THE KING IS DEAD! HANG THE DOCTOR!
By Stanley Booth
Near Corinth, Mississippi, about a hundred miles from Memphis, we stopped for gasoline. With his fluorescent mane, olive complexion, and distinctive, rugged features, Dr. Nick is easy to recognize. It occurred to me that being in Mississippi this year with Dr. Nick could resemble being there some years ago with Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. Nick has received many threats of violence, and a bullet thought to have been intended for him struck a doctor who was sitting behind him at the Liberty Bowl football game in Memphis on Thanksgiving Day 1978, even before he had been accused in print and on television of killing Elvis Presley.
It had been raining off and on all morning. It would soon be eleven o'clock, but it still seemed early, like a winter morning just before sunrise. We bought soft drinks in cans and drove on, the wipers pushing up dirty trickles of mist.
Before we left Memphis, Dr. Nick had said, "Ask me anything." I asked him how he got to know Elvis Presley. He remembered the first time he treated Presley, who was at the time newly married and staying at his ranch near Walls, Mississippi. On a Saturday afternoon early in 1967, George Klein, a friend of Presley whose fiancee, a nurse, worked for Dr. Nick, called Dr. Nick to the ranch to attend Presley. "He had a movie to start Monday, and he'd been real active the last couple of days riding his horses, Dr. Nick said. "The movie was going to have a lot of action in it, and he was having a difficult time walking because of the saddle sores and blisters he had developed. He thought that there might be some way he could get an immediate cure so he could go on out there. I don't know if he thought I was a faith healer, or what."
Dr. Nick convinced Presley to postpone making the movie for a few days and helped to notify Colonel Parker and the film company of the delay. Then Dr. Nick left, but was called back to the ranch twice that afternoon, once to answer a question of Presley's "that he could have asked me over the telephone," and once again even though Presley "didn't have any problem. He just wanted to talk. I don't remember what the talk was about. That was the first encounter. I didn't realize at that encounter that this was the way he was. That this was going to be a way of life. But it was typical of him; throughout our relationship, there would be times that he could handle something over the telephone, but he'd rather for you to come out and talk to him about it. He'd want me to fly out to California. He'd make up some ridiculous problem. There wasn't anything wrong, he just wanted somebody to talk to.
"Things got a lot easier for me when he moved to Memphis. After his first major illness, he felt more secure here from a medical standpoint than he did seeing different people on the west coast. His first major illness was caused by an acupuncturist out there who was not giving him acupuncture. He'd have a syringe with Novocain, Demerol and Cortisone that he would inject, and he'd tell Elvis this was acupuncture. We discovered this when we had to put Elvis in the hospital in '73. We almost lost him then.
"From that time till the time he died, except for a few skirmishes we had, he became very dependent on my opinion. He wouldn't feel like he was show-ready unless he was involved in a certain program. We'd start going through the routine of what we needed to do about his weight, what we needed to do to build up his endurance. We needed to be sure that he'd seen his dentist, that he'd gotten his ingrown toenails clipped so he didn't get in trouble onstage. We had to be sure we had things like a nasal douche, a little glass cup that we'd put salt water in to clean out his sinuses. We had Ace bandages and adhesive tape in case he pulled a groin muscle. He was always having trouble with a sprained ankle, and we took ankle corsets, making sure we had two or three. Sometimes he'd be on such a strict diet that somebody would go to these hotels a day or two ahead of time and prepare his special diet food for him. On a couple of tours he didn't eat anything but diet jelly. He'd get the hots about something like that, some fad. At the time, it was terrible. We wanted him to lose weight, but he's got to have the energy to perform, and it's hard to build up physical endurance without eating properly.
"Actually we had better control over his diet on the road than we did at home. At home we had the problem of everybody mothering him —— scared if they don't carry up a dozen ham biscuits, fix six eggs and a pound of bacon, the poor little boy won't get enough to eat or else he's gonna get mad at them and they're gonna get fired because they didn't fix the usual thing. A lot of times I'd go by at mealtimes just to eat part of his food, so he wouldn't eat too much.
"When he started spending nearly all of his time here, it was sort of a daily thing. On the way home, I'd stop by and see how he was and kill two or three hours there, then get my ass chewed out when I got home: Where had I been?"
"What made you inclined to stop by there on a daily basis?"
"He'd get his feelings hurt if I didn't. I just enjoyed talking to him. I'd get busy and say I'll go by there tomorrow instead of today, and then tomorrow I'd be busy too and still wouldn't go by there, and the next thing I knew I'd get flak, like, 'Why are you mad at Elvis?' People that he liked, he just liked to be around them, and if you weren't around him, he'd want to know why you weren't.
"We'd usually have sort of a family gathering, have supper all together and break bread. His father would be around, Priscilla was around for a while, some of the guys who were working there. Then that was put to a halt. I'm not sure whether it was Priscilla's doing or a joint thing between Priscilla and Mr. Presley. A lot of guys would go there just to freeload, and Priscilla was into this thing that she wanted some privacy with him. She didn't want to have somebody around every minute of the day. But he couldn't be satisfied unless he had five or ten people around all the time."
"How did he take Priscilla's leaving? Was he crushed by it?"
"He was hurt I think mainly because of the circumstances. That she got involved with her karate instructor, and he's the one who pushed her into that. I think he was more mad at Mike Stone than at Priscilla. He thought they were friends and that Mike stabbed him in the back. Yet on the other hand he was gone so much of the time touring, he was with other women, and he had such a guilty conscience about being gone so much and doing so many things that he was doing, that he encouraged her to get involved with other activities and other people. That way he wouldn't feel so guilty.
"He seemed to have to have female companionship. Not on a sexual basis, just female companionship. Because he missed his mother so much —— because of his not having that relationship, he enjoyed relationships like the one with Mrs. Cocke, the nurse. It was a kind of maternal relationship."
"Did Elvis get along with his father?"
"He had a lot of respect for his father. He and his father didn't see eye to eye about a lot of business things that they did together. He kind of let his father run his business, give him something to do. Elvis was always spending more than he was taking in, and it was always driving his father crazy. If Elvis spent all the money in his bank account, he figured he could do another tour and make more.
"I remember one time that we were talking about how rough our parents had it back in the Depression, how they had a hard time making ends meet. We talked about the number of hours our parents worked, and how little they got out of it, and he told this story about his daddy. Once when they were living in Mississippi, they'd gone without food for a couple of days, and Vernon went to some grocery store or food market and stole some food, and he got caught and went to jail for several days. Elvis made me promise that I'd never say anything about that. He said, 'Nobody knows about this. I don't want anybody ever to know this, it would really hurt my daddy if people knew.' Right after Elvis died, it was in one of those damn —— Midnite, or the Enquirer —— a lead story, 'Elvis's Father in Jail.' That was when everybody was selling everything they could get."
"When you met Elvis, he was already depending on sleeping pills to go to sleep?"
"Since he started in the music business, he was taking at least two or three sleeping pills, sedatives, nearly every night. Take it on down to the last few years, on the road, it was so important to him to get rest and sleep so he could be perfect for the next day. He felt like people had to travel so far and pay so much money to see his shows, he wanted everything to be perfect."
"Did the problem you had controlling the amount of medication Elvis took worsen as time went on?"
"No, it never really worsened, in the sense that there was a perpetual problem of taking more and more all the time. It was an episodic thing. There were times when he'd get by with almost nothing, times when he'd take normal amount, other times that he'd take more —— I'm talking about sleep medication or tranquilizers —— depending on what he was going through. There were times when he wanted to sit up and just read. He wouldn't take anything for sleep. He'd sit up and read for two or three days and not take any kind of medicine other than maybe a decongestant or his vitamins. This to me is not an addict.
"They talk about the importance of records of what was done, when the same person was doing the same thing day in and day out. You know this one person as well as you know yourself. You know what you've been through with him. You know if he's been having a bad night, if the speakers were bad and he's upset about it, or some song didn't go off right, or the guitar player broke a string, or something created in his mind a bad show. It was always worse in his mind than it was in anybody else's. He was such a perfectionist that I would know when it was going to be hard for him to sleep and hard for me to sleep because I'd be busy all night long trying to get him to sleep. Instead of seeing him every three or four hours, I'm going to be in there every two hours. There have been many nights when I fell asleep across the foot of the bed waiting for him to go to sleep."
"Do you think he was happy, in the sense of being satisfied with where he had been and where he was going, when you knew him?"
"I think he was happy, up to that point, but he had greater expectations —— things that he wanted to accomplish. He in no way had fulfilled his hunger for either knowledge or improving himself as a performer in films or on the stage as a singer. He had a lot that he hadn't touched.
"He had some problems with his health. His blood pressure was a little elevated. He was most of the time overweight, he had problems with his colon that contributed somewhat to his protruding abdomen, he had some liver problems we thought were related to his Tylenol intake. He had some back problems and neck problems. He was a compulsive water drinker. He had to have a gallon of ice water with him all the time. A lot of his puffiness was —— he'd take in more than he could get rid of. I never could figure out why he drank so much water. It's a psychological hangup for some people. I guess a psychiatrist could explain it.
"He liked the short cuts to everything. He always thought there had to be a quicker way to do everything than the logical, practical way. He was talking one time about how nice it would be if he could go to sleep for a few days and then wake up and lose all his excess weight. He said, 'Why don't you do that? Just keep me asleep for a week or two weeks or something, and let me lose some weight, and then wake me up?' I said, 'It's not practical, Elvis. Your bowels still have to function, we can't do that.'
"So he goes out to Vegas and talks Dr. Gahnim [Elias Gahnim, official ring physician of the Nevada Boxing Commission] to do it. He was out there three weeks, kept him knocked out asleep, had him on some sort of papaya juice diet, and he came back all bloated up, he was taking in more drinking papaya juice than he was taking in on a normal diet. That really clobbered his colon. You need physical activity for your colon to function properly. His was already non-functioning because of his laxative abuse, and all he did was sleep for three weeks."
"Why would he abuse laxatives?"
"He abused laxatives because he stayed so constipated. A lot of things contributed to it. Finally his colon, just like any muscle that you don't use, lost its ability to contract. The normal colon is about this big around," Dr. Nick said, gesturing with his doubled fists together. "Elvis's colon was about the size of your leg. You can imagine how much stuff was in it. Whether it was gas or water or shit or whatever, it occupied space. He thought he had control over things. He thought when he'd lose control that he could regain it again any time he wanted to."
"Was his death totally unexpected to you? Did you have any kind of previous indication?"
"No, his death was completely unexpected. Several of us had seen Elvis close to death's door before. We always worried about it. In town, one of the aides was supposed to sleep upstairs in the room next to his in case he got up in the middle of the night, so they could go in and check on him. But unfortunately, the night of his death, the aide was Ricky Stanley, and he was drugged out on something and instead of being upstairs he was downstairs. That morning, Elvis had called down to Ricky to go get him something, he had trouble going to sleep, but they couldn't get Ricky up. Elvis's aunt and the maids had gone down to try to get Ricky up, and he's completely in another world. So Elvis called my office, eight o'clock in the morning, and I wasn't there yet. But Tish Henley, the nurse who lived at Graceland, was there, and Elvis talked to her. Tish told her husband where there were a couple of sleeping pills, to put them in an envelope and give them to Elvis's aunt, and Elvis sent his aunt over to Tish's house, and she carried them back over there to him.
"At the time when I was trying to resuscitate Elvis, in the ambulance, I was so out of it, what was going on —— I should have realized that he'd been dead for several hours at that time. Except that when I got there, [Presley aide] Joe Esposito told me that Elvis had breathed. If he had just breathed, then there might still be some hope. What had happened was that when they moved Elvis, turned him over, he sort of sighed. He had fallen straight forward like he was kneeling on the floor, but with his head down."
...CONTINUE TO PART THREE...