A ‘WEIRD’ ENDING TO THE DAY ELVIS DIED
Karen Lieberman vividly recalls the day Elvis Presley died and her role in the whirlwind that engulfed the entertainment world.
She was living in Los Angeles with her husband, Frank Lieberman, a publicist for the public relations powerhouse Rogers and Cowan. The Liebermans were close friends with Elvis and his former girlfriend, Linda Thompson.
On August 16, 1977, Karen was working as a secretary at 20th Century Fox for Bert Metcalfe, the Emmy-nominated executive producer of M*A*S*H.
She was in the offices in Century City, on the telephone with Elaine Orlando, Tony’s wife. Elaine and Tony were in New York City with Karen’s husband.
When a call came in, she ended the conversation to answer the phone.
“We had the old telephones with the row of little red lights,” she said. “Someone wanted to know if Elvis had died. I said it was probably rumor.”
Then all the red lights lit up. Was Elvis dead? they asked.
“That’s when I knew it was probably true,” she said.
A call came in from a grief-stricken Thompson, who asked for a favor.
“I’m the one who took her to the airport. It was pouring (rain) that night and she cried the whole way,” said Lieberman.
Thompson had walked away from the relationship eight months earlier, ending a nearly five-year relationship with the king of rock and roll. They had met in 1972 when she was Miss Tennessee.
Karen Lieberman recalls Thompson saying, “If I had been there, he’d still be alive.” Thompson explained that when she woke up and Elvis wasn’t in bed, she would look for him before going back to sleep. She really loved him.”
Accompanying Thompson on the flight to Memphis was her dog, a Maltese named Foxhugh, after a character in the Elvis 1966 movie “Spinout” in which Presley portrayed a rock star who raced cars. Elvis’ love interest in the film was automobile heiress Cynthia Foxhugh, played by Shelley Fabares, who had the massive hit song “Johnny Angel” in 1962.
Thompson had been informed of Elvis’ passing by 9-year-old Lisa Marie Presley, who blurted “Linda! My daddy’s dead.”
Before Frank Lieberman worked as a publicist, he was an entertainment writer for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, hoping to make a connection with Presley, who had launched a stirring comeback in The International in Las Vegas in July, 1969.
“He had gone to a show in the early 1970s and he wrote Elvis looked 'blurry eyed,’" recalled Karen.
“The next time Frank went to Elvis’ show, Joe Esposito (Presley’s top lieutenant) approached Lieberman and said “Elvis wants to see you.” While Lieberman was waiting backstage after the show, Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker walked up and asked what he was doing there.
“Frank said, “I’d love to do an interview with Elvis.’" Parker “laughed in his face,” she said, and added "we don’t do interviews with the media.’”
Fortunately for Lieberman, Presley came out of his dressing room and sat down with the entertainment reporter. Lieberman said he’d like to do an interview. “Elvis said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The interview went viral. “The whole world was calling Frank. It was one of the few interviews Elvis had done “and that’s when they became friends,” said Karen.
One night in Elvis’ penthouse, before the Liebermans were married, he asked Frank, “where is your ‘TCB?’” It was a reference to the Taking Care of Business necklace Elvis gave away out of loyalty or generosity to male friends. Lieberman replied he didn’t have one. “Elvis mumbled something to Sonny West,” Karen recounted. “Sonny came back with a black velvet box and gave it to Elvis, who put it on Frank. I was so proud. Next thing I know, another box came out and it was the TLC (Tender Loving Care necklace for women). Elvis put it on me. That’s when I started to cry and I had been around entertainers for much of my life. But nobody was an icon like he was. We wore them when we got married” in 1973. “Marty and Frenchie Allen gave us our wedding reception at Nicky Blair’s on Sunset Avenue,” she said.
Elvis introduced the Liebermans to Thompson and “he sent her to us. She wanted to be an actress. She stayed with us for a while. She got a SAG card for doing a line in ‘Starsky and Hutch’ and she read for ‘Charlie’s Angels.’”
One day Thompson called from her suite at the Century Plaza. “She wanted to go apartment hunting. I said, ‘I’ll come over and pick you up.’ She said, ‘no, I’ve got a limo. So we went apartment hunting in a limo.”
When Elvis died, Frank Lieberman was invited to the funeral. As much as he respected Elvis, he made a decision not to go. “Liz Smith and many of the major columnists called Frank, wanting to go to the funeral with him. Frank, not being stupid, decided not to go,” she said, because if he took one of them he would be burning a bridge with the others.
As our interview ended, Karen recalled a “weird thing” that happened the day Elvis died.
Her husband told her that while he and Orlando were walking past St. Peter’s Cathedral that day, Tony was upset about the tell-all book recently released by Elvis’ bodyguards Red West, Sonny West and Dave Hebler, who had been fired. The book delved into Elvis’ sex life and drug use.
“Tony said to Frank, ‘let’s go in (the cathedral) and light a candle for Elvis,” said Karen. “They lit a candle for him, not knowing” Elvis had died, she said. “It was just so weird."