FAST FRIENDS: President Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands in the Oval… (Oliver F. Atkins / White…)
Reporting from Washington — The National Archives is like a safe-deposit box for America's really important papers -- the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the $7.2-million canceled check for the purchase of Alaska, the picture of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands in the Oval Office.
Copies of that photo -- the president in his charcoal suit, the king of rock 'n' roll in his purple velvet cape -- are requested more than just about any of the archives' treasures, including the Constitution.
Yet the story that led to their improbable meeting on Dec. 21, 1970, is as little-known as the picture is famous. In honor of Elvis' 75th birthday last week, one of the president's men, Egil "Bud" Krogh, and one of the king's most trusted friends, Jerry Schilling, met for the first time in almost 40 years at the National Archives to recount the day Elvis came to Washington. A crowd waited in the frigid cold for a seat. (Even in the imperious capital, Elvis can still pack a house.)
It wasn't the glitzy birthday party other cities threw, no giant birthday cards, all-night film festivals or flashy displays of the white jumpsuit called "Snowflake." An Elvis exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery is more Washington's speed. As was this forum, which offered an hourlong window into a simpler time, before Watergate or terrorist attacks, when the world's most famous man asked the world's most powerful one to grant him a wish, and got it.
The story begins Dec. 19, 1970, at Schilling's home in the Hollywood Hills. The phone rings. A voice says, "It's me."
Elvis is at the Dallas airport on his way to Los Angeles and wants Schilling to pick him up at LAX.
"Who's with you?" Schilling asks.
"Nobody," the king says.
It should be noted that Elvis was a man who almost never did anything alone. He wanted at least five guys around him just to sit and watch TV. So Schilling is understandably concerned, all the more so when Elvis proceeds to recite his flight number and arrival time, which is akin to the queen doing a load of laundry.
Schilling heads to the airport and takes Elvis to the singer's mansion on Hillcrest Drive in Beverly Hills. The next morning, it comes out that Vernon, Elvis' father, and Priscilla, his wife, were bugging him about how he spent his money. This aggravated the king, so all by himself he got on the first plane going out, which happened to be bound for Washington. Things did not go well.
For starters, a "smart aleck little steward" with a mustache discovers Elvis is carrying a gun -- it was his habit to carry at least three -- and informs him he cannot bring a firearm on the airplane. Elvis, unaccustomed to being told what to do, storms off and is chased down by the pilot: "I'm sorry, Mr. Presley, of course you can keep your gun." Elvis and his firearm reboard.
Upon arriving in the nation's capital, Elvis decides he wants a doughnut. While waiting for his order, he encounters some unsavory types who notice his five big gold rings and three necklaces.
"That's some nice jewelry," one thug says.
"Yeah, and I aim to keep it," says Elvis, raising one leg of his bell bottoms to reveal a snub-nosed revolver strapped to his right ankle.
At some point, Elvis has enough of this traveling alone stuff and heads to Los Angeles, intent on returning to Washington with one of his Memphis Mafia, namely Schilling.
Schilling, who first met Elvis playing football when he was 12, is accustomed to odd requests from the king. But this one is particularly weird because Elvis is bent on going to Washington but won't say why. Still, because "you don't say no to Elvis," Schilling agrees to go, even though it means missing a day at his new job as an assistant editor at Paramount, which took him a year to get.
They book two first-class seats, but still need cash, and it's a Sunday night in 1970. No ATMs. Elvis' limousine driver, Sir Gerald, arranges for a check to be cashed at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Schilling writes one for $500, which Elvis signs. Before they leave the house,Elvis, a history buff, takes his commemorative World War II Colt 45 revolver off the wall, bullets included, and stows it in his bag.
They cash the check and head for the airport. A small group of soldiers on leave from Vietnam for Christmas are on the same flight, and Elvis wanders back to coach to talk with one of them. Soon he is back up in first class, nudging Schilling, "Hey man, where's the $500?"
Schilling knows what's coming. Elvis is an unusually generous man. After learning that Schilling was a year old when his mother died, Elvis bought him the house in Hollywood so he would "always have a home." He still lives there today.
OK, so Elvis is on the plane, asking for the $500.
"Elvis, we're going to Washington. That's all we've got," Schilling cautions.
"You don't understand. This man's been in Vietnam," Elvis says, then heads straight to coach and gives the soldier all their cash.