A couple of weeks into the new year, Lisa Marie Presley died at the age of 54. Like many kids born into show business royalty, hers was a tumultuous and ultimately abbreviated life. Money, fame and notoriety certainly do not bring happiness. Quite the contrary. Lisa Marie’s brief sojourn with us has been characterized by chaos. However, it all started amidst an environment of remarkable sweetness. Now, hold that thought.
My best friend comes from a most extraordinary family. We met in seventh grade and grew up together. His dad was one of the most successful portrait painters in the world. His mom was just a piece of work. We’ll call her Mrs. B.
I took them all for granted. I assumed every little Southern town had such a rarefied mob on its outskirts. With the crystalline clarity of hindsight, I had no idea how precious my time with these extraordinary people might have been.
There were four sons in this tribe. After the first, Mrs. B got the itch to do something different, so they bought an airplane. They lived on an expansive Mississippi Delta farm, so they bulldozed a runway in the cotton field behind the house. The young woman then got up every morning, flew to the small airfield at Mud Island in Memphis, Tenn., and attended medical school.
Mrs. B went to medical school at a time when not a lot of women did. She was the only female in her graduating class. Despite juggling her own growing family, commuting some 78 miles each day by air, and facing some pretty serious institutional misogyny, this lady knocked the ceiling out of the academic rankings. She soon became a practicing gynecologist. One day, she was on call when someone very special went into labor.
Back then, gender roles were pretty clearly delineated for the human birth process. Nowadays, guys are expected to be an active part of the festivities, helping manage breathing, cutting cords and the like. Back in the day, however, things were very different.
In 1968, the woman was responsible for going through labor, managing her own breathing, and actually birthing the child. By contrast, the male half of the happy union was expected to sit in the waiting room while smoking cigarettes and reading Field and Stream magazine. Sometimes he would bring some friends to help shoulder this weighty burden. So, it was this day when Priscilla Presley presented to the hospital along with her husband to welcome their new child.
Elvis Presley was but a humble Mississippi redneck transported into a very complex world. His expansive estate is what happens when you take a well-intentioned but simple man, give him all the money in the world, and then let him create a garish monument to 1970s-era tastelessness. You then cement it in time at the moment of his death for some half a million tourists per annum to gawk upon, and voila, you have Graceland. The King of Rock and Roll was indeed a once-in-world-history phenomenon.
Elvis went no place alone. In this case, he was accompanied by his standard entourage. Colonel Tom Parker was in attendance, as were his immediate family and sundry strap hangers. After all, that Field and Stream magazine wasn’t going to read itself. Mrs. B told me they did squirrel them all away in the doctors’ lounge to avoid precipitating a riot in the waiting room.
These were the days before ultrasound machines, so the gender and general health of a child were things to which one was not privy prior to birth. This made an already stressful event all the more so. Like any prospective dad serious about his craft, Elvis was justifiably anxious.
Once the technical aspects of the exercise were complete, Mrs. B went out to the doctors’ lounge to deliver the news. She was instantly mobbed. Everyone wanted to be the person to tell Elvis the details of the day’s proceedings. She dutifully pushed aside Colonel Parker and the rest of the hangers-on with a curt directive that this was something a man needed to hear for himself. She made her way through the crowd to take her place before the King of Rock and Roll.
Mrs. B told me that Elvis seemed terribly apprehensive. A man who performed before millions was now in a place where the well-being of those most precious to him hung in the balance. No matter your station in life, that’s a terribly lonely space.
She took Elvis’ hand, looked him in the eye, and explained that it was a girl, and that mother and daughter were both healthy and fine. In response, the most popular entertainer in the world shuddered slightly and then wept. The King had just become a dad, an experience that moved him.