If you tour Graceland and happen to splurge on the VIP tour, there is a very special exhibit that chronicles the life of Lisa Marie Presley and her relationship with her father, Elvis Presley.
It is an exhibit that bears a title very similar to a post that I recently made about Paris Jackson’s tweet: “Through A Daughter’s Eyes.” Well, Paris and Lisa Marie do share more than a few things in common. Both lost their famous fathers tragically, at about the same age (Lisa was nine; Paris eleven). Both grew up with the privileges of wealth, yet would know the heartache of a loss no amount of money can fill. And both, though in very different capacities, would play major roles in the life of one man they both shared-Michael Jackson.
If a tour of Graceland may help you to understand a little better the man who was King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, this exhibit adds an additional element, allowing us to get to know Elvis as not just an icon, but as a father. More specifically, as a father to a little girl who adored her daddy (even though by her own admission she would never really know a true father/daughter relationship, thanks to the divorce that forever altered her life).
Most of the exhibit is focused on one chapter of Lisa Marie’s life-as daughter to Elvis. It is, in many ways, as much a celebration of her life as it is her famous father’s. Although there is acknowledgement of Lisa Marie as an adult celebrity in her own right, that isn’t the true focus of the exhibit. No mention is made of her four marriages, failed or otherwise. There are no photos of her children, Riley, Benjamin, or Harper and Finley. Whether by conscious decision to keep the exhibit focused only on the Presley family, or perhaps a desire on Lisa’s part to keep her own private life out of the exhibit, her four husbands and four children (yes, even the most famous ex-husband of all!) does not rate a mention.
Yet, placed very discreetly and inconspiculously at the foot of a mannequin modeling a simple gray jumpsuit once worn by Lisa Marie, is a photo that is instantly recognizable to any Michael Jackson fan. It is a photo of Michael and Lisa Marie at a children’s hospital in Budapest. Fans will recognize this as the same visit in which Michael was made aware of the story of Farkus, the little boy who was in danger of dying from a rare liver disease until Michael was able to organize a worldwide effort to locate a liver for him. The child in the photo is not Farkus, but one of the many other sick children that Michael and Lisa visited that day.
The information card beside the display simply gives a description of the outfit and states that this was an outfit worn by Lisa Marie presley while visiting a children’s hospital in Budapest. There is no mention that she made this visit at the side of her own very famous husband, Michael Jackson. In fact, Michael isn’t even identified as the man in the photo, or as her husband. For all practical purposes, he could have been any random stranger that Lisa might have posed with that day.
But we know better, of course. And, I imagine, so do the hundreds of visitors who come through Graceland daily. As much as some (cough) certain members of the Presley estate might like to downplay this chapter of Lisa Marie’s life as much as possible, one fact is indisputable. Lisa may have married three other men, two of whom actually contributed to the Presley bloodline.
But only one husband has actually made it into Graceland, and is now-in a sense-immortalized there. Perhaps it is no small coincidence that this man should happen to turn out to be the only entertainer who could rival and even top Elvis’s accomplishments. In touring Graceland, I came to appreciate even more just how much these two men-both of them our two biggest American pop icons-had in common.
Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson are, without argument, two of our greatest American Dream success stories; proof that in America, anyone can be somebody, and can rise from rags to riches, with a little talent and determination. Both of them were born dirt poor, one in the rural South; the other in midwestern America. Both grew up in homes barely large enough to turn around in, both would one day break world records and achieve the kind of “Cinderella” (or “Cinderfella,” as the case may be) fame that, for most, exists only in fairy tales.
They would also both convert their fame and vast wealth into a kind of fantasy neverland of eternal childhood, in which both seemed (regardless of their respective methods) to be compensating for their youthful poverty and/or lack of a normal childhood. While many have criticized Michael as a spendthrift celebrity who wasted his millions on a lavish lifestyle, one only has to step foot inside of Graceland (or, more aptly, the extensive, nearby car museum where some of Elvis’s most prized vehicles are displayed) to see that Elvis had set the groundwork for the opulent, extravagant living pop star long before Michael Jackson. Indeed, as a lifelong Southerner who grew up in the same town as Elvis’s sidekick Charlie Hodge and having been raised by two Elvis fanatics (my mom and grandmother) I had heard the stories ever since childhood of Elvis’s legendary (but often questionable) generosity and spending sprees, often gifting cars, jewelry, and large sums of money to even the most casual aquaintances.
(I grew up in the same town as Charlie Hodge, the man who became Elvis’s most constant companion during the 70’s):
The old adage of trying to buy love-or at least many, many friends-comes to mind. Elvis learned the lesson early that, while material wealth doesn’t necessarily buy happiness, it does buy power-and lots of it.
This was, after all, the “Blue Suede Shoes” culture that Elvis sang about. “You can do anything/but lay off of my blue suede shoes.” It harkens back to a far more materialistic and capitalist era in which our pop stars-especially our American pop stars-were expected to live large and spend large. Today, the remnants of this culture still exist largely in hip-hop, where one may still be judged as much for the brightness of their bling and the number of Rolls Royces in their garage as for the quality of their music. Yet for the most part the pendulum has widely swung in another direction, and larger-than-life celebrities like Elvis and Michael Jackson,who were as much noted for their monetary worth, lavish lifestyles, and mystique as for their music seem somehow passe in today’s world of instantly accessible and disposable celebrities.
If one steps inside the Elvis car museum, it’s like stepping inside every boy’s ultimate fantasy-especially when you consider this was a boy who had absolutely nothing growing up. The car museum (which also features many motorcycles and other vehicles owned by Elvis) is all the evidence needed to see that Elvis was, in many ways, an adult indulging a childlike fantasy to remain a big kid forever.An elderly tour guide will regale visitors with the story of the tractor Elvis bought-not to farm, of course, but just as a toy. Like all toys, it probably lost its value as soon as Elvis was bored with it. Always, there is the sense of realizing this was a young man for whom fame and wealth came suddenly-so suddenly he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it all. He was still a kid in many ways, only a kid for whom every day was now Christmas.
But, just as with Michael, he was a man of many contrasts, impossible to pin down. Just as Michael was able to succesfully combine a Peter Pan-like persona with a razor sharp adult savvy, Elvis, also, was a super sharp businessman who built an empire, and a philanthropist and humanitarian-something he shared with his future son-in-law. One of the most eye opening displays for me in all of Graceland was a case exhibiting the many hundreds of checks and donations made to various causes and organizations, many of them local charities. And, via a recorded tape of Lisa that loops continuously as one walks through the Lisa Marie exhibit, visitors learn that her father was also an avid reader who collected books on many subjects, especially religion and spirituality, and read these books assidiously, often underlining meaningful passages. Far from being the hillbilly hick that some try to pigeonhole him as, the man that Lisa Marie knew as her father-the man she described in her taped interview-was a man very much like the one she eventually married, a deep thinker, largely self-educated, but highly intelligent and interested in many diverse subjects. Lisa Marie, as someone close to Michael, would have been attracted to this similarity, because as she says in her interview, it was one of the qualities that fascinated her about her father. She mentions the books where he had made note after note in the margins; one of his favorite things was to write “Amen!” when he especially agreed with something. Since this is an exhibit in which Lisa herself personally selected many of the items for display-as the whole idea is that this is her father through her eyes-one can only imagine how she must have felt, going through book passage after book passage, trying to determine, “What was he thinking here? Why did he underline this passage? What did this mean for him?”
Even Elvis’s clothes which were chosen for this exhibit are personal favorite pieces selected by Lisa, and they represent a marked contrast from the more familiar jumpsuits and leather outfits displayed in other areas of Graceland. The outfits and accessories in this collection represent a more exotic, bohemian style, and more than a few pieces reminded me of outfits I have seen Michael wear. Interestingly enough, many of these pieces chosen by Lisa as favorite outfits worn by her father are very similar to some of Michael’s 90’s outfits, and the looks he was wearing when Lisa fell in love with him.
Which brings us to her marriage to Michael Jackson. One of the things I’d hoped to get out of my visit to Graceland was a better understanding of the woman who eventually became Mrs. Michael Jackson. I feel very certain that I was able to walk away with some of those answers. The feeling that permeates the entire “Through His Daughter’s Eyes” exhibit is that of an adult woman trying to go back to those childhood years in an attempt to understand who her father was. Because Lisa herself, the little girl who lost her father at only nine years old (and even then had seldom spent much time in his company, as Priscilla had custody of her) is in many ways not that much different from the average Elvis fan. She is still trying to understand the mystery of who her father was.
Even during her early years at Graceland, she recalls her father as a rare presence but “when he came down the stairs, it was always an event.” She has described that feeling, invariably, as being bathed “in a glow” or being “in the light”-all interesting phrases, as they are the kinds of phrases usually reserved for being in some god-like presence (as compared to, say, the normal feeling of being with a loved parent). In her 2010 Oprah Winfrey interview, she uses the same phrases to describe how she felt being around Michael, and confesses that only one other person ever made her feel that way-her father.
Through the years, the media has attempted to analyze and dissect the Jackson-Presley marriage, usually from the angle of Michael as The Manipulator. What was Michael Jackson hoping to gain by being married to Elvis Presley’s daughter?
But how many have stopped to ask, What did Lisa Marie hope to gain by being married to Michael Jackson? And really, who is Lisa Marie Presley-or more aptly, who was she in 1993, when she fell in love with Michael Jackson?
The biggest clue to understanding Lisa’s psychological “makeup,” per se, came in a surprising way for me. Across the street from the Graceland mansion, beside the gallery of shops and museums, sits two of Elvis’s private touring jets. The larger jet, named Lisa Marie (inspiraton obvious!) dwarfs its smaller companion, the Hound Dog 2. As VIP guests walk through the Lisa Marie, a little-known story is told on the video that loops constantly. Lisa Marie, as a child whose entire early life had been spent shuffling back and forth between her father in Memphis, Tennessee and her mother in southern California-had never seen snow.
The story goes that when it hit Elvis that his daughter had never seen real snow, he whisked her immediatly aboard the Lisa Marie for a quick flight from Memphis to Colorado. Lisa was able to play in the snow “for a few minutes” before, just as quickly, they had to leave.
So there you have it. Chew on this. Here is a little girl-a princess, if you will-who lives a life so privileged that her father can afford to fly her to Colorado just so she can have the experience of seeing real snow. Imagine the awe of this little girl, as she experiences the magic and wonder of seeing snow for the first time! Imagine, too, how it must have felt to know, “Daddy can do this for me; he can create magic!” But imagine that you have no sooner experienced the awe and magic; you have no sooner begun to play, or to build your little snowman, when just as suddenly, it is taken away. You must be whisked back to Memphis. Daddy has an obligation. Or you must be whisked back to California. Mommy has an obligation.
Sure, once you get back home, you have all the toys and luxuries that most kids only dream about. But those things mean nothing to you, when it is what you have known your entire life. You just take it for granted that all kids live this way. But that snow! That was something real. Something you could scoop your hands into, and sift through your fingers. Most of all, it was a rare moment of having Daddy all to yourself, away from the world; away from the crowds and paparazzi; even away from the “gilded cage” environment of Graceland.
Lisa Marie, no doubt, was Little Miss Princess-spoiled and living the fantasy life of any child. But it was also a life of over compensation, in which material things often took the place of what every child really needs, and wants most-the stability of a home life with both parents there. As an only child, she would have experienced the isolation and loneliness that often comes with being an only child, but also, no doubt, the sense of entitlement that comes with it as well. Children who are “only” children become used to being the center of everything. Now imagine you are not “just” any only child, but the only child of Elvis Presley. That wasn’t her fault, of course. But nevertheless, it would have played its part in shaping who Lisa Marie Presley was, and who she came to be. In fact, it’s interesting if you contrast her childhood with that of Michael Jackson, who grew up as one of nine siblings, in a house not much bigger than a shoe box.
And who, as a child growing up in Gary, Indiana, certainly saw enough snow to last him a lifetime!
But any sense of normalcy Michael may have known in his childhood ended by the age of ten (and really, by the age of five if you count the years he began singing with the Jackson 5, but before they were signed). Certainly from the age of ten forward, it was a life of recording, touring, and never ending work. It also became, in a sense, a life of privilege-parties at the homes of Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson; swimming pools in the back yard; privacy fences to keep the real world out, as the life behind became increasingly isolated. There wasn’t much in-between for Michael as a child. He went from poverty to wealth and fame in a head spinningly short time, before he was even old enough to process how and why he had gone from a tiny house in Gary to a mansion in California.
Like his future wife, he understood what it meant to walk that precarious wire between a childhood of privilege and one of denial and sacrifice; between magic and harsh reality. I think that in many crucial ways, Lisa Marie would always be that little girl seeking to recreate the magic of playing in real snow for the first time, with Daddy standing close by. Michael would always be that little boy seeking permission to play; to know what childhood was like. Their respective childhoods had made them both the center of attention, but at a heavy price. Their respective childhoods had also shaped them into the adults they became.
It was, perhaps, what drew them together, and ultimately what tore them apart.
In the Oprah interview, she says she has struggled with the question of why she was meant to go through this experience and loss, not once, but twice in her life. It is an interesting question. As the daughter of Elvis Presley and the wife of Michael Jackson, Lisa Marie, moreso than anyone else, was in a unique position to know what it is like to be around individuals who are powerful enough to “create their own reality.” But as to why she “had” to go through it twice, I don’t think we need look to some mysterious “power in the universe” to get that answer. Lisa made the conscious choice to marry Michael, and I think she did so for one simple reason: To try to understand who her father was, and perhaps as a means of trying to recapture what she felt when she was around her father-those fleeting moments of feeling “so high,” of being enveloped in “that glow” and that magic. I’m sure this was probably on a very subconscious level, but it makes perfect sense in understanding her attraction to Michael. Whether it was a subconscious desire to better understand who her father was; or perhaps some lingering martyr syndrome that she could somehow “save” Michael in the way she couldn’t “save” her dad, I believe strongly now, more than ever, that Lisa simply transferred a lot of the repressed feelings she had for her father over to Michael.
If people say Michael was using Lisa Marie, they only know half the story. Lisa Marie actively sought and pursued Michael before the marriage; she was the one, for better or worse, who seemed to have the biggest emotional investment in the marriage. She was the one who continued to pursue him, even for years after the divorce; in fact, they continued jetting around the world together, sharing hotel rooms (and obviously, still engaging in an active sex life!). None of this is speculation now; whatever lingering doubts anyone may have had about their continued, post-divorce relationship was firmly put to rest in Lisa’s 2010 Oprah interview, where she confirms it.
Of course, no one can ever speculate about what goes on in a private relationship, let alone attempting to get into the heads of either party. But it has become more clear to me that Lisa was drawn to Michael as, perhaps, a way of trying to resolve issues from her childhood, and especially with her dad. And Little Miss Princess, who had experienced early in life the power she could weld over one of the world’s most powerful men, would not have been able to resist the challenge of being Mrs. Michael Jackson. What more fitting way to add another feather to her crown! And, as some have speculated, her attraction could have had as much to do with Michael’s Sony/ATV catalog as the ego trip of being Mrs. Michael Jackson. Certainly it’s something to consider the next time you hear some ne’er-do-well but misinformed Presley fan spouting that same old chiche’ about Michael seeking the Presley fortune! In fact, some sources at the time seemed to think this may have been more a case of Lisa Marie wanting Michael’s savvy business head to take control of the Presley empire!
But are the folks down in Graceland as impressed by Michael? The truth is, Elvis does live on—as a corporate entity. The King left an estate worth only $5 million. But thanks to careful management by ex-wife Priscilla and Jack Soden, CEO of Presley Enterprises, the income from the Graceland museum, memorabilia and royalties is $20 million annually and the value of the estate has multiplied more than 20 times. The Graceland folks may actually appreciate Jackson, an undisputably shrewd businessman. He earns $30 million a year through a music-publishing catalog—including titles by the Beatles and none other than Elvis—that he bought in 1985. A source close to Jackson says the singer has long wanted to acquire the entire Presley catalog. “He’s always had a fascination with Elvis,” says the friend.
Strange as it may sound, Jackson could actually be a maturing influence on his new wife, who is set to assume control of the company in 1998. A close friend of the CEO says Soden has long been nervous about what he considers Lisa Marie’s “unpredictable” behavior. The high school dropout went through an admitted period of rebellious drug-taking and battling with Priscilla. And now, if one source in the Presley camp is to be believed, their future chairwoman up and married Michael Jackson—a businessman with a track record of accumulating music rights—without informing them.
In 1993, Lisa had just come into her inheritance as the sole heir to the Elvis Presley estate, which put her net worth as of 1993 right around 100 million.
But in 1994, Michael himself was not only worth an estimated 22 million, according to Forbes, but was also less than a year away from his merger of his ATV catalog with Sony, a deal that-even without the inclusion of his own songs-was worth a reported 600 million.
Clearly, Michael was doing quite well in 1993-1995, and certainly was in no dire need of the Presley fortune, thank you very much!
Ah, but let’s not forget that, for Michael, there must have been some ultimate personal satisfaction in winning the King’s daughter. I know that most of you are very familiar with this speech Michael did in Harlem with Rev. Al Sharpton, but listen to it anew and note the especial satisfaction that Michael seems to take when he gloats (albeit truthfully) of breaking Elvis Presley’s records, and the privilege of meeting the daughter of Otis Blackwell, a black songwriter responsible for ‘some of the greatest Elvis Presley tunes” who nevertheless, died broke and all but forgotten.
While Michael’s motives were probably as equally subconscious as Lisa’s, I believe that there was, no doubt, a genuine sense on his part of “taking back.” Many felt that Elvis’s fame was in some ways an unjustified fame that was built on black labor-the music that made him famous was, after all, “black music” but having a white boy to sing it made it “safe” for mass consumption.
I think there is some justification in this, but over the years, it has been exaggerated as well. Elvis certainly wasn’t responsible for the historic injustices that had shaped the music industry by the mid 1950’s, but because of his unprecedented success, he has often been held up as a prime example of that injustice. In his own way, I think Elvis was simply paying homage to the music he personally loved, and certainly, he is no more guilty than the Beatles, the Stones, or any other white act whose roots were based in black music. And it’s worth noting that his roots were not just in r&b, but also in gospel and country as well.
But all the same, when we consider stories like that of Otis Blackwell, it’s not surprising that this resentment and sense of injustice does exist. There were many who felt-and still do, to this day-that artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard were far more deserving of “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” title. In fact, Chuck Berry’s career was officially killed when he was convicted on the Mann act, whereas Elvis, who had co-habitated with a teenaged Priscialla for years at Graceland, evaded being charged with the Mann act when he simply agreed to marry Priscilla. When all of this is considered, it’s no wonder that an artist like Michael Jackson should take such pride in not only besting some of Elvis’s greatest accomplishments, but also even down to winning the hand-and heart-of his only daughter! In a way, it was a sense of “taking back.”
And race, no matter how uncomfortable the subject makes us, is also at the heart of much of the controversy over the Presley-Jackson marriage. The Presleys were, after all, from the South, and to this day, there are still many conservative, old school Elvis fans in the South who were outraged that Elvis’s only daughter should marry “a n***er.” (Especially, it might be added, one who had managed to rival and surpass many of Elvis’s accomplishments!). This same faction were also the ones who heaved an immense, collective sigh of relief when the divorce came about. “Thank God, that insanity is over; let’s put it behind us, the sooner the better.” Sadly, there is a part of me that can’t help but wonder if that sentiment isn’t behind the seemingly deliberate attempt at Graceland to downplay the marriage.
The photo of Lisa and Michael in Budapest seemed to have been added almost as an afterthought to the exhibit, and I can’t help but wonder if perhaps this was Lisa’s rebellious attempt in some small way to say, “Yes, I was in Budapest at a children’s hospital, and yes, I was there with my husband, Michael Jackson…deal with it.”
But while we can’t presume to know what subconscious factors may have triggered their attraction to one another, it’s pretty clear that in some crucial ways, they each represented an ego stroke for the other. In other words, theirs was always a two-way street, and anyone who thinks that one or the other was the victim in this marriage is probably sorely deluded. I am very much aware of the bashing that routinely takes place in both camps insofar as “who was using who” and “who did who the dirtiest,” etc, etc. As those of you who read my blog regularly know, I have no interest in bashing anyone, least of all someone Michael cared about, however briefly or however long ago it may have been.
In the end, it came down to one very simple fact. Michael and Lisa probably understood each other better than any other two people on earth possibly could.
At first, the decision to tour Graceland had been simply out of the same sense of curiosity that motivates most tourists in Memphis. Out of the hundreds-if not thousands-who tour Graceland daily, a surprising number aren’t Elvis fans at all, but are simply curious. And because going to Graceland, for many, is simply par for the course. After all, you can’t say you have properly experienced Memphis until you have done two things-until you have strolled down Beale, and toured Graceland.
But as a Michael Jackson fan, I knew that my main purpose would be to find those connections to Lisa Marie. This was, after all, the home where her earliest memories and sense of self would have been shaped. Behind the gates of Graceland, it would have been possible; just as it was possible behind the gates of Neverland, to create a sanctuary. At Graceland, one can experience rolling green hills and farmland; there would have been ample spaces for a rambunctious little girl to ride her private golf cart, to go horseback riding, or simply to experience nature (minus the snow, of course!).
Inside the house, I was somewhat surprised. Everything I had ever read about Graceland had prepared me for what I thought was going to be an ostenatious house full of tacky, ornate furniture and the somewhat “bizarre” trappings of a man who gloried in unconventional style. In reality, although some of Elvis’s tastes certainly wouldn’t have been mine (no more than Michael’s would have been) I was pleasantly surprised to discover a very inviting and quietly elegant home. Sure, there may have been peacock glass-stained double doors in the living room, and the famous “jungle room” may seem a bit ornate, but overall, I could certainly see Graceland as a homey kind of place where one could just sit back and chill after a grueling tour. Quite simply, a man’s home is his castle, and this was Elvis’s castle. One cannot experience it without coming away with a renewed respect for who “The King” was, and all he endured in his life to arrive at this place. And whatever else we Michael Jackson fans can say, one thing can’t be denied. Via Graceland and Memphis, Elvis fans will always have the kind of center that we can only envy and dream about.
One has only to make the pilgrimmage to the Meditation Garden to realize how true this is. Graceland is more than just the home where Elvis lived; it is also where he died, and where his body rests. To his right are the remains of his beloved parents, Vernon and Gladys. To his left rests Grandmother Minnie Mae. There is even a memorial placque for his twin brother who died at birth, Jesse Garon. A Presley fan does not have to go any further than this; for them, Graceland is their mecca; it encompasses the heart, soul, and body of Elvis and the entire Presley family. For sure, if history had turned out differently for Michael, Neverland would have been his center as well, and perhaps today would have been that center for his fans. But it was not to be. However, we can’t change history now. The fact is that Michael’s center was destroyed; Elvis’s center remains-and most likely will, in perpetuity. Detractors can say what they want about Graceland; about its tacky commercialism; its exploitation, whatever you want to call it. But I can only say that I came away with a profound respect for what the Presley estate has accomplished, and a renewed sadness that Michael’s fans have nothing similar.
More than just Elvis’s center, it was, for a few too brief years, the center of Lisa Marie’s world as well. But unfortunately, it was also the scene of her greatest trauma. Lisa was there, at Graceland, the day her father collapsed and died there. Graceland became more than just the center of her world. It also came to represent the place where her world was shattered. Her experience would eerily parallel Paris Jackson’s experience thirty-two years later.
Perhaps this, more than anything, is what continues to fascinate me most about the whole Jackson-Presley saga. It is amazing to stand inside of Graceland-especially in the Lisa Marie exhibit-and to think of these very famous lives that have intersected. Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson will always share much more than just being music icons, and much more than just their shared title of King.
They were two kings who shared the heart of one princess.
And that, no history can change.