If there’s anyone who can keep a secret in Hollywood, it’s Linda Thompson.
The 66-year-old blonde stunner, who found fame as Miss Tennessee Universe in 1972 before pursuing acting and songwriting, has successfully managed to keep her high-profile relationships private for decades. So it wasn’t until 2015, when her ex-husband Bruce Jenner publicly emerged as Caitlyn Jenner, that Thompson would decide to write her memoir.
In her new book, "A Little Thing Called Life," Thompson reveals how she fell in love with America’s most famous jock, only to later learn about his shocking secret and then keep that secret for nearly thirty years — even from her sons. Thompson also gets candid on how she reconnected with Caitlyn Jenner after her transformation, and how, between all the twists and turns of her journey, she maintained her passion for songwriting, raised two sons, became a grandmother, and adjusted "to the very public reality of the father of her children now living as a woman.”
However, Thompson’s book isn’t only a retelling of her time with Jenner. Thompson also dives into her earlier high-profile romance with Elvis Presley in Graceland — a story that for years people have begged to learn about.
How’s that for juicy?
FNM spoke exclusively with Thompson about her new book to find out more, including why The King was so adamant about preserving her virginity, and what her relationship with Caitlyn is really like today:
FNM: What prompted you to write "A Little Thing Called Life"?
LT: You know, I was offered a lot of money 39 years ago to write a book about Elvis, but I never wanted to be accused of exploiting that relationship, or any other for that matter. However, I just felt like it was time for me to share my own life story from my perspective, not somebody else’s. I also felt that I needed time to carve out my own identity, my own career, and my own life. To write out my memoir with more dignity and credibility. I certainly wasn’t going to expose Bruce’s secret. That was something he shared with me in confidence 31 years ago, so I held that secret for quite a long time. I certainly couldn’t have written the book then. I wouldn’t have violated that confidence. It’s been 11 years since my separation. I knew it was important for me to write my life history, but I wasn’t ready to share it sooner than now.
FNM: One of the interesting stories that readers will find in your book is how Elvis Presley wanted to "preserve" your virginity. What did he mean by that?
LT: Well, he was very old-fashioned. I think that was one thing that he very much appreciated and valued in me, that I was a virtuous girl at the time. I wasn’t that young, but I was a Southern Baptist. I grew up very conservatively and traditionally. I wanted to save myself for marriage and he just thought that was very commendable. He didn’t want to put the pressure on me to commit before I was ready. He was a Southern gentleman, a lovely human being.
FNM: Very few people can say that Elvis was their first love. What would you say you learned from the relationship?
LT: I learned everything that I know about love. In the 4½ years I lived with him in Graceland, on the road, and in Las Vegas, I learned romantic love. I would say just about everything about love, both good and bad. One of the biggest lessons I also learned from living with Elvis and loving him for so many years was that we're all human, and no matter what level one has reached in terms of fame, they’re still human beings. It’s a disservice, really, when we put celebrated people on a pedestal and don’t allow them to be human. It’s a very lonely experience for the individual. It’s not a sustainable way to live. I think that happens to a lot of people who find themselves thrust into the spotlight and becoming famous before they recognize what’s happening to them. Life becomes a little distorted for them.
FNM: Elvis is one of the most iconic figures in American history. What goes through your mind when you hear his songs or see his films?
LT: That was my love. That was my first love. I think you get one great love in your life like that, if you’re lucky enough, where you hold nothing back. And I’m not saying that’s the healthiest way to love either. But it’s the one love I experienced where I absolutely lost myself in that person. I absolutely adore him. And I still feel a connection to his soul because he was such a good human being and charismatic figure. I got to know him very intimately as a human being, not just Elvis Presley the icon. I still feel that and there’s a raw spot in my heart when I see him or hear him sing. I have to stop what I’m doing and just remember the great love that we shared. That doesn’t go away. That stays in the heart forever.
FNM: During your marriage to Bruce Jenner, was it challenging to discover your partner identified as a woman?
LT: It would have been difficult enough even if there were signs along the way, certain little indicators. But there was absolutely nothing about Bruce Jenner, world’s greatest athlete, Malibu dude, the jock of all time — this was a very athletic, simple down-to-earth guy who was in the water all the time and constantly challenging himself to go higher, faster and stronger — there was nothing to indicate there was a feminine aspect to his nature. When he came to me after being with him for about six years, and having two beautiful sons with him — Brody was about 18-months-old and Brandon was about 3½ — this impossibly masculine man came to me with a very serious look on his face and said, "I need to tell you something about myself. We need to have a talk." I thought he was having an affair. But instead, he told me he identified as female. Now, this was around 31 years ago, so what did that mean? We had no idea really what "transgender" meant. And it’s still confusing to some today. There are people who still struggle to understand how and why this happens to someone. Back then, I had no clue.
My instant reaction was, "Let’s go to therapy." I thought we could fix it. I was praying we could fix it. But after six months in therapy, I had to come to the sad realization that this was absolutely who my husband was. My husband wanted to transition. And he began the transition 31 years ago. He took female hormones for five years, had feminizing surgery to his face, had electrolysis for hair removal on his face, neck, and chest — and you know, I just tried to stand by him. But I filed for divorce. To be perfectly honest, that’s not what I signed up for. But as devastating as that was to me, I couldn’t help but look at this person that I loved and just feel sorry for him. At least I’m comfortable in my own skin. This poor soul felt disenfranchised his entire life.
FNM: Were there any hints within the marriage at all?
LT: Not a thing. And that’s what made this situation so staggering. I mean, women have a sense of intuition, but there was absolutely nothing that hinted something was going with Bruce. We’re talking about an impossibly masculine man in every aspect that you can imagine. In my book, you’ll see a photo of Bruce in a wetsuit with a beard — that’s the Bruce Jenner I knew and married.
FNM: What was your reaction when you first saw Bruce dressed as a woman?
LT: In the midst of our therapy and me struggling to understand this, he said, "Why don’t you come to New York and spend a weekend with your husband?" Husband was the word I was looking for, because that, to me, meant masculine. I went to New York hoping that this was something he could repress … and you know, I didn’t know at the time this was something highly uncomfortable for him to repress. When I arrived, I knocked at the door and Caitlyn open the door. This was a feminine, fully dressed woman with a wig, makeup. It was devastating. I wasn’t prepared to see that. That was my selfish feeling, but I was confused.
FNM: How is your relationship with Caitlyn these days?
LT: We’re very cordial. We don’t go shopping, have lunch together, trade clothes or anything like that (laughs). But I’ve always had an open-door policy in my house. Everyone comes here for the holidays and Caitlyn has been here for Brody and Brandon. I see a lot more of Caitlyn than I did of Bruce. Bruce and I were estranged for many years, and he actually didn’t see the kids while they were growing up very much. I think Caitlyn is a better parent than Bruce was. She’s different because she’s more of a fashionista, but her values are intact, and she has the same interests. She loves to fly, she’s still sporty, and she plays tennis. It’s a very fascinating subject, but I do want to point out that we don’t have to understand something in order to accept it and be kind about it. I know it’s difficult to understand. No one knows it better than I. But it’s so important to just be kind to one another because we aren’t walking in that other person’s shoes.
FNM: How’s Caitlyn's relationship with her sons?
LT: Brandon and Brody have been so incredibly noble about her transition. Growing up, they didn’t have those Hallmark moments with Bruce. He was engaged, and raising another family very publicly. But I really did try to teach them that forgiveness is a gift for ourselves. They’ve been able to embrace that in their lives. They have totally forgiven that perceived lack of attention from their father and they’ve been fiercely loyal to Caitlyn. They’re very confident young men, so it hasn’t disrupted their perception of themselves or their life.
FNM: I read that you kept your sons in the dark about Bruce’s personal struggle until 2013. When did you realize that was the right time?
LT: Brody and I happened to be alone on his boat during a trip to Catalina. It was a belated birthday gift for me. It was just the two of us. I felt it was a good time to tell him, and of course, his reaction was "What the [expletive]?!" But he did say, "Well, that explains a lot of things." I then said, "When we get back to shore, let’s sit down with Brandon and we’ll tell him together." But of course, Brody called him right away on his cell phone and told him before we even got back to the mainland. I knew this wasn’t something that wasn’t going to go away. I found that out in therapy. So they needed to know at some point about their father’s condition. But I also wanted them to have enough life experiences so they could have a better understanding of the situation.
FNM: What advice would you give to a woman whose partner may be experiencing something similar?
LT: Every situation, every relationship is different. There are certainly women out there who would be amenable to staying in the marriage and living with another woman. At that point in my life, I was 35-years-old and I did not want to settle for that. I've never been attracted to women sexually and I wanted romance. Getting divorced was the right decision for me, but it’s not the right decision for everyone else. If you find yourself in a relationship or even a friendship with someone who’s conflicted with their gender identity, just be kind. This is not a life choice. This is something that you are born with. This is like being born with a gene for being tall, short, black, white, gay, straight — it’s not a choice. It’s something that someone is born with. And as such, we need to be empathetic and understanding.