“I can’t talk any more, can you stop the camera please?”
For a weeping Priscilla Presley, it was the moment the enormity of the huge losses she has suffered in recent years suddenly got too much to bear.
In July 2020, her grandson Benjamin Keough took his own life aged just 27.
In August 2021, her 95-year-old mother Anna died.
And in January this year, her daughter Lisa-Marie – her only child with Elvis Presley – suddenly died too, from a bowel obstruction. She was 54.
This triple whammy of devastating loss and grief hit Priscilla hard.
“It was unbearable,” she told me in her only TV interview for the release of Sofia Coppola’s biopic about her life, Priscilla, which will hit cinemas in Australia in January. “It’s like a large part of your life is taken away.”
We were sitting in a suite at the Peninsular Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Priscilla, now 78, and still exuding the radiant beauty and mystique that has made an object of global fascination ever since Elvis fell for her when she was a teenage girl, admitted to me before we started the interview that she was very nervous. “You just don’t know what’s going to come at you, you know?”
She rarely does interviews, a reflection of her intense desire for privacy that so endeared her to Elvis (she didn’t even tell her classmates at school they were dating, despite him being the world’s biggest star at the time).
But she knew she couldn’t avoid it with the movie – which stars Australian actor Jacob Elordi as Elvis and US actress Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla – coming out, and she knew she’d have to discuss the appalling tragedies that have beset her.
It’s hard to even imagine how tough it must have been for her to lose the love of her life when he was just 42, then her daughter and grandson so shockingly prematurely too.
And even harder to endure all this tragedy in the public and media gaze.
As Baz Luhrmann, who directed Elvis, last year’s smash-hit movie about the rock ’n’ roll legend, said: “There’s the Kennedys, and there’s the Presleys. They are the royal families of America. And in different ways, they are both where Shakespeare says, ‘wedded to calamity’.
“Is it genetic? Is it because they have such high standards? Is it because the world watches them? Maybe, because to be American royalty is not just to have your country watching you. To be American royalty is to have the whole world watch you.”
Priscilla nodded when I read her this quote.
“Absolutely. You know, being married to Elvis Presley, you don’t really know what you’re getting into, especially when you are younger. You have to adapt to not really having your privacy. So, it’s been a journey, there’s no doubt.”
Priscilla famously met Elvis when she was just 14, and he was 24.
To those, since the #MeToo scandal, who think her initial youth and their age gap made the romance inappropriate, and that Elvis groomed her, she responded: “I understand, but there were always people around, and he never ever, ever, ever was aggressive, nor did he ever make love to me. I was somehow someone he trusted to talk to and pour his heart out.”
She insists they first slept together on their wedding night seven years later, which is when Lisa-Marie was conceived.
Their marriage only lasted six years, but it’s clear Priscilla still has an intense love for him.
“I miss him very much. I miss his words, I miss his love, I miss his laugh, I miss his energy, I miss the fun times. You don’t really realise the fun times that you are having, until you go back and look at your albums and your pictures and you go, ‘oh my god, we had so much fun, we did so much.’ It’s still there.”
I asked her if there’s an Elvis song that particularly resonates.
“Memories,” she replied without hesitation. “Yes, pressed between the pages of my mind. I don’t listen to [his] songs very often because I go into another place, but sometimes I am a little surprised at myself that I still get emotional, and love is still there. He is still so present.”
It was a horrible, gut-wrenching irony that Lisa-Marie fell ill on the night she and Priscilla had attended the Golden Globes where Austin Butler won Best Actor for his brilliant portrayal of Elvis.
“She didn’t look well that night,” she recalled, “And I was concerned. She asked Jerry Schilling, one of my best friends, if he could hold her. Her heels were high, but she had worn them before, and I thought ‘is she OK?’ She didn’t really look that OK, she looked very frail.
“Then we watched the show, and we had a few laughs, and we were all excited about Austin Butler and Baz, and the movie went so well, we were proud of them, then we started to go, and she said ‘Mum, do you want to go to Chateau Marmont and have a drink?’”
But once they got to the fabled hotel off Sunset Boulevard, things took a turn for the worse.
“We both had our high heels on and both of us tripped on the staircase, and we started laughing and giggling, then we went and sat down, and she said, ‘Mum, I have to go, my stomach really hurts.’ I go ‘of course, are you OK?’ She goes ‘yes, yes, I just really have to go’. And I go ‘OK, we will get the cars now’. Then I hugged her, and she went her way, and I went mine, and that hug was the last hug I gave her.”
Two days later, Lisa-Marie’s ex-husband Danny Keough called Priscilla saying her daughter was in hospital, and she should come to her immediately. By the time she arrived, it was too late.
“It was unbearable. I lost my mother, I lost my grandson, and I lost my daughter. It’s still shocking that we don’t have her.”
Then, stunningly, Priscilla revealed that Lisa-Marie had herself been feeling suicidal since the death of her son.
“Losing Ben was the hardest thing for her. He took his own life, and he was the love of her life, that child, she adored him. She would do anything for him, anything.
“And we were in Memphis, sitting up in the suite, and she said, ‘Mum, I don’t know if I want to be here,’ and I go, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘You know, my Ben,’ and she would go on about Ben and how she is still grieving, and this was a couple of months before.”
Did she seriously want to take her own life?
“I think so,” Priscilla replied. “She really … She was almost like, she wanted to go earlier, but the twins were still young, or too young, let’s put it that way.”
Lisa-Marie’s twin daughters Harper and Finley were just 13 at the time.
As she said this, Priscilla’s face crumpled, she held her head in her hands, began to weep, and asked me to stop filming, which we did for a few minutes as she regathered her composure.
When we started again, I asked her what she’d felt when Lisa-Marie briefly married another music icon, Michael Jackson.
“I was honest with her. I remember being in Hawaii and we were walking together on the beach, and she said, ‘Mum, I’m really concerned,’ this is while they were married, and she said, ‘I never see him. He is always gone.’ I go, ‘where does he go?’ She goes, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know where he goes. He will call me maybe three or four days later.’ I said, ‘well don’t you ask him where he is going?’ She goes, ‘Just said he has things to do.’”
Priscilla shook her head slowly.
“I always felt that Michael Jackson loved Elvis, or respected Elvis, so I always felt that having the name, associated with the name with his daughter, I was concerned. I told her …”
“You thought that was his main motivation?” I asked.
“I did … don’t get me wrong, I thought he was very talented, truly talented, but I never really got to know him.”
After Lisa-Marie’s sudden untimely death, Priscilla discovered her daughter had secretly changed her will in 2016, removing her as the Elvis estate manager and co-trustee and replacing her with her own two older children, Benjamin and Riley Keough, herself a successful actress.
Priscilla challenged this legally, saying she was never notified of the change, and months of lurid media headlines followed about a family rift over Lisa-Marie’s will.
But it was all settled amicably in May, with Riley reportedly paying her grandmother $US1 million, and $US400,000 in legal costs, and remaining sole trustee of the estate including Graceland, which thanks to Priscilla’s determination to keep Elvis’s legacy alive, now generates over $US100 million a year.
Priscilla will also be a paid special adviser to the trust.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Riley said: “When my mum passed there was a lot of chaos in every respect of our lives. Everything felt like the carpet had been ripped out and the floor had melted from under us.
“Everyone was in a bit of a panic to understand how we move forward, and it took a minute to understand the details of the situation, because it was complicated.
“We are a family but there’s a huge business side of our family, so I think there was clarity that needed to be had, and clarity has been had.
“Things with grandma will be happy, they have never not been happy. She’s a beautiful woman and she was a huge part of creating my grandfather’s legacy in Graceland. It was very important to her. He was the love of her life. Anything that would suggest otherwise in the press makes me sad, because at the end of the day, all she wants is to love and protect Graceland and the Presley family and the legacy, that’s her whole life, it’s a big responsibility she is trying to take on.
“None of that stuff has ever really been a part of our relationship prior, she’s just been my grandma.”
When I read these words to Priscilla, she instantly welled up.
“I never read that, wow. I am going to cry again. I love her. We have always gotten along. It was a little bit of trying to figure out the will, like you normally do, but Riley and I have always been close. I think Riley will be great, she has asked me a few things about what to do. I want to help her with Graceland. She has a great head on her shoulders. I trust her.”
Another topic of feverish speculation has been whether Priscilla will one day be buried alongside Elvis at Graceland, where Lisa-Marie and Benjamin have also been laid to rest.
“Yes,” she replied, emphatically.
Then Priscilla laughed, for the first time in the interview.
“But not right now!”
This story originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission