CONWAY TWITTY'S GROWLY baritone could be heard on the public-address system throughout Twitty City outside Nashville, crooning country classics like "Hello, Darlin' " and "Linda on My Mind." But the 1,000 people who came to the music-and-museum complex last week weren't there to listen; they came to buy. After a year of wrangling between his heirs and his widow over the singer's $15 million estate, the executors of Twitty's will had put all his worldly goods—ranging from gold records and vintage guitars to his celery-green 1956 Thunderbird and his rhinestone-studded suits—on the auction block. "If Daddy were here, he'd say, 'If my family can't get along, I'd just as soon like my things to be with my fans,' " said Michael Jenkins, 40, Twitty's son by his first marriage.

It was obvious that the Twittys weren't getting along; throughout the three-day auction the three children from his second marriage—Joni, 37, Kathy, 35, and Jimmy, 34—exchanged dirty looks with their father's widow, Dee, the singer's third wife. The family feud started after Twitty's sudden death from a heart attack in June 1993 when the singer's will revealed he had left his entire estate (save for $50,000 to his mother, Velma Jenkins, who died on Oct. 6) to his children. Twitty, born Harold Jenkins, had last updated his will in 1984—three years before his third marriage. Dee, 40, citing a Tennessee law that guarantees a widow one-third of her husband's estate, challenged the will—and the battle was joined.

The two sides fought over everything—from the value of the estate to how to divvy up royalties from Twitty's recordings. Believing Dee's claims are just, Michael has sided with her against his half siblings, who accuse Dee of being a gold digger. Says Kathy: "If Daddy had wanted Dee to have his estate, he would have left it to her." Dee, who won't comment on the legal battles, feels differently. "Conway would have supported this auction," she said, eyeing a watch she gave Twitty for Christmas in 1986 and which was now up for sale. "But he'd be very surprised at the behavior that got us to this point."

Kathy and Joni had long disliked Dee Henry, Twitty's onetime receptionist, because they believe she was the cause of Conway's divorce from their mother, Mickey. "Dee told my father all she wanted was a mobile home and a gold band," says Kathy, who claims she repeatedly told Dee to stay away and leave the family alone.

Both Kathy and Joni claim the family came together briefly after Conway's death. Kathy says Dee "cried about now having no one" and about being left out of the will. "We felt so sorry for her," says Joni.

That ended when Dee filed her claim and the executors began settling Twitty's estate. The sale of Twitty City for $2.75 million earlier this year (it shut its doors Sept. 30) only made matters worse. Kathy, Joni and Jimmy were bounced off Conway's payroll (they'd been paid "salaries" of up to $45,000 a year for being part of the Twitty City attraction), and they and their families were booted from the posh Twitty City homes they had rented for $400 a month. (Joni, thrice divorced, has two children; Kathy, who has been married five times, has three; and Jimmy, twice divorced, has two. Michael, also twice divorced, has two.)

Kathy, Joni and Jimmy cried foul and went to court to get the executors—two of Twitty's longtime financial advisers—fired; the executors claimed Kathy was harassing them with phone calls and visits and won a restraining order against her.

Finally last summer a weary probate judge ordered that all of Twitty's personal property be sold off, with Dee receiving one-third of the proceeds and Michael, Kathy, Joni and Jimmy splitting the remaining two-thirds. Kathy and Joni appealed, but the decision stuck.

The executors had given $100,000 to Dee and $50,000 to each of the children to spend at the auction on items that had special meaning for them. Fumed Joni: "It's sickening to have to buy something of your own father's when he passes away." Kathy, who bought her mother's marriage and divorce certificates, is still bitter. "Dee thinks she was the only one Daddy talked to, the only one he loved," she says.

Although Michael bid unsuccessfully on a framed manuscript of "Hello, Darlin' " that Conway had kept on his office wall (it sold for $6,100), Dee spent nearly $200,000 picking up, among other things, Conway's customized 1980 AMC Pacer for $27,500, his trademark "CT" gold-and-diamond necklace and the Christmas watch, each for $19,000. In all, the auction took in more than $1 million. And though there were some unpleasant moments—Mickey was escorted out for allegedly trying to take postcards and other personal papers, and Kathy's oldest son, Ryan, 16, screamed at Dee when she drove away in the Pacer—the auction may finally let the family get on with their lives. "We should all have been happy with each other," says Michael. "We could have opened museums in Branson and shared all this with the fans. There's a lot of things we could have done."

CYNTHIA SANZ
BONNIE BELL and AMY ESKIND in Hendersonville. Tenn.

  • Contributors:
  • Bonnie Bell,
  • Amy Eskind.