How old was Priscilla Ann Beaulieu when she took up with Elvis Aaron Presley? Was she the virgin Elvis thought her to be? What did Elvis want to do to her legs? And what was the deal with the King’s private parts?
The answers, according to Suzanne Finstad in Child Bride, are (1) 14 — regardless of what Priscilla Presley herself may have said in her best-selling 1985 autobiography, Elvis and Me; (2) no way, regardless of what Priscilla may have said in Elvis and Me; (3) he talked about having them surgically lengthened; (4) sorry, even though Finstad describes Elvis’ sexual preferences — as well as the geometry of Little Elvis — I’m not gonna go there.
But you get the picture. Child Bride is cannily tied, time-wise, to the 20th anniversary of Elvis’ death. And Finstad, a journalist and former lawyer who has previously written books about Howard Hughes’ heirs and two true-crime cases, adds to the mound of commemorative Presleyana by demonstrating, tirelessly and grimly, that Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley — Scientologist, karate buff, doyenne of Graceland, mother of Lisa Marie, and onetime mother-in-law of Michael Jackson — is far more complicated than the image of the tender lovin’ widow she would like to present.
Are you surprised? I didn’t think so. Still, out of her impressively obsessive research (undertaken, from the tone of the writing, with all the joy of a minister at a Metallica concert), the biographer has come up with a couple of interesting themes about this tough little Texas-born chickie’s life.
For one, there’s Priscilla’s collusion with her mother to keep her paternity a secret. The baby girl was born Priscilla Ann Wagner; her father, a Navy pilot, was killed in a plane crash when she was an infant. And when Priscilla’s mother, Ann, wed Air Force captain Joseph Paul Beaulieu, she chose to wipe out all Wagner references, anxiously encouraging her daughter to do the same. ”Was Ann hiding some more dangerous family secret?” Finstad asks, in one of the many rhetorical devices with which she regularly jump-starts her text. Dunno, except, Finstad suggests, Captain Beaulieu was no picnic, and young Priscilla learned early on to live with secrets and false fronts.
Backed up by interviews with scores of sources (most influential among them Currie Grant, a chatty character and mysterious Presley associate who introduced Priscilla to Elvis in Germany and, Grant says, bedded her himself), Finstad develops her PP theories further. Because Priscilla was looking for a fantasy father/lover and he was looking for a fantasy lover/daughter, the relationship the teenager formed with Elvis was ”like a runaway train,” with Priscilla ”powerless to stop its momentum.” Far from protecting their underage daughter from the attentions of a celebrity 10 years her senior, Priscilla’s parents prevented her from dating other boys her own age and, to quote Finstad’s attention-getting phrase, ”sold her into marriage.” Once unhappily wed to a show-business phenomenon and feeling more like an imprisoned Rapunzel than a Cinderella, Priscilla kept the secrets of her ”flawed fantasy man” until she couldn’t hack it anymore.
Finstad goes on to chart the birth of their daughter, Lisa Marie, and the unraveling of the Presleys’ marriage; the stingy initial divorce settlement Priscilla accepted and the much cushier reassessment; the procession of boyfriends and lovers; Elvis’ miserable death; Priscilla’s various career forays; her relationship with her own vulnerable daughter; and her iron-willed marketing of Elvis’ legend as executrix of the Presley estate.
At times, Finstad displays compassion for her subject’s flaws. At others, she seems to want to slug her in the teeth. ”Give the f—ing name up,” she quotes Priscilla’s ex-flame, Mike Edwards with some satisfaction. But, hell, why should she? Priscilla Presley, now 52, put in her time; she can have her dime. For those still lonesome for Elvis, grieving with a copy of Child Bride in hand is as therapeutic a way to mark an anniversary as any. B