Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the relationship behind Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla.
Writer-director Sofia Coppola returns to the big screen this year with Priscilla, a biopic based on the memoirs of actress and executive Priscilla Presley, the ex-wife of Elvis Presley. A year after Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis stormed onto the scene with Austin Butler in the titular role, Coppola takes on the lore of Graceland by focusing on Priscilla, who was not only by Elvis’s side throughout key moments of his career but who became a star in her own right, founding Elvis Presley Enterprises and starring in films. Priscilla is also an executive producer on Coppola’s film.
In Coppola’s film, Cailee Spaeny plays Priscilla Beaulieu Presley. Jacob Elordi takes on the role of Elvis. The film centers on their relationship and gives voice to Priscilla, who has praised the film. Here is a look at the true story behind it all.
Meeting in Germany
In 1957, Elvis was drafted into the Army. The following year, on March 24, 1958, a day fans and media called “Black Monday,” he was officially inducted, promising to serve his time like any other soldier. Of course, that was not entirely possible. As Travis Andrews writes:
He served dutifully but also passed his time like any good rock star, escaping crazed groupies and taking his fellow soldiers on rollicking, drunken adventures — some that even turned rowdy.
While serving, Presley lost his beloved mother, Gladys, after she suffered a heart attack. The grief for Elvis was overwhelming, and he “began the grim journey of drug addiction that likely ended his life.”
He, then twenty-four years old, was later stationed in Germany, where, at a party at his home, he met the then-fourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. As Priscilla wrote in a 1985 article for People, “I was an insecure Air Force brat, unhappily accustomed to moving from base to base.” Upon their first meeting, Elvis immediately fell for the young Priscilla, and the two began seeing each other often. Priscilla wrote:
I found myself deeply involved with Elvis. Something in his Southern upbringing had taught him that the “right” girl was to be saved for marriage. I was that girl. At the same time, he molded me into his woman. I wore the clothes, hairstyle and makeup of his careful choosing.
The shocking age gap and Elvis’s reputation did not come without pushback, in particular from Priscilla’s parents. She wrote:
We tried to make them believe that it was proper and platonic, and they wanted to believe me. Whenever they tried to stop us from seeing each other, I pleaded and cried and made them and myself miserable. In retrospect, I don’t think anything could have stopped me from seeing Elvis.
Time in Germany
After their fourth date, as Priscilla remembered, her parents insisted that they meet Elvis. “Just what is the intent here?” Priscilla remembers her father asking Elvis. “Let’s face it: You’re Elvis Presley. You have women throwing themselves at you. Why my daughter?” To which Elvis replied:
Well, sir, I happen to be very fond of her. She’s a lot more mature than her age and I enjoy her company. It hasn’t been easy for me, being away from home and all. It gets kinda lonely. I guess you might say I need someone to talk to. You don’t have to worry about her, Captain. I’ll take good care of her.
Priscilla writes of Elvis’ grief following his mother’s death. In her telling, Elvis turned to her for comfort: “I cuddled in his arms as [he] talked to me about his mother.” As they began to see more of each other, a pattern developed. He would call at 7:00 so as to prepare her to be ready to be picked up at 8:00. Once at his home, he would entertain. Then:
At about 10 or 11, Elvis would glance at me and look toward the stairs. Then, naively assuming that nobody knew where I was headed, I’d casually proceed to his bedroom, where I’d lie on his bed, waiting for him to appear. “Sweetness,” he would say, putting his arms around me. “You’re so pretty, Honey.” And then we’d kiss long, deep passionate kisses.
As Priscilla began to struggle in school, Elvis, she writes, offered her medication, pills that she later learned were Dexedrine. She writes that she believes he thought he was doing the right thing and that she did not take the medication, instead storing it in a cigar box.
A Visit to Los Angeles
The pair stayed together until the end of Elvis’ service in March of 1960 when he returned to the United States. Of the final evening before his departure, Priscilla writes:
For the last time I begged him to consummate our love. It would have been so easy for him. I was young, desperately in love, and he could have taken advantage of me. But he quietly said, “No. Someday we will, Priscilla, but not now. You’re just too young.”
When Elvis returned to the United States, he was greeted by a swarm of media and stars like Nancy Sinatra, with whom it was rumored he was in a relationship. Priscilla, aware of the rumors, waited for him to call. Then, 21 days after he left, she got a call at 3:00 a.m. – it was him. She writes:
From then on, I lived in a state of suspended animation, waiting for Elvis’ infrequent calls. He would phone out of the blue after three weeks—or three months. He always did most of the talking, chatting about his current film or co-star.
He mentioned that she wanted him to visit Graceland – the mansion he had built himself in Memphis – for Christmas. But it didn’t happen. She followed gossip in the press of his latest rumored relationships and flings with co-stars. Then, in February 1962, she got a call. He wanted her to visit him in Los Angeles. Negotiations with her father commenced. Priscilla writes:
Once again Elvis met every one of Dad’s demands: that we wait until I was on summer vacation, that Elvis send me a first-class round-trip ticket, that he send my parents an itinerary of my daily activities for the two weeks I’d be in Los Angeles, that I be constantly chaperoned, and that I write my parents every day.
Life at Graceland
After the trip to Los Angeles (which included a journey to Las Vegas), Priscilla saw Elvis again during Christmas 1962, which she spent with him at Graceland. Once she returned to Germany, Priscilla, as a senior in high school, began telling her parents about their love. She mentioned that Elvis wanted her to move to Memphis to finish school. She writes:
Then Elvis called my father. Elvis assured him that if I was permitted to move to Memphis, I wouldn’t live with him at Graceland but with his daddy, Vernon, and his wife, Dee. Elvis promised to enroll me in a good school—he’d choose it himself—and make sure I graduated.
As Elvis pursued his movie career, Priscilla lived with the family, spending time at Graceland. In the summer of 1963, Elvis made Viva Las Vegas, and rumors of an affair with his co-star, Ann-Margaret, began to surface. According to The Express, drawing from Priscilla’s memoir, she confronted Elvis. She threw a vase at him, to which he responded by throwing her on a bed:
But still, he was not happy with Priscilla’s actions. He demanded to know whether she would let this go or not. He said: “I want a woman who’s going to understand that things like this might just happen. Are you going to be her or not?” After agreeing, Elvis assured her, once again, that things were over between him and Ann-Margret.
The Wedding & Early Years
Despite allegations of infidelity, Elvis proposed to Priscilla on Christmas 1966, and the two were married the following year in Las Vegas on May 1, 1967. Their marriage was, as described in a 1973 Ladies Home Journal article, “a hit-and-run lifestyle.” As Priscilla said at the time:
At first I wanted to go along and it was difficult for me to understand why I couldn’t. Sure I was disappointed, but I got over it. The times that Elvis couldn’t make an anniversary became a way of life. I may have been hurt, but it’s an adjustment that you make as a wife.
On February 1, 1968, Priscilla gave birth to the couple’s only child, Lisa Marie Presley.
That same year, 1968, marked Elvis’ comeback Christmas television special on NBC. Surprisingly, it was the first time Priscilla had ever seen her husband perform live. Elvis took on the new motto, “Taking Care of Business.” And it was Priscilla who designed the iconic necklace her husband wore, featuring the TCB initials and a lightning bolt. She told Vogue in 2022:
And as we’re flying, it started to rain. And as it rained, a lightning bolt came across the sky. And I looked at it, and I drew a lightning bolt, and then I put the TCB right on it. And then I said to him, ‘Is this what you mean?’ And he looked at it, and he said, ‘Oh my God, this is it. This is what I want.’ And the rest is history.
By 1972, rumors of Elvis’ infidelities had struck at the marriage. Priscilla herself had an affair with karate instructor Mike Stone, according to People. “In mid-1972, I finally realized that things were not going to change,” Priscilla told Ladies Home Journal, “and that we had separate lives completely.” The divorce, according to People, left him devastated.
Elvis died in 1977. In the five years that followed, the two learned to co-parent. Via People:
“It was like we were never divorced … We would say ‘Mommy said this’ and ‘Daddy said that.’ That helped Lisa to feel stable.”
In the years that followed, Priscilla went on to assume the role of head of Elvis Presley Enterprises. In addition to her business pursuits, Priscilla pursued an acting career of her own, starring in films like The Naked Gun series. Lisa Marie, who became a singer and songwriter, died tragically in January 2023 at the age of 54.
The movie includes scenes that can be read either as reflective of a bygone, more patriarchal era or alarming at any time, from the very fact of Elvis dating a 14-year-old, to him choosing Priscilla’s clothes for her, to him losing his temper during a pillow fight and leaving her with a black eye. All these years later, Priscilla’s own view of Elvis is a tender one. “It was a different time,” she says. “I lived in his world. I wanted to please him. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to have fun with him. I wanted to see what it was that he liked.”
Priscilla debuts on November 2, 2023, in the United States.