The True Story Behind Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s Relationship

11 minute read

Director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis offers an often surreal and chaotic look at how a Memphis truck driver named Elvis Presley became the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. At the center of the over-the-top biopic, in theaters now, is the complicated relationship between Elvis (Austin Butler) and his corrupt business manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The movie’s focus on the ups and downs of Elvis’ career leaves little time for his personal life, which means his former wife Priscilla Presley (played by Olivia DeJonge) doesn’t get much screen time in the two and a half hour spectacle. (Luhrmann revealed that there is a “4-hour version” of the film that delves much deeper into Elvis’ life.)

Still, DeJonge believes that Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship, which ended in 1973 after six years of marriage, is at the heart of this rather Shakespearean tale. “Celebrity, fame, fortune. One of the most important things was to just strip that away and just sort of play a girl and a boy that were in love,” DeJonge told Good Morning America in June. “That is 100 percent what I wanted to convey.”

Luhrmann’s decision to revisit Elvis’ legacy has also led some to call into question (not for the first time) the very fundamentals of their union—namely the fact that, at 14, she was underage and a decade his junior when their courtship began. The real Priscilla has never claimed to be a victim of abuse though, as TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek writes, she has acknowledged that their relationship, much like so many aspects of his legacy, was certainly complicated.

To see what Elvis gets right about Elvis and Priscilla’s love story, keep reading.

Did Elvis Presley meet Priscilla Presley while serving in the army?

Austin Butler as Elvis and Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley
Butler and DeJonge in 'Elvis'Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

As the film shows, Elvis Presley met Priscilla Beaulieu in West Germany while he was serving in the U.S. Army. Her stepfather, U.S. Air force officer Paul Beaulieu, was also stationed there. The two reportedly met at a party in 1959 when he was 24 and she was only 14, a detail the film seemingly overlooks. Elvis includes a scene in which Priscilla tells the singer about a fight she had with her parents over their relationship, but, in her retelling, her parents seem more concerned over the rock star’s relationship with West Side Story star Natalie Wood than their teenage daughter dating someone 10 years her senior. (Elvis and Wood reportedly dated briefly in 1956. Wood’s sister, Lana, claims in her 1984 memoir that following her break-up with Elvis, Natalie told her, “He can sing, but he can’t do much else.”)

Priscilla’s parents initially forbade her from seeing Elvis before softening their views on the rock star following a visit he made to her house. He arrived in his BMW wearing his Army uniform to impress dad,” she told People in 1985. He did and the two began a dating routine in which “Elvis would call after 7 to let me know that I’d be picked up at 8,” she told People. “I had to dress quickly, trying to find some way to appear older than my age.” In 1963, her parents allowed her to move in with Elvis’ parents in Memphis so she could be closer to the rocker while attending the local Catholic girls’ school where Elvis would often pick her up in his limo. Before graduating high school, Priscilla moved into Elvis’ iconic home Graceland, promising her parents that the two would be married. In her 1985 autobiography, Elvis and Me, Priscilla wrote that her relationship with Elvis did not become sexual until they tied the knot in 1967 when she was 21 years old. “That was a promise he made to my father,” she told Closer Weekly in 2017.

Did Elvis Presley do Priscilla’s makeup?

Priscilla Presley was known for her teased bouffant and her heavy kohl-rimmed eyes. At one point in the movie, Butler’s Elvis is seen applying Priscilla’s eye makeup for her, which apparently was true to real life. “He applied makeup so heavily that you couldn’t tell if my eyes were black, blue, or black and blue,” she told People in 1985. “That was what Elvis wanted.”

She added that the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll “wanted to mold me to his opinions and preferences,” and she had her hair dyed black to match his. In her memoir, Priscilla wrote that she became “Elvis’ living doll, to fashion as he pleased. He taught me everything. How to dress, how to walk, how to apply makeup and wear my hair, how to behave, how to return love—his way,” she added. “Over the years, he became my father, husband, and very nearly God.”

She later admitted that Elvis never saw her without her makeup on. “Some can’t have the truth,” she told ITV’s Loose Women in 2016. “I always had a little bit of makeup. He never wanted to see me getting dressed, he wanted to see the end result.”

Did Frank Sinatra let Elvis Presley borrow his jet for his wedding to Priscilla?

Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker, Austin Butler as Elvis Presley
Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker, Austin Butler as Elvis PresleyHugh Stewart © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

After seven years of dating, Elvis and Priscilla Presley tied the knot in an intimate Las Vegas civil ceremony on the morning of May 1, 1967. The wedding, which lasted only eight minutes, was organized by Elvis’ longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker, who reportedly believed that the couple living together out of wedlock was hurting Elvis’ image. The rocker’s cook reportedly said that she found Elvis crying about the wedding and when she asked why he couldn’t cancel it, he told her, “I don’t have a choice.”

Parker arranged for the just-married couple to meet with the press right after they said “I do.” The newlyweds were then whisked off to a champagne breakfast for them and 100 of their guests at the Aladdin Hotel. “My wedding was very unusual,” Priscilla told Closer Weekly. “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.”

In Elvis, it’s mentioned that the couple used Sinatra’s jet to get to their month-long honeymoon in Palm Springs, which is true. In his 2011 memoir, Elvis’ childhood friend George Klein wrote that the wedding was a bit of a secret affair. “Just after midnight on May 1, [1967], the wedding party snuck out the back door of Elvis’s Palm Springs home, climbed over the backyard wall, and got into a car to head to the airport. Elvis had been loaned Frank Sinatra’s private jet for the occasion.” Despite Sinatra’s initial dislike of rock and roll, he warmed up to Elvis, inviting him to perform with him on the 1960 TV special, The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis. It marked Elvis’ first TV appearance in three years and led to a lifelong friendship between the two crooners. In 1975, Elvis bought his own jet, which he named “Lisa Marie” after his only daughter with Priscilla, who was born nine months to the day after their Vegas wedding.

Did Elvis and Priscilla Presley separate because of his addiction to drugs?

In the film, Priscilla tells Elvis that she’s leaving him because of his addiction to pills, but the real Priscilla Presley has admitted that their marriage ended in 1972 due to infidelity on both sides. “He wasn’t faithful,” Priscilla told Australia’s Sunday Night in 2017 when asked about Elvis’ numerous alleged affairs during their marriage. “Not that he had someone special, but when you’re in the entertainment business there is always that and I tried to turn my back to that, but I just didn’t want to share him.”

She began a relationship with her karate instructor, Mike Stone, in the early ‘70s, but she later said that their marriage was troubled from the start. “With Elvis, my life was his life,” she told People in 1978. “He had to be happy. My problems were secondary.” In her 1985 autobiography, Priscilla said her “feelings of neglect and loneliness” drove her to have an affair and leaving Elvis resulted in her “finding myself for the first time.” In 2016, she told ITV’s Loose Women that she “did not divorce him because I didn’t love him. He was the love of my life, but I had to find out about the world.”

The couple officially divorced in 1973, but they continued to co-parent their daughter, Lisa Marie. “We never lost our friendship and our care for each other,” Priscilla told Sunday Night. “He would call me at night. I really valued his calls. I valued him telling me what was wrong.”

Did Priscilla Presley encourage Elvis to go to rehab before his death?

Toward the end of the film, Priscilla tries to get Elvis to seek treatment in San Diego for his drug dependency, but he turns her down. The real Priscilla told Good Morning America that watching that scene brought back memories of the calls she had with Elvis’ father, Vernon, about what they could do to help the singer. Things got “more and more frightening” for Elvis in those years before his death, according to Priscilla, who said it was “heartbreaking” to watch him struggle with a decades-long substance abuse problem. In a 1985 interview with People, she said that Elvis introduced her to drugs when she was just a teenager, offering her “white pills” to help her stay awake. “Elvis honestly believed he was doing me a favor by giving me the pills, and I’m sure the thought never entered his mind that they could be harmful to him or me,” she said.

When Elvis died in 1977 at the age of 42, Priscilla told People, “It was a shock, although I saw his health failing and even went back to Memphis once to see if there was anything I could do.” In her memoir, she wrote that after learning of Elvis’s death she felt as if a piece of her had died with him. “We had a bond: We’d become closer and had more understanding and patience for each other than in our married life,” she wrote in Elvis & Me. “We even talked of one day… And now he was gone.”

Over the last 45 years, Priscilla has made it her duty to help preserve Elvis’ legacy and take care of his estate, which is worth an estimated $300 million. “I take it as a big responsibility,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year. “I’m fulfilling dreams that Elvis Presley was never able to fulfill, and I’m straightening out the falsities that people thought about Elvis. It’s just about keeping his legacy true to who he was and I do feel a big responsibility to that.”

What has Priscilla said about Elvis?

During a recent appearance on Good Morning America, Priscilla Presley admitted that it was “so strange” to see someone playing her on the big screen, but she was “pleasantly surprised” by Olivia DeJonge’s performance. “I’m so happy that she was sensitive and that she was caring,” she said. She was also thoroughly impressed by Austin Butler’s portrayal of her late ex-husband. (Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, is also a big fan of Butler’s performance.) After watching the film, Priscilla wished that Elvis could have seen it. “It was perfection,” she told GMA. “This is a movie that [Elvis] would have really loved [for] showing who he was, what he was striving for, [and] what his dreams were.”

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