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‘Elvis Presley's Death Deprives Our Country Of A Part Of Itself’: Inside The Final Days Of The King

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Jun. 30 2022, Published 4:42 a.m. ET

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In a life filled with thrills and headlines, the last days of Elvis Presley's life were remarkable only for how unremarkable they were. On Aug. 12, 1977, unable to secure a copy of Star Wars, he and daughter Lisa Marie, along with Elvis's girlfriend, Ginger Alden, watched the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me at Graceland. Two days later, he started a fast, trying to shed weight for an upcoming tour. He read his Bible and watched religious shows on TV. The following night, he had a dental appointment to get two teeth filled.

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Suffering from insomnia, Elvis played racquetball in the middle of the night, hoping to tire himself out. When that didn't work, he told Ginger, "I'm going to the bathroom to read." (The book he took, according to Ginger, was called Sex and Psychic Energy. "It's about channeling your chakras and communicating with each other," she explained.)

"OK,” Ginger said. “Just don't fall asleep.” He did - and he never woke up.

A few hours later, Ginger found Elvis lying in a pool of vomit, unresponsive. The King was dead. The official cause was cardiac arrhythmia. It was Aug. 16, 1977. He was 42.

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In the years since Elvis's death, family members and friends have searched their memories for clues into what really happened near the end of his life. A few days earlier, father Vernon spoke on the phone with his son for five or six hours. As their conversation ended, Elvis told him, “I want you to know that I've really enjoyed this.”

Stepbrother David E. Stanley, whose mom married Vernon after Elvis' mother's death, said that Elvis told him on Aug. 14 that the next time they met, it would be "on a higher plane."

If the superstar was having premonitions of his own demise, he wouldn't have been the only one. “We were very concerned for his health,” says Letetia Henley Kirk, Elvis's private nurse from 1972 until his death. His binge eating and dieting as well as his abuse of prescription pills raised red flags.

Ex-wife Priscilla, too, worried about his health. At their divorce proceeding in 1973, she says, “We were sitting there and I was looking at his hands because he was so bloated, and I asked him... ‘Are you OK?' And he said, 'Yes, I'm good.’”

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The news of Elvis's death quickly spread around the world, and fans flocked to Graceland, which was opened to the public for the first time since he bought it in 1957. An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 made the pilgrimage on Aug. 17 alone. His body lay in state in the foyer as mourners paid their respects. Thousands had to be turned away.

The following day, the funeral was held in Elvis's beloved music room at Graceland. “We are here to honor the memory of a man loved by millions, but Elvis was a frail human being,” said minister C.W. Bradley. "Perhaps because of his rapid rise to fame and fortune, he was thrown into temptations that some never experience. Now that he's gone, I find it more helpful to remember his good qualities, and I hope you do, too.” Renditions of “How Great Thou Art" and "Sweet Sweet Spirit” were sung.

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Afterward, Vernon led the procession of cars, while Priscilla, 32, and Lisa Marie, 9, followed the hearse to Forest Hill cemetery.

Tributes were paid across the world, as radio stations globally interrupted regular programming to play Elvis' music. "Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself,” President Jimmy Carter said. “He was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness and good humor of this country.”

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Of the global outpouring of love for his boy, Vernon said, “It lightened my grief somewhat. I am very sorry that all of the people who came to Memphis were not able to view the body, but there was not enough time.”

Lisa Marie, the apple of her daddy's eye, was naturally crushed by his death. Sometime later, she visited the home of her dad's nurse, Letetia. “I had a huge velvet painting of Elvis he had given me," Letetia recalls. "Lisa Marie walked past the painting, blew a kiss and said, 'I love you, Daddy.' I melted.”

In October 1977, Elvis' mom, Gladys, who had died of a heart attack at 46 in 1958, was moved along with her cherished son to the Meditation Garden at Graceland. Vernon passed away two years after his son, in 1979, and was also buried at Graceland. They have all rested in peace there together ever since.

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