Elvis Presley forever captured the world's attention and adoration, so perhaps it's no surprise that his beloved Memphis home – Graceland – took top honors this week in the 10Best Readers' Choice contest for Best Iconic American Attraction. The public had four weeks to vote on 20 nominees – renowned attractions including the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore and the White House. But Graceland loyalists amassed nearly half of all votes for the entire category; many of them likely Elvis fans.
But despite its status as a great American landmark, Graceland was and is a home. "It was my childhood home," says Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis' only daughter and the owner of Graceland and its contents. "I was born in Memphis and it was my home," says Lisa Marie. When told on Monday that Graceland was just voted the most iconic American attraction among a heady list of other highly recognizable American landmarks and attractions, she said, "Wow. That's really incredible. I'm very humbled and flattered to hear that. It's incredible . . . it's just incredible."
Elvis Presley died at Graceland in 1977, at the age of 42, when Lisa Marie, now 45, was nine years old. But his tragic early death failed to diminish the impact he'd already had (and would continue to have) on the music industry and pop culture worldwide. Graceland - today a museum estate which the public can visit - presents those who enter with a moment in American history perfectly frozen in time.
"It's got a very special energy there, when you go," says Lisa Marie. "It's like a time capsule: nothing's been changed or moved since 1977. It's like a time warp and the energy is still very much there. You can feel it," she says, emphatically. "It's from the essence of that time period. It's a very special place."
Elvis and Graceland
Elvis Presley, an enigmatic and talented singer, first gained wide popularity 1954, with Memphis' Sun Records label. In 1955, RCA acquired his recording contract and less than a year later, the handsome Memphis crooner with the gyrating hips also became a movie star. In 1957, just before a two-year stint in the U.S. Army put his performing career on hold, Elvis took the proceeds from his first hit – Heartbreak Hotel – and purchased Graceland, a 10,000 square foot Southern-style Colonial mansion.
His parents moved into Elvis' dream home with him – a far cry from the tiny first home they had all shared in Tupelo, Miss. The years following Elvis' 1960 return from the Army were filled with hit records, films and concerts. Girlfriend Priscilla Beaulieu moved to Graceland and lived with "The King" while he became a legend beyond the scope of anything the world had seen before. They eventually wed in Las Vegas, in 1967, and held a wedding reception for family members a few weeks later in the trophy room at Graceland. In 1968, the estate gained a new resident when Priscilla and Elvis brought home their infant daughter Lisa Marie.
Elvis made some conversions to the mansion's second floor – originally four bedrooms and three baths – to accommodate his changing lifestyle. He adapted one of the bedrooms so that his new baby had a nursery. The heralded Memphis estate fascinated the world, but to Lisa Marie, Graceland was simply home.
Elvis accommodated his ever-expanding wardrobe in a second upstairs bedroom, and turned the remaining bedroom into an office. His father Vernon maintained a separate office in an out-building on the property, where - with the assistance of a cadre of secretaries - he managed family business and piles of fan mail. Gold records began to accumulate in the basement TV room.
"It was such an incredible place to grow up," says Lisa Marie Presley. "Very special." Sharing her take on the recreational aspect of Elvis' home turf, she says, "It was almost like a big playground for my father and everybody. It was my father's sanctuary, and he made it into such a special place. He made it into a home for a lot of people."
With a noticeably happy tone, she also recalls, "There was lots of mischief. There were golf cart convoys, motorcycles, fireworks, firecracker wars, snowmobiling, sledding and horseback riding," she says, "for his closest friends and his family . . . and we all had a lot of fun doing that sort of stuff, getting into mischief and having fun. It was incredible."
Evolution of Graceland
When Elvis died in 1977, he was buried at Graceland. He and Priscilla had amicably split some years before, but still shared custody of Lisa Marie.
Two years later, when Vernon Presley also passed away, Priscilla became co-executor of the Presley estate. It was her decision to open the property to the public. "It was a private residence up until my father passed," says Lisa Marie. Priscilla's business acumen turned a family home burdened by large upkeep expense into a successful empire that now includes TV and video projects, merchandising, and a worldwide licensing program. Once she was an adult, Lisa Marie's own role grew and Priscilla was able to move to an advisory position; she remains closely involved in the estate.
Graceland was designated a National Historic Landmark in March of 2006. In June of that same year, the property received its first visit by a sitting President, when George W. Bush visited Graceland with the Japanese prime minister. Today, millions of people have toured of Graceland.
The basic Graceland Mansion tour ($15-$33) now includes the living room, kitchen, dining room, music room, parents' bedroom, TV room, pool room and the infamous Jungle Room. The tour's final stop is the Meditation Garden, where Elvis and members of his family were laid to rest.
Other tours include the Elvis Presley Car Museum; Elvis' Custom Jets; and 2013 exhibit additions 'Live from Vegas' and 'Hawaii: Concerts, Movies and More!'
A new VIP tour component – 'Elvis … Through His Daughter's Eyes' – examines life at Graceland from Lisa Marie's perspective and lets ticketholders get a glimpse of toys, mementos and even rare home movies from the years the world's most famous father and daughter shared at home. But the upstairs rooms at Graceland remain private.
Lisa Marie: Life after Elvis
What many visitors don't know is that after visiting hours are over, the Presley abode is still a home. "It shuts down quite nice at night," explains Lisa Marie, who visits her hometown often. "I have family that I love very much who live there in Memphis," she says. "When I go to Memphis, I visit (Graceland)," she explains. "We have dinner there."
Picture that. After the last tourist has gone home for the day, and Elvis' devotees are once again outside the estate's famous gates, Lisa Marie still moves about the property in privacy. "My family still goes there, and we still have a life there," she says. When asked if any important events of late have happened at Graceland, The King's only daughter easily recalls, "Thanksgiving a year or two ago. Mom wasn't there then," she says, "but we're going to be there in a couple of weeks, together."
Lisa Marie's popularity as the only child of an iconic performer makes privacy hard to come by. "I'm usually there after hours, typically," she says of her visits to Memphis' beloved landmark, "but occasionally while tours are happening." Does she overnight in the private haven somewhere above the Jungle Room? "I have stayed there in the past," she says, "but not recently, no."
Lisa Marie, who splits her time between the U.S. and the U.K., is currently on tour to promote her third album, the critically-acclaimed Storm & Grace. She'll be playing the Levitz Shell Pavilion in Memphis on Saturday, September 21, following a Sept. 20 showcase appearance in Nashville during the American Music Festival. Other tour dates and tickets can be found at lisamariepresley.com
Putting rumors to rest
Elvis' only daughter, Graceland's sole owner, is emphatic about sharing one important message with fans and followers of the Presley family. "Sometimes there are rumors about it (Graceland) being sold," she says, "and that is NEVER going to happen. There's always a rumor. It is NOT getting sold. Graceland was given to me and will always be mine and then passed to my children," she says. "It will never be sold."
Presley also maintains ownership of the contents of the home: the record awards, clothing, furniture and all artifacts on display throughout the tour.