Linda Moore, 38, left the courtroom in tears, outraged over the terrible things she was hearing about her idol. She wore blue jeans and a pink sweater, a substitute schoolteacher with frosted blond curls. She fondled a necklace which proclaimed her purpose in gold letters -- TCE or "Taking Care of Elvis."
She was one of five rock 'n' roll pilgrims from Baltimore who had driven 18 hours in a green Ford pickup to bring flowers to Presley's grave and to find out what really happened to the King. "It hurts," she said.
What hurt was the testimony in the ongoing trial here of Dr. George Nichopoulos, for 11 years personal physician to the late rock 'n' roll idol. In an 11-count indictment he stands accused of overprescribing addictive drugs -- amphetamines, barbiturates and painkillers -- to Elvis, singer Jerry Lee Lewis and others.
After Presley keeled over in his bathroom in August 1977, 12 drugs -- including two narcotics (morphine and codeine) and five sedatives -- were discovered in his body. But the county medical examiner ruled Presley died at 42 from an erratic heartbeat and has refused to release the controversial autopsy report on the grounds that it was commissioned by the family and remains a private document.
Trial testimony here has included:
Presley regularly gobbled upward of 20 pills a day, popping uppers to rouse his 250-pound hulk in the morning, and downers to sleep. He was hospitalized three times for drug intoxication, one time under a false name at Baptist Hospital here. Once, Dr. Nick, as Nichopoulos was fondly called by "The Guys" who served the King, refused him drugs, so a furious Elvis drew his pistol and fired, wounding his doctor. The King of Rock 'n' Roll was "absolutely addicted to drugs," according to a Memphis physician who reviewed his medical records..
For nearly 25 years, Elvis Presley was rock's favorite young rebel turned gentleman redneck. On stage he wiggled his hips as his fans screamed. Offstage, he said "Yes ma'am" to ladies, gave Cadillacs to strangers, hired cripples off the street, read the Bible, loved the flag and his mother and embodied romantic hope for millions of teen-age girls who still yearned for him as middle-aged women.
But that myth is unraveling here, and a new Elvis mythology -- Elvis the Kink -- is emerging in court, fueled by Albert Goldman's recent biography that alleges a self-destructive Elvis, a spoiled brat driven to drugs by the pressures of success and an overbearing mother, a whining man-child. Among the claims:
An addiction to drugs that led Presley to dispense pills to others, causing several associates and groupies to overdose, an addiction that sometimes forced him to lip-synch songs at concerts, and destroyed his health so badly that he had to wear diapers.
Presley's penchant for shooting TV sets in Las Vegas hotel rooms during darker moods and threatening friends with loaded guns.
A taste for voyeurism, which Presley indulged with a two-way mirror to watch his buddies with young girls.
His delight over the sexual antics of his pet monkey, Scatter.
Whimsical spending sprees like the one that sent Elvis and friends winging to Denver in his private plane to pick up a batch of his favorite peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a $16,000 outing.
Such revelations have severely tested the devotion of fans like Moore.. "We loved him even more after we found out he had a drug problem," she said. "He must have been in great pain. We all have our faults."
He once made her "happier than you can ever imagine," and Moore recalls with freeze-frame clarity where she was and what she was doing Aug. 16, 1977 -- at home reading a Sears catalogue -- when a neighbor called with the tragic news, and she dropped everything and drove to Memphis.
"Nothing more can be said about Elvis that hasn't been," she says. "We don't enjoy hearing all this garbage, but Elvis needs a kind word. He was always kind to his fans."
She sighs about the night she was invited to his motel room in Charlotte, N.C. It was April 1972, and Elvis had just finished playing the coliseum. "I was in shock," she says. "We just sat and watched the Dick Cavett show with 11 or 12 people. He wasn't drinking. He wasn't high. He was a perfect gentleman. Nice, funny. He talked about a new song that was coming out, 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.' He had a backache and went down to the lobby to buy his own aspirin. He wore black pants, a beige shirt and his hair was dark and thick as a horse's tail. His skin was gorgeous. He wasn't cocky. He made you feel right at home the way country people can. That's the way I'll always remember him.
"The Elvis I read about I didn't see that night. The Elvis I saw took our hand and told us he loved us. He was as tickled to see us as we were to see him." She dabs her eyes. "When we followed his limousine, he warned us to be careful. 'Go slow. Don't have an accident,' he'd say."
Last Friday, prosecutors ticked off prescriptions for about 19,000 pills, mostly uppers and downers, that Dr. Nichopoulos is said to have ordered for Elvis in the final 32 months of his life, an average of almost 20 pills a day. Two counts of the 11-count indictment charge Dr. Nick with freely dispensing drugs to Presley (and Jerry Lee Lewis) without trying to cure their addictions. If convicted by the seven-woman, four-man jury, he faces up to 140 years in prison and $280,000 in fines.
"George Nichopoulos did not prescribe these drugs to these patients for any legitimate medical reason," growled assistant prosecutor Jewett Miller, a tall, dour man who gave the jury of eight blacks and four whites his best hangdog look in mid-October opening arguments. "He was not prescribing them to cure an illness."
Presley had a "grave problem with drugs," Miller told the jury, but he said the singer could have stopped taking the uppers, downers and painkillers allegedly prescribed if he had wanted, distinguishing them from physiologically addicting narcotics. He portrayed Nichopoulos as a pill-pusher, a Dr. Feelgood.
But defense counsel James Neal, ex-Watergate prosecutor turned $300-an-hour Nashville lawyer, pitches the natty, white-haired physician as a doctor with a big heart and black bag to match, a caring man who struggled to keep his patient's drug habits under control using the maintenance theory, prescribing one drug to wean him of another.
"A heroin addict comes in and he's difficult to treat," drawls Neal. "What do they do? They switch him to methadone. What is methadone? An addictive drug, just like heroin. They maintain him, levelly and gently, on an addictive drug.
"What else could Dr. Nichopoulos have done? Jerry Lee Lewis was detoxified by Dr. Nichopoulos and others time and time again. And these patients would be drug-free for a while -- until they hit the street. It's sad, but that's the kind of situation you get in when you try to help difficult patients. Dr. Nichopoulos could have washed his hands of these patients, but he didn't."
Elvis Presley was his toughest case, said Neal. "They detoxified Elvis Presley, thanks to Dr. Nichopoulos. But it didn't take but a very brief time for him to get back on drugs ." Goldman's book details several West Coast doctors who tuned up Elvis, but he calls Dr. Nick "Elvis' most important source of drugs in his later years."
As for his loyalty, he writes, Elvis showered his doctor with gifts, buying him the yellow, chauffeur-driven Cadillac he cruises to court in each day, loaning him $350,000 to build a house, helping underwrite a $5.5-million medical center and financing a racquetball franchise scheme that went bust.
Friends defend Dr. Nick as a fine practitioner who suffered from Hollywood fever and poor judgment. Argued Neal: "Dr. Nichopoulos loved Elvis like a son. The proof will show that he loved this boy so much that he would go out to his house and cook meat for him because he knew he needed meat in his diet and wasn't getting it."
"You will see that Dr. Nichopoulos had a choice. He could quit Elvis Presley and stay away from him, or continue to give him medication."
Prosecutors are trying to show the singer's condition was caused by the pills he took, summoning medical expert after expert to establish that Presley had no medical ailment requiring the massive amount of drugs he was prescribed.
"What, if any, medical condition or symptoms did Presley have in 1977 that required the dispensing of 1,790 amphetamines?" asked prosecutor James Wilson Friday.
"Absolutely none," testified Dr. Alvin J. Cummins, a white-haired expert witness and grandfatherly Memphis internist who pored over Presley's medical charts and prescriptions signed by Dr. Nichopoulos.
Wilson: "What, if any, symptoms did he have that would require 4,996 sedatives -- Volmid, Dalmane, Placidyl -- in eight months?"
Cummins: "Absolutely none."
Wilson: "What conditions or symptoms would require 2,019 narcotics -- Dilaudid and Penodan -- during those days?"
Cummins: "None whatsoever."
Wilson: "Based on what you've seen in this period, do you have a judgment on whether Elvis Presley was addicted to narcotic drugs?"
Cummins: "Absolutely, he was addicted."
Wilson: "During this period, were the drugs Ionamine, Quaalude, biphetamine, Percodan and Hicomine prescribed by the defendant to relieve pain and suffering, or to treat a medical condition in Elvis Presley?"
Cummins: "They were not so used, and constituted an outrageous and dangerous use of drugs."
Elvis kept the "Physician's Desk Reference" on drugs by his bed. "He was well-versed in drugs," testified a Memphis pharmacist. "He was sophisticated."
Neal maintained that the doctor tried to substitute sugar pills for hard drugs but had to actually buy the drugs to hoodwink Presley, who paid the bills.
"Isn't it true that you asked him Nichopoulos why he was getting both placebos and addictive pills ?" Neal asked the pharmacist. "Didn't he say if he Presley wasn't getting billed for the real thing, the placebos would not really work?"
"Yes, he did," replied the pharmacist.
"Didn't he tell you that Elvis had caught on to him? Didn't Dr. Nick say he had to be very careful because Mr. Presley was versed about drugs?"
"Yes," said the pharmacist.
The bottom line is simple, says Neal, a short, feisty lawyer with a love for big cigars: "Whether Dr. Nichopoulos tried to help these people or whether he was a pill pusher."
Presley first came to Nichopoulos as a patient in 1968. His drug problems began 10 years earlier as a soldier -- drafted, stationed in Germany and given amphetamines to stay awake on guard duty, said Neal. "I suppose that we all think that Elvis Presley was a fine young man, a fine entertainer. But the proof in this case will show that he had many, many problems. Dr. Nicopolous tried to help him cope" with them. Without him, "Elvis would have died 10 years earlier," said Neal.
At the time, Elvis made his first visit as a patient, he had "a need for drugs to sleep and control his appetite," Nichopoulos told the state medical board. He described him as a "difficult and strong-willed patient" who virtually monopolized his time.
He began to travel with the singer on tours, prescribing vitamins and other drugs before the trips "so they would be available" if needed. "By no means were all the drugs prescribed under the name of Elvis Presley dispensed to him," said Nichopoulos in his statement. "Many were discarded and placebos substituted; some were stolen."
Elvis phoned Dr. Nichopoulos the day he died to complain about painful dental work and requested medication. Nichopoulos wrote out a prescription for Dilaudid, a powerful painkiller usually given traumatic injury victims. Elvis required drug doses that would have rendered normal humans comatose; he had a "constitution and metabolism such that for drugs to have any effect on him, quantities greatly in excess of normal were necessary," his doctor told the board of inquiry.
"It's really sad for the people who loved him to know he had such an unhappy time at the end," said Sue Selby, 36, a veterinarian's secretary from Fort Lauderdale who made her pilgrimage to the Shelby County Courthouse with two girlfriends. She's an eight-concert veteran, a short, chubby woman who subscribes to Memphis newspapers to keep up with the trial. She figures Elvis hid his drug problems out of fear his fans would be let down and perhaps abandon him for his weaknesses.
"If he'd just come out in the open and gotten help, nobody would have thought any less of him and he'd be alive today, she says. She concedes revelations from the trial and Goldman's book, "Elvis," may have cooled the ardor of many fair-weather fans. "Fans of Elvis the entertainer may have fallen off, but not the fans of the Elvis the man." Certainly not Selby. "He brought me so much happiness, I'll always care for him."
"Getting Elvis back into harness after he has spent two or three weeks lost in the 'dark backward and abysm' of opiates is a difficult and exasperating labor," writes Goldman. "On the eve of a tour, the star's intimates resemble Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory assistants struggling to animate the recumbent monster. Short of a jolt of heaven-sent electricity, nothing can restore the king to life. That is why Elvis . . . never went anywhere without having his white-haired, low-keyed, methodically proficient personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos.
"Even when he has been revived by the doctor's medicines and hauled to his feet like a fallen statue by his mistress, Linda Thompson, and his feeble old father, Vernon, Elvis is hardly in a condition to do two weeks of one-night stands or make up for all the shows he has blown in Las Vegas." -- "Elvis" by Albert Goldman
Since Goldman, 54, author of the bestselling "Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce," savaged The Myth with his bitchy biography, Elvis fans have attacked him for dragging their idol through the dirt. Book reviewers have chewed at him for a lively, if poorly-sourced, narrative with a tendency to generalize. He rarely attributes information, though he maintains his work is lawsuit-proof. "Months and months were spent with the most expensive attorneys McGraw-Hill could hire, crawling over every page to make sure it would stand up in court," he says. He calls it a "popular biography. This wasn't written for scholars . . . interested in footnotes and sources."
He dares anyone to sue him for libel. "Let them make noise, they won't find a crack," he says. He counts 600 taped interviews, with his primary collaborator being Lamar Fike, a member of the Memphis mafia and one of Elvis' charmed inner circle who ranks right alongside Judas back home.
"Lard a-- creep," snarls Beth Pease, a fan. She recounts how Elvis cared for Fike, paid for a bypass operation, anything "the Guys" wanted.
But The Myth began to unravel earlier with memoirs by two bodyguards, "Elvis, What Happened?".
"That's trash," says Beth Pease, "There's no reason for that book. He makes fun of the whole family. He writes Elvis was turned on by white panties. How does he know what turned Elvis on? And so what if he had a two-way mirror where guys could watch others making love? What all-American boy wouldn't have one of those if he had the money?"
She is 39, a vivacious blond mother of five who still carries the torch for Elvis from behind her desk at a tour agency in Graceland Shopping Center, just across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the mansion. She chain-smokes Eve filtertips and meditates on the Elvis poster on the wall. Her husband reminds her of her idol. In fact, she married him because "he wore his hair like Elvis, he curled his lip like Elvis, he was sexy like Elvis."
"My best memory? The summer of '57. I was 15. He came through the gate, doing about 90 mph in a black Cadillac. He got out and walked to where we were standing. He had his little cigar in his mouth, wasn't lit. He had on a solid white suit with a gold sequined vest.
"I couldn't resist. I ran my hand up under his shirt and felt his back."
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" snapped Elvis.
"I just wanted to touch you, Elvis."
Then he did it. "He curled his lip and said, 'That's all right, baby.' I just died, melted. I just wanted him to take me.
"He signed my cousin's arm. She didn't wash it for two weeks. He treated his fans like queens. When you talked to Elvis, it was like a magnet. You could feel something reaching out and pulling you towards him . . .
"We don't care about anything that has been said at the trial, published in the papers or in books. Elvis fans just love him more because he was human . . ."