of his previous tour, after his grand Thus Spake Zarathustra entrance, he had collapsed on stage, wept, and been carried out. “My life is over. I’m a dead man!” he told his step-brother and biographer, David Stanley (Raised on Rock) after his bodyguards published a tell-all (Elvis: What Happened?) revealing him as terminally addicted.
Michael, on the brink of a comeback tour himself, had collapsed during a Staples rehearsal. “It’s over… I’m better off dead,” he told one of his handlers, according to biographer Ian Halperin.
The last enabler of each king – Dr. Conrad Murray for Michael, Dr. George Nichopoulos for Elvis — unsuccessfully performed CPR. The family of each star blamed his physician for the tragedy. Nichopoulos was tried for manslaughter, exonerated, but was suspended from medical practice. Murray will also be tried for manslaughter, and may lose his license, too.
Near the end, the King wrote the epitaph for himself, as well as for his son-in-law: “The image is one thing and the human being is another, it’s very hard to live up to an image.”
OF KINGS & COVER-UPS
32 years ago, on August 18, the world was devastated by the news of the sudden death of the King of Rock and Roll. Recently, the passing of the the King of Pop – the son-in-law Elvis Presley would never know — was greeted with similar incredulity. In both cases, grieving family, friends, and fans alike demanded to know the cause of the tragedy.
“It may take several weeks to discover the exact cause of death,” Elvis’s personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, a.k.a. “Needle Nick, told reporters the next day, the Memphis coroner at his side. “The precise cause may never be discovered,” he added, positing simple “cardiac arrest” in the meantime.
A full autopsy was performed, requiring the removal of the star’s brain and organs. But the contents of his stomach were destroyed without being analyzed. No coroner’s inquest was ordered. The medical examiner’s notes, toxicology report, and photos disappeared from official files.
Rumors of a cover-up soon began to flourish.
Two years later, investigators discovered that ten major narcotics had been found in Elvis’s system. Independent medical experts concluded that he had died of “poly-pharmacy,” the lethal interaction of these controlled substances. The most toxic in the mix was codeine, to which Elvis, a pharmaceutical autodidact, knew he was dangerously allergic. He had secured a bottle of the painkiller during an emergency dental appointment on that fatal night. His liver was found to contain twenty-three times the average therapeutic dose (equivalent to the entire bottle). Another American icon, Howard Hughes himself, had suffered a fatal codeine overdose the year before, in 1976.
The King’s young step-brother, David Stanley – his self-described bodyguard “lifer” – insisted that he had committed suicide, but was immediately muzzled. “There were millons and millions of dollars wrapped up in Elvis’s various insurance policies,” he later wrote. “If they even got a whiff of the theory that Elvis died of self-induced drug overdose then a fortune was at stake.”
But why, at age 43, would the world’s most popular entertainer take his own life? Several reasons, perhaps. His estranged bodyguards had just published a scathing tell-all – Elvis: What Happened – depicting their boss as a terminally addicted and deranged prescription junkie. He was deeply in debt, his record sales at an all-time low. He feared he was a has-been. He was exhausted from relentless touring, but was being forced back on the road by his insatiable manager, Colonel Parker. And his fiancé, Ginger Alden, was threatening to leave him.
Moreover, the King was in desperately poor health. He had been battling Lupus for more than a decade. The stress of his career exacerbated the immunological disease. Its symptoms could only be relieved by cortisone. This steroid was widely regarded as a “miracle” drug in the sixties and seventies; but it is now known to cause, in immoderate doses, psychosis and suicidal depression.
Suicide allegations, however, were nipped in the bud, and Elvis’s life insurance policies were paid out in full.
Seven years earlier, Jimi Hendrix had fatally ODed. His close friend, Eric Burdon of the Animals, announced in a TV interview that the guitarist had committed suicide. Hendrix’s manager and his record label, Warner Brothers, had taken out a multi-million dollar insurance policy on him. After Burdon’s announcement, a Warner’s VP accosted him: “You f**ker, don’t open your mouth again – that’s our insurance policy!” The singer immediately retracted his statement. Hendrix’s beneficiaries were paid in full.
Weeks later, Janis Joplin’s body was found in her L.A. hotel room. Her insurance company denied her manager, Albert Grossman’s, claim. They alleged that the singer had intentionally ODed, nullifying the policy. Grossman prevailed in court and was paid. He and his attorney had arrived at the hotel room before the authorities and all the drug paraphernalia had gone missing.
Cover-ups have become more the rule than the exception in celebrity deaths. Michael Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, waited at least a half hour before calling 911. What evidence might have been removed from the death scene in that time?
To date, two autopsies have been completed. Now Jackson’s mother, suspecting “foul play,” is demanding a third. In a surprisingly hasty move recently, Jackson estate executors settled for a $3 million pay-out on a $20 million policy. Should final autopsy results indicate drugs as a cause of death, the pay-out will be nonrefundable; but an additional $17.5 million Lloyd’s policy taken out by Jackson’s London promoter, AEG, could be rendered null and void.
But to date, publication of Jackson autopsy results has been delayed “indefinitely.” In the meantime, it is likely that Dr. Murray will be scapegoated and tried for murder, just as was Elvis’s physician. Though Dr. Nicholpoulos was ultimately cleared of charges, he lost his medical license. And Vernon Presley, refusing to believe that his son was ultimately responsible for his own fate, tried to have his enabler assassinated.