Over the years I have researched many topics about Elvis, and getting the facts and the stories correct has always been my first priority. Other researchers and writers, to their credit, also say they aim for accuracy. However, the story behind Elvis’s December 19, 1970, trip to Washington DC is one collection of Elvis factoids that many resources get wrong. Why? I am not sure; the facts are there, but some key questions don’t get asked and then some important information is ignored or dismissed. In this case, the trip to Washington DC is a perfect example. Let’s break this down a bit further, from a few online sources:
From elvisbiography.net: Elvis flew from Memphis to DC that night and checked into the Hotel Washington. He soon realized that he was stuck at a standstill in trying to reach Joyce since he had thrown away her number after their fight. Realizing he needed help with his search, he decided to leave Washington that same night and fly to Los Angeles to see friend, Jerry Schilling. He asked Schilling to come back to DC with him to help him find Bova.
However, while in L.A., Elvis must have realized he could multitask on his trip and visit with some government officials in addition to seeing Joyce. Before leaving for the airport, he grabbed a World War II Colt 45 pistol framed with bullets off the wall of his Hillcrest Drive home and took it back to DC with him.
“Swear I didn’t think of seeing him [Nixon] till after I was here and couldn’t find you,” Elvis told Joyce. “Like I said, it was on the plane coming back with Schilling that I got the idea ‘bout Nixon. Started writin’ a letter to him right then and there.” [end]
In this account, the oft-ignored fact that Elvis went to Washington to find Joyce Bova is acknowledged, but then the reasoning behind the return trip goes off-track. As Elvis is quoted here, he says that he didn’t think of visiting with Nixon until after he was in Washington on December 19, which was the first leg of this 3-legged trip. Going one step further, Elvis then says that he came up with the idea about meeting Nixon on the plane coming *back* to Washington on the morning of the twenty-first. So, if he came up with the Nixon idea on Monday morning, on the way to Washington from Los Angeles, then he had to have grabbed the commemorative World War II pistol for some other reason. What was the reason? The gun was a gift intended for Joyce Bova. Elvis did not “[realize] he could multitask” while he was still in L.A.; he added the Nixon part of the trip *after* he had departed L.A. for D.C.
From smithsonianmag.com: The story began in Memphis a few days earlier, when Elvis’ father, Vernon, and wife, Priscilla, complained that he’d spent too much on Christmas presents—more than $100,000 for 32 handguns and ten Mercedes-Benzes. Peeved, Elvis drove to the airport and caught the next available flight, which happened to be bound for Washington. He checked into a hotel, then got bored and decided to fly to Los Angeles.
Elvis was traveling with some guns and his collection of police badges, and he decided that what he really wanted was a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs back in Washington. “The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him,” Priscilla Presley would write in her memoir, Elvis and Me. “With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”
After just one day in Los Angeles, Elvis asked Schilling to fly with him back to the capital. “He didn’t say why,” Schilling recalls, “but I thought the badge might be part of the reason.” [end]
Here, the writer states that Elvis, “caught the next available flight,” and by chance it was headed to Washington. This tells us that Elvis went to Washington solely because it was the next available flight/destination, which is, sorry to say, absolutely ridiculous. He was not escaping Memphis or Graceland, and he was not a fugitive, he was just going to see Joyce, and *that* is why he got on a plane to Washington.
Elvis did not leave Washington for Los Angeles because he suddenly became bored. This strikes me as a throw-away line to get Elvis out to L.A. without having to figure out why.
The statements here by Priscilla and Jerry are interesting, because they seem to be attempts to shape the narrative. Priscilla says that Elvis wanted “the narc badge” because it represented some sort of power to him, but this is something she had to have come up with later, not something she knew beforehand, since Elvis came up with the idea of getting the badge on the morning of December 21, 1970. This was not something that Elvis had thought about earlier and had planned, nor had he mentioned it to anyone prior to the D.C. trip. Then we have Jerry Schilling saying that he “thought” [getting] the badge was “part of the reason” Elvis wanted to return to Washington. But why would Jerry think this, if Elvis had not yet come up with the idea to try to meet with Nixon? And finally, Jerry is saying that Elvis grabbed him and dragged him on the red-eye to Washington D.C., on the other side of the country, and Jerry didn’t bother to ask why? And Elvis didn’t mention why? Really?
From elvis-history-blog.com: Elvis called Schilling in LA to pick him up at the airport. The next day Elvis decided he wanted to go back to Washington. He wouldn’t tell Schilling why, and Jerry knew better than to question the King. On the plane, Elvis, who had only written a few letters in his life, penned a rambling, five-page letter to the president. [end]
In this account, Elvis actively refused to tell Jerry why he wanted to return to Washington, even though Elvis had already planned to return to Washington at the time he left the Hotel Washington (he never checked out). The writer here implies that the return to Washington was to try to meet with Nixon to get the Narcotics badge, and that once on the plane he decided to write the letter. However, it was not until Elvis was already on the plane that this idea came to him, and that is why he started writing the letter then. He stated this to Joyce Bova.
From allthatsinteresting.com: So naturally, Elvis needed to get some space from all that negativity and did what anyone would do. He took his presents and hopped on the next available flight out of Memphis, and headed to Washington D.C. Then, he got bored and hopped on another flight to Los Angeles.
During all of this traveling, Elvis realized that what would really help him feel better was a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He had a collection of various police badges that had been given to him as gifts over the years, but he didn’t have one from narcotics yet.
So, just one day after arriving in Los Angeles, Elvis headed back to D.C. [end]
Again, we see the “next available flight” claim, which cannot be true. Even if seeing Joyce was not the reason for going to Washington, the notion that Elvis just jumped on the “next available” flight is silly.
And again, Elvis got bored and left Washington. No, he didn’t.
The implication in this piece is that Elvis came up with the idea to try to get the Narcotics badge because it would make him feel better (huh?), and this is why he returned to Washington on the twenty-first.
From eyewitnesstohistory.com: Three weeks later, Elvis, accompanied by two body guards, was bound for Washington, DC aboard an American Airlines flight. He spent his time writing a letter to the President. [end]
Elvis was not accompanied by two bodyguards en route to Washington from Memphis. Neither did he write the letter to Nixon on this leg of the journey.
From thevintagenews.com: He spent over $100,000 on Christmas presents. The fight provoked him to leave Memphis, taking the next available flight which happened to be bound for Washington, D.C. He arrived in Washington but changed his mind and went to L.A. The next day he changed his mind again and took a flight back to Washington. [end]
“Next available flight.” No. Washington totally by chance. No. Changed his mind. No. Next day he changed his mind again. No.
From dialbforblog.com: Elvis’ pal Sonny answered the phone. He listened briefly, then hung up the phone and announced to the panicked room: “You won’t fuckin’ believe this!” Sonny told the Memphis Mafia, “Elvis is in Washington D.C. — he went there to meet with President Nixon!”
Elvis had gone to the Memphis airport all by himself, something he had never done before. Elvis flew to Los Angeles and phoned his friend Jerry Schilling, telling him to meet him there, and bring $500 in cash, because Presley didn’t have a penny in his pocket. Presley and Schilling flew from LAX to Washington, and on the flight they met a veteran just back from Vietnam. [end]
If Elvis had called Sonny West and told him he was in Washington and wanted to meet with Nixon, then that call had to have taken place on the morning of Monday, December 21, 1970. Thus, he would already have traveled to Washington and then to Los Angeles two days prior. Elvis did not fly to L.A. first.
From washingtonexaminer.com: So he sulked his way out to Los Angeles and, before heading back to Memphis, resolved to check an item off his to-do list, one that required a stop-over in the nation’s capital.
He wanted to meet the president. [end]
In this brief account, Elvis took a flight to Los Angeles, then decided to go to Washington to try to meet with Nixon. This suggests that Elvis came up with the Nixon idea before leaving L.A. to go to Washington, and that this was the only reason he went to Washington. This account also removes the first leg of the trip.
From salon.com: Presley takes it badly; it is his money, he says, and he can do with it what he likes. ‘I’m getting out of here,’ he shouts. Without telling anyone where he is going, he flies from Memphis to Washington, from Washington to Dallas, then on to Los Angeles, where he has arranged to be met by his new driver, an Englishman called Gerald Peters.
He then takes the next flight back to Washington. [end]
In this account, Elvis travels to Los Angeles and then gets on “the next flight back to Washington,” which places this flight at least 24 hours earlier that the flight on the twenty-first. Unless, of course, the “next flight” to Washington from L.A. was, in fact, more than a day later. No mention here of why Elvis flew to Washington in the first place, something we see in most of these accounts.
From buzzfeed.com: Angered by the confrontation, Elvis drove to the airport and caught the next available flight out of Memphis, which happened to be bound for Washington, D.C.
After he checked into his hotel, he changed his mind and decided he would rather head out to his home in L.A.
A day after arriving in L.A., Elvis called Jerry Schilling, a member of his “Memphis Mafia,” to have him arrange a flight for the both of them to go back to Washington, D.C. Jerry didn’t know why he wanted to go back, but he suspected that getting a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge was a motive. [end]
Again, the flight from Memphis to Washington is solely by chance, the D.C. destination simply being the “next available” out of Memphis. When Elvis arrives at the hotel in Washington, he changes his mind about D.C. and heads out to Los Angeles. Elvis calls Jerry a full day later (after arriving in L.A.) to arrange a flight back to Washington. And finally, Jerry suspects, even though Elvis presumably has never mentioned a Narcotics badge and had not yet come up with the idea to try to get one or to meet with Nixon as part of such an effort, that the reason Elvis wanted to go to Washington was for this very same badge. Why did Jerry suspect that the badge was the reason for the trip to Washington? Had Elvis mentioned this badge before? There is no indication that he had. It is my belief that Jerry has added this suspicion because it fits with the narrative, and allows a trip to Washington without the Joyce Bova factor, an omission also embraced by Priscilla. And finally, on this source, if Jerry didn’t know why he and Elvis were heading to Washington, why didn’t Jerry ask about the gun display that Elvis grabbed before leaving his house en route to the airport? Jerry didn’t think to ask about that?
To close, the Nixon/Washington trip has been mis-reported and twisted in more ways than I can count over the past (nearly) 50 years. Either through laziness, disinterest, poor research, or whatever…the fact remains that writers and researchers often fail to ask the right questions about this story, and those questions are what help to form the accurate and truthful story. These facts, then, should no longer be in dispute:
–Elvis took a flight from Memphis to Washington on Saturday, December 19, 1970, to find Joyce Bova in Washington. This was a flight Elvis chose, and it was not chosen because the flight was “the next available.” This is the first leg of the trip.
–Elvis checked in at the Hotel Washington on Saturday, and shortly thereafter left Washington en route to Los Angeles. This would be the second leg of the trip. Elvis did not check out of the hotel, which suggests he planned on returning. Since he had not come up with the idea to meet Nixon in pursuit of the Narcotics badge, it is illogical to state/assume that Elvis traveled to Washington on Saturday “to meet Nixon” or to “get a badge.” Very few people who report on this story ask the key question: “Why did Elvis travel to Washington on Saturday, December 19, 1970”? The answer is Joyce Bova, *not* Richard Nixon.
–Elvis flew back to Washington early on Monday, December 21, 1970. With him was Jerry Schilling. This was the third leg of the trip. Since Elvis came up with the idea to meet Nixon on this leg of the trip, it is incorrect to *ever* claim that Elvis, at any time, “went to Washington D.C. to meet Nixon.” On legs 1 and 3 of this trip, Elvis’s intent was to locate Joyce Bova.
–Because Elvis grabbed the WWII commemorative gun display *before* he came up with the idea to meet Nixon, and to get the Narcotics badge, the *only* reason for taking the gun display on the plane was that it was a gift intended for Joyce Bova. The inscription on the gun references a date very close to her birthdate (December 11 on the gun, Joyce was born on December 12), and also references Sicily, Italy, where Joyce’s family comes from (see images below, courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library). There is no logical evidence or implication that Elvis, upon departing Los Angeles, intended the gun as a gift for Richard Nixon.
“SICILY” seen at upper right of engraved section
December 11, 1941