When Myra Williams looks back on her life — her marriage to her cousin, singer Jerry Lee Lewis, in 1957 when she was just 13 years old, their good and bad times together, the two children they had, the permanent damage that their relationship inflicted on Lewis’ career and legacy — she sometimes wonders whether it was all a dream.
“But it happened,” the 78-year-old author and former real estate agent told The Times by telephone from her home in Atlanta, one day after Lewis’ death. “It did. It all happened to me.”
Everything “gigantic,” she said, occurred in her teenage years, cataloguing the milestones: married at 13; a mother at 14; losing her firstborn child when she was 17; giving birth to her second child at 19.
“Yes, it was turbulent as a teenager to be a wife and mother,” Williams said. “But in going through it, I’ve found my strength. And there’s almost nothing that can knock me off my block at this point.”
In the hours after Lewis died at age 87, obituaries of the rock legend flooded the internet, each featuring a transitional paragraph noting that Lewis’ star fell as quickly as it rose when his marriage to Williams became public during a tour of Britain a year after his debut album featuring the smash hit “Great Balls of Fire” rocketed to No. 2 on the pop charts.
“I was the bad thing in his life,” said Williams, describing how people saw her. “It was because of our marriage that his career hit the pavement. You know, you were judged for everything you did back then.”
And that judgment was swift and fierce. Radio stations stopped playing Lewis’ music. His label, Sun Records, stopped promoting him, and offers to perform evaporated. It was a lot for a young girl to shoulder, Williams said, adding that the misconception that plagued her then holds true to this day.
“I was called the child bride, but I was the adult and Jerry was the child,” Williams said. “When I look back on it, how can you defend yourself when you’re 13 years old? I mean there’s no excuse good enough for that to be OK.”
Williams said that she nonetheless took on all the responsibilities that came with her new role. “And I didn’t miss a beat. I took care of everything.”
She bought the couple’s home when Lewis was on the road, and also the car Lewis wanted. He told her to find a red Cadillac convertible, Williams remembered, and she did.
“I mean, I didn’t even have a driver’s license,” she said. “I did all the work and made all the decisions and did all the running and taking care of business and that kind of stuff.”
Williams even managed the finances, she said.
“One time I went to the bank with a big sack of money to deposit it … and the teller said to me, ‘Myra, there’s a policeman sitting there outside in his car and he followed you here. So when you get ready to leave, I’ll drive you home,'” she said.
The Cadillac stayed in the bank parking lot that day.
Williams said drugs caused irreparable damage to her marriage. Before Lewis began using drugs, she said, he was silly, playful and kind. The couple would have pillow fights, crack jokes and pull goofy pranks, like holding on to the doorknob from the other side of the door to stop each other from getting in. When the drugs became a permanent fixture, she said, Lewis changed.
“His personality just became mean. And nasty. It was like a whole different man. Just bad, you know?” she said.
Williams and Lewis divorced in 1970, with Williams filing on the grounds of adultery and abuse. But they stayed in touch over the years because of the bond they shared through their daughter, Phoebe Allen Lewis. The couple’s son, Steve Allen Lewis, drowned at the age of 3.
Williams married briefly after that — an 18-month romance that she described as “an absolute fiasco and stupid.” She has been married to her current husband, Richard Williams, for going on 39 years. The couple own a real estate company in Atlanta but have both retired from day-to-day business.
“We just putter around, you know. We don’t have to do anything,” she said, adding that their office manager takes care of almost everything and they just stop by the office every once in a while to chat. “We just live a real simple life of sleeping late and watching ‘I Love Lucy.'”
Williams did her best to hold back tears when talking about Lewis’ death, which occurred a few weeks after the death of her father, J.W. Brown, a musician in his own right and Lewis’ cousin. It was Brown who went to Natchez, Miss., where Lewis was living as an unknown musician and brought him to Memphis, Tenn., to record with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, Williams said. He also invited Lewis to live in his home with his family, which is how Lewis and Williams fell in love.
When Brown heard the young couple had eloped, “he got his gun,” Williams said. “That was not a happy moment. Daddy felt very betrayed by that. I was his 13-year-old little girl.”
Brown went after Lewis, but Lewis was gone.
“The minute Daddy left the house, my mother called Sam Phillips and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re not gonna believe what’s happened, Sam,'” Williams said. “Mom said, ‘Jerry and Myra have gotten married. And Jay [J.W.] has his pistol. He’s on his way to Sun Records. You better get Jerry out of there.'”
Phillips “ran Jerry off” and told him to get on a plane. He said, “I don’t care where you go, just go,” Williams said.
Lewis was gone for three or four days, during which time Phillips sat Brown down and did his best to calm him, Williams said.
“Sam Phillips was a real talker, let’s put it that way. He could convince you that whatever you were seeing wasn’t there,” Williams said.
Brown came to accept the marriage after that, Williams said.
“There was just no choice. I mean, killing Jerry was not an option. It was his first thought, but it wasn’t an option,” she said.
When Lewis came back, Brown shook his hand and said, “You better be good to my girl.”
Williams stopped speaking with Lewis after he married her former sister-in-law, Judith Brown, in 2012. It was a hurt that cut deep, Williams said. Judith had been a friend and part of the family. (Brown was the former wife of Williams’ younger brother.)
Williams doesn’t recall the last time she spoke with Lewis, but said she tried to contact him about two years ago. She had asked Phoebe whether it would be OK if she called Lewis, and when she did, “I didn’t know what I was gonna say to him or tell him, and I made the call and he came to the phone, and I couldn’t talk. I hung up the phone.”
If Williams could give advice to her 13-year-old self, she said she had no idea what it might be.
“I wouldn’t go back and change it if I could,” she said. Then she stopped and thought for a second and began to laugh. “I might tweak it a little. I would tweak it a lot. I would tweak the hell out of it. I would be smarter.”
“But how smart can you be when you’re 14 years old?” she asked. “You’re a stupid kid at that age. You’re just not ready for it. You’re not ready for prime time.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.