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Ladies Home Journal Interview

They both married in their early twenties, were divorced single mothers by their late twenties and will be linked forever by royal marriages to messed-up pop-music messiahs.

Small wonder that Priscilla Presley and daughter Lisa Marie are attached by a fiercely protective, almost mystical bond that has influenced their tumutuous journeys to Graceland and Neverland and back. It is a tie, Presley says, that grew stronger through Lisa Marie's rumor-ridden twenty-month union with Michael Jackson, which ended just before her twenty-eight birthday early this year.

"I'm her mom," Presley says. "I'm there for her. She knows that. It's a very delicate situation, for her and for everybody involved."

A less touchy, more joyful link between mother and daughter is parenthood. Presley, fifty-one, is raising son Navarone, nine, by her lover of twelve years, Marco Garibaldi. She is often joined for play dates by Lisa Marie and grandchildren Danielle, seven, and Benjamin, three, by Lisa's first husband, musician Danny Keough.

As she reflects on the trials and tribulations of motherhood, the memory of Elvis and her unlikely role as businesswoman extraordinaire, Presley is sitting in the plush, antiques-laden office of her Beverly Hills mansion, where she has lived since 1974. Dressed in a silke royal-blue pantsuit, she is radiant, unlined -- and looks young enough to be Lisa Marie's older sister. Indeed, mothering alongside her daughter seems to have given her a new glow in midlife.

"Lisa Marie lives close by," says Presley. "We vacation together, baby-sit for each other and try to get the kids together as much as possible."

She is animated and expansive talking about comfortable topics like family values and child rearing, but ask about Lisa Marie's life since her Caribbean elopement with Jackson, in May 1994, and a curtain drops behind Presley's blue eyes. She won't even mention what's-his-name and certainly won't comment on all those tabloid reports. Among them: that she pressured Lisa Marie to split from Jackson, hoping for a reconciliation with Keough, whom she calls a "terrific father"; or that Jackson continued to spend time with young boys while married.

"I don't want to get into these questions" is all she will say. "I have a very difficult time with divorce. I would never betray her. But there's one great thing about Lisa Marie: She understands surviving."

Presley herself knows a thing or two about surviving. She was just fourteen -- an Air Force brat whose father was stationed at a German base -- in 1959 when the then twenty-four-year-old King of rock 'n' roll said I want you, I need you, I love you. They married seven years later and divorced in 1973, when Lisa Marie was five. Presley worked hard to shield her child from the glare of Graceland, moving to L.A. and raising her daughter alone.

Still, Lisa Marie's doting father kept a special place in Priscilla's heart. "Elvis and I never treated the divorce as a divorce. We spent a lot of time together and remained very close. Lisa Marie remembers that vividly. She'll say, 'Mom, you and Dad never argued.' Those are the things you dream your kid will say. You don't have to divorce out of revenge or jealousy."

Still, there were "a lot of tough times" -- like Lisa Marie's early teen years, when Presley feared that she had lost her daughter to drugs and fast friends. She admits that changing Lisa Marie's elementary schools twice may have been disruptive and led her to fall in with a bad crowd. "I should have let her finish sixth grade, when all the kids change schools and friends together. But LA is a horrendous place to raise a child. All the traps are here. Then she had an older boyfriend, who was a big influence. My struggle became more difficult because I had him, and drugs, to contend with. But the decision [ to stop ] had to come down to her -- and was she going to take responsibility for herself."

Finally, says Presley, a teenage Lisa Marie went into rehab. "That was a turning point. She is very strong-willed, but thank God I got her back. Drugs have a tendency to distort everything, but when you can think clearly again, you realize your mistakes. She was able to do that."

Meanwhile, Presley endured trials of her own. She smiles when recalling her search for love post-Elvis. Some prospective beaux got all shook up with insecurity just hearing an Elvis song on the radio. "It was like baby-sitting, worrying how that would affect their feelings. My past with Elvis was always thrown up to me and was definitely an obstacle."

So was Lisa Marie, particularly from Elvis' death in 1977, when she was nine, until her mother met Garibaldi seven years later. "She would sometimes decide she didn't like somebody, and boy, that was tough. She's outspoken and definitely took stands that hindered relationships. Those were not the best years."

Despite the challenges of her personal life, Presley's professional life was beginning to blossom. When she became executor of Elvis' estate in 1979, little did she know that she would distiguish herself as a skillful entrepreneur. Back then Graceland was in trouble: The fourteen acre spread cost $500,000 a year to keep up, and Elvis' dwindling estate reportedly left less than $5 million to Lisa Marie, his only heir. Though Presley was just launching her TV-commercial and acting career ( she joined Dallas in 1983 ), saving Graceland became her mission. Agonizing over whether to transform it from residence to pop-culture mecca, she checked out cultural shrines from San Simeon to the Smithsonian Institution. Then she hired a CEO and put together a team to carry out her vision. "I did my homework," says Presley, now the chairwoman and president of Elvis Presley Enterprises. "I don't let anything get past me. I wanted this to work very much."

It did. Graceland opened to tourism in 1982, and today, with three spin-off divisions generating big profits from all manner of Elvisabilia, Lisa Marie's Graceland trust has a reported worth of over $100 million. And, 1995 was a record year, with over 750,000 visitors.

But if Presley's phenomenal success was sweet, transforming Graceland was at times an ordeal. She says she was plagued by "hate mail condemning me for exploiting Elvis," but adds that she had no choice. "I had to preserve Graceland for my daughter for when she was older, first and foremost."

Carrying the King's torch also turned her into a lightning rod for Elvis cultists. Fans, she says, expect her to recall with them every concert, outfit, encore. The kooks want to whisper that he's still alive. "That just rolls off me. I don't want to shatter anyone's dreams or illusions. They're in their own world," she says.

But talking about Elvis does seem to carry Presley away for a moment, too. "It was hard," she says softly, after a pause, "not to get caught up in those wonderful attachments and feelings. I had to grab the bull by the horns, be tenacious. I was also trying, in my own career, to not be just Elvis' ex-wife."

Since then, Presley's keen business sense has expanded well beyond Elvis Inc. Her 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, became a best-seller and a TV mini series. This summer, she's launching Indian Summer, her first fragrance in America. ( Her first two perfumes are both already top-ten-selling fragrances in Europe. ) "I want to be competitive with Calvin Klein and Elizabeth Taylor," she says.

And, after those tough early years, she has proven to be just as successful in her personal life. In 1984, she fell in love with Italian screenwriter Marco Garibaldi when he wrote a TV-movie script that she hoped to produce. Despite a "definite attraction" on the job, it was "business first." The movie was never made, but the romance got the green light when they went away for a weekend together.

"It was the first time like that for me," she says. "Sex wasn't an issue at that point, which was fine because passion can distort you perception. Friends first is great."

Her extended family -- lover, son, daughter and grandkids -- have given Presley an anchor she never had at Graceland. She insists on family dinners, and she dotes on Navarone, picking him up at school, hauling him to "baseball practices, roller rinks, soccer, karate at night, whatever. We are always, always together."

She is very much a hands-on parent. "I keep on top of who my son plays with, what his conversations are, what he's watching," she says. "I'm monitoring his friends, who their parents are and their standards. We don't let him out of our sight. This is a very difficult time to parent."

Still, there's no controlling what Navarone picks up at school about his famous half-sister's much-publicized marriage to Jackson. "He'll come home with crazy things, and I'll have to change the opinion right away," she says. "That's the hardest thing -- to keep on top of the information he hears."

Presley gets her firsthand updates from her daughter at least once a week when she and Lisa Marie chat by phone, or in frequent get-togethers with their kids. "What's spooky is that my granddaughter looks exactly like Lisa Marie did and has all her mannerisms. It puts me into a time warp.

Though she is clearly proud of Lisa Marie, Presley admits she has to bit her tongue sometimes, to not be middlesome ( "Isn't every parent?" ). There are what she calls "generational" differences in their mothering styles. One specific: "Lisa Marie," she says, "is strict when it comes to TV. She doesn't let the children hear bad news. Which is good."

But if Lisa Marie asks, Mom offers advice. "We've all learned from our mistakes, and she has made mistakes of her own as well. But to be honest, I see her doing the same things I did with her. Her kids are number one for her, as she was for me. That comforts me."

Their mother-daughter bond stretches all the way from genetics to Dianetics. Since 1979 Presley has been a member of the controversial Church of Scientology, a religion started by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. Today, Scientology is popular in Hollywood and has a number of famous followers that include Tom Cruise, John Travolta; Kirstie Alley and Lisa Marie ( who joined during childhood ). By working with Scientologist ministers, members believe that they are able to strip away the negative residue of past traumatic events, thus clearing they way for spiritual growth. Presley says she has learned to approach problem-solving with "the greatest good" in mind, rather than "me-me-me" self-interest. "You get answers, and that's very different from other religions. It's gotten me back to basics."

And none too soon. Presley cheerily says that even with her busy family life, she's got energy to burn. As for her vibrant, youthful glow: "I don't feel fifty. I feel like a kid. If I'd listened to everybody about being tired at this age, I'd already be defeated."

What does seem draining is the harsh glare of the very media scrutiny that she worked so hard to protect her daughter from. It's clear she identifies strongly with Lisa Marie's struggle to keep her kids on track while guarding her privacy. Lisa Marie is, says Presley, far more complex than the sassy, posturing princess America saw interviewed with Jackson by Diane Sawyer for PrimeTime Live. "I know someone very different. I hope the public doesn't judge her for that."

The Lisa Marie that her mother knows and loves is herself a devoted mother and hands-on heiress who participates in the affairs of her gagantuan Graceland trust. "She owns it all. We just run it. She knows exactly what's going on."

Asked if she envisions a particular kind of partner for her daughter, Presley hedges: "That's for her. She's very determined, and my advice is, you can't look for it."

Does she feel Lisa Marie is independent enough to remain single? "I don't know. It would be kind of lonely to live life without a partner. You have to have someone. But I don't think it's a priority now to find somebody."

Interestingly, just as Lisa Marie's divorced parents spent amicable time together, she and Keough "want to be together and want their children to see them together," says Presley. "She gets along wonderfully with Danny."

Asked how the marriage to Jackson affected that connection, Presley instinctively pulls back: "I don't want to even -- that's another story."

But she warms up and even gets a bit misty-eyed when asked what the King would think if he came back to see what she's made of her life and Graceland.

"Elvis would be amazed," she says. "Graceland would definitely impress him. He would be so proud of Lisa Marie. And I'm absolutely different from the woman he knew. He was definitely the man of the house, the breadwinner and boss. I've come a long way, that's for sure. He'd probably hire me."

By Jim Jerome

The following article is Copyright 1996 Ladies Home Journal