The most requested photo from the Nixon library:

President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis.

Timothy Naftali is the kind of learned guy you’d want on your team when you play “Trivial Pursuit” -- a game that, like Naftali, originated in Canada. But for years, his home and his career have been in and about the United States -- books and studies on espionage, counter-terrorism, the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. intelligence. And now he is director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. That would be the new Nixon library, the one operated under the auspices of the National Archives. The old, private Nixon library’s spin on the president, especially about the Watergate episode, prompted the feds to refuse to transfer control of tapes and documents -- until Naftali and the National Archives took over to make the library a nonpartisan scholarly and educational resource. The post he accepted five years ago requires some of the same diplomatic and historical skills he’s studied, and others.

All The President's Men; It Happened on December 21st 1970

Timothy Naftali: Hello, I'm Timothy Naftali. I'm Director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. I'm here today with Jerry Schilling who is going to participate in the Richard Nixon Oral History Program. Jerry, I'm delighted that you could be with us today.

Jerry Schilling: Thank you, Tim. This is certainly a big honor for me, and I know my friend would be very happy that this was going on. He was very, very, very proud to have met President Nixon, and they had a very, very mutual respect, so I'm glad to be here, Tim.


This is a portion of an interview conducted by Timothy Naftali on February 17, 2007, in Yorba Linda, California, for the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff at the National Archives and Records Administration, soon to be part of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. 

Timothy Naftali
You get a call out of the blue; it's Elvis. Tell us about it. Set it up.

Jerry Schilling
Well, I was in Culver City, California, actually across the street from MGM Studios. I quit working for Elvis. I was doing my film editing stuff. I had gone to bed. I think, yeah, it was Saturday, and the phone rings. And I go, "Who is this?" "It's me." So I realize it's Elvis Presley. Nobody else would say, "It's me," and call in the middle of the night. And, I don't know, I was always glad to hear from Elvis, so I perked up, you know. He said, "Jerry, I'm changing planes in Dallas," and, "Could you pick me up at the airport?" I said, "Who's with you?" He said, "Nobody." This is a guy that hadn't traveled without an entourage in 15 years. And he said, "I don't want anybody in the world to know where I am." I said, "Okay." You know, I said -- and Elvis is giving me his flight number and, you know, what time.

 

He doesn't do those things. People do those things for him, you know? But he had it all down, and I said, "Okay, you know, I'll come in my car. It will not draw any attention, for sure." And he said, "Well, if you want to -- " we had a limousine driver named Gerald Peters that Elvis trusted because he used to drive for Winston Churchill, and Elvis, when Elvis found that out, from then on, Elvis knighted him Sir Gerald. So I called Gerald, and we went. And I guess it was two o'clock in the morning, American Airlines flight coming in from Dallas. And at that particular time, a big VIP, you could drive up to the plane, and we actually did.

Timothy Naftali
This is less than a week before Christmas.

Jerry Schilling
Yes.

Timothy Naftali
This is December 1970.

 

Jerry Schilling
Yeah, that's right.

Timothy Naftali
Two in the morning.

Jerry Schilling
Yeah.

Timothy Naftali
You go with Sir Gerald . . . .

Jerry Schilling
Sir Gerald.

Timothy Naftali
. . .  to pick him up. Now, he's flying commercial.

Jerry Schilling
He's flying commercial, yeah. He's got a credit card. He doesn't have any money, but he's got . . . 

Timothy Naftali
He's got a credit card.

Jerry Schilling
You know, he's kind of identifiable with a credit card.

Timothy Naftali
I was going to say, that's a pretty darn good credit card. American Express would . . . 

Jerry Schilling
Yeah, we should do a commercial with Elvis Presley and American Express.

Timothy Naftali
He did not leave home without it.

Jerry Schilling
He did not leave home without -- He left everything else, but he had his American Express card.

Timothy Naftali
Did you ever find out why -- why'd he do this?

Jerry Schilling
Elvis as we all -- as history knows that he was a very generous guy, and it was Christmas time, and he was doing some big shopping. You know, when Elvis did big shopping, it was buying cars for people, you know, and things like that. And his father and his wife talked to him about it and were telling him he had to slow down, and he couldn't. And he got very upset. He told me the next day. He ran this all down to me. He said, "You know, it's my money. You know, I understand why they, you know, are talking to me, and I appreciate all that." And I think what really ticked him off is then they called Colonel Parker on the West Coast about his spending, and he said, "It's none of his business." And he got in a car. I think he went to the airport, got on the first plane out of Memphis. I don't think he knew where it was going. It wounded up in Washington. He checked into a hotel, and then thought, "What the hell am I going to do?" So then that's when he decided to call me, because I wasn't working for him.

So I wasn't part of, you know, the whole structure at that time, and decided to come out and get me at Los Angeles. And I thought that was kind of it. You know, I picked him up, and I never will forget. He's walking down the steps of the plane, and he's got this little box. And I said, "Elvis, what's that?" He says, "My luggage." Don't forget this is a guy never traveled and took care of things himself. Well back at that time, you know, if you were first class, they give you a little box with a washrag and a toothpaste and maybe some mouth -- that was his luggage. He was traveling light. And so he had a home in Los Angeles on Hillcrest Drive of kind of a part of Beverly Hills. And we -- after Elvis, who did not want anybody to know where he was, had promised to take a couple of the stewardesses home, so we had to drive them home. And then we went to the house. And it was very late at that particular time, and he was tired. He said, "You know, I think I'll turn in." And I said, "Great." And he went to bed, and then it hit me. I'm the only person in the world who knows where Elvis Presley is. I mean, I'm thinking of Priscilla, Vernon Presley, these people, even the guys, you know. Has he been kidnapped? Has he been killed? I mean, you know, this was unheard of. And so there was no way I was going to sleep.

So the next afternoon was Sunday and he gets up. He's in a great mood. That's when he tells me what went on in Memphis. And on this flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, he had a big problem. The steward, male steward on the flight saw Elvis's guns. And Elvis showed him and his badge and everything to carry a concealed weapon. The guy said, "You can't do it." So Elvis just walked off the plane. The pilot came after him: "Mr. Presley, it's okay, you can bring your weapons." He had three guns. "You can bring your weapons on." Can you imagine that today?

Timothy Naftali
So.

Jerry Schilling
You know, so I'm hearing all this stuff. But we had this nice Sunday afternoon. We made coffee. We're looking out . . .


Timothy Naftali
What'd he wear on that flight? He didn't wear the Vegas outfit, did he?

Jerry Schilling
He wore the same outfit on the flight that we wore to Washington.

Timothy Naftali
The same outfit with the International Hotel belt, the velvet.

Jerry Schilling
Yeah. Don't forget, he wasn't used to -- I mean, he doesn't pack a suitcase. He was mad. He left in a hurry. You know, he had a change of clothes at the Hillcrest house, but then basically wore the same thing that he had worn in to go to Washington the first time, which all he did was check into a hotel and then check out.

Timothy Naftali
Now at the Hillcrest house, is that where he picked up the ceremonial pistol that he would give for . . . ?

Jerry Schilling
Yes, yeah, he had bought that for himself. Elvis was a -- he was a historian nut. He read history books. Down the street from us was Omar Bradley, and Elvis was just blown away. So he took me to meet not on this -- earlier. I have a signed picture from Omar Bradley. He was a little, old man, very old at the time, but Elvis knew his history. And Elvis would go and -- this sounds weird, but he would pat Omar Bradley on the head. They really had this great relationship. And now I look at war films, and I see the Bradley tanks, and I go, "I know this little guy," who was a great general, and Elvis knew that. It is amazing.

Timothy Naftali
Well Elvis must have watched the movie "Patton," then.

Jerry Schilling
Oh, I watched it probably seven times with him. That's another speech that he could probably have done too, when George C. Scott gets up there. Yeah, we went down to Hollywood Boulevard to the Egyptian Theater, I believe it was, sneak in after the show would start and watch "Patton" three nights in a row. Finally, by the third night, people knew. The word was getting out that Elvis was showing up.
So yeah, he was a real history buff. Elvis knew his history. When Elvis walked into the Oval Room of the White House, he knew where he was. He knew what it meant. And he knew that he was in the presence of the President. He knew very much what all that meant.

President Nixon Meeting with Elvis Presley, Jerry and Sonny West.
President Nixon Meeting with Elvis Presley, Jerry and Sonny West.

Timothy Naftali

All right well let's get to that, then. He's with you in L.A. You know that you're the only person in the world who knows where Elvis Presley is. You're not getting much sleep that night.

 

Jerry Schilling

None.

 

Timothy Naftali

Okay. It's the next morning; it's a Sunday morning. You're chatting with him. You've been told the story. When do you find out you're going to Washington, D.C.?

 

Jerry Schilling

Well, now keep in mind this is Elvis time, so it's actually Sunday afternoon. It's our morning, it's coffee, but, you know, it's three in the afternoon.

 

Timothy Naftali

All right, it's Elvis time.

 

Jerry Schilling

It's our normal hours, our nocturnal hours. You know, we have this nice talk. He tells me, you know, what's been going on. It was really great: good friends, one on one, coffee, and whatever. And I'm feeling pretty good, you know, and he's in great shape 'cause he had a good night's rest and he's not mad at the situation in Memphis. He's kind of laughing about it, you know. And then, he springs this on me: "Jerry, I'm going back to Washington tonight. I want you to go with me." And I said, "Here I'd scraped these labels off these boxes for a year to get to Paramount as a film editor. It's Sunday night. I got to be at work Monday morning." I said, "Elvis, I can't, you know, I got this job as you know as a film editor. I have to be at work in the morning." And he -- God, he was hard to say no to -- he got this look on his face, and all the fun we had had, he just kind of sunk. And he was like, "All right, I'll go by myself." Well, of course, in my mind, I'm thinking, "Maybe the next pilot may not run after him and tell him he could take his gun."

 

And so many things could've happened. And he said, "Jerry, I will charter a Learjet as soon as we get there to fly you back." And I go, "You know, Elvis, Learjet's not going to get me back any faster than a commercial plane." And I know part of the problem is he's been spending all this money. So I said, "I tell you what I'll do, Elvis. You know your wife and your father and everybody, they have no idea where you are or what has happened to you. If you let me call Graceland, and if I could have one of the security guys, either Red or Sonny come up and meet us, I will fly back on the all-nighter to Washington with you if I can make that call." And he said, "Okay, you can make that call." And so I immediately had to go into this. I call Graceland. Sonny answered the phone. I said, "Sonny, you know, here's the deal." I had checked the airlines. I knew there was an all-night flight. I had Elvis's American Express card. So I booked us a couple of tickets on the all night flight. And Sonny, I told him when we were getting in. I said, "You know, just get on the first plane and meet us up there, because, man, I got to get back." I was worried about my assistant editor. I had no idea that his story -- had no idea what we're going to do. He just said we're going to Washington, you know? And so I started making arrangements and everything, and got Sir Gerald to come pick us up again. Charged everything on the American Express card, but we had no cash.

 

Timothy Naftali

Now Elvis will bring with him a signed photograph of Lisa-Marie and of Priscilla. So did he pick that up at Hillcrest? Did he pick that up?

 

Jerry Schilling

No, I think this was pictures that he carried in his wallet, carried with him all the time. I think he signed it to the President.

 

Timothy Naftali

These are things he carried all the time.

 

Jerry Schilling

Now, he carried a picture of Priscilla and Lisa with him in his wallet, I think . . . 

 

Timothy Naftali

These are a little bit bigger than that.

 

Jerry Schilling

Okay, then he picked them up at the Hillcrest house.

 

Timothy Naftali

But he also picked up the gun at the Hillcrest house.

 

Jerry Schilling

He picked up ─ I think it was a World War II memorial gun.

 

Timothy Naftali

Yes.

 

Jerry Schilling

That was at the Hillcrest house, and he took that. I didn't know why he was taking it. Elvis, you know, you didn't just -- well, when you were used to being with him and not knowing where you were going or what you were doing, that was kind of normal. I had been doing that for years with him, so I – you know, he's going to Washington. I knew there was a girl he knew back there. I mean, there was all kinds of things that -- and you know, he wanted me to go back with him. When he's saying he's going to charter a Learjet, and when I saw how important it was that I went back with him, I didn't ask questions. I started making arrangements: hotels, airlines, limos, all that kind of stuff. And he was doing it. I wasn't watching everything he was doing, you know? I mean, at this point, as funny as it sounds, you know, Elvis was my friend. He was just another guy. I've been around him where he's bored with me, I'm bored with him sometimes. We just hadn't seen each other in a while, so it was really great. But you know, on a day-to-day basis, you don't watch what your friend does, you know, all the time. So I didn't know what he was doing. I was busy, you know, making arrangements, worrying about if I was going to lose my job and all those kind of things. And so anyway, it was I think the flight left at, I don't know, 11, 12 o'clock, midnight.

 

And like I said, we didn't have any cash on us, and I found a checkbook of Elvis's at the Hillcrest house. He had a desk, and in the drawer there, I thought there was a checkbook. And, you know, I called Gerald Peters, it was a Sunday night, and I said, "Gerald, we don't have any cash. Do you have any suggestions where I could get a check cashed?" He said, "You know, I know somebody at the Beverly Hilton Hotel that might take a $500 check." So I made out a check and had Elvis sign it. So here we go to Washington. You know, we're on the way to Washington. We only have $500, you know, and I'm traveling with Elvis Presley, you know? We go. We get the check cashed. They pre-board us on the American Airlines flight to Washington, the all-nighter. We have two seats in first class. And then they started letting the passengers on. And I couldn't help but notice that it was a lot of young boys in military outfits, you know, coming back from Vietnam. And Elvis was always very cordial if somebody recognized -- you know, he was speaking to certain people. Certain people walked by. They didn't know Elvis was sitting there. I was by the window. Elvis was on the aisle seat. And there was one young soldier that struck up a conversation with Elvis. So I was like reading a magazine. You know, they seemed to be getting along fine, and I get this little elbow nudge: "Jerry, where's that money?" I said, "What money?" He said, "The $500." I know Elvis. I'm saying, "That's all we got." He said, "Man, you don't understand. This guy's coming home from the war to see his family. I want him to have it." So there went the $500, and we go to Washington penniless. But, you know, Elvis, you know, we could get by with a lot. He was, you know, he was fairly well known, so we were okay.

President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis on December 21, 1970.
President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis on December 21, 1970.

Timothy Naftali

He decides to write a letter.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yes, one of the stewardesses that was making sure, you know, everything was okay with Elvis and everything, told him that Senator George Murphy from California was on the plane. And after we took off, Elvis went back in coach and introduced himself to George Murphy. And I always kind of look, see what things, you know, what's going on, because, you know, he's a public figure, and they seemed to be having a nice conversation. So I guess they probably had a 20-minute conversation. Elvis came back up and sat down next to me and said, "Do you think there's any stationery on the flight?" I got the stewardess's attention, and she said, "Let me go check." And she came back with American Airlines stationery. I had known Elvis at this point for, I don't know, close to 20 years, you know, 18 years, whatever it was, never saw him sit down and write a letter. I think he wrote maybe four or five in his entire life. Most of those were when he was in Germany. He wrote his girlfriend. He wrote a couple of guys: Alan Fortas, George Klein. That was the letters. And he sat and wrote the letter. And then he said, "Jerry, I just wrote a letter to President Nixon. Would you proofread it for me?" I was honored, you know, that he thought that much of me to proofread a letter from him to the President of the United States. And I said, "Sure." And I read the letter and gosh, knowing Elvis and knowing him as well as I did, you know, almost brought tears to my -- because I know what his thoughts were. I knew where his heart was. And then I had this other emotion, like, God, is he going to sound like some right-wing fanatic? And then I thought, "You know what? Who's writing the letter?" It is Elvis Presley, and it is very reflective of Elvis Presley. And, you know, we could screw around with it, but I said, "Elvis, it's beautiful. Send it like it is." He kind of smiled. He sealed it up. And as we were flying, he would put, "For the President only." I mean, he kept writing things on the outside envelope. So that's how the letter came about.

 

Timothy Naftali

He also included a list of all of his telephone numbers.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yes, yes, and he also included my name and Sonny's name as contacts. He also included his name, John Burroughs, an alias that he would use to check in hotels with.

 

Timothy Naftali

Where did that come from?

 

Jerry Schilling

You know, I don't know actually. I think there was a character one time in one of the movies, and then, his manager sometimes he would call him Colonel Burroughs. And I think it was just a combination and something different: John Burroughs. And I know I love a letter that says to the President of the United States, "I'm under an assumed name." You know? It was great. Only Elvis could do that, you know?

 

Note: excerpt from allexperts.com (James Warner)

Elvis used the name John Burrows from roughly 1969 to 1977. Elvis may have gotten the name from a man actually named John Burroughs (HE was an essayist and naturist). I know that Elvis was an avid reader and had probably read some of Burroughs' work.

 

Timothy Naftali

So the original plan was that he would give it to the Senator, right, to send?

 

Jerry Schilling

Right, yeah, you know, Elvis was a doer. He liked to delegate, but by the time he did, he was usually already doing something. And this was so important to Elvis that this letter get to the President that the only way he knew to make sure is if he did it himself. I tried to talk him out of going to the White House that morning, because it was dawn. It was still dark. I'd been up two days. I wanted to go to the hotel and clean up, take a shower, and I expressed that to Elvis. I said, "You know, it's too early." He said, "No." He said, "I want to go by the White House." And, you know, when he said something like this, you know, there's no debate. I knew we were going to the White House. And the driver, the limousine driver, took us to -- I forgot which gate it was -- north gate, White House gate. And Elvis said, "Jerry, just stay here. I'm going to take this to the guards at the gate." And I said, "Fine." Well, I'm keeping a pretty close eye on Elvis. And he gets out, and, you know, the world knows what he was wearing. You know, it was pretty normal for me, but he had a high-collared topcoat. His hair was a little longer than usual. He had a cane. And it's not full daylight, and he jumps out of the back of a black limousine. The White House security guards were pretty stiff, and I think they were, you know, like, "Who is this? What is this?" I see it's not going well, so I jump out of the limousine, and I go, "Excuse me, gentlemen, but this is Mr. Elvis Presley, and he just wanted to drop off this letter to the President." And they immediately -- their whole demeanor changed. And, "Oh, Mr. Presley, you know, Senator so-and-so's coming up at seven a.m. We'll make sure the President will have the letter." And then we went to the Hotel Washington.

 

Timothy Naftali

So they hadn't recognized him?

 

Jerry Schilling

Well, I don't -- you know what? If it would have been broad daylight, of course they would, but no. And you've got to understand, it's dawn. You know, you're not expecting Elvis Presley to walk up to the -- And he didn't look like he did in most of his movies. You know, he's wearing more of a – you know, it's the early '70s -- it's more of the -- oh, God, what was the . . . 

 

Timothy Naftali

Well it's a Vegas costume.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yeah. It's a -- blaxploitation movies that were real big at the time, too, you know? Oh, I forgot what you call the dress there, but it was more of that. So it's quite understandable why he wasn't recognized.

 

Timothy Naftali

Was he carrying weapons?

 

Jerry Schilling

Always, yeah, he carried a little Derringer in the boot. He had another, like a .38 here. You know, we deal with it in the book, but you know, it was pretty heavyweight death threats on Elvis's life, and as foolish as this all may sound, here's a guy that passed the test, both written, that went to the firing range, that took it serious, and also had a reason to carry a gun. And never had an incident with it. So it sounds bizarre; the meeting sounds bizarre.

 

Timothy Naftali

Oh no, no.

 

Jerry Schilling

Okay.

 

Timothy Naftali

This is the era when you could actually fly with a gun.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yeah.

 

Timothy Naftali

There weren't any metal detectors at airports in 1970.

 

Jerry Schilling

I flew with a gun. I had concealed weapon credentials. So it was really -- that was weird for me, 'cause I didn't even like to wear, you know, a coat. I'd get on an elevator, and Elvis -- "Where's your gun?" So he wanted me to carry a gun when I was with him, so. I didn't have one back on that trip.

 

Timothy Naftali

You didn't, on that trip?

 

Jerry Schilling

Because I wasn't working for him at that time, so I didn't use guns.

President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis and Bud Krogh.
President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis and Bud Krogh.

Timothy Naftali

You go back to the hotel. The White House tells you anything when you go? Do you know that you're going to get an appointment with the President?

 

Jerry Schilling

No, when I proofread Elvis's letter I thought it was a great letter, but I didn't think we'd have any chance whatsoever meeting with the President. And why I thought that was because I kept up pretty much with the news, and I had been reading that some of the senators were complaining about not being able to have time with the President at that time, and I remember that distinctly. I don't know if I was reading it in the "Washington Post" or "L.A. Times," but -- so I remember thinking, "He's not you know, we're not going to have a meeting. But, you know, the letter's great, and I'm sure the President will get the letter." So we leave the White House. We go to the hotel and check in. And I'm feeling pretty comfortable.

 

I don't know, you know, what Elvis' agenda is. So after we're there, I don't know, 30 minutes or so, he goes, "Jerry, I want you to stay here and wait for the call from the White House." And he had no question that it was going to be a call from the White House. I knew there wasn't going to be a call from the White House. He said, "I'm going to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to see Mr. John Finlater, who's the head of it. I'm trying to get the badge which" -- I was at the dinner in Los Angeles when he saw this badge by a guy named Paul Frees, who we had a dinner, and through friends of Elvis'. When Elvis saw that badge, that was the ultimate badge that he wanted in his collection. And for various reasons, because it was respected overseas, he was planning on touring overseas, it was the ultimate. It was like -- it was kind of a James Bond thing to him as well, but with a lot of respect for it. And he gave me the number of where he would be. These are things that I didn't think Elvis was capable of.

 

Timothy Naftali

So he already knew the person that he needed to meet.

 

Jerry Schilling

I think that maybe Senator Murphy on that flight had given him the contact. It was either that or a private investigator, John O'Grady, who had worked on some cases with Elvis and who had introduced us to Paul Frees, who was a member of the Bureau of --

 

Timothy Naftali

Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

 

Jerry Schilling

. . . Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. That's the forerunner to the D.E.A., right?

 

Timothy Naftali

So, Elvis had hired -- I guess he always had a private investigator working for him?

 

Jerry Schilling

No, not always, but at a few times, this was the same guy that through his attorney was recommended. And they kind of became friends. The guy would come to the shows in Vegas and tell Elvis these great stories, and -- about clients. And then I would go -- you know, Elvis and I would have a few arguments from time to time, which I loved, because it was a real friendship. And I never will forget, I said, "Elvis, if he's telling us about this guy, do you think maybe he may be -- ?" And Elvis got real mad at me, 'cause he loved the stories. But so anyway, through that guy is how this badge came into Elvis's mind at one of the few dinners Elvis ever went out to at Chasen's in Beverly Hills.

 

So that was a year earlier, and he had been trying to find a way to get that badge since then. And so he went off to his meeting, left me a phone number, and I kind of started reminiscing of the Howard Hughes books I had read, where Howard would have some of his guys or a guy and say, "Wait here in the hotel." And Howard may not come back for a year or so. So I'm thinking, "Boy, hope they got good room service and a nice gym and stuff, 'cause I could be here a long time." And I don't know, only 30 minutes or so later I get a call asking for me. And I said, "Yeah, speaking." And he said, "This is Egil Krogh on the White House staff.

 

And the President has read Mr. Presley's letter and would like to meet him in 30 minutes." And I said, "Great." I don't know if I had to deal with scheduling, or whatever. I said, "I know where Mr. Presley is. I will get that message to him immediately." So I called Elvis, and this guy picks up the phone. And, "Hello." And I said, "Yeah, Mr. Presley there?" "Who's calling?" It was Finlater. And I said, "Well, I'm a friend of Mr. Presley's." And he said, "Okay." Elvis gets on the phone, and boy, he is down. He said, "Jerry, I'm not doing any good here." Finlater wouldn't give him the badge. So I said, "Well, Elvis, you just got a call from the White House, and the President wants to meet you in less than 30 minutes." Now here's the kind of friend Elvis Presley is. Most people would've beelined it to the White House. He said, "Jerry, go downstairs, and we'll swing by and pick you up." He always included, you know, his friends, and that was a big one. And so I go downstairs. Ironically, Sonny's coming in from Memphis. And I see him getting out of a cab with his luggage, and I say, "Give it to the bellman," 'cause I see the limousine coming, too. I said, "Give it to the bellman, here's Elvis. We're going to the White House." Sonny's like, "Oh," jumped in the car, and we head up the street to the White House.

 

Timothy Naftali

So you get to the White House, and this time they let you in.

 

Jerry Schilling

We got in, yeah. Guards were friendly.

 

Timothy Naftali

Do they -- you don't expect actually, you personally don't expect to go to the Oval Office.

 

Jerry Schilling

No, in fact we are told, because Elvis is the first one to mention it, and they said, "Well, only Mr. Presley can go." Oh, and after Elvis left, there was some conversation, you know, Sonny and I said, "You know, Elvis is really hard to say no to." And the White House aide said, "You know, it's not even up to the President. It's the Secret Service. There has to be a certain Secret Service contingency to, you know, how many people there." I don't know. Anyway, the phone rings. And the same guy that told us that answered the phone, and I just saw his face; he was dumbfounded. And he said, "The President wants to meet Mr. Presley's friends." And of course we go to the White -- I mean, to the Oval room.

 

Timothy Naftali

Now, before Presley went into the Oval Office, before Elvis went into the Oval Office, they took his gun away from him, didn't they?

 

Jerry Schilling

Well, Elvis was sharp enough to know. First of all, he did two things. Number one, he said, "I'm carrying weapons," and he showed them. And I don't know if he kept them. I think they were left in the office that we used. Because Bud, Egil Krogh -- there was an interrogation. That's a tough word, but, you know, "Why do you want to meet the President? What do you want to talk about?" And it was a real nice, serious conversation between Bud and Elvis. And Sonny and I were there, but you know, this was really -- and I was really proud of my friend, because he knew what he wanted to do. Everything he had said in the letter he was really putting meaning to it in this conversation with Bud.

 

Timothy Naftali

In the letter, he talks about the role he wants to play in helping bridge the gap between the administration and young people to move young people away from drugs.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yes.

 

Timothy Naftali

That's what he says in the letter.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yes.

President Nixon Meeting with Elvis Presley, Sonny West and Jerry Schilling.
President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis and Bud Krogh.

Timothy Naftali

Had you heard him talk about this before?

 

Jerry Schilling

Oh yeah, this didn't -- it's really funny how observing history -- when Elvis came on board he was the controversial; he was the threat to the youth; he was, you know, politicians, religious people were speaking out against him in the early '50s, mid'50s. It was real serious. And I produced a lot of documentaries on Elvis, and I know this history really well. That's hard to believe too, just as we talked about the segregation situation. Elvis went through all of that, and then he went into the Army and he came back, and people are saying, even those establishment people, "He's a pretty cool guy. He's a responsible guy." And Elvis, when he started seeing, ten years later, rock groups and stuff, he felt somewhat obviously responsible for the new rock 'n roll movement. I mean, he kind of -- if you had to pick one time, one person, and arguably there was a lot of influence, but if you had to pick one it's Elvis Presley, okay. So he felt he was proud of that, and he felt a responsibility toward it.

 

And when he started hearing lyrics that condoned drugs and seeing -- he hated to see a rock group or something walk on stage with torn jeans back then and messy t-shirts. He's saying, "People pay to see a performance." I mean, he really wanted it to be a respected art form. It's just, you know, the youth, the rebel becomes the establishment. And that's kind of what was happening, but also it was a very tough time in our history. And for one of the first times, what I had said earlier, young people, this music gave us a voice for this first time. This was being used politically as well. And Elvis never believed in using the music politically. That's just the era he came up with. So with all of those things, that's what that letter meant. That meant he really did want to do something. And Elvis -- he had a way he could talk to people. People would talk to him. I mean, big stars, politicians, they would talk to him and tell him things that, you know, they wouldn't say publicly. And there were a couple of big name musicians that I'm not going to mention, but where Elvis felt one of them in particular was a great artist. And he was kind of going through this period and changed his dress, and you know, and kind of his music. Elvis talked to him and said, "Man, you know, that's not who you are." And the guy changed back. So Elvis had influence. He knew he had influence, especially in the music business. And he knew he could talk to anybody, you know. He could go to the worst section of town and wear all the diamonds that he wanted to, and he was cool. People accepted Elvis Presley. And he really wanted to get -- I mean, this is a worn-out phrase, but he wanted to give something back. And if you're Elvis, this is how you do it.

 

Timothy Naftali

So it wasn't because -- some would say that he wanted the badge, but it was more than just getting the badge.

 

Jerry Schilling

It was more. He wanted the badge too, but it was more than that. I think both things were equally important, if you will.

 

Timothy Naftali

So the call comes in; you're sitting there; the Secret Service guy is very surprised. You've now been invited into the Oval Office, you and Sonny. Tell us what happens.

 

Jerry Schilling

Well, I never will forget. The door was closed, and we get to the door, and who opens the door? Not Secret Service, not the President, but Elvis. And I kind of -- you know, it was kind of like being at Graceland. There are some similarities in the two buildings, if you will. So, and he opens the door real wide, and he's beaming. So I know whatever -- things are going well. But I, just a second or two, I see this oval room, and I realize that the Oval Office is oval. That's why it's called the Oval Office. You never think about that when you see flat pictures, you know? And down at the end, the President was over his desk, President Nixon signing something. I was going to be a history teacher. And I -- oh my, so I was stunned. Elvis thought I was afraid, and he kind of pushes me in and says, "It's okay, you know, don't be afraid. Come on in." And then Sonny came in behind me. And the President hears this, and he -- he wasn't sitting down at his desk. He was leaning over the desk. And he came over, and Elvis -- you know, he made this great introduction, so I could tell he was proud that Sonny and I were there with him. And, of course, Bud was there, and Elvis and Bud had gotten along really great. Bud really got what Elvis wanted to do, where he was coming from.

 

And so President Nixon came over and kind of, like a guy's guy, hit me on the arm and said, "Elvis, you got a couple of big ones, here." And he said, "You guys play football?" And we talked a little bit about football, and Elvis kind of -- oh, and then the President went and got some cufflinks, Presidential seal cufflinks for Sonny and I, and then came back and gave them to us, and just a real warm feeling. And another thought I had: I was in the presence, very different feels, but two guys, greats, at the top of the their field who had both come through some tough times at recent. And I really saw what the bond was: they both related to each other, and they were both very -- it was an honest thing. Neither one was trying to impress the other one. They both -- and that was a remarkable thing to experience, to be there and see that. And, you know, these guys stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. When President Nixon had the phlebitis and went to the hospital, Elvis called him in the hospital. They had a nice talk. When Elvis was in the hospital, President Nixon called him. And they -- I mean, it wasn't just a one-time thing, that respect. And I remember after Elvis's passing, a long time after, and I saw President Nixon doing a speech, and I could still tell, the way he talked about my friend, there was still a respect. He, you know, you can read. You can talk. I understand the iconic image, and there was a movie made that they had actually asked me to produce. It was a comedy. But this was a true American story, and these guys -- this really represented what I think this country is all about, and it was a real, sincere, wonderful American story.

 

Timothy Naftali

When you get the cufflinks, Elvis decides that they're not good enough.

 

Jerry Schilling

No, he -- and you know, again, bless his heart. He doesn't forget anybody. He's thinking of our wives. And he goes, "Mr. President," -- he called him "Mr. President" -- he said, "Mr. President, you know, they have wives too." And the President said, "Oh, well let's see what we can, you know, let's see what we can find." And he walks back over to his desk, and he's rummaging around. This is how comfortable Elvis felt. Elvis is rummaging in the President's desk with him, looking for things for our wives. So -- and then there were some pennants that had a Presidential seal that the President and Elvis gave us. Actually, the President gave it to us.

President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis and Bud Krogh.
President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis and Bud Krogh.

Timothy Naftali

Did the President look a little bit awkward when this was happening?

 

Jerry Schilling

Yeah, he did, body language, but I don't know. I just remember a smile in his eye, you know? And Elvis gave him another hug, you know? Elvis is hugging the President of the United States, and as somebody that has just given him his Christmas present, if you will, I don't think President Nixon or Bud or anybody was used to -- but we're in show business. That was, you know, that's how Elvis expressed himself. I mean, there's one thing about Elvis: he was himself, you know. There was no -- and he had a big heart. And it meant so much to him, you know?

 

Timothy Naftali

What does he say to you when you leave the Oval Office?

 

Jerry Schilling

Well, first of all it was kind of like, "The President got it, and I want to stay around here because the badge is on the way." So they start taking us on a tour of the White House, but there was just too much commotion. The girls that worked at the White House were peeking out of the offices. And Elvis kisses one of the secretaries, and they're trying to -- and at this point after meeting the President -- the tour should've happened before meeting the President, you know, if that would've worked. But that was, I would say, outside of the birth of his daughter, probably the second most important moment, maybe, in Elvis's life. I've never said that, and I hope it's right. But for him meeting his President and being accepted that way . . .

 

Timothy Naftali

What does he say when he sees the situation room?

 

Jerry Schilling

Well, you know, another one of our favorite films was Dr. Strangelove with Peter Sellers. And I don't know if you will remember, but they have this big war room, and one of the characters is Bucky Turgidson. I'm trying to think of the actor that played that part. And he is like the military commander. And Strangelove is like this guy in the wheelchair that Elvis could emulate, totally, and do that scene. But there was a great line in the movie, which we hadn't seen in a long time, and Bucky Turgidson goes, "You can't fight in the war room!" So when we went down to the situation room, and it looked exactly like the war room, and Elvis turns over to me and says, "You can't fight in the war room." And we're dying laughing, you know. So it was that kind of movie, you know.

 

Timothy Naftali

You actually decide -- you end up having lunch in the White House mess.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yeah, the tour wasn't going to happen seriously, you know, and with all the commotion. So while we were waiting, Egil Krogh said, "You know, we could have lunch in the mess hall," and Elvis immediately said "Yeah." He's not one to really eat publicly a lot, because it's just too confusing or whatever, but Elvis was not going to leave the White House until that badge came, so that made sense to him. And the only table for four was like right in the middle of the White House mess hall, which I think was served only by the Navy. I'm real impressed, I mean, this is -- I'm looking at every piece of wood and everything, because I'm in the White House, you know? This is huge. I'm 28 years old, you know, and I was going to be a history teacher. So we have a nice lunch, just talking about nothing even, you know, that much. And then I think is when Bud got Elvis' -- somehow, I think at the end of the lunch, Bud was notified. I'm not sure that the badge was there. You know, it was a great line when Elvis had told the President about why he wanted the badge or whatever. And Bud, Egil Krogh said, the President said, "Well, Bud, do you think we can do this?" And Bud says, "Well, you know, you're the leader of the free world." And so the President called Finlater and said, "I want Mr. Presley to have the badge."

 

Timothy Naftali

So he gets his badge that day.

 

Jerry Schilling

Get the badge that day.

 

Timothy Naftali

You're leaving the White House. Where do you go?

 

Jerry Schilling

We go back to the hotel because -- you know what? I don't remember even going back to the hotel. I want to say we go straight to the airport. I've got to get back. Don't forget, I've got a little job as an assistant film editor that I'm really worried about. I got to get back to L.A. So Sonny and myself and Elvis are in the limousine, they are going back to Memphis; I'm going to Los Angeles. And that's when Elvis proceeds to talk to me about coming back to work for him. I think he was very pleased with how I'd handled the Washington stuff. He was very happy that I went back, you know, with him, even with the possibility of losing my job. And he offered me a really great job as a personal PR and record promoter for his new records. And he wanted me to be the guy that would take his new recordings to program directors around the country, and, you know, kind of just put a personal touch and try to get his records more attention. So I never gave him an answer if I was going to go back to work for him or not. I was really thrilled that he wanted me to. And about two weeks later, I get this box of business cards, and they're red. And in black, it goes, "Jerry Schilling, personal public relations for Elvis Presley," and under it, "Special Deputy." And I think I meant to bring one today, and maybe my wife did. So I thought, you know, everything he had done for me, and I really love the guy, and I thought, if he really wants me to come back that much then I'm going to go back. So I went back to work for him, and -- for a number of years again, so.

 

Timothy Naftali

Did he talk to you about Nixon, President Nixon?

Did he tell you about what it had been like when it was just the two of them or the three of them,

'cause Bud Krogh . . .

 

Jerry Schilling

He talked about it a lot. And I know that's all he talked about when he went to Graceland from talking to my friends. Don't forget, I had left and I'm in Los Angeles and I don't see him for a little while after that. I really think he had this real love for the President, you know? I mean, I think he understood how it was to be in that position. And the fact that the President was so gracious to see him, to listen to him, and to actually agree with him. And you know they both made -- this tells where they both were coming from. The President could have used this for publicity. Maybe as Haldeman or someone said, this could be a great way to reach the youth. Elvis could've used it, you know, just a pride and all that. They never told anybody. This was a private meeting between these two giants, and only, I think it was over a year later, did it come out in "The Washington Post."

 

Timothy Naftali

Do you remember Elvis's reaction when it became public?

 

Jerry Schilling

Honestly I don't, I don't. But I know -- it was probably fine, because he was so proud of the meeting. He talked so much about it I'm surprised it didn't come out prior to a year.

 

Timothy Naftali

'Cause he would tell people about it.

 

Jerry Schilling

Well, yeah, yeah, I mean, and you know what? I did notice as other badges he had, like a chief of police badge -- and these were real badges, okay, and he would show them a lot. This badge he was much more conservative with. He never went anywhere without it, but he didn't flash it. If it was somebody, maybe a friend of his in law enforcement, then in private conversation, he might. But it wasn't -- he really had it. And, you know, we would get a call like every six months from the Bureau. "Does Mr. Presley still -- just wanted to check on the badge. Make sure he still has the badge." That kind of -- so we'd get a call down at Graceland.

 

Timothy Naftali

So he'd carry it in a suit jacket? I mean he'd carry it in his jacket?

 

Jerry Schilling

Yeah, yeah.

 

Timothy Naftali

What did Elvis think when he watched Watergate happen, given that he felt a certain sympathy for President Nixon? They both were in a glass bowl of sorts.

 

Jerry Schilling

Mm-hmm.

 

Timothy Naftali

Do you remember him saying anything?

 

Jerry Schilling

I really don't remember him saying anything. I kind of feel I know his feeling.

 

Timothy Naftali

Well, that's all right if you don't remember him saying anything.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yeah, I don't, yeah.

 

Timothy Naftali

Did Sonny say anything about this trip to you? What did he say during this? I mean, was he just completely awestruck?

 

Jerry Schilling

Well, see Sonny, he got there like as we were on the way. And, you know, I think first of all, Sonny was getting over the shock of where was Elvis? You know, Sonny was official bodyguard.

 

Timothy Naftali

And he'd lost him.

 

Jerry Schilling

And lost him, you know? That's why he was the first person to pick up the phone down at Graceland. He didn't know where, you know, where Elvis was or anything, and then we're immediately in the White -- and Sonny, you know, he was, as I was, very happy for our friend. I mean this was a big day, and not only did he meet and talk with the President, but he got the ultimate badge. Just like, you know, somebody giving us a Maserati or something, the thing we really wanted and by somebody that, you know, was special. And you know, after lunch and stuff, we were just smiling and laughing and having a good time, on, you know . . . 

President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis on December 21, 1970.
President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis.

Timothy Naftali

Did people ask for his autograph as you were walking through the White House?

 

Jerry Schilling

We walked through pretty darn fast, and he did sign some autographs, yes, yes.

 

Timothy Naftali

I've heard that he went back to the White House again. He didn't see President Nixon, but he went back, no? Did he ever? I've heard that he . . . 

 

Jerry Schilling

He went back to Washington, and he went to the F.B.I. He went to see J. Edgar Hoover, but he wouldn't see him.

 

Timothy Naftali

J. Edgar Hoover wouldn't see him?

 

Jerry Schilling

That's my understanding, and I didn't go on the second trip because I did keep my job as a film editor at Paramount, but I don't think he ever went back to the White House. This is the first time I ever heard that.

 

Timothy Naftali

Okay, did he send Finlater a present when he retired? I'd heard that he . . .

 

Jerry Schilling

Sounds like something he would do, but I'm not aware of it.

 

Timothy Naftali

Not aware? Okay, another White House staffer from that period remembers that. But he did go back to Washington, but this time to see J. Edgar Hoover.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yes, and he did do a tour through the F.B.I. and brought some of his friends from Memphis, the former sheriff of Memphis, Bill Morris [phonetic sp.] You know, another kindred thing that Elvis felt with that was getting ready to happen to him that he felt with President Nixon was that he was going to be one of the Ten Top Outstanding Young Americans, which President Nixon had been earlier. So as the little footnote or P.S. to the letter, he writes that, I think he tells him, "I've been nominated for one of the Top Ten Outstanding Young Americans, and I think you were one of those as well, Mr. President," however he wrote that.

 

Timothy Naftali

Did he participate in any events to build that bridge between the administration and the youth to talk about drug issues? Did he . . . ?

 

Jerry Schilling

I don't know, because, you know, again, I went back to my world. And since it was all he wanted it done unofficially -- you know, he didn't want a title, he didn't want anything like that -- I don't know the answer to that.

 

Timothy Naftali

Don't know. But you do go back to him? I mean you go back to Paramount for a while.

 

Jerry Schilling

Yeah, and then I do go back to work for him. And I think soon after that was the ceremonies, which they had in Memphis for the Ten Outstanding Young Americans, which that again I would rank up there with the Presidential meeting, because this was the first time -- you know, Elvis had done a lot of humanitarian work. He had done things to preserve the ship that the Atlantic Charter was signed on. I mean, this guy was -- yeah.

 

Timothy Naftali

He did?

 

Jerry Schilling

Yeah, he read in the paper where it was going to a junkyard, and he goes, "Jerry, the Atlantic Charter was signed on this ship." You know, he bought it and gave it to Danny Thomas for the St. Jude Hospital to auction it off or whatever.

 

Timothy Naftali

He gave the ship?

 

Jerry Schilling

It was like a yacht. It was the yacht that the charter was signed on. He felt it's a piece of history that should not be destroyed. Yeah I think, or was it Frank Sinatra he gave it to for the charity? But he definitely bought it, and there was a big ceremony. It was brought to, I think, Long Beach. But he always had, you know, these historical things in mind. And what reminds me about the ceremony for the top Ten Outstanding Young Men was this was the first time he was recognized not as an entertainer but as a human being. And on this panel were the other people where there was a person who had made some big breakthroughs in cancer research, there was an astronaut, there was -- I mean, your heavyweight people. And Elvis had to make a speech, and he made a beautiful speech. I didn't -- how could Elvis make a speech? But he did it. And we went to dinner. Elvis gave a dinner for all of the nominees and whoever was with him. I sit with Ron Ziegler, my wife ly and I, and I was thinking, "There again, it still never got out about that meeting that had just happened a little bit before between President Nixon and Elvis." And, you know, Ron didn't say anything. I didn't say anything. We had a nice dinner, you know.

 

I can and will do more good as a Federal Agent at Large

Elvis Presley was an avid collector of police badges and the owner of dozens from departments and agencies the length and breadth of the United States. But, there was one badge in particular that he was desperate to get his hands on—one which had, for a long time, proven elusive: a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In fact, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was so keen to obtain one that in December of 1970, he took a flight to the White House in order to hand-deliver this letter, written mid-flight, in which he cunningly offered his services in the war on drugs—as a “Federal Agent at Large.” His arrival at the White House gates proved effective. A few hours later, he had a meeting with President Nixon, gifted him with a Colt .45 pistol after a quick photocall, and asked for the badge he so wanted to own. Nixon obliged, they had their photograph taken, and the next day Elvis returned to Graceland.

 

All in all, an incredible and bizarre event, the official photos of which have since become the most requested in the history of the National Archives.

President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis on December 21, 1970 at the oval office in washington, DC.
President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis on December 21, 1970 at the oval office in washington, DC.
President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis on December 21, 1970 at the oval office in washington, DC.
President Richard Nixon Meets with Elvis on December 21, 1970 at the oval office in washington, DC.

Dear Mr. President:

 

First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office. I talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concerns for our country. The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it, the establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out. I have no concerns or motives other than helping the country out. So, I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through communications with people of all ages. First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials. I am on the plane with Senator George Murphy and we have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with.

 

 

Sir, I am staying at the Washington Hotel, Room 505-506-507. I have two men who work with me by the name of Jerry Schilling and Sonny West. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent. I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing I can and will do the most good.

 

 

I am glad to help just so long as it is kept very private. You can have your staff or whomever call me anytime today, tonight or tomorrow. I was nominated this coming year one of America's Ten Most Outstanding Young Man. That will be in January 18 in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. I am sending you a short autobiography about myself so you can better understand this approach. I would love to meet you just to say hello if you're not too busy.

 

Respectfully,

 

Elvis Presley

 

P.S. I believe that you, Sir, were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America also. I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.

WWII Handgun - Gift to Nixon.
Egil “Bud” Krogh Jr., part of Nixon's staff.
White House narcotics badge presented to Elvis.

KJ Consulting

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