Presley's Death Writes New Chapter in History
Source: The Commercial Appeal August 21, 1977
May 13, 2000 - 5:11:00 PM
It was the week that was in Memphis, and there will not be another like it.
It was as sad as dead sons and as melodramatic as teenage girls' tears.
It was as unsentimental as selling souvenir T-shirts on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
It was as sweeping as the President of the United States saying we'd lost a symbol of our vitality, rebelliousness and good humor.
It was as personal as a young girl saying her dream was gone.
It was as goofy as a housewife walking out on her husband in Wisconsin and driving all night and all day so she could stand on a street corner and watch a white hearse go past.
It was as strange as hearing a British radio voice announce, in tones full of the hush of history, that a 'global disaster' had occurred.
It was as touching as a woman journalist in Los Angeles getting out her old penny loafers and poodle skirts and writing, for all the world to see, that 'for the first time I feel old'.
It was as dizzy as a rock and roll fan storming through a music store, grabbing up $140 worth of records like they were buttons off George Washington's Valley Forge uniform.
It was as unrelenting as the crowds that still can be found near the house (Graceland) and the cemetery (Forest Hill Midtown).
It was as incomprehensible as poor people refusing to cash in $25 concert tickets that are now good for nothing but keepsakes.
It was as loony as young girls offering to 'trade their bodies' for a place inside the cemetery grounds during the funeral.
It was as eerie as radio stations going silent in what seemed a curious sort of tribute.
It was as bizarre as souvenir hunters asking not only for the flowers but for the leaves and pieces of Styrofoam that had been placed outside the tomb.
It was the week that was - noisy, crowded, unexpected - and the man who gave away new Cadillacs on impulse probably would have appreciated it.
Already, people were trying to fix it in their memories much as they did when John F. Kennedy was slain in 1963.
Remember the ritual? Somebody would say, 'Where were you when you heard Kennedy was dead?' And then you would tell them this elaborate story, full of incredible detail, that you had memorized in order to associate yourself with a moment that you knew was history.
For the past three days, people have been telling each other where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news about Elvis. It is something they will not soon forget. And yet, few know just how it all began - or when.
Actually, it began so innocently that it seemed not to have been a beginning at all.
It was about 6 a.m. last Tuesday and they were playing racquetball behind the house at Graceland.
The racquetball players were Elvis Presley, 42; his finance, Ginger Alden, 20; a cousin, Bill Smith; and the cousin's wife, Jo.
Elvis and his fiancee (the sister of last year's Miss Tennessee) had been up all night. They both went to see a dentist, Dr. Lester Hoffman at 920 Estate, and they had not left his office until 1 a.m. or after.
The reason they'd gone to the dentist at night was to avoid being mobbed by Elvis followers, who were always around. That night, Miss Alden had her teeth x-rayed and Elvis had a cavity filled.
When they returned to Graceland, they went inside and talked over plans for their upcoming wedding, an event that was to have been announced publicly at a concert in Memphis Aug. 27. Although they'd not set a date, they talked about doing it Christmas or on Elvis' birthday, Jan. 8.
Presley was restless. Miss Alden believed it was due partly to the dental work, partly to the impending wedding and partly to an 11-day concert tour scheduled to begin that very evening with a flight to Portland, Maine. She said Elvis was often edgy before a tour.
So they talked about the wedding and they went in to see Elvis' 9-year-old daughter, Lisa Marie, who was visiting him at the time. The child was born to Elvis' first wife, Priscilla Beaulieu, who divorced him in 1973 after six years of marriage.
After the game, Presley went upstairs to his bedroom and put on a pair of blue pajamas. But he still couldn't sleep. Miss Alden said he hold her, 'I'm going to the bathroom to read'. (Part of the bathroom is outfitted like a lounge.)
He went into the bathroom, then closed the door behind him, and presumably, stretched out on a black lounge chair to read 'a Jesus book'.
And that was it.
For the next several hours, Miss Alden slept. It was 2 p.m. or after when she got up and went to look for Elvis.
She stood outside the bathroom door and called his name.
'He didn't answer, so I opened the bathroom door and that's when I saw him in there. I thought at first he might have hit his head because he had fallen out of his black lounging chair and his face was buried in the carpet. I slapped him a few times and it was like he breathed once when I turned his head. I raised one of his eyes and it was just blood red. But I couldn't move him'.
She rushed downstairs and alerted the maid and Al Strada, the bodyguard on duty at the time. Strada, in turn, got Joe Esposito, Elivis' road manager, and they all went back upstairs to the bedroom.
'When Joe turned his head over', Miss Alden told The Commercial Appeal's Lawrence Buser, 'I think he knew he was dead because he didn't want me to see him and sent me into the other room. Then they were beating on his chest, trying to revive him'.
Dr. George Nichopoulos, Presley's personal physician was called, as was an ambulance from Fire Engine House No. 29.
The call came at exactly 2:33 p.m., and it was the first time that anyone outside the inner circle of Graceland knew that something was wrong. Charlie Crosby and Ulysses Jones, emergency medical technicians, answered the call. This how they remember it:
'A car met us about halfway up the drive and we followed it to the house', Crosby said. 'We went into the house an upstairs to Elvis' bedroom. We saw abut a dozen people downstairs and about a half-dozen or so upstairs. Then we saw Elvis lying face up on the bedroom floor. Dr. Nichopoulos was giving him cardiopulmonary resuscitation'.
'We assisted in giving him CPR and then transported him right away to Baptist Hospital. Dr. Nichopoulos and two people I didn't know rode with us in the ambulance to the hospital. It took us less than seven minutes. It was 20 minutes after that when he was officially pronounced dead'.
Elvis' father, Vernon, 62 knew it before it was official. This is how he tells it:
'Joe Esposito called me between 2:15 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., I think, and told me I should come upstairs because something had happened. I went upstairs and we started giving Elvis mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but I thought it was probably too late. I looked at Elvis and I realized it was probably a helpless situation. But it was so hard to believe it had happened'.
Elvis was pronounced dead by Nichopoulos at 3:30 p.m., roughly an hour and 10 minutes after his body had been discovered on the floor of the bathroom. The hospital made the announcement public at 4 p.m.
Although there had been rumors lately that Elvis was in poor condition - most of the reports dwelt on the fact he was overweight - there had been nothing to indicate he was suffering from anything serious and so hardly anybody really believed it when they first heard it. Later, a woman in the crowd outside Graceland said she wouldn't believe it until she saw Elvis' body and even then she wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be an impersonator.
Nevertheless, word of Elvis' death spread like a wind through this city where he had lived since the age of 13. Telephone switchboards were jammed. Radio and television programs were interrupted. Housewives heard about it in grocery stores. Downtown business people talked about it on buses going home that afternoon. And, all across the land, people stopped what they were doing, scrapped for crumbs of information, and, in many cases, simply got in their cars and started driving.
For many people, Elvis' death altered the course of their own lives for the next four days. Besides the fans, themselves, these included policemen, newsmen, florists, security guards and funeral planners who worked around-the-clock until Saturday when things finally began returning to normal.
This is how the day-to day story unfolded:
TUESDAY, Aug. 16 - Elvis Presley is pronounced dead, apparently of a heart attack, sometime between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Body is moved to Memphis Funeral Home on Union. Special seamless copper casket is flown in from Oklahoma City.
WEDNESDAY, Aug. 17 - Clad in a white suit that had been a present from his father, Elvis' body is returned to Graceland where the public was allowed to view the body from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. However, only a portion of the 100,000 people that went to Graceland that day got to see Elvis before the gates were locked.
THURSDAY, Aug. 18 - At 3:30 a.m., during an all-night vigil outside Graceland, two 19-year-old young women from Monroe, La., are killed when a car driven by a drunk-driving suspect plows into crowd.
Private funeral conducted in music room, with about 200 people inside. Services are marked with gospel music, Bible readings, prayers, statements from two ministers. Procession led by white hearse and string of white Cadillacs leaves Graceland for Forest Hill Cemetery, with route lined by mourners. Entombment in cemetery mausoleum at 4:30 p.m. Cemetery closed. All-night vigil.
FRIDAY, Aug. 19 - Gates reopened at cemetery and 50,000 fans tour burial sites of Elvis and his mother, whose grave is located about 300 feet away. Funeral flowers, ribbons, leaves, and Styrofoam handed out as souvenirs.
SATURDAY, Aug. 20 - Small crowds continue to visit Forest Hill and Graceland. T-shirts and souvenirs selling along Elvis Presley Boulevard. Bumper stickers appear saying, 'Long Live the King'.
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