Lisa Marie and the Presley Curse: Death, sex, drugs and the King of Rock and Roll

The passing of Elvis’s only daughter at the age of 54 is the latest in a long string of family misfortunes. Her father died at 42, while her son committed suicide at 27. ‘If the loss was premature, unnatural, or tragic, you will become a pariah in a sense,’ she said a few months ago

Elvis Presley poses with his wife, Priscilla, and their newborn daughter, Lisa Marie, at a Memphis hospital on February 5, 1968.
Elvis Presley poses with his wife, Priscilla, and their newborn daughter, Lisa Marie, at a Memphis hospital on February 5, 1968.AP
Enrique Alpañés

Two years ago, this newspaper reported the death of Benjamin Keough, the son of Lisa Marie Presley and the grandson of the King of Rock and Roll, calling it “the latest chapter in Elvis Presley’s family curse.” Keough was 27 years old. On Thursday, January 12, a new Presley family tragedy occurred. Lisa Marie, a singer, celebrity and Elvis’s only child, died after suffering a cardiac arrest in Los Angeles. She was 54 years old.

Last August, Lisa Marie explained her relationship with loss in an essay she wrote for People magazine. “Death is part of life whether we like it or not – and so is grieving… Grief is something you will have to carry with you for the rest of your life, in spite of what certain people or our culture wants us to believe. You do not ‘get over it,’ you do not ‘move on,’ period.” She went on to discuss how her life had been marked by death, pain and loss since childhood. Merely looking at newspaper archives is enough to prove it. The Presley family history is peppered with divorces, premature deaths, drugs and debts. It is a sad curse from which, generation after generation, family members have been unable to escape.

On August 16, 1977, Elvis died at the age of 42 at Graceland, his legendary home in Memphis. He was overweight, addicted to drugs, and had a group of friends and acquaintances that the press referred to as the Memphis Mafia, who were not a good influence. The afternoon of his death, the singer told his girlfriend at the time, 20-year-old Ginger Alden, that he was going to the bathroom “to read.” She replied, “Okay, but don’t fall asleep,” according to the book Elvis and Ginger. A few hours later, when the King of Rock had not left his throne, they broke down the door. They found him with his pants down, his face covered in vomit and an erotic book in his hands, according to the book The Death of Elvis. Yes, there are many books about Elvis Presley; between 10 and 20 tomes are published annually.

At first, people said that he had died of a heart attack, but the coroner’s report found that his heart had not failed. Even so, it was dilated, the walls of his arteries were covered with fat, his liver was damaged, and his large intestine was obstructed by fecal matter. He likely died while straining on the toilet, and anaphylactic shock was not ruled out because he had an allergy to codeine. Fourteen different medications were found in Elvis’s body. The singer had been hospitalized for overdoses several times. All these elements added mystery to an already puzzling death, fueling rumors and even speculation that the King of Rock and Roll had not really died.

But Elvis’s death was very real for Lisa Marie. She was only nine years old at the time, and she was at home when it happened. In the 2005 memoir Elvis by the Presleys that Lisa Marie and Priscilla wrote together, she fondly recalled their relationship. “If he was in a good mood, it was going to be a great day. We’d ride horses or ride around in golf carts,” she said. “His temper could give Darth Vader a run for his money. But if he was happy, everyone was happy. He’d never bore you.” With his death, Lisa Marie inherited Graceland and 15% of Elvis Presley Enterprises, but until she came of age they would be managed first by her paternal grandfather and then by her mother.

Lisa Marie’s mother, Priscilla Beaulieu, was 14 years old when she met Elvis, who was 24 years old at the time. They were both in Germany, where he was doing his military service, and she was living with her family. “My God, I was talking to one of the most famous artists in the world, and I thought he was one of the most handsome men I had ever seen,” she recalled in a 2017 interview with EL PAÍS. According to the book Child Bride: The Untold Story of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, the marriage was marred by infidelities and fights. Elvis played the perfect husband in Memphis, but he went wild when he went to Los Angeles, where he stayed for extended periods of time to shoot movies.

There, he rented a small palace, which was frequented by established and aspiring actresses. Elvis is said to have had affairs with Ann-Margret, Natalie Wood, Cybill Shepherd and Nancy Sinatra. As the decade progressed, the drug consumption increased and the parties became wilder, like classic orgies. Priscilla had a turbulent marriage to Elvis, but her divorce went much better: after signing the papers, they reportedly left the courthouse holding hands.

Lisa Marie Presley and her son, Ben Keough, at a movie premiere on November 11, 2010, in London, England.
Lisa Marie Presley and her son, Ben Keough, at a movie premiere on November 11, 2010, in London, England.Dave M. Benett (Getty Images)

After the separation, Priscilla tried her luck as an actress in the show Dallas and The Naked Gun films, but she was more successful as a businesswoman. As the trustee of Elvis’s estate, she turned Graceland into a tourist attraction in 1982. Today, it is the second most visited mansion in the United States, behind only the White House. That move (coupled with the musician’s cultural impact) made Elvis one of the most successful posthumous money earners ever. In 2022 alone, his legacy garnered $110 million, according to Forbes magazine.

When the inheritance passed to the young Lisa Marie, she did not know how to manage it. She mishandled the sale of the rights to his songs and did not manage her fortune well. In 2018, she claimed that she only had $10,000 left in the bank and $16 million in debt. For this, she blamed her former manager, who defended himself by calling her a spendthrift.

Lisa Marie was slow to launch her own musical career for fear of not living up to her father’s standards. Her 2003 debut album, To Whom It May Concern, had the support of Alanis Morissette’s producer, and throughout her career she has collaborated with artists such as Pink. On the blues-tinged track Lights Out, she sang, “Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis… Ooh, that’s where my family’s buried and gone.”

Her career never matched her father’s success, though her entire public life has developed as a result of Elvis’s influence. Last Sunday, January 8, she went to Graceland to celebrate the King of Rock and Roll’s birthday with hundreds of fans. Last Tuesday, two days before her death, she walked the red carpet with her mother, Priscilla. They were invited to the Golden Globes for the Elvis biopic, one of the evening’s most successful films.

Lisa Marie Presley on the red carpet at the Golden Globes on January 11.
Lisa Marie Presley on the red carpet at the Golden Globes on January 11. Todd Williamson (NBC via Getty Images)

Lisa Marie was a small star in a huge star’s shadow. Her last name elevated her as a celebrity, and her celebrity relationships reinforced that perception. She has been married and divorced four times. She only had children with her first and last (lesser-known) husbands. She married her first husband, Danny Keough, in October 1988 in a ceremony in Morocco; she was pregnant with her first child at the time. The bride’s mother, Priscilla, believed that, at barely 20 years old, Lisa Marie was too young for marriage and children. She knew what she was talking about.

Lisa Marie and Keough became prominent members of Scientology, a controversial religion that uses Hollywood stars as pseudo-apostles. The couple celebrated their honeymoon on one of the church’s yachts and raised their two children, actress Riley Keough and the late Benjamin Keough, in the church’s beliefs.

From 1994 to 1996, Lisa Marie was married to Michael Jackson. The King of Pop and the King of Rock and Roll’s daughter became the most bizarre, fascinating and media-friendly couple of the moment. Her marriage to Nicolas Cage was a little less popular and lasted only four months. The actor released a statement in which he said he was “heartbroken” by his ex-wife’s death. “Lisa laughed more than anyone I’ve ever known,” Cage stated.

Michael Jackson and his then-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, in Budapest.
Michael Jackson and his then-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, in Budapest. Patrick Robert - Corbis (Sygma via Getty Images)

Lisa Marie’s fourth marriage lasted the longest, but it also ended in the worst way. In January 2006, she married guitarist Michael Lockwood. In October 2008, they had two girls, twins Harper and Finley. A doctor prescribed her medication pills after childbirth, and she became addicted. “It only took a short-term prescription of opioids in the hospital for me to feel the need to keep taking them,” she confessed in the foreword to the book The United States of Opioids. Ten years after her last marriage, hooked on drugs and ruined, Lisa Marie Presley filed for divorce and accused her partner of possessing child pornography.

The dramas did not stop then. Her son Benjamin Storm Keough committed suicide at the age of 27. His body was found in July 2020 in the family mansion in Calabasas, California. He had shot himself. The tabloids, accustomed to following the family’s miseries in detail, described the death as “surprising but not shocking.” The young man had a long history of addictions.

In an essay in People magazine published just five months before she died, Lisa Marie reflected on the grief and loss she’d endured: “If the loss was premature, unnatural, or tragic, you will become a pariah in a sense. You can feel stigmatized and perhaps judged in some way as to why the tragic loss took place. I already battle with and beat myself up tirelessly and chronically, blaming myself every single day and that’s hard enough to now live with, but others will judge and blame you too [...] It’s a real choice to keep going, one that I have to make every single day and one that is constantly challenging to say the least ... But I keep going for my girls.”

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