Elvis Presley Once Dropped $55K To Own a Piece of Franklin Roosevelt's History

As the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley was one of the most influential musicians and pop culture icons in history. As the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt led the country through the Great Depression and World War II and is ranked among our nation’s greatest commanders-in-chief. What do these two men have in common? Presley once owned an important piece of Roosevelt’s history — his Presidential yacht! 

Franklin Roosevelt’s floating White House 

Before Air Force One was the preferred mode of transportation for America’s presidents, our country’s leaders used presidential yachts. Our chief executives used the naval ships as a so-called “Floating White House” between 1880 and 1977 when the last was decommissioned. 

During his presidency, Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, traveled aboard the USS Potomac. The boat was built in 1934 as a United States Coast Guard Cutter.

It was commissioned by the United States Navy in 1936 and used by Roosevelt until he died in 1945. The boat was a welcome getaway for the President during Washington D.C.’s oppressively hot summers.

He found respite aboard the ship, enjoying fishing, poker games, spending time with his family, and working on his stamp collection. He also used it for official business, like diplomatic meetings and hosting dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth and King George VI of Great Britain in the summer of 1939. 

After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the USS Potomac had a series of owners and was used for a variety of purposes. It was once used by the state of Maryland, worked as a ferry between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and sailed down the Panama Canal to be shown off at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. 

Elvis buys the historic ship

In 1964, the once-mighty USS Potomac was in a state of disrepair and seemed destined for the scrap heap when its owners put it up at auction. When Presley’s mother, Gladys, found out, she was shocked, knowing what an important part of history the ship was. So in January 1964, Presley stepped in and bought the ship for $55,000.

“Elvis feels the yacht could be a strong source for donations in memory of the late Presidents Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy,” Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, said at the time. 

Originally, Presley wanted to donate the historic ship to one of his favorite charities, the March of Dimes Foundation. However, the group was concerned with the cost of maintenance and upkeep, so they regretfully declined the offer. It didn’t take long to find another charity to accept his donation. 

Elvis donates to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

On Valentine’s Day 1964, Presley presented the USS Potomac to Danny Thomas and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The hospital then sold the ship for between $60,000 and $75,000. 

Presley was notoriously generous, giving away cars, cash, and jewelry to friends, employees, and strangers alike. This wasn’t the first time he had helped a charitable cause. In 1961, he performed a benefit concert in Hawaii that raised more than $54,000 for the USS Arizona Memorial Fund. Thanks to the publicity the event generated, more donations rolled in, and the memorial in Pearl Harbor was dedicated the following year.  

Where is the USS Potomac today?

After St. Jude’s sold the USS Potomac, it again passed through many hands. In 1980, the boat was involved in an illegal drug-smuggling ring and seized by Federal agents in San Francisco.

It was towed to Treasure Island, where it later sank. Just a few weeks later, the ship was raised by the U.S. Navy and sold to the Port of Oakland. After a $5 million restoration, the ship was opened to the public in 1995 as a memorial to Roosevelt.

It was designated as a National Historic Landmark and is open for tours in Jack London Square in Oakland, California.

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