Los Angeles — She was the sister Elvis Presley never had, a companion, confidante and keeper of secrets in the exciting days of his early career.
They drove bumper cars in Las Vegas, rode horses in California and hung out at Graceland, the Memphis home he had just bought for his mother.
Her name is Judy Spreckels, and she agreed to her first sit-down interview this week, with a reporter who was once the president of an Elvis fan club. As the 25th anniversary of Presley's Aug. 16 death approaches, memories were bubbling to the surface although there were still some things Spreckels wouldn't discuss.
"He told me secrets that I never told and will never tell," says Spreckels, now 70. "I had nothing to do with being a yes man for him, and obviously he trusted me.
"Anything he told me was not going to go to any publication. I am the only person who was around Elvis who was a writer and didn't write a book. I felt secrets were secrets."
Her collection of memorabilia includes every record Presley made but, she says, "My house is not decorated with Elvis memorabilia. I have so many indelible memories, I don't need to see them."
Las Vegas introduction
They met when Spreckels, an heiress who had a ranch in Las Vegas, was living at a hotel where Elvis was staying.
"I was sitting at a writing desk in the lobby writing a letter, and he just came up to me and started talking."
It was 1956, and Elvis was a newborn star. "How could you not know who he was even then?" she says. "I was friendly and told him I loved his record 'Heartbreak Hotel."'
Then he took her to the gift shop to show her a magazine.
"He said, 'This says I'm a hillbilly. I'm not, am I?' I said, 'No, you're a singer.' And after that I was with him and the guys all the time. There wasn't a crowd then, just a few guys."
Like a sister
Back then, she says, Elvis was surrounded by the first wave of what would become known as the Memphis Mafia. Spreckels was the only woman in the group.
She once described herself as having been like a sister to Elvis but never a girlfriend.
"Girls come and go," she explained. "But sisters stay forever."
Reminded of the comment now, she says it is true. "This sister lasted forever. We were friends till the day he died."
Spreckels glows when remembering the idyllic early days.
"We were like kids," she says of that time when Elvis was about 21 and she was two years older. In the afternoons in Las Vegas they would ride bumper cars at an amusement park. And they went out for adventures where they could escape the fans.
"One day we drove my car out into the desert and his cousin came with us. Elvis drove that car as fast as it could go, and I was in the front seat whooping and screaming and laughing. His cousin was on the floor in the back he was so scared. But I'd been a stunt player in the movies, and Elvis couldn't go fast enough to scare me."
When they visited Graceland, she said, "We stayed up all night listening to Elvis singing and playing the piano. He liked to sing hymns. I didn't know any hymns but I do now. He introduced me to 'Amazing Grace."'
In Los Angeles, where Elvis made movies, Judy remembers going out on a Sunday with him and his friend, actor Nick Adams.
"Elvis decided to stop in a sports store and buy us bows and arrows. It was just whimsy. We went up to Mulholland Drive and were shooting bows and arrows, and nobody saw us."
Another time, the trio went horseback riding and were captured in a snapshot by a teenager at the ranch. It shows Judy smiling up adoringly at Elvis, the wind blowing her hair. "I'm the only one in that picture who's still alive," she notes sadly.
She has many unpublished photographs, she says, and "He was looking at me all the time and he was laughing. It was just such a fun time."
Often, she traveled to Elvis' singing engagements around the country. And once, Spreckels, an artist, got him to sit for a portrait she drew. He inscribed it, "To Judy Spreckels, I love you, baby. Elvis Presley."
Friends till the end
When his mother, Gladys, died in 1958, Judy came to the funeral.
"I've never seen anyone as sad as Elvis was," she says. "He grieved. He cried continuously. We were in the front hall at Graceland, and he stood there hugging me for a half hour. He was crying and crying and crying. It was the saddest thing I'd ever seen."
In later years, she attended his Las Vegas concerts and he would stop the show to introduce her to the audience. She had married by then, and so had he. By the time drugs invaded his life, she was less involved.
"I never think of him as he was the last year or year and a half," she says. "I think of him as so vibrant and beautiful and funny. When he died, a whole part of my life changed and I died a little."
Spreckels now lives quietly in the San Fernando Valley. For a while she worked as a ghost writer of books and had a small publishing company. For years she was a trial watcher, attending famous court trials. Now, she describes herself as a recluse, preferring to watch trials on TV.
She would like to sell her memorabilia but is searching for a serious Elvis admirer dedicated to preserving the legend.
Asked if she ever ponders the tragedy of Elvis dying at 42, she pauses for a moment and says, "I think he got as old as he wanted to get."