By the 70s, the public’s fascination with Elvis Presley was starting to dwindle, but his attention from glamorous women was as strong as ever. After Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla Presley broke down in early 1972, the showman dated a string of stars – among them an up-and-coming young model-turned-actress named Cybill Shepherd.
When they met in July 1972, Elvis was 37 and Cybill Shepherd was just 22. Their affair would last only to the end of that summer, Shepherd being one of many women the King would date that year following his split from Priscilla. The experience for Shepherd, however, would be unforgettable.
Elvis and Priscilla split
It was February 23, 1972 when Elvis Presley and wife Priscilla split in a much-publicised breakup. Elvis, who had recently released his studio album Elvis Now, had grown distant from his wife after he had an affair with Capitol Hill staffer Joyce Bova.
The marriage’s breaking point, however, came when Priscilla announced she was having an affair of her own, with her martial arts instructor Mike Stone. Elvis and Priscilla split, and only a few months later Elvis had already invited his new girlfriend, beauty queen Linda Thompson, to move into his Graceland estate in Memphis, Tennessee.
Elvis and Thompson were not exclusive. Elvis’ flings in his immediate post-Priscilla single life included Candice Bergen, Natalie Wood and Nancy Sinatra. And in the summer of 1972, while Elvis and Thompson were on a break, the King of Rock and Roll invited budding actress Cybill Shepherd out on a date.
The rising star meets the legend
Born in 1950, Cybill Shepherd was 15 years Elvis’ junior. Having made a name for herself as a fashion model in the 1960s, Shepherd rose to fame with her film debut in Peter Bogdanovich’s racy coming-of-age movie The Last Picture Show (1971). In 1972, she would star in the black comedy The Heartbreak Kid, cementing her reputation as a rising talent in Hollywood.
In the summer of 1972, Shepherd got a call from an old colleague: George Klein, who moderated the Miss Teenage Memphis Pageant, a title she won in the 60s. Klein was friends with Elvis Presley, and he told Shepherd that Elvis wanted to meet her.
“I was not too interested in Elvis Presley or his moves,” Shepherd later wrote in her 2000 autobiography Cybill Disobedience. “He’d become a little passé, supplanted by Motown and the British invasion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But he was, after all, the King.”
“A notch on the belt of a renowned lover boy”
Shepherd was wary of Elvis’ reputation as a lothario: “I’d been treated like a hot piece of a** in New York, and I resisted the idea of being a notch on the belt of a renowned lover boy.”
When Elvis and Shepherd first spoke on the phone, Elvis told her: “I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time, ever since I saw you in that movie,” to which Shepherd retorted, “That was two years ago. What took you so long?”
She arranged the date, but decided to bring with her a long-time girlfriend, Jane. For the occasion, Elvis rented a local cinema and brought along his entourage, a group of men nicknamed the Memphis Mafia.
Upon their first meeting at the cinema, Elvis offered Shepherd some chewing gum and showed her his pearl-handled revolver, saying, “I carry this little girl everywhere I go.”
The double feature that day included Goodbye Columbus and Sunday Bloody Sunday. However, a kiss between two men in the latter film drew cries of “That’s gross, man!” from Elvis’ entourage, and Elvis ordered for the film to be turned off before he stormed out of the cinema.
Shepherd and Elvis later went for two dates in the comfort of Elvis’ own home, where the two would become more intimate. These dates included a (very) quiet lunch with Elvis’ father, Elvis’ homecooked dinner of “deep-fried sandwiches made of peanut butter, bananas, and mayonnaise”, and, Shepherd has claimed, Elvis’ first experience of reciprocal oral sex.
In Cybill Disobedience, Shepherd writes that Elvis was kissing down her body when he “stopped abruptly at my belly button”. According to Shepherd, Elvis explained that “me and the guys talk, and, well, white boys don’t eat p***y”.
Writes Shepherd on what happened next: “‘You don’t know what you’re missing,’ I said playfully, emboldened by the prospect of shaming him into action with my sheer disbelief. ‘I’m used to men diving for it. Would you like me to show you how?’ He warmed to the subject, as did I.”
Shepherd has said she and Elvis began sleeping together soon after their first meeting. It wasn’t long after, however, that cracks began to show.
“I was seeing the morbid cheese ball side of him”
Elvis later arranged for his private jet to fly Shepherd out for a weekend in Palm Springs, once again accompanied by Elvis’ entourage. Before she crossed the threshold of Elvis’ rental house, one of his staff commented: “Next time we’re in LA we’re gonna arrange a shopping trip so you can get some nice new clothes because Elvis likes his ladies to look a certain way.”
“We were hardly ever alone and didn’t talk much when we were, not about his music or his marriage or his daughter or the lunacy of spending $40,000 to fly his entourage to Denver for a certain kind of sandwich (this, from a man whose father was once sentenced to three years in jail for forging a forty dollar check),” Shepherd wrote of his unusual behaviour.
“He didn’t seem too interested in anything I said either, and he acted as if I was putting on airs if I mentioned the book I was reading,” she added. “I was seeing the morbid cheese ball side of him, and it made me slightly nervous, as if I’d better not displease him or I could get myself in trouble.”
Shepherd noticed that Elvis often slept during the daytime, but only heard about his substance abuse issues after their romance was over. On one occasion, he offered her a handful of pills, which she flushed away in secret. On the same night, he tried to gift her a spectacular diamond and emerald ring, which she refused to take.
“He was a man-child, he never grew up”
At the time, Elvis was not exclusive with any one woman, and Shepherd herself was embroiled in an on-again, off-again relationship with her married director Peter Bogdanovich. Ultimately, news of her affair with Bogdanovich reached Elvis, who gave Shepherd an ultimatum to break things off entirely with the director.
Shepherd refused to stop seeing Bogdanovich, and wrote in her diary around that time, “Elvis’s stupidity is rejuvenating against Peter’s superiority. I don’t think Peter takes me seriously, but going with him has a lot of prestige.”
When quizzed by Larry King in 2000 about whether she loved Elvis, Shepherd replied: “Yes, I think I did.” Elvis himself never spoke about his romance with Shepherd to the press, but his biographer Alanna Nash has painted a different picture of the pair’s split than Shepherd’s, suggesting that Shepherd was disappointed by Elvis’ immaturity.
“Cybill Shepherd found him interesting, but too much of a boy,” Nash told Inside Edition in 2010. “He was a man-child, he never grew up. She got tired of it pretty quickly and moved on.” Decades later, Shepherd put a different spin on the question, stating that Elvis was indeed “childlike… [but] in the best sense – he was brilliant, he was funny, he was warm-hearted.'”
Marriage rumours and breakup
In 1976, the magazine Movie Mirror claimed that Shepherd and Elvis had wed in secret in Las Vegas, but no evidence suggests this ever actually took place. Elvis never remarried after his divorce from Priscilla, which was finalised in the month after he dated Shepherd. He later returned to dating Thompson.
Reflecting on the brief romance in her autobiography, Shepherd remarked, ‘Elvis was a goody I couldn’t resist, but I had a life with Peter I wasn’t about to give up. I wanted to make decisions, some of them foolish, on my own.’
In 1976, Elvis and Thompson broke up, and Elvis began dating Ginger Alden, to whom he became engaged after two months of romance. A year later, Alden would find Elvis dead in the bathroom of Graceland. He died at the age of 42 from a cardiac arrest.
After Elvis’ death, Shepherd visited Graceland to pay her respects, and was moved to learn more about the rock star’s fascination with faith and religion: “I also went back and found out that he was a very spiritual man in ways I couldn’t appreciate 25 years before.”
Shepherd wed David Ford in 1978, and later married Bruce Oppenheim in 1987. Both marriages ended in divorce. She has three children: the actress Clementine Ford (born 1979), and twins Ariel and Zachariah Shepherd Oppenheim (born 1987).