The day I met Priscilla Presley

I was 10 when Elvis died. Monto (central Queensland, population not even 1200) is about as far from Memphis as you can get. Yet I still remember the headlines – "The King is dead" – and my parents' shock at the ghastly news from halfway around the world.

A little girl in Monto never dreams she'll make it to Memphis, let alone come face to face with Elvis' former wife Priscilla.

But that's what happened a few years ago when I found myself in Memphis on the day the paddle-wheeler, the American Queen, was being christened.

The steamboat, built in 1995, had been mothballed after its owner foundered but, following a US$6.5 million facelift courtesy of a new owner, she was ready to resume work, plying the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers.

All that was needed before sending her on her way was for godmother, Priscilla Presley, to perform christening duties.

The Mississippi, also known as the Big Muddy, has tides that vary by up to 15 metres.

Memphis' ingenious solution to these wild variations was to build a spiral ramp leading to a floating dock at Beale Street Landing.

Priscilla materialises – perhaps by golf cart, which is certainly how she departs. She's dressed in a cream satin blouse, buttoned at the wrists, a knee-length black skirt and sky-high black pumps. Even with those extra inches, she is tiny.

Men almost swoon, right there and then. Speaking of short, I don't see the exact moment she smashes the champagne bottle – too many tall blokes have crowded in front of me. But not to fret; I'm heading inside for her press conference.


The questions are mostly fawning; sometimes they're not even questions. But the most interesting one is saved for last.

From the back of the room comes a query about Priscilla's time with Elvis. "Did y'all ever cruise together?" asks the guy with a Southern drawl.

"You must have been a little fly listening to our conversation last night," replies Priscilla, "because we had a boat at McKellar Lake. No one ever talks about McKellar Lake any more. It's actually very, very close."

McKellar Lake, south of Memphis, is sometimes described as an oxbow – the serpentine Mississippi is famous for creating them – however the lake is still connected to the river at one end.

During the 1950s and '60s, Memphians flocked to McKellar in summer to beat the heat and humidity. It was busy with speedboats, rowboats, houseboats – you name it. There was even an annual Miss McKellar Lake beauty pageant.

"He had a boat and we would go there on the weekends," Priscilla says of Elvis. "He would go skiing and boating, and he was fond of that."

At this point, American Queen Steamboat Company's Jeff Krida jumps in: "Not just the boats – those of you who have been to Graceland and seen the family films saw how much fun Elvis and Priscilla had on golf carts. So we told her we arranged all those great golf carts to be part of the experience."

Grabbing the microphone from Krida, Priscilla adds: "But none of them drove like Elvis – that was a real ride."

The writer was a guest of Qantas and Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.