Kissing Elvis was like plunging your lips into two soft, sweet marshmallows: Extraordinary interview with ex-beauty queen who was by Presley’s side for the last years of his life – then went on to wed the Olympic star who became Caitlyn Jenner
With a wry roll of her eyes, Linda Thompson concedes that she ‘sure knows how to pick men’. She lost her virginity to Elvis Presley — the memory of his kiss remains palpable, even 45 years after his death — and mothered him through the excesses of his addiction.
Elvis, arguably once the world’s most desirable man, was charming and monstrous by turns. He and Linda, an actress and acclaimed songwriter, were together for almost five years. But she yearned for kids, normality; an end to the see-sawing emotions of his final turbulent years.
You might imagine she would find all she had coveted in her next relationship, with Olympic gold-winning decathlete Bruce Jenner. A man of god-like physical perfection, dubbed Mr America, he and Linda married in 1981 and had two children. But then, four years later, he confided that he wanted to transition.
Linda kept his secret for 30 years until Jenner went public as trans woman Caitlyn. ‘Such a normal life,’ Linda says today, with heavy irony.
Even her most recent partner — her second husband, legendary music producer David Foster, from whom she separated after 14 years — has achieved unexpected acclaim.
Memories: Linda Thompson concedes that she ‘sure knows how to pick men’
Foster, 72, is said to be a mentor to Prince Harry. Foster’s fifth wife Katharine McPhee — who at 38, is 34 years her husband’s junior — was at school with Meghan Markle, and the two couples have become close. Indeed, the Fosters helped the Sussexes find their Canadian hideaway when they fled Britain, and the friendship has grown stronger since they moved to California.
Quite the list of exes then. ‘But Elvis was the love of my life,’ says Linda.
Although he died in 1977, he is still the best-selling singer on the planet and the world remains enthralled, intrigued and magnetised by him.
Linda knows only too well the strength of this enduring appeal, having flown to the UK recently to meet hundreds of ardent Elvis fans who keep alive the memory of the man she knew.
The release of the acclaimed new film Elvis, directed by Baz Luhrmann, has added fresh lustre to his mystique. Starring Austin Butler as Presley and Tom Hanks as his infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, it has struck box office gold and introduced a younger audience to the legend.
But there are those among Elvis’s closest coterie who have criticised it for airbrushing out the last five years of his life — including Linda, one of his last great loves.
Love of my life: Linda Thompson, pictured with Elvis Presley during their nearly five-year romance
Now 72, Linda was not approached for any input and has no plans to watch the movie. ‘Baz Luhrmann never contacted me,’ she says, adding that she believes the film does ‘a disservice to Elvis. There are many inaccurate and untrue elements’.
She cites the fact that, while Elvis and singer BB King are portrayed in the film as confidants, in reality they didn’t have a close friendship.
More wounding, her part in his life has been erased.
‘Every time Elvis was hospitalised, I’d share his room,’ Linda recalls. While she’s not seen the film, others have relayed the plotlines. ‘The film showed his ex-wife, Priscilla, at his bedside. She never even visited him, let alone stayed. Those last years, I saved his life about ten to 12 times,’ she says.
Linda was a virginal Miss Tennessee beauty queen, aged just 22, when, in July 1972, she and a friend were invited to a private film screening with Elvis, then 37, and his 13-strong band of pals, the so-called Memphis Mafia.
‘He came into the cinema very grumpy, then shone a light round and rested it on my face. “Well, hello,” he purred,’ she laughs. ‘He sat next to me and nuzzled into my neck. I pulled away as I thought he was married still. He told me: “Honey, we split up six months ago, I’m single.”
Elvis Presley with girlfriend Linda Thompson at the Hilton Hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio
‘I can’t recall the film we saw as we spent the night kissing and cuddling. And it was every bit as sexy as you’d expect. Kissing Elvis was like plunging your lips into two soft, sweet marshmallows — his lips were so sexy and soft. He smelled so fresh — of the Neutrogena soap he used.’
A second date followed, and for their third date, Linda was flown to Las Vegas where Elvis was performing. She moved in with him and for that first year, they were inseparable.
Elvis knew she was a virgin. ‘I think my purity attracted him,’ Linda says. ‘I was his alone. I did not drink, swear, do drugs. He didn’t pressure me to have sex with him.’
But after two months she could resist no longer. She recalls: ‘We were madly in love, staying in the mirrored ceiling presidential suite of the Las Vegas Hilton with the bed on a dais. It was magical. He was a sensual, tender lover. He was beyond the most beautiful person I knew — when he slept, I’d sometimes look at his face, the curvature of his high cheekbones, his aquiline nose and gorgeous lips.’
But Linda was a catch, too.
She says that despite reports to the contrary, Priscilla and Elvis’s parting was rancorous: he bitterly resented his wife for leaving him for their karate instructor, Mike Stone, and engineered a meeting to show off Linda, the leggy beauty queen, to Priscilla.
He took her along to their daughter Lisa Marie’s school, she recalls. ‘He said: “Honey, Priscilla will be there and I want you to meet her. But will you wear flat shoes, as you’re 5ft 9in tall and she’s only 5ft 1in?’
Over the years, he made his peace with Priscilla. ‘I’m pleased she saved Graceland (his Memphis home) for the fans,’ Linda adds.
‘We are not enemies or friends, but always cordial when we meet. Lisa and I have stayed in touch off and on over the years.’
She recalls, too, the contrast between the lithe Elvis of their relationship, and his decline into bloated addiction.
‘For his 1973 Aloha From Hawaii concert [televised via satellite to 1.5 billion people] Elvis trained and lost weight. He looked like a 6ft 1in Greek god. He’d say: “I’m one good-looking SOB [son of a b****],” then burst out laughing.
‘In some ways he was a freak of nature — his looks, build, voice, talents — he had it all. But like Greek gods, he was flawed.’
Linda recalls her strange, nocturnal life with ‘the King’: the daylight hours were spent sleeping, eating and watching TV while life continued downstairs at Graceland
Linda, who now lives in Malibu, California, says Elvis was a ‘beautiful golden canary in a gilded cage’. But there were two sides to his personality. Countering his effusive generosity and kindness — he gave Linda piles of jewellery and was devoted to his daughter — he could also be vicious, philandering and foul-mouthed.
She recalls, too, her strange, nocturnal life with ‘the King’: the daylight hours were spent sleeping, eating and watching TV while life continued downstairs at Graceland. Then they’d get up at 9pm.
Elvis’s insomnia — which had started in childhood — can only have been worsened by this routine. He began taking medication to help him sleep, then more to wake up. But as he took only prescription drugs, in his mind he was not an addict, says Linda.
Even so, she became aware he was addicted; indeed, his family credits her with saving Elvis’s life many times.
‘Once he fell asleep after taking a sleeping tablet and went head first into a bowl of chicken soup. I pulled him out as he would have choked to death,’ she says. ‘There were other occasions, but I’ll take them to my grave.’
They discussed marriage. ‘He gave me a pre-engagement ring at our first Christmas. He said: “You can wear it on whatever finger you want, but when we get engaged it will be on your ring finger.” He wanted a son and we would have called him John.’
But as their relationship entered its fourth year, Linda, beset by worries about Elvis’s addiction and infidelities, realised she would have to end things.
‘I struggled to accept the other women as I was faithful, but I was so addicted to loving him that I lost myself and what I wanted while he was addicted to drugs — they were his true mistress.
‘I was exhausted caring for him — it was like looking after a newborn baby. I was scared he would die on my watch. When I asked him to reduce his medication, he’d say: “Don’t worry about me, honey, I’m going to live till I’m 85.” ’
She also says: ‘Elvis had a Madonna complex — once a woman had a child, she was not a sexual being to him. I wanted a life — most of all I wanted to be a mom, but knew I could not bring a child into this crazy lifestyle.’ So she started weaning herself off him, spending more time with his band members and less time in the bedroom with Elvis.
The last time she saw him, after he’d flown her to a concert in San Francisco in November 1976, she suspected his infidelity and said: ‘Honey, if there’s another woman, just be honest with me.’
But Elvis tearfully pledged his love and loyalty to her. ‘And I said, “I love you,” as we held each other,’ she says. ‘Then I walked away.’
Later she found out that Ginger Alden — the 22-year-old who was to be his last fling — was in a hotel room on the floor below, ‘like a holding pattern!’ She laughs and rolls her eyes.
She never saw Elvis alive again.
Just eight months after their split, he died at home on August 16, 1977, aged 42.
The first person Lisa Marie, then nine years old, rang after his death was Linda: ‘“My daddy’s dead,” she kept saying. “He’s not, he’s just ill,” ’ I replied. ‘“No, he’s smothered in the carpet,” Lisa Marie told me. That’s when I knew it was true.’
Linda screamed and threw the phone against the wall.
Soon after his funeral, which she attended, Elvis’s father, Vernon, told Linda: ‘You kept my boy alive for more years than I could. You were the best woman for him.’
Others also recognise her input. David Wade, one of the UK’s foremost experts on Elvis, has run Elvis Travel Service and Strictly Elvis UK for 50 years.
He says Linda’s role in Presley’s life cannot be understated: ‘Her part in Elvis’s life and legacy is just as vital as his ex-wife’s. She gave him great stability and unconditional love. It was cruel to leave her out of the movie.’
Linda, meanwhile, has only good feelings towards Elvis’s friends, the so-called Memphis Mafia. ‘The people who were closest to Elvis took great care of him,’ she says.
It was two years after Elvis’s death that Linda met Bruce Jenner at a party at the Playboy Mansion, her first visit there.
They married in January 1981 and had two sons, Brandon and Brody. But in 1985, Jenner confessed he had something to tell Linda. She suspected an affair, but his revelation was more startling.
‘He said he was a woman in a man’s body and wanted to transition. I thought it was a passing phase, but after months of counselling, I realised it wasn’t.’
Months later they separated — she kept his secret — but she regrets his lack of commitment to his family. Jenner famously went on to marry Kris Kardashian (now Jenner), becoming stepdad to her brood and fathering two daughters with her. ‘He was very much an absent dad and that hurt me and, more importantly, hurt our boys . . . he was portrayed as a good dad in The Kardashians,’ she says.
But today their relationship is equable: ‘She is much happier as a woman. It’s amicable now and Brandon rang recently: “Mum, Dad has just rung, can she come over for dinner with us?’
Linda never took maintenance — she reasoned that Jenner would ‘need money for what lay ahead’ — and supported her boys by forging a successful career as a lyricist. She is Oscar-nominated as well as an Emmy winner.
Her career burgeoned after she met composer and record producer David Foster at the Grammys. They married in 1991 and were both a glamorous Hollywood couple and a powerful professional duo, writing hits for Whitney Houston as well as Celine Dion.
But once again, their apparently golden life was to tarnish. This time it was Foster’s jealous nature: Linda could not even mention Elvis’s name.
‘David is a genius: talented, philanthropic, charming. But he saw himself as king and we were like his subjects,’ she says.
Their 14-year marriage ended in 2005. Foster then wed Yolanda Hadid, mother of supermodels Gigi and Bella. Now he is with the much younger actress and singer Katharine MacPhee, mother of his baby son, Rennie.
As we wrap up the interview, I jokingly suggest to Linda, very happily single, that ‘maybe the next man in your life should be a normal fellow, like a plumber.’
‘A plumber? Yes,’ she giggles, ‘or maybe an astronaut — that would complete the circle. . .’
- A Little Thing Called Life, by Linda Thompson, is published by HarperCollins. Linda was in the UK to speak at strictlyelvis.net’s annual Elvis festival.
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