Sally Hoedel: Why Did Elvis Really Leave The Building?
When Elvis was found unconscious on his bathroom floor, everyone assumed the worst. And toxicology reports showed more than 10 different drugs in his system. But now, author Sally Hoedel claims the ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ died from bad genes and not prescription drugs in her book, Destined to Die Young.
A boy grows up poor in Mississippi fascinated by music, and becomes a huge success with blues and country songs, gospel hymns and as a pioneer of the rockabilly music that set rock ‘n’ roll in motion. Elvis Presley became a cultural icon. And when he really did “leave the building,” the toxicology reports confirmed that he was overloaded with prescription medications — just a star who popped too many pills. That’s the story we all know. But is it true?
In fact, author and historian Sally Hoedel doesn’t see it as a tale of self-destruction at all. Instead, she argues that Elvis was a man who struggled to survive, first with extreme poverty, then with out-of-this-world fame, then with multiple chronic health conditions, some stemming from birth. And she explains it all in her book, Destined to Die Young.
Hoedel, who grew up in Detroit, loved reading and writing. “That’s really where I think my love of Elvis started, from reading a lot of the books about him,” she says. She became a huge fan, buying cassette tapes and watching his movies. She and her sister shared this love, and her sister ended up keeping their collection when Hoedel went away to college to study journalism.
Life got busy for Hoedel, who owns a curriculum business with her husband, as she helped with the writing of textbooks and with their four children, whom she home-schooled for 10 years. But when her sister passed away six years ago, she retrieved all the Elvis books. And that’s when she started thinking about things. Things like the fact that Elvis’s maternal grandparents were first cousins, which can cause genetic issues from the shrinking of the gene pool. The family had a number of health issues, she discovered, and problems with the heart, liver and lungs and other impaired bodily functions that were passed down to Gladys, Elvis’s mother, possibly her siblings and Elvis himself. “Gladys, his mother, had a lot of the same symptoms that Elvis had,” says Hoedel. “The bloating of the stomach, the heart issues were all very similar.”
Hoedel started to dig a little deeper and thought maybe she could write an e-book. Really, she says, it was as if her sister had left her a gift, “because I never would have reread those books and this project probably never would have happened.” Hoedel was also lucky enough to meet Ron Strauss, the pilot of Elvis’s plane, The Lisa Marie, for two years. They spent a day together and she thought perhaps others would talk, too. And so her idea became a real project, with Hoedel putting in a lot of time travelling, conducting research and interviews and writing the book.
When reading Elvis’s story we also have to remember that the family had little medical care when he was a child and he had no money to pay for health care until he began to be successful. “But even then, they didn’t understand immune system disorders,” says Hoedel, adding that Elvis had an immune system disorder that prevented his body from creating the right antibodies to fight infection. Times are different now: People talk about constipation and we know about gluten and dairy intolerances, but it wasn’t always like that. “That’s one of the things that struck me about reading about Elvis as a kid … with stomach aches, allergies and allergic reactions — and who doesn’t gain weight,” she says. Today, she adds, he would probably be on a dairy- and gluten-free diet to see if that helped, but not back then. Instead, he was prescribed medication. And, as a lifelong insomniac, he was prescribed even more medication. In 1977
alone, “Dr. Nick,” Elvis’s physician, wrote almost 200 prescriptions for more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines, laxatives, hormones and narcotics.
As for Elvis’s death, Hoedel says it was certainly a heart-related issue, as he died very suddenly in his bathroom. He had an incredible work ethic, pulling his family out of poverty, then spending and giving away a lot of money, says Hoedel. “So, in the ’70s, when he really wasn’t feeling well, he doesn’t feel like he can stop because he’s the provider for all these people,” she adds. In fact, she argues that Elvis was going to live a short life with or without all the meds, and that, really, they just kept him going.
In the end, Elvis is a victim of sensationalism and romanticism, according to Hoedel. “That keeps a lot of the personal health issues buried, “because sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is just a sexier story.” And that’s why Hoedel is glad she wrote the book. “I believe this is a story that Elvis would want known, and my hope for this labour of love is that it makes someone stop and think about Elvis just a little bit differently — he deserves it.”
Interview by Estelle Zentil