‘I told the Mail I was Jerry Lee Lewis’s wife… when they realised I was 13 all hell broke loose’: Cousin who had rock’n’roll legend’s baby at 14 reveals their marriage was a rollercoaster of violence and drugs in first interview after his death
The plane carrying Myra Lewis from her home in Memphis to London had not long touched down when a Daily Mail reporter spotted her slight figure on the concourse of London’s Heathrow Airport and asked who she was.
‘I told him I was a nobody,’ the now 78-year-old recalls. ‘But he kept on and finally I relented and said: “I’m Jerry’s wife.” And I guess you could say the rest is history.’
The Jerry she referred to was the hellraising rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis, who died last week aged 87.
When he arrived in London in May 1958 for a 37-date tour, he was a bona fide star, a piano-pounding sensation whose hit records Great Balls Of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On had sold millions.
And while Myra was indeed his wife, she was also a mere 13 years old and his first cousin once removed — her father Jay was Jerry’s cousin.
Myra Lewis married the rock legend – her first cousin once removed – when she was aged 13
The double scandal was enough to bring Lewis’s rising star crashing to the ground.
Within days, the man who had been on the verge of snatching Elvis’s rock’n’roll crown faced ignominy.
Newspaper reports described Myra as looking ‘like a well-scrubbed fourth-former’. Questions were asked in the House of Commons, the singer was booed off stage and after only three dates the tour was cancelled.
‘It was like a bomb had dropped,’ as Myra puts it in her first UK newspaper interview since Jerry’s death.
‘And nobody had had the sense to see it coming.’
Myra did her best to calm things. ‘When the reporter asked how old I was, I made myself 15,’ she says. ‘I thought I was being smart, although of course in the UK, 15 still isn’t old enough to be a wife.’
But, then, as Myra says now, it was she who was the grown-up in the relationship, which spanned 13 years, produced two children (the first arrived when she was just 14), and ended in divorce by the time she was 26.
‘It’s a little crazy looking back,’ she says with some understatement. ‘When you put the numbers down on paper, it looks outrageous. And while of course I wasn’t as worldly as I am now, it didn’t feel bad. I felt right at home.’
She admits she didn’t think too much of him at first. He was 22 when they met, and already the veteran of two marriages and ‘funny looking’.
‘His hair was cut too short,’ she says. ‘But we were friends, he made me laugh and I guess, over time, those feelings got deeper. Then Jerry decided he wanted to marry me.’
In December 1957, the couple eloped to Spencer’s Wedding Chapel in Mississippi, where the legal age for girls to marry was a scandalously young 12.
They returned to the family home in Jerry’s Cadillac without so much as a wedding night alone.
Newspaper reports described Myra as looking ‘like a well-scrubbed fourth-former’. Questions were asked in the House of Commons, the singer was booed off stage and after only three dates the tour was cancelled
All hell broke loose three days later, when Myra’s parents discovered what had unfolded under their noses. ‘I left the marriage documents out when I went to school so they could see them,’ Myra says. ‘They were both terribly upset.’ That’s putting it mildly.
A lively and engaging character, Myra now lives in Duluth, Georgia, with her third husband, of nearly 40 years, whom she describes as ‘an old-fashioned gentleman’. Together they run a real estate firm.
‘Life’s pretty calm,’ she says.
Even so, the past few weeks have been emotionally gruelling. Just over two weeks before Jerry died, Myra lost her father Jay, a talented bass player, to cancer at the age of 95. It was Jay who plucked his cousin Jerry from obscurity, putting him on the path to stardom.
‘Daddy was in search of a pianist for his band and had heard rumours about how good Jerry was. He brought him to Memphis to record with his record producer Sam Phillips,’ she says.
‘Sam wasn’t too sure. He saw a lot of fly-by-nights, but my daddy vouched for him, said he would provide a roof over his head, and based on that, Sam Phillips took a chance on him.
‘So without my daddy going to Louisiana, Mississippi, looking for Jerry, there would be no Jerry Lee Lewis.’
And Jerry wouldn’t have been around to seduce his schoolgirl daughter, either.
She says: ‘After my parents found my note, my mother called Sam Phillips and said, “Jerry and Myra have got married, and Jay has got a pistol in his pocket and he’s looking for Jerry, so you’d better beat him out of town.”
‘So Sam took Jerry to the airport and put him on a plane.’
The next time her father and newly minted husband met, they were on stage.
‘They had a show they were supposed to play somewhere, and Sam Phillips spun this philosophy to my daddy that he may very well destroy both of us by not letting us stay married. And my daddy relented and said as he couldn’t change it, he just had to live with it.’
However, the wider world was less forgiving. Six months after their marriage, in May 1958, the couple flew into the UK.
Myra said of the relationship: ‘It’s a little crazy looking back,’ she says with some understatement. ‘When you put the numbers down on paper, it looks outrageous. And while of course I wasn’t as worldly as I am now, it didn’t feel bad. I felt right at home’
‘Prior to the trip, everybody was telling Jerry not to take me to England, because if you’ve got any baggage the English are going to look at it and expose it,’ she says.
‘And he kept saying, “Either Myra goes, or I don’t.”
‘The big error in all of this was that nobody talked to me. All they had to do was say, “If anyone asks who you are, you say your Daddy plays bass with Jerry.” Because that was the God’s honest truth.
‘I could have walked off that plane holding my daddy’s hand, and there wouldn’t have been a question asked.’
Instead, it took a matter of hours for the shocking truth of Myra’s age to emerge.
What’s more, the marriage was bigamous because Jerry had not yet divorced his previous wife, Jane Mitcham. Myra says: ‘Jerry had told me he wasn’t really married to her because he had married her without divorcing his first wife, so he didn’t feel like he needed a divorce because he wasn’t legally married to her.
‘I mean, none of it made any sense really.’
Either way, the revelation proved catastrophic and the entourage left the UK within days, returning to a U.S. that was hardly more welcoming: Jerry was dropped by his record label, promoters withdrew, and radio stations stopped playing his records.
‘It was not much better because it was still a scandal. A 22-year-old man doesn’t marry a 13-year-old girl, and on top of that his divorce wasn’t final from one of his other wives. It was a perfect storm.’
It made little difference when Jerry did legally divorce his second wife and marry the still 13-year-old Myra all over again in June 1958.
But the public disapproval only strengthened the lovers’ bond.
‘We were better as a couple, because we had been attacked by the world and it just threw us closer together,’ says Myra.
And so, still not yet 14, she settled in to the business of being a wife in the home into which they had moved a month after they married.
‘I was always the adult in the room, Jerry was more like a kid, having fun, playing music, still chewing bubble gum,’ she says. ‘I was the one saying, “OK, what do we need to take care of?” ’
It was Myra who bought groceries and furniture, who learned to cook and who, despite being three years away from the legal age to drive a car, learned to drive one anyway and then took charge of purchasing Jerry’s fleet of vehicles.
‘I bought several,’ she says. ‘I mean whatever car he wanted, I would go and buy for him. I loved to put a house together, to buy the furniture, learning to cook. It was very fulfilling for me.’
But there was no escaping how young she looked.
Once, she met Elvis Presley at Sun Records not long after she was married, only for Elvis to pat her on the head and ask Jerry if she was his baby sister.
‘It was a cute remark, but for me, I was right at home doing what I was doing,’ she insists.
It is one reason she is scathing about the 1989 film adaptation of her bestselling 1982 memoir, Great Balls Of Fire — starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder as Jerry and Myra.
‘The film was a joke, the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It insulted us,’ she says. ‘Winona came to see me the night before filming started and asked me questions — how did I feel about this and that?
‘But then they put her in a little dress and made her chew bubble gum and act like she was eight years old, and that wasn’t me.’
In truth, no amount of maturity could have prepared Myra for what was to come, so soon into her marriage. The couple’s son, Steven, born when Myra was 14, drowned at the age of three in the swimming pool at the family home.
‘A huge part of me died and is still dead. It is the worst thing that can happen to you,’ Myra says quietly. ‘Jerry was as heartbroken as I was. He was devastated, we both were.’
Jerry buried his grief in drink, drugs and work. Promoters may not have wanted him, but people still turned out in droves for his performances, and he spent much of the 1960s on the road.
It was a punishing schedule that saw him fall further into the grip of his addictions, while Myra was left at home to raise their daughter, Phoebe, who was born in 1963.
‘Drugs just turn a person inside out, and that’s what they did to Jerry,’ she says.
‘He would call me in the early hours of the morning, shouting abuse down the phone, and he wouldn’t remember the next day.
‘I’d tell him to please stop calling me at 3am and he would say, “Oh, baby, don’t pay any attention to me.” And then that night the phone would ring again and he would say, “Who the hell do you think you are telling me not to call you?” ’
Then there was the womanising, which Myra admits she couldn’t forgive. ‘And the reason for that was he was so hard on me, all “don’t you look at another man”. But the rules for me and the rules for him were totally different.’
Occasionally, the sweet-natured Jerry she married still appeared in glimpses. ‘One of my favourite memories is when we were taking a road trip and I was in the back of the car reading to Phoebe.
‘It was a story about a duck that had lost its mother, and it was going up to various things asking, ‘Are you my mommy?’ I got to the part where the little duck is crying and I stopped to take a drink of my Coca-Cola. And when I did, this voice from behind the steering wheel said loudly, “Myra, what happened to the duck?”
‘He was listening and wanted to know. That shows you a different side to him.’
In the main, however, family life was all but destroyed by Jerry’s drink and drug abuse.
In Great Balls Of Fire, which was followed up in 2016 with her second memoir, The Spark That Survived, she detailed some of the episodes of abuse, including the occasion he beat her black and blue using her own fists, an attack witnessed by Phoebe, then aged seven.
In 1970, Myra filed for divorce citing abuse and adultery.
‘It was very difficult for both of us because we both still loved each other,’ she recalls. ‘He begged me not to leave, but I couldn’t give him another chance because I knew he wouldn’t change.’
‘We weren’t calling each other names. And I never, ever kept my daughter from seeing her daddy.’
Phoebe, now 59, went on to be her father’s manager, living with him for many years at his ranch in Mississippi and overseeing a career that went on to find no small success, first in country music and latterly in rock’n’roll.
Cordial relations ceased, however, in 2012, when Jerry married Judith Brown, the ex-wife of Myra’s brother Rusty. She would be his seventh — and final — wife.
‘It was a betrayal,’ says Myra. ‘Judith had been married to my brother, she was a family member in my home, my mummy and daddy’s home.’
Today, little over a week since Jerry died, Myra displays the same dignified maturity she did as a teenage bride.
‘Jerry’s death has left a hole in my heart,’ she says.
‘Whether my husband or not, he’s still my daughter’s father. So I’m hurt because my child’s hurt.
‘And Jerry had his bad spots, but he was a good human, a good-hearted person. It was an honour to have been his wife.’
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