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In March of 1963, Priscilla Ann Beaulieu was at the crossroads of her life. Though just seventeen, a senior in high school, she was faced with a decision that she knew, with a child’s wisdom, would forever alter the course of her destiny, and she had a strange foreboding.
She was desperately in love, as only a teenager can be—a forbidden love—locked in conict with her parents, especially her mother, Ann Beaulieu. Elvis Presley—the twenty-eight-year-old rock-and-roll idol and movie star, the most famous sex symbol in the world—held the seventeen-year-old in thrall and wanted her to move into his compound in Memphis as his girlfriend-in-waiting while she nished high school and came of age.
But Elvis was not the object of Priscilla Beaulieu’s teenage fancy that fateful spring. She was breathless over the handsome eighteen-year-old star of her high school football team. She did not want to leave her life in Germany for a dubious future with a rock star. It was Ann Beaulieu, her mother, who was obsessed with the idea of Priscilla moving to Graceland to become Elvis Presley’s de facto child bride.
Both mother and daughter feared that Priscilla might be making the greatest mistake of her life: Priscilla, if she went to Graceland; Ann, if she stayed. In the end, Priscilla deferred to her mother, as she habitually did. She packed her bags for Graceland with barely a good-bye to the boy she left behind.
As this tale implies, it would be dif cult to tell Priscilla’s story without beginning with her mother’s, for their lives and their destinies would always be linked in mysterious ways, ways understood only by Priscilla and Ann. They were bound together by secrets, secrets only Ann fully understood.
Ann, as would her famous daughter, began life with a different name: Anna. Anna Lillian Iversen. As a child, she was called Rooney, short for Annie Rooney. Where that nickname came from—possibly a 1920s cartoon character—the Iversens would not reveal to outsiders. They were Norwegians who considered the most trivial family detail ‘‘personal and private.’’ Ann’s family history, they still maintain, is nobody else’s business. Outside the family, and even to Ann, it is a forbidden topic.
There was nothing of portent in her early life. Anna Iversen was the youngest of three children, all of whom were born in March, each two years apart: Albert Junior in 1922, James in 1924, Anna in 1926. Their father, Albert Iversen, was Nordic-handsome— big, strapping, and blond; their mother, Lorraine, was a petite mix of Scotch-Irish and English, ‘‘a pretty little peanut,’’ in the words of Anna’s maternal cousin Margaret. The year before Anna was born, Albert and Lorraine Iversen set up permanent residence in New London, Connecticut, a picturesque working-class town on the eastern seaboard known chiey as a base for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. Albert, in keeping with his potent physical presence and ego, joined the police force.
As a child, Rooney sang and acted in skits with her favorite cousin, Margaret, joined a dance club, and discreetly followed the career of actress Priscilla Lane, the most famous of the ve Lane sisters and a Warner Brothers contract player from 1937 to 1944 who costarred with Ronald Reagan, Dick Powell, and James Cagney. Like her movie-star role model, Rooney was fair
and blue-eyed, with a wholesome girl-next-door prettiness. Her most impressive feature was a thick tumble of shoulder-length blond hair. If, as Oscar Wilde wrote, ‘‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,’’ Rooney’s eyes were xed on the sky. She chafed under the thumb of her rigid policeman-father, waiting until she was out the door to apply forbidden lipstick, using Margaret or her best friend, Fay Heim, as cover for the nighttime adventures of adolescent girls.
Anna Iversen’s turning point came when she sneaked out to attend a USO dance during her freshman year in high school. The dances, organized for the New London-based navy and coast guard eets, were dangerous territory for any young girl; for Albert Iversen’s daughter, they were taboo. Girls under sixteen were not admitted; Rooney was barely fteen. There was a slight stigma attached to high school girls who attended USO functions; many of them ‘‘got in trouble,’’ as Fay would remember.
None of this deterred Rooney. She was in single-minded pursuit of romance, the kind depicted in the movies, the kind that promised an escape from her stagnant lower-middle-class existence. One evening at the dawn of World War II, fate smiled on her. She was asked to dance by the handsomest soldier at the USO, a dark-haired dream of a boy named James Wagner—Jimmy to his friends, and he had a million of them, recalled his brother, Gene. Jimmy was a storekeeper third class in the navy, stationed aboard the USS Beaver, a submarine tender in the Atlantic Fleet, berthed in New London. ‘‘It was certainly love right from the beginning,’’ according to Rooney’s best friend, Fay.
‘‘He was gorgeous,’’ remembered Anna’s cousin Margaret, swooning. James Wagner was slight—
ve feet six or seven—with an athlete’s physique and a face that would melt a girl’s heart: model-perfect features, dancing blue-green eyes, movie-star white teeth, and jet-black hair that formed a widow’s peak. ‘‘Oh!’’ his mother once exclaimed. ‘‘If you see his picture it’ll take your breath away!’’ He was a bit of a dandy, always immaculate and stylish, ‘‘but he was not conceited,’’ according to his brother. ‘‘Jimmy wasn’t like that. He didn’t act like he knew he was handsome.’’
Anna Iversen concealed her romance from her parents, calling on Fay or Margaret to act as her accomplice when she wanted to rendezvous with Jimmy at the USO. ‘‘She’d use me as cover,’’ Fay remarked, ‘‘and then she’d sneak into the background.’’ Albert Iversen would never have permitted his adolescent daughter to date a twenty-year-old navy man; she wasn’t even allowed to wear makeup. Desperate to appear older, Rooney smuggled a pair of her mother’s high heels out of the house to wear at a dance with her soldier boy.
That April, James Wagner’s ship set sail for Bermuda, returning to its berth at New London a few months later. As Americans held their breath, wondering whether the country would be drawn into war, the Beaver conducted its operations around Long Island Sound, docking at New London intermittently. For seven months, from May to December, Rooney continued her trysts with Jimmy. ‘‘We used to go up to the site where he was stationed, and we used to meet him on the state pier without her parents knowing it,’’ Fay remembered. Rooney, her cousin Margaret stated, ‘‘was madly in love with Jimmy.’’
On December 6, with the scent of war in the air, the Beaver left New London under sealed orders to carry supplies to an unknown destination. The families and lovers of the ship’s crew ‘‘stood on the dock and cried,’’ recalled one wife. The next day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Rooney took a part-time job after school at the Boston Candy Company, the local soda fountain, mixing milk shakes and dreaming of Jimmy. He materialized again in 1942, at the end of her sophomore year, for a few days’ training in New London. That fall, the Beaver sailed to Roseneath, Scotland, with James Wagner aboard. The two exchanged love letters and became secretly engaged. After half a year, Jimmy wrote with news that he was one of a few men chosen to be trained as navy ghter pilots. A few months earlier, Rooney’s screen idol, Priscilla Lane, had eloped with an army pilot and had revealed a secret rst marriage and divorce. Anna Iversen’s own forbidden romance must suddenly have seemed more enticing than ever.
James Wagner was sent back to the States to begin classes in March of 1943, and Rooney, who was then in her junior year, dropped out of high school about the same time. The family could use the extra money she would make working full-time, but more likely, she was angling to marry Jimmy. ‘‘She didn’t seem too interested in school,’’ recalled John Linkletter, a fellow student at Chapman Tech. ‘‘So it looked like she would rather get married.’’
Rooney took a job—most likely as a riveter—for Electric Boat, a dockside company that built submarines. Jimmy, meanwhile, progressed through a series of navy ight schools beginning in New Orleans and continuing in Natchitoches, Louisiana; Dallas, Texas; Athens, Georgia; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Pensacola, Florida.
While they were apart, a photographer took a few head shots of Anna, probably for Jimmy, though she told his brother, Gene, that she was ‘‘modeling, or at least had posed for something.’’ The portraits are high glamour; in one, Rooney’s hair is swept off her face in a partial pompadour and her head is tilted dreamily to one side. Her cupid’s-bow lips are accentuated with deep scarlet, and her eyebrows are fashionably plucked. It is the image of a woman who cared greatly about beauty and allure and illusion.
The next chapter in Rooney’s saga, like several that would follow, is slightly mysterious. On August 10, 1944, she and Jimmy Wagner eloped. She was several months past her eighteenth birthday; he was twenty-three. The wedding was in Pensacola, Florida, where Jimmy was completing advanced ight training. No one, including Jimmy’s mother, with whom he was very close, seemed to anticipate this event. ‘‘It came as a shock right out of the blue!’’ Kathryn Wagner recalled. ‘‘We knew that he was going with the girl, and he seemed to think an awful lot of her, and she of him.’’ Kathryn Wagner and her husband, Harold, were informed of the wedding by telegram. She remembered Jimmy saying, ‘‘Wish me luck. I just got married.’’
Jimmy had been back in the States for nearly a year and a half but had not seen Rooney Iversen in a long time. So why the sudden marriage in August of 1944?
\This much is known: Rooney and her mother drove to Pensacola that August to visit friends and, one supposes, to see Jimmy. ‘‘When she went down there, they got married,’’ Jim’s mother recalled. ‘‘And then that was it!’’ Aside from the bride and groom, the only people present were Rooney’s mother, Lorraine; a few navy pilots; a classmate of Jimmy’s, Ralph Fielding;
and Ralph’s wife, Lorene, who acted as best man and maid of honor, respectively. According to the local paper, Rooney wore ‘‘a street-length dress in luggage brown and gold with forest green accessories.’’
Was Anna pregnant? That, of course, was the obvious speculation. ‘‘I know that she had a baby nine months later,’’ said her friend Fay. But, she added, ‘‘I think it was something that happened on their honeymoon. I don’t think they had to get married.’’ If Rooney wasn’t pregnant, why the sudden wedding after so long an engagement? Anna knew, but never told anyone, not even her best friend, Fay. ‘‘I feel that Rooney has probably kept some things private,’’ Fay said years later, ‘‘and I think it should stay that way.’’
The air of mystery may have emanated from the Iversens’ disapproval of James Wagner, though both of Rooney’s brothers had joined the coast guard and her father was now in the merchant marines; they could hardly nd fault with a serviceman. The age concern was less acute; Anna was eighteen when she eloped. Character was also not an issue; everyone who knew Jimmy Wagner adored him to the point of hero worship. What, then? Fay suggested that Rooney’s parents might have been happier with someone more ‘‘social’’ than Jimmy. She also pointed out that ‘‘they didn’t know anything about him or his background.’’ Cousin Margaret laid the blame on Rooney’s father, a ‘‘self-centered’’ man with high aspirations for his only daughter. ‘‘He probably wanted her to marry a millionaire!’’ she offered, half in jest. There is perhaps more to the story—missing subplots buried with those who have died, kept secret still by Ann.
Whatever objections her parents may have had, the new—and newly pregnant—Mrs. James Wagner was gloriously happy. Anna was radiant during her rst visit back to New London after the wedding. Jimmy, recalled his mother, ‘‘seemed to be walking on cloud nine.’’ Less than a month after the wedding, he got his wings at a ceremony in Pensacola; the next day he was promoted to ensign.
Jimmy and Anna spent their rst Christmas together as husband and wife with the Wagners in Titusville, the small, Norman Rockwellesque town in western Pennsylvania where oil was rst discovered. Jimmy’s parents and his sixteen-year-old brother, Gene, embraced his bride. Gene found Anna ‘‘very neat, very pretty, and very nice. A lovely girl. Lovely, lovely, lovely.’’ To Kathryn Wagner, the sort of small-town housewife who baked peach pies and left them on the front porch to cool, her daughter-in-law ‘‘was the picture of Ann Sheridan,’’ the ‘‘Oomph Girl’’ of the forties, a comparison Rooney would have relished. Privately, Kathryn Wagner fretted slightly—worrying, with a mother’s intuition, ‘‘that we might not be good enough for Ann,’’ recalled Gene Wagner. ‘‘She was concerned that Ann was from the city. We were farmers.’’
Ironically, Anna Wagner spent the ensuing months in much the same fashion as did Priscilla Lane. She and the actress were both newly married to pilots and were following their husbands from base to base while awaiting the birth of their rst child. Anna passed part of her pregnancy with her parents in Niantic, Connecticut; Jimmy ew up to see her ‘‘every opportunity he got,’’ recalled his brother. ‘‘They were very much in love, very happy.’’ The newlyweds also visited the Wagners ‘‘many times.’’
On May 24, 1945, Jimmy arrived in Titusville on leave. Rooney was spending the last days of her pregnancy at Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn, where her brother was stationed. Jimmy’s plan was to spend a quick night with his family and friends en route to New York for their child’s birth later that week. Shortly after midnight the Wagners returned home to a frantically ringing phone. ‘‘Jimmy got the call,’’ remembered his mother, ‘‘and turned to us and said, ‘Well, Grandma and Grandpa! We have a baby girl!’ ’’ Rooney gave birth to an eight-pound baby at
10:40 that night. Jimmy and Gene raced to the hospital in Brooklyn, driving all night. ‘‘Jim went right up to see Ann, and I went to see the baby,’’ recalled Gene. ‘‘I said, ‘I saw your daughter before you did!’ ’’
Anna Wagner chose the name Priscilla Ann for her love child. The choice was a revealing testament to her dreams and aspirations.
This was the rst secret of the little girl who would marry Elvis Presley. She was not, as the world believed for so long, Priscilla Beaulieu. Her real name was Priscilla Ann Wagner.
From the Trade Paperback edition.