In this exclusive Interview with Sergio Biston, Shirley tells her amazing story and how she became the 'Memphis Mafia Princess'.
SL: Sergio Luiz
SD: Shirley Dieu
SL: To kick it off, could you please let us know about your early life and when and how did you meet Elvis?
SD: I was raised in California and moved to Las Vegas when I was 17 years old. My sister and another couple had just come to Las Vegas and wanted to see the Elvis Show. We got there late and had to sit apart.
Joe Esposito saw me sitting there and offered to give me a better seat. I ended up in Elvis' booth. I was just 20 years old. Joe was 16 years older than me. We became good friends. After 8 months Joe and I entered into a relationship and then I moved in with him in Beverly Hills.
We lived together for 5 years. We are still very close and I actually visit him and his wife Martha several times a year and talk to Joe at least 4 times every week. We have become like brother and sister. I tease him now and tell him that he is more like a father.
SL: Before you met him, did you enjoy his work?
SD: I was just a baby when Elvis cut his first record, although later I had heard his music and liked it very much, I really didn't know much about Elvis. Meaning that I didn't know who the Memphis Mafia was, or who Elvis was dating or what a TCB was or even meant. I had only seen him perform in concert twice. I had watched him on television in Elvis Aloha From Hawaii, via Satellite and thought wow; this is a really good looking guy and loved his music. I did like his movie Kissin' Cousins, which I later told Elvis that it was one of my favorite movies. He told me that he hated filming it because that darn wig kept itching me he said.
SL: What was your first impression of him?
SD: When I first met Elvis, I couldn't take my eyes off of his hands, they were so angelic.
He was so nice to everyone and he seemed so down to earth.
SL: Being close to Elvis, I believe you attended some concerts either at Vegas or on the road.
How was the experience?
SD: I attended all of Elvis' concerts the last three years with Joe. Usually, Elvis would not allow the women on every tour. Quite honestly, it was to give the guys a chance, well sadly, to rotate their women. Wives were allowed on some tours then girlfriends were allowed to come on tour the other times. Elvis knew how close Joe and I were and would make sure that Joe brought me on every tour. One time in Vegas, he said no wives or girlfriends, Joe flew me to Vegas anyway, and I hid in the closet. Elvis came to Joe's bedroom that was in the same suite as Elvis. He asked Where's Shirley? Then Joe said you said no girlfriends or wives Elvis said I didn't mean Shirley, get her out here and call a jeweler so I can buy her a ring. I felt pretty terrific as I hid in the closet and heard Elvis ask for me to be there. I was the only girl allowed on that engagement in Las Vegas besides Elvis new girlfriend, Ginger. It was the first time Ginger would go to Vegas and she had just met Elvis. I think that one of the reasons that he wanted me there was so she would have another woman to talk to.
SL: You and Joe spent some time with Elvis in Vail, Colorado, a well-deserved break for Elvis in 1976. It was probably a great time to know him better. What are your memories from this vacation?
Could you please share some stories about it?
SD: This was a really fun vacation. I write about it in depth in my book 'Memphis Mafia Princess'. This is also the time that he gave me my first Cadillac. He laughed a lot on those slopes. Elvis always went out of his way to make everyone happy. That is what made him the happiest.
SL: Do you have or know of more pictures of this vacation besides the very scarce ones that circulate on the Internet? Did Joe or any of the others take any footage from the occasion?
SD: Unfortunately most of the photos are of the guys and their girlfriends or wives. I have a couple that I am putting in my book. But those are pictures of what everyone was doing and our surroundings. There were only a couple of shots taken with Elvis in them while we were in Vail.
The last thing anyone wanted to do is invade our friends privacy. It just didn't feel right to be snapping a camera in Elvis face unless he asked you to take a picture. I am sure that you understand.
Elvis spent his 41st birthday at the winter sports resort of Vail in Colorado.
View more photos like this: Elvis Presley: Vail, Colorado: January, 1976.
SL: In March 1977 he decided that another break was necessary, so he went to Hawaii, taking his friends again with him. This would be Elvis' last vacation. You're also invited for the trip, so how was it?
Did Elvis and everybody have a good time?
SD: I dont think that Elvis took the vacation as a much-needed break. He had just gotten his plane The Lisa Marie and felt a certain freedom that he hadn't really had before. So since he loved Hawaii, he said Hey, I'm taking everyone to Hawaii. It was a last minute kind of thing. So with smiles on our faces and Elvis with the biggest smile, we all flew to Hawaii on his plane. Flying was now just like jumping into the car and going to the movies. He just told the pilots to get the plane ready and we would go wherever Elvis had instructed his crew to fly us. So many people seem to read so much into everything that Elvis did.
He just wanted to have fun and he had the means to do it.
So when he had the free time, he would try to think of things to do. People shouldn't think of him as doomed and depressed and overworked and unhappy that he needed a vacation. He just wanted to have some fun when we weren't touring, just like the rest of us. Someone who works every day from 8am to 5pm for 4 years, needs a vacation Elvis could take a vacation any time that he wanted. If he really felt overworked or worn out, he would just have Dr. Nick to tell Colonel Parker that he was too exhausted and to postpone the tour or concert. But he rarely did. And only if he really was too exhausted or had a medical problem. But he loved to perform. It was fun for him. He hated disappointing his fans so he tried his best to keep everyone happy. In the end, Elvis did cut down his shows in Vegas because they did get to be too much for him.
SL: There are some lovely pictures of Elvis playing touch football with his friends, what kind of activities did he do to relax during this stay in Hawaii?
SD: We had a blast in Hawaii. How could it have been anything but great?
You know it is funny, when you look at those pictures of Elvis playing football in Hawaii, you can see that he is not that fat guy that everyone talks about. He is just the average 40 something guy that you see every day. It was those darned white spandex jumpsuits that made him look so overweight. Just about anyone would have looked overweight in those tight white spandex jumpsuits.
He looked pretty good in those light blue sweat pants playing football, dont you think?
View more photos like this: Elvis Presley on Holiday in Hawaii: March 1977.
SL: It is said that he went to see some shows and shopping in Hawaii.
Do you remember those occasions? What type of entertainment the group went to see?
SD: We would go as a group just about anywhere that we went.
I know that we went to see a couple of live shows, but I can't honestly remember which ones. They were just like any other outing with Elvis. Wherever we went, we were always treated like royalty.
They absolutely loved him in Hawaii. The Islanders were such nice people to us.
SL: What's the history behind this pictures?
SD: In the first picture, Elvis is singing In the Misty Moonlight in my ear, which is the song that he had promised to record for me just a few days earlier because I had told him that I liked it. In the second picture, he would not stop sticking his tongue in my ear every time he thought that Joe was going to snap the picture. Elvis is the one who first asked Joe to take the pictures of him and me. Those pictures of Elvis and I were the first pictures taken of him on that vacation. It seemed to have given everyone else the opportunity to later snap their own pictures in which one may not have felt as comfortable to do otherwise.
View more photos like this: Shirley Dieu and Elvis Presley: Hawaii 1977.
SL: There's also this very peculiar picture of him lying on top of Ginger's Sister, Rosemary.
What Happened here?
Rosemary Alden and Elvis Presley.
SD: Everyone was quietly sitting in the living room. Rosemary seemed to be just kind of taking it all in, kind of in her own world. Elvis, wanting to break the silence, lunged onto her (sort of like a tiger) to wake her up while catching her off guard. It was just another silly thing that Elvis did to get a laugh out of everyone.
SL: Do you have more pictures from this vacation or maybe any kind of footage that is still unreleased?
SD: There is one last picture that is of him and I that has never been released. It is the last picture taken on the beach. It is of the two of us in the same setting. I hope to publish it in my book.
SL: Unfortunately the vacation came to an abrupt ending. Most sources say that Elvis cornea was scratched by sand while others claim that in fact, Elvis' supply of medications ended and he needed to get back to Memphis in order to get it. Did Joe ever tell you anything different than the official version about the reason the vacation was cut short or the medications theory is just false?
Elvis had stayed longer than he had planned when we went to Vail.
Joe and I left Vail earlier than we had planned.
So we left a little earlier from Hawaii than what Elvis had planned. There wasn't any reason out of the ordinary as to why we left, we just left.
SL: It is said that before going back home, Elvis picked a gift to everyone to serve as a memento of the trip to Hawaii. Is that right?
SD: Well quite honestly, Elvis bought us gifts wherever we went. If I remember correctly, there were some vendors who somehow got to meet Elvis at the house that he rented on the beach. He purchased some silk tunic type Guru Things for us, and some stone beaded necklaces. I still have both of them. They were kind of a way out there type of gift but we all wore them including Elvis for about a day and then we all got over it. I got the impression that the vendors were friends of Larry Geller and Elvis just bought them to help them out. We all looked pretty ridiculous in them. But we would never ever tell Elvis that. We all just talked about how much we loved them and thanked him for them. I'm not sure if Elvis really liked them either. They were nice big robe type dresses but not really for us. I do believe that Larry and his wife had picked a different type prior to Elvis picking out the other ones for us.
SL: The last year of his life was a turbulent one. He was facing many problems in his personal life. His relationship with Ginger Alden seemed to be one that he had high expectations. Reportedly he gave more to the relationship than he was receiving from her. Ginger accompanied him during this March trip to Hawaii and for what you saw, what can you say about their relationship?
SD: I talk about this quite a bit in my book. I got to know Ginger more than anyone there except for maybe Elvis. But she told me a lot about her feelings that she didn't tell Elvis. We talked a lot about her and Elvis relationship. As I witnessed their short-lived relationship firsthand, I would learn that it was not a real relationship by any means. There were private moments that Joe, me, Elvis and Ginger spent together. I knew what was really going on in that relationship, and it wasn't good.
SL: Probably one of the things that weighed heavily in his mind during this period was the book from his friends and ex-body guards Sonny and Red West that was soon to be released. Did he ever talk about it?
SD: Yes, he was livid! It wasn't so much about what they wrote, although that was upsetting in itself, it was more about betrayal. No one has yet to tell the real story behind that, but I was there when he told his father to fire them and what prompted the firing. They wrote the book to get back at Elvis for firing them. Did he talk about it? Yes, he reacted like you or I would have reacted if someone had written a book filled with lies about our private lives just to get back at us because we didn't want them around us anymore. We were all upset. Red and Sonny were traitors and they continue to be to this day. They claimed to have tried to save Elvis, but they were too busy using him and then betraying him than to have ever tried to help him.
SL: One of his greatest joys in his life was his daughter Lisa. Unfortunately, he was not able to enjoy her company on a daily basis. Did you ever see Elvis with her, maybe when she spent some time with him during school break? And if so, how he was around her, what kind of activities they did together?
SD: Elvis loved Lisa, but I think that that is evident. She spent a lot of time at Graceland. Everyone doted over her and she knew how to always get what she wanted from everyone. I think that she would only listen to Joe Esposito, Charlie Hodge or Jerry Schilling as far as the guys went. She more or less told the others what to do and how to do it. It sometimes would make me mad when I would see a lot of women who had never even met Lisa and would run up to her and give her hugs and try to act like they were her best friend. Lisa was a very smart girl and had no problem in seeing through them even at her age. I never saw Elvis raise his voice to her, and he always would make sure to acknowledge her when he walked into the room where she was. She spent a lot of time with him and Linda Thompson upstairs away from everyone else.
SL: Elvis is known for his wild sense of humor, do you have a particularly funny story of something that he said or did that you would like to share?
SD: Elvis had a great sense of humor as well as a kind and loving heart.
I particularly remember when he gave me a beautiful canary diamond ring in Las Vegas. I had just walked into the front door of the Imperial suite. He was really anxious to give it to me. He came out of his bathroom with a face full of shaving cream and gave me the ring from his pajama pocket. Then he gave me a hug and went for my face to give me a brotherly kiss. As he kissed me, he quickly rubbed the shaving cream all over my face rubbing the side of his face back and forth against mine, covering my face with shaving cream. The two of us laughed uncontrollably. I thanked him again for the ring and he was off to finish shaving.
SL: Many say that the Memphis Mafia circle of friends was one of the causes of his growing detachment with the real world and erratic behavior near the end. Do you agree?
Was the Memphis Mafia bad or good for Elvis?
SD: Well, there is always a couple of black sheep in every group.
But I would hate to think of what Elvis life would have been if he were alone at Graceland. Elvis may have been 40, but he played like a young boy. He liked movies, amusement parks, Hawaii, snowmobiling, motorcycles, horseback riding and anything that he could do to have fun. I would not think that he would have wanted it any other way. Ultimately it was his choice on who he wanted around, and he made that choice. If he didn't want someone around, he didn't have them around. He actually paid Marty Lacker $10,000 dollars to stay away. Yes, Joe Esposito, Priscilla, and David Stanley all personally told me that, as well as others. He also didn't want Red West or Sonny West or Dave Hebler around in the end so he fired them. I find it ironic when those four guys refer to themselves as 'The Memphis Mafia' when in reality they are The Ex-Memphis Mafia Again; it was Elvis choice of who he wanted there. If he didn't want you there, you weren't included. That doesn't sound like erratic behavior. That sounds very normal to me.
SL: What about his spiritual side? Did he ever share his beliefs with you?
SD: Elvis tried to learn about every religion that he could. As most people may already know, he wore a cross and a Star of David around his neck. He used to tease that he wanted to make sure that he got it right. I also heard that he liked what the Mormon Church taught. Ed Parker was Mormon and shared some of his beliefs with Elvis. Elvis was truly a religious man. I heard him speak of many religions and quoted the bible a lot. He personally pointed out many scriptures to me. There is no doubt that he truly loved the Bible.
SL: When was the last time you saw him? Was he in good spirits?
SD: The last time that I saw Elvis was in July 1977 as I said goodbye to him on his plane. That was a very special moment and different than any other time that I had ever said goodbye to him. He was very sweet and was in good spirits. Again, this is something that I talk about in my book.
SL: How you received the news of his death?
SD: I had just gotten my first role in a movie and was going to meet Joe in Memphis a day later than originally planned. I got the call from Joe before it hit the press and he instructed me to reach Ann Margret and tell her right away. It was hard at first for me to believe him. I accused him of joking. I just couldn't believe it. I flew to Memphis with Priscilla and her family on Elvis plane, the Lisa Marie that afternoon. We were literally all in shock.
SL: I believe you were at his funeral. Undoubtedly it was an awful day, especially for his family and close friends. What are you recollections of this terrible moment?
SD: When we arrived at Graceland it was a sad and dark time.
Everyone was heartbroken. It was so hard to believe that Elvis was gone. We waited for his body to be returned to Graceland and then each one of us spent a lot of time with him alone in the music room. The maids were the best. They managed to keep everything normal. I know that no one ever mentioned that in any of their books, but in reality if anyone from the group were to look back at that day, I am sure that they would agree that those women kept everything together in a normal kind of way.
Everyone literally cried on each others shoulder. Ginger was not there; she had left right away and didn't return until the funeral. I honestly dont recall anyone consoling her nor did she seem to need any consoling.
The Lisa Marie takes Shirley Dieu, Priscilla, and her family to Elvis' funeral.
Lisa seemed to be a little confused, but she ran around all of the people with Vernons girlfriends daughter Laura, who was Lisa's age. Laura helped to keep Lisa busy and away from all of the commotion. Priscilla was there of course and she would be the ultimate person in Lisas life to help her to get through it.
SL: Its my understanding that you're writing a book about your times with Elvis.
How's the book coming up and what kind of information we will find on it?
SD: Yes, the title of my book is 'Memphis Mafia Princess'.
There have not been any books written about the last three years of Elvis' life. Yes, there have been summaries and mentions of that part of his life, but sadly it has remained unclear as to how he really lived those last years. Just someone's statement or one chapter in someone's book to sum up what they thought happened in the end, No one has actually written about those last years in detail as I do in my book. As the girlfriend of Joe Esposito, and a close friend of Elvis Presley, I lived the life of a 'Memphis Mafia Princess' I vacationed with and toured on all of Elvis tours in those last years. I open up those last chapters of his life and share in depth, the secrets of what really happened in the final years, and I tell the story that has yet to be told. The book is finished and I am hoping to have it published very soon.
SL: Finally, how you think he should be remembered?
SD: He needs to be remembered as the wonderful man that he always was. People have to stop exaggerating things about him in order to sell books. I think that the fans are sick of it and want to hear about Elvis and how he was as a human being, and not to dissect him as far as to find out what he ate for dinner the night before he died. That is just ridiculous. Is that really what people want to know and how they want to remember him? I hope not because there are so many wonderful things about Elvis that made him who he was.
He was a kind, brilliant, generous, thoughtful, God fearing, and loving, wonderful man.
Shirley Dieu interviewed by Sergio Biston : Elvis Collectors Brasil: Fiça Biston January 2012.
® Sergio Biston: Fiça Biston, January 2012.