Surviving Marriage to the Killer

updated 07/10/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/1989 01:00AM

Jerry Lee Lewis knows a thing or two about sin. By some accounts he has spent most of his 53 years trying to reconcile the hard-shell Pentecostal values of his boyhood in Ferriday, La., with a burning need to play rock and roll. But Jerry Lee didn't think that what he did that December day in 1957 was immoral. Heck, it wasn't illegal—or even unusual—where he came from. But when the world learned five months later that Lewis, 22, had married his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra Gale Brown, the shock waves put Jerry Lee's career in a tailspin. Overnight the howling, piano-banging backwoods boy who had just staked a claim to Elvis's throne became a rock-and-roll pariah and fell from the charts.

Now a new movie, Great Balls of Fire!, recounts Lewis's quick ride to fame and his infamous fall. Dennis Quaid plays Jerry Lee, thin and blond, with a crooked smile and a manic, chip-on-the-shoulder drive to be the greatest. Winona Ryder is Myra, the wide-eyed eighth grader from Memphis who ran away to a white-frame wedding chapel in Hernando, Miss., before she had even been out on a date.

Today Myra Williams, 44 and remarried, is a successful real estate broker in Atlanta. Last fall, when shooting began on Great Balls of Fire!, which is based on the memoir she co-wrote with Murray Silver in 1982, the onetime child bride drove to Memphis to visit the set. She was pleased by the casting. "Dennis is so much like Jerry 30 years ago that it's Yeaky—and, oooh, is he cute!" she exclaims. As for Ryder, 17, "She doesn't look like I looked, but she looks like I felt—innocent and young and timid and not really surefooted—like a little colt." It wasn't until Williams saw the film rushes, though, that she became deeply affected by the scenes from her past. "What I saw on Winona's face was exactly what I felt—fear, excitement, love, panic, happiness and sadness all at the same moment," she says. "When it was over, I was crying. I just came apart."

Williams bears little resemblance to the apple-cheeked, ponytailed teenager seen snuggling up to Lewis in her old snapshots. She keeps the pictures in a box along with other mementos, including a long, silky lock of Lewis's hair. Myra's face is slimmer now, and her once raven hair is frosted and worn in a lacquered style favored by country and western singers. But she still has a teenager's excitable energy.

Her 13 years with Lewis are not fondly remembered. They were, she says succinctly, "the pits." Yet the romance began sweetly enough. It was 1956, and Jerry Lee, a struggling unknown, was playing piano in a dingy club for $40 a week. He came to Myra's house because her father, Jay (a bass-fiddle player who soon joined Lewis's band), had offered to help set up a meeting with Sun Records producer Sam Phillips. "I'm sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework, and I look up and here's my father with this quick-eyed man," Myra recalls. "He was cute—he was wearing a red cowboy shirt and cowboy boots, and he looked like a little country boy. But he had a little goatee, and I didn't like that. It reminded me of Smith Brothers cough drops."

Jerry was married at the time—to his second wife, Jane—but that barely slowed him down. (He would later claim that this marriage was invalid because his divorce from an earlier wife, Dorothy, hadn't been finalized when they wed.) Within six months he was making eyes at Myra. She was equally smitten. "Jerry is not the same person now that he was then," says Myra of the man later known as The Killer. "Back then he was sort of normal. Oh, he was always pushy, and he was always hardheaded, but he had this innocence." She and Jerry Lee exchanged their first kiss on a steamy summer day while cavorting in a swimming pool. It wasn't long before the kissing cousins were engaging in sex—though, says Myra, "it certainly was not something that I knew anything about or had any desire to do. I was so naive it was ridiculous. It was like, 'What is this?' But Jerry was certainly a young, healthy, red-blooded boy."

In the next few months, Lewis's life changed dramatically. His rock-and-roll hit "Whole Lot of Shakin' Coin' On" was banned from many radio stations as obscene, but when "Great Balls of Fire!" took off" up the charts a few months later, "Whole Lot of Shakin' " rode along on its coattails. Suddenly Jerry Lee was driving a Cadillac and packing a wad of bills. When he got the notion to marry Myra, it didn't take much sweet talk to win her over. He was a big star, and besides, she says, she hated school. She was also troubled by thoughts of mortality. "Back then we lived with the threat of the bomb coming down, and I thought that any second life would be snuffed out all over the earth," she says. "That gave me a feeling of urgency. I wanted to start my life because I was going to lose it too soon. If I hadn't married Jerry, I probably would have married someone else."

When Williams's parents learned of the marriage, her distraught father took a belt to her, and it was several months before the Browns accepted the situation. Still, Myra says, she and Lewis were very happy before the scandal broke. Williams would travel with the band and wait for Jerry back at the hotel. "We were like two kids who went to Disneyland and got to live there," she says. "We wrestled and played and had fun."

Five months after the wedding, Lewis was scheduled to tour England. Wary of the gossip-hungry British tabloids, Lewis's manager advised him to leave Myra at home. Instead, Jerry Lee flew with her to London, where they were met by an enthusiastic crowd. When a Fleet Street reporter turned to Myra and asked, "Who are you?" she replied, not unnaturally, "I'm his wife." Looking back, she says, "It was the most innocent thing—I'd never talked to a reporter before. But the press had a field day with us. We just made good copy. Even Jack Paar made fun of us on TV. He said we had a double-ring ceremony—a wedding ring and a teething ring." Immediately Lewis's English bookings were canceled, and radio and TV stations in the U.S. refused to play his music.

Though Myra figures Lewis lost "billions" because of the marriage, he never accused her of ruining his career. Instead, unable to get his records played on radio, Jerry Lee threw himself into an exhausting touring schedule. Myra no longer traveled regularly with her husband and rarely had him to herself at home, free of the pack of relatives that Lewis usually had in tow. Their first child, Steve Allen, was born in early 1959; their daughter, Phoebe, in 1963. But by the late '60s, Lewis was drinking heavily. On the road, according to Myra, he went on sprees and fooled around. At home, she says, he slapped her around and accused her of being unfaithful. He was a man in torment—the public censure apparently lending new urgency to the agonies of guilt he had always suffered because of his Pentecostal faith. The lines had been drawn back in Ferriday, where young Jerry Lee and his cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart used to debate church doctrine on the back porch. Swaggart said blues and boogie-woogie were the devil's work; Jerry Lee said he felt the Holy Spirit when he played. But the conflict didn't end there. According to Myra, Lewis was a sternly God-fearing man beset by a carload of devilish impulses. "That religion will give you a hundred quick ways to get to hell," says Myra of Lewis's inherited Fundamentalism. "They made Jerry believe that you can't live what you believe. The man is tortured—Jerry Lee thinks that Jerry Lee is too wicked to be saved."

Perhaps he saw it as a judgment that in 1962, while Myra was fixing Easter dinner for relatives in Memphis, 3-year-old Stevie wandered outside and fell into the swimming pool. He was found dead there a few minutes later. Jerry Lee, who wasn't home at the time, never missed a chance to blame Myra. He'd say," 'It's your fault he's dead—you didn't watch him like you were supposed to,' " she said. After that, the abuse intensified, she claims, yet she stoically stood by her man. "I didn't know I had a choice," she says. "It was the '50s and '60s, and women were subservient to men, particularly in the Deep South. It was very unfair. If a man had the slightest bit of a mean streak in him, he could really take advantage."

After more than a decade of marriage, she says, Jerry Lee's mean streak was a mile wide and growing. Daughter Phoebe witnessed at least one of her mother's beatings, and it upset her. Myra said. "Phoebe was in the middle of the fire during the turbulent years. She was always jumping in the middle and trying to make it all go away. Phoebe had to grow up fast."

By 1969 Williams was constantly gulping tranquilizers to stave off nervous attacks that caused her face to erupt in patchlike shingles. One night, when Lewis called in from the road and began drunkenly berating her, Myra pulled a pearl-handled pistol from her nightstand and announced that she was going to blow her head off. She said Lewis just told her, "Put the phone close, so I can hear it go off." At that moment she decided to leave him. "Something in me snapped," Williams recalls. "I had reached a point. There was no more tolerating it and being miserable. It was either die or leave. If I was still married to Jerry, I'd probably be dead by now." (In fact, both of Lewis's next two wives did die, under mysterious circumstances. Jaren, 39, drowned in a swimming pool, and Shawn, 25, was found dead in her bed of a drug overdose barely three months after her wedding.)

On the rebound, Myra married the detective she had hired to trail Lewis and document his infidelities. That relationship fizzled 1½ years later, and Myra eventually went to work in real estate in Atlanta. Five years ago she married her boss, Richard Williams. They live with his 15-year-old son, Brook, in an airy, three-bedroom house in a well-to-do neighborhood. (Myra now makes $80,000 to $90,000 a year as a Realtor.)

Writing her memoirs, Myra says, helped her get over the enormous anger she once felt toward Lewis. She also takes comfort from the fact that her daughter, Phoebe, now 25, appears relatively unscathed by her tumultuous childhood. "I don't think Phoebe is a damaged child," says Myra, who sees her daughter every week." I think I'm extremely lucky that she didn't get married at 13, that she never had a drinking problem and that she never got into drugs. Phoebe is a child who learned from her parents' mistakes and went in the opposite direction." Except when it comes to choosing a career. A onetime free-lance photographer, Phoebe recently launched a country and western group with Johnny Cash's daughter Cindy and Loretta Lynn"s daughter Peggy. She talks to her father a lot on the phone, Myra says, and flew to Las Vegas with her boyfriend last month to see him perform. "They are very close," says Myra, who reports that Lewis has been generous with both alimony and child support. "Phoebe probably communicates with Jerry better than anyone—as well as Jerry can communicate with anyone."

Myra herself has had almost no contact with Lewis in recent years. She did run into him, though, at a Thanksgiving party that Dennis Quaid threw in Memphis during the filming. "We started walking toward each other, and everybody was backing up," she says with a laugh. "But I just hugged him. We didn't talk—we don't have anything to talk about anymore. I have my life and career, and it doesn't parallel Jerry's life."

For a moment Myra is wistful. "The hard life shows on Jerry," she says. "You see the torment on his face, the torture he's gone through. He's an angry man whose face is always set in that anger. You'd have to go way back to get to his innocence, but it was there."

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