Elvis fans know he always travelled with an entourage. Four, five or six members of his Memphis Mafia accompanied Elvis everywhere, and they took care of all arrangements and logistics of the trips. This included any expenses incurred, so Elvis never had the need to carry much money. Somebody else always handled it.
So, when Elvis stormed out of Graceland on Saturday, December 19, 1970, all he had in his wallet was a little cash and a credit card he had never personally used. This was the start of the strange saga that ended with Elvis meeting President Richard Nixon in the White House two days later. His experiences with the money needs he encountered along the way are fascinating.
When Elvis arrived at the Memphis Airport, he went to the Pan Am ticket counter to get a flight to Washington DC. According to the 1999 movie Elvis Meets Nixon, the girl behind the counter asked him how he wanted to pay for his ticket.
Elvis reached for his wallet and realized he had forgotten to load up with cash before leaving home. So, he tried a couple of ploys. First, Elvis asked if they could just send the bill to the Colonel. Of course, that didn’t work, so the counter girl brought her supervisor over to speak with Elvis.
Elvis made one more futile attempt to have the man send the bill to the Colonel. When he got the same negative answer, Elvis pulled out the keys to his car. He offered the supervisor a chance to drive Elvis’ brand new Cadillac while he was out of town, if they could work out a way to cover the ticket.
The man was tempted, but ultimately he backed away and asked if Elvis had a credit card. Elvis finally remembered he carried a credit card in his wallet for emergencies, and this was one. Problem solved.
Movies sometimes embellish the truth, and that may be the case here. However, it is a documented fact the Elvis started his trip with almost no cash. This was verified by Elvis’ long time friend Jerry Schilling at a January 2010 lecture program presented by The National Archives Administration.
National Archives presents “We Were There When Nixon Met Elvis”
This program, titled “We Were There When Nixon Met Elvis,” had two men share their experiences of the famous meeting. In addition to Schilling, there was Egil (Bud) Krogh, Deputy Counsel to the President and the man who oversaw Nixon’s War on Drugs. He was instrumental in setting up the meeting, and is included in some of the official photographs taken at the historic event.
Jerry Schilling was with Elvis for a day and a half before that meeting, and he was invited in to meet the President and was included in one of the last photos snapped to commemorate the event. As Schilling explained at the panel discussion, after Elvis checked into the Hotel Washington, he returned to the airport and booked a flight to Los Angeles. He called Schilling who had been living there for the previous year, working as an apprentice film editor. Elvis asked him to pick him up at LAX. Schilling complied, and the two spent the night at Elvis’ house on Hillcrest Drive in Beverly Hills.
Elvis wanted Schilling to accompany him back to Washington. Schilling agreed and got back into his old routine of making arrangement for Elvis. This included booking the flight and getting some money. Elvis had a check book at his Beverly Hills home, but it was Sunday night and the banks were closed. Money machines had not yet been invented in 1970. Schilling had very little cash. So what could they do?
Believe it or not, they contacted Gerald Peters, the limo driver Elvis always used while filming in Los Angeles. Elvis called him Sir Gerald because he had once been a driver for Winston Churchill. Sir Gerald provided limo service for the rich and famous, so he was well known to the management of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. On the drive to the airport, they stopped at the hotel, and Sir Gerald, Elvis and Jerry Schilling went inside. Together they got a check for $500 cashed. Schilling put the envelope containing the bills in his inside coat pocket, and they headed to the airport with their money problem solved.
On the flight, Elvis moved around and socialized with many of the passengers. The war in Viet Nam was going on in 1970, and Elvis spent ten minutes speaking with one of the G.I.s returning home for the holidays. Here’s the rest of the story in Jerry Schilling’s words:
He (Elvis) comes back to me and he goes, “Where’s that money?”
I know what’s going to happen, so I said, “What money?”
And he goes, “The 500 dollars.”
I said, “Elvis, we’re going to Washington. That’s all we’ve got.”
He said, “You don’t understand. This man’s been in Viet Nam. He’s going back home for Christmas.”
Any true fan of Elvis instinctively knows how this story ends. Elvis gave the soldier the entire $500.
Elvis moving around and talking to folks on the flight
These two little stories about Elvis illustrate some truths that make up the Elvis legend. The first is a little sad because it shows what a sheltered existence his fame forced him into. Without his buddies around him, Elvis could struggle with some things normal people take for granted.
The second story is so wonderful it can bring tears to your eyes. Elvis is famous for giving away cars, rings, and so forth, but I think his actions with the soldier are the best example of his generosity I have ever heard.
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