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Child of Graceland: Lisa Marie Presley (1968-2023)

All children of iconic artists struggle to create their own identities, but few carried a burden as great as that of singer Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of Elvis Presley and his wife Priscilla. Elvis died in 1977 when Lisa Marie was nine. Lisa Marie died last week of a heart attack, and spent her existence making sense of, and reacting against, her father’s legacy, which followed her everywhere she went.

She married and divorced four times. Her first husband was musician Danny Keough, who was living in her house with her when she died, and tried and failed to revive her as their housekeeper looked on. The others were Michael Jackson, Nicolas Cage, and guitarist Michael Lockwood. She had four children: 14-year-old twins Harper and Finley Lockwood; daughter Riley Keough, now an established actress in Hollywood and indie films; and Riley’s brother Benjamin, a musician who suffered from depression and died of suicide in July 2020, during the pandemic lockdown. At the time of Benjamin’s death, a family friend told People that the depression came partly from the weight of being expected to carry the Presley legacy forward. "It's a tough thing when you have a lot of pressure with your family and living up to a name and an image ... It's almost like you're pressured into having to be a musician, having to be an actor.”

Lisa Marie knew what that was like. She was a gifted singer herself—with a sweet, unaffected voice that critics compared to Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris—but was so intimidated by the prospect of being unfavorably compared to her father that she waited until her mid-thirties to begin releasing her own work. There were three albums: 2003’s To Whom it May Concern, 2005’s Now What, and 2012’s Storm and Grace. The first two were certified gold and debuted in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 charts. She embarked on publicity tours steeled against the certainty that she’d be treated as an entitled “rock and roll princess” and presumed guilty of nepotistic coattail-riding regardless of whether the work was deemed to have merit. (A positive 2012 National Public Radio review of her third album was headlined, “Rock’s Princess Finds Her Voice.”) 

She preempted the problem—or leaned into it—by making most of her debut album’s songs dark and self-lacerating, and by including multiple tracks that dealt with her father’s impact on her life and self-image. As critic Charlotte Robinson wrote in a 2003 PopMatters review of To Whom It May Concern: “Not all of Presley’s songs, for which she penned the lyrics and collaborated on the music, are bleak and bitter, and the handful of songs that break the dismal mood help give the album depth. 'So Lovely' is a sweet ballad to Presley’s two children, who ‘take care of Mommy too’ and ‘came here to save me.’ Other songs deal with Elvis in completely different ways. On 'Nobody Noticed It,' Presley speaks directly to her dead father, sympathizing with his pain and offering understanding. ‘All that you had to endure / I guess nobody noticed it’ she sings. ‘And now everyone, they notice it.'”  

It was inevitable that every interview she did—and probably most of the conversations she had with people meeting her for the first time—would eventually land on the same question: What’s it like being Elvis’ only child? She handled it with more grace than some might have mustered. But there often was an edge in her replies, as in this 2003 interview with Playboy to promote To Whom It May Concern:

PRESLEY: I was talking with Nic [Cage] last night, and he lectured me: "I told you, you should put a happy song on the record." I said, f**k that. I'm not doing it." Music that's happy doesn't move me. So the answer to the question is none. 
PLAYBOY: Before this year, you rarely talked to the press. If you didn't have an album to promote, would you be talking to us now? 
PRESLEY: No. What else would I talk about? My upbringing? I don't like talking about myself. At this point I'm thinking, what have I done? The hard part is opening up for the first time. I have to combat 30 years of speculation and tabloid stuff. I have to go out there and say, "Hi, I'm not that person." However, I understand the curiosity, and I don't want to be an @#%$ or look like I'm hiding something. I realize why I feel vulnerable and afraid—a lot of people do interviews based on what their publicists tell them. I put my ass out there, cellulite and all. I can be very unfiltered and unedited, and that might kick me in the ass one day. I'm being really honest, and if I get s--t on, I might never speak again. 
PLAYBOY: There are plenty of ways to market you as a reminder of your father. 
PRESLEY: People get all kinds of crazy ideas to turn me into a goofball. A whole record of Elvis covers and duets. We can put you in a white suit! Sorry, Britney already took the cake on that one. 
PLAYBOY: Did you ever think of putting the record out under a band name, like Jakob Dylan did with the Wallflowers? 
PRESLEY: I thought about that, or taking Presley off and just using "Lisa Marie." But the record company wasn't very happy with the idea. [Laughs] They had other plans. I'm not trying to run away, and I'm not trying to capitalize. I'm just trying to make a f--king record. 

It’s a given that somebody in Presley’s position doesn’t suffer materially as 99% of people might. But the flipside is that growing up as the only child of a wealthy musical megastar who died young can instill a warped baseline sense of “normal,” and that can’t be sustained, even through massive inheritance, unless you’re an income-generating machine on the scale of an Elvis Presley. 

On top of that, it costs a lot in income and property taxes, legal and accounting fees, and other expenses to maintain an inherited fortune of such scope. Lisa Marie Presley had to learn all of this at an age when most people are still figuring out the basics of adult life, and gained autonomy within the context of the family fortune after 16 years of behind-the-scenes drama that saw Elvis Presley Enterprises—the trust established by the family that included Elvis’ interests in his RCA recordings and film and TV residuals, plus the Graceland Estate—regularly teetering on the edge of insolvency, despite bringing in anywhere from $50 to $100 million a year.

Elvis’ will listed three beneficiaries—his grandmother Minnie Mae; his father Vernon, also the executor and trustee; and Lisa Marie, whose interests were represented by her mother Priscilla, who shared custody with Elvis and was their daughter’s guardian. Priscilla was not a beneficiary in her husband’s will because they divorced in 1972. But as her daughter’s guardian, she was centrally involved in the trust, and essentially took over EPE after the death of Elvis' father and grandmother, the estate's other two beneficiaries. She is credited by many with keeping EPE and Graceland out of the red by deciding to open Graceland as a tourist attraction, and aggressively pursuing image, soundtrack, documentary, movie, and merchandise licensing agreements in the era before Lisa Marie could officially control her share. (Priscilla reportedly was good with money: she’s currently worth about $50 million, and in 2019 she sold the home she bought for her parents in 1976 for $170,000 for over $3 million.)

But even though Elvis Presley’s work and image were hugely valuable in 1977, and would continue to be, there was a big complication preventing EPE from reaping the benefits. In 1956, when Elvis was a 20-year-old naïf from the Memphis projects, he signed an agreement with his future (and only) manager, Col. Tom Parker, giving Parker half of everything he made from his recordings for RCA Records, the label for whom he would do nearly all his work as a singer.

Because the agreement with Parker continued to be enforced after Elvis’s death, that meant EPE was having to sustain a complex and costly entertainment company—including yearly taxes on all Elvis-related deals, which according to the will were deemed “income”—on 50% of everything, plus the cost of getting Graceland ready to open to the public (which eventually happened in 1982). EPE took Parker and RCA to court, and the judge found Parker guilty of “massive fraud and mismanagement of Mr. Presley's business interests,” leading to a complicated 1983 agreement in which RCA paid $1.1 million to the Presley estate and $2 million to Parker to “settle all disputes.” 

But that wasn’t the end of the estate’s challenges. Lisa Marie inherited her share of her father’s fortune ten years later when she turned 25 and inherited the headaches as well. She appointed a manager named Barry Siegel to manage her interests, at which time the estate had an estimated $25 million in debts. In 2004, she sold 85% of EPE to Robert F.X. Sillerman, founder of music and sports promoter SFX Entertainment, which later became a publicly traded company. The deal paid off $25 million in estate debts, paid her $53 million, and gave her $20 million worth of stock in the as-yet-nonexistent public offering. A year after that, she sold 85% of her 15% stake in EPE back to EPE. 

But within 10 years, she was $16 million in debt. She filed a lawsuit in 2018, alleging that an “odyssey to financial ruin” began in 2005 and claiming that as a result of her manager’s decision to pursue “risky ventures in hopes of attaining his own celebrity in the entertainment industry,” she had “been damaged ... in excess of $100 million,” and stating that in 2016 when she filed for divorce from her fourth husband, the estate had $14,000 left, and Presley owed half a million dollars to credit card companies. She also claimed Siegel "bought a $9 million English home using money from the trust, putting her money at risk when he was unable to make the $6.7 million balloon payment."

Siegel countersued for $800,000 in unpaid attorney’s fees in a filing that included some stinging accusations, including that she had “twice squandered” her inheritance and had been repeatedly warned to cease her “spendthrift ways.” In a statement released to the media after the countersuit was filed, Siegel’s attorney said that the 2005 deal “cleared up over $20 million in debts Lisa had incurred and netted her over $40 million cash and a multi-million dollar income stream, most of which she managed to squander in the ensuing years,” adding, “It’s clear Lisa Marie is going through a difficult time in her life and looking to blame others instead of taking responsibility for her actions.”

Her story is a nexus point for sadness and tragedy in the insular world of show business. The more you read about her parents, her marriages, her children, and her financial woes, the more it starts to seem like a multigenerational, multi-family funhouse of distorted reflections and alarming motifs. 

Her childhood at Graceland was chaotic. Her father abused drugs and got wasted with his friends, a large and ever-shifting group that included many parasitic hangers-on. He bought affection by handing piles of cash to intimates to buy whatever they told Elvis they needed (or wanted). Lisa Marie remembered helping her father regain his balance when he stumbled badly enough to risk a fall, and there was a night when he and his friends raced golf carts all over the property until they wrecked them. 

Her father was controlling of Priscilla, dictating how she dressed and colored her hair, and was so insecure despite his mega-stardom that when Lisa Marie began listening to other popular musicians, he reacted petulantly. “One Christmas I asked for Elton John albums," she told Rolling Stone, “and my dad was sitting there when I opened them up and said, 'Who the hell is this son of a bitch?’ and walked out. And then he got some of the records—Who is my daughter interested in besides me?—and I think he went to see him live, to check out who he was.’” Sexual dysfunction was practically embedded in Graceland. Priscilla met Elvis when she was 14, did not have intercourse with him (at Elvis’ insistence) until their 1967 wedding night (Lisa Marie was born nine months after), then never had sex with him again (although her husband did sleep with other women). 

The divorce happened when Lisa Marie was four, but things didn’t get more stable. Her mother’s two post-divorce boyfriends, karate instructor Mike Stone and actor and male model Michael Edwards, sold stories about Priscilla and Lisa Marie to tabloids, and Lisa Marie later said that Edwards behaved inappropriately towards her, including trying to enter her bedroom at night. (Edwards' own memoir, Priscilla, Elvis and Me, admitted to the bedroom creeping, and claims he broke off his relationship with Priscilla because he realized he was sexually attracted to Lisa Marie.) 

She met her first husband, Danny Keough, at a Scientology Celebrity Center rehab facility, where Priscilla sent her after she dropped out of high school and developed a drug habit. She told Rolling Stone that she did drugs regularly from 13 until 17 when she was admitted to rehab. “'I did everything but mushrooms and heroin.” 

She told Marie Claire that she was relieved to be out of her mother’s reach, even if the circumstances were embarrassing. “I couldn't relate to her," she said. "She was overbearing and overpowering to me. I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there." She and Keough married three years after she got out of rehab and stayed friends and co-parented after their split, even homeschooling their children at Graceland.

Lisa Marie later said that she ended her first marriage in part because the wealth and power disparity between her and Keough made him resent her. “It is hard for a man to be with a woman who is stronger, wealthier,” she said years later. “So in my mind, I'm thinking, I know, I'll get with someone more compatible. I wasn't thinking what everyone else was thinking, which was that I must have been out of my mind." 

The more compatible man was Michael Jackson, whom she’d been friends with for years (he repeatedly called during her teenage years trying to meet her, and she finally agreed after he said he would listen to her demo tape). They had a lot in common, including extreme wealth, entire lives lived in the glare of cameras, and traumatic childhoods. Jackson was a victim of physical abuse and, it was rumored, sexual abuse, at the hands of his manager-father, whom Jackson’s sister LaToya said molested her as a girl. Jackson and Presley wed in 1994 in the Dominican Republic and denied and then confirmed tabloid reports that it happened. The first round of child molestation accusations against Jackson hit long before their marriage. Jackson had convinced her that the charges weren’t true. Even after the divorce, and multiple new accusations, Presley refused to take a side on the matter. 

But she did say, “Leaving my first marriage, for the person that I left it for—that was probably the biggest mistake of my life."

Then she wed Nicolas Cage, whose performances sometimes channeled Elvis—particularly in "Wild at Heart," in which he sang “Love Me Tender,” and "Honeymoon in Vegas," which featured multiple Elvis impersonators and had a wall-to-wall soundtrack of Presley songs. The marriage was over in 14 weeks, and Cage would later describe it as “a big mistake.” 

Cage met her at a party: “There she was, these beautiful eyes that looked like they had a sad story to tell.” He thought about his Elvis-adjacent career up to that point (which was not, he insisted, the product of design) and thought, “Maybe all these crazy coincidences were all about this one moment where I met this one girl who stopped me in my tracks ... And I [thought], well, she comes from an artistic family, I come from an artistic family. She was born with the pressure of an extremely famous name from day one. I was a young actor with the last name Coppola trying to make it in Hollywood with those pressures.” 

They fought constantly and broke up multiple times before and during the marriage before finally splitting permanently. One fight, which happened on Cage’s yacht off Catalina a few weeks before the wedding, got so heated that Presley removed her $65,000 engagement ring and hurled it into the sea; Cage hired a team of divers to find it, but after two days they gave up, saying it was hopeless. She accused Cage of being hot-tempered and creepily obsessed with her father. Cage denied this to Barbara Walters, saying “We weren’t gonna buy Graceland. We were never gonna live in Graceland. I wasn’t going to build Graceland on top of a ranch somewhere.”

"I've gotten to the point in my life where I've chased all the crazies down," she said five years after divorcing Cage. "I was ready to stop the madness. At this age, I really appreciate having [a husband who is] a best friend. But you know, the other guys were fun. For a while." 

She filed for divorce from Michael Lockwood in 2017, and according to the court filing, she said she’d found indecent pictures of children on his computer. Police closed their investigation without filing charges. She had gotten Lockwood to sign a “postnuptial” agreement after their split, but he argued that the agreement should be nullified because he was “coerced” into signing it, and asked the court for $40,000 a month in spousal support and another $100,000 to pay his legal costs. She refused because, she said, her part of the Presley fortune was nearly gone. 

And not for the first time. 

Lisa Marie Presley’s adulthood was marked by a constant struggle not to lose (or burn through) the fortune her father, who paid his taxes dutifully but was otherwise a legendary spender, had willed to her. She inherited a lot of problems and made new ones, by her own admission. 

In 2018, her debt was again said to have climbed to about $16 million. The 2021 reopening of Graceland after the pandemic and the release of Baz Luhrmann’s "Elvis"—the director's top-grossing film to date, made with the blessing and financial involvement of Elvis Presley Enterprises—shrank that amount. But at the time of her death, there was still $3.7 million in IOUs left for the estate to settle, including a $1.7 million line of credit from Barclay’s that used what remained of her inheritance as collateral. According to a story at TheBlast, last year she "declared to have $95,266 in cash and $714,775 worth of stocks, bonds and other assets. However, in the same docs, she cited a $1 million debt to the IRS, clearly putting her in the red."

But she was never anything less than forthright about her struggles, whether romantic, parental, or financials. “We're all going to screw up," she said to Marie Claire. "The important thing is, do you learn from it and not do it again? Can you make it better in the future? Can you change? Because, Lord knows, I've f--ked up many, many times."

Hovering over all the ups and downs was her father, who haunted every move she made as a child, wife, mother, businesswoman, and artist. 

Her song “Lights Out” is about that burden. It's as eerie a musical tribute by a daughter to her dad as you’ll ever hear.

Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis
Ooh, that's where my family's buried and gone (gone)
Oh yeah
Last time I was there I noticed a space left
Oh, next to them there in Memphis, yeah
In the damn back lawn ... 

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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