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The Tiny Spark That Survived : The Rock ‘n’ Roll Life of Star’s Child Bride

Times Staff Writer

It’s noon, and the lobby of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel is swarming with the ladies-who-lunch set. Today especially they all look alike, these women who wear their Chanel suits, Charles Jourdan shoes and daytime jewels like merit badges for a life without problems.

Slowly, a dainty, diminutive blond woman makes her way through the throng. Outwardly, she seems just as well-bred and well-dressed as everyone else, though a shade less chic in her off-the-rack knit dress. You can’t put your finger on it, but something makes her stand out in the crowd--maybe the expression of detached bemusement that’s fixed upon her face.

“Hi. I’m Myra Lewis,” she says, pausing while her visitor’s jaw drops open and then shuts again. “So what kind of picture did you have of me in your mind?”

A Different Image

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How about someone sort of boozed-up and blowzy-looking, with 10 divorces under her belt and a tragic history of addictions, abandonments, break-ups and breakdowns, who still wears a whiff of the worldwide notoriety that surrounded her Dec. 12, 1957, marriage at age 13 to her 22-year-old second cousin, rock ‘n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis?

Well, then, certainly not this mature woman who’s a Chamber of Commerce model of the Atlanta businesswoman, a published author and the subject of the just-released Hollywood movie “Great Balls of Fire,” based upon her autobiography of the same name.

She laughs. “I know the image you probably conjured up. I used to always hate it if people knew who I was before they met me. Because if they meet me and talk to me, then I say, ‘Oh, by the way, this is my background,’ it’s like, ‘Whaaaat?!’ But if it’s before . . . . “

She shrugs.

“After my divorce, I had to go to a psychiatrist because I thought I’ve got to have lost it. You can’t go through a life like that and come out and be OK. I must be insane.

“But none of the psychiatrists would tell me I was crazy. They would say, ‘You’re fine. You’re fine.’ But I never felt fine.”

As she says this, her eyes begin to mist. Her voice begins to quiver.

And then the tears trickle down.

‘Like Years of Therapy’

“Writing that book was like years of therapy for me. I went through a lifetime of grief and happiness and sadness and love and joy and scandal and all those things. And when the book was finished, it was gone. I felt free of my life because it was between those covers. And, suddenly, it just all made sense. I understood not only what happened, but why.

“You see, Myra did not survive that marriage. That little girl I used to be, she died. She just dispersed into whatever. But there was this tiny spark of life left, and that’s me. What you’re seeing is probably the most successful success story that I know.”

Her life is so different now compared to what it once was. She is, after all, a 44-year-old mother and part-owner of an Atlanta real-estate firm with her third husband, Richard Williams, whom she wed in 1984. She listens to Barbra Streisand’s records instead of Jerry Lee Lewis’s. She doesn’t even like today’s rock music, except for a few songs by Huey Lewis and the News.

And, yet, let her hear the words that Jerry Lee Lewis wrote when she divorced him in 1970, “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” and she’ll cry every time. Now, with the paperback release of her autobiography and Winona Ryder’s portrayal of her on the silver screen, Lewis is stocking up on Kleenex for the tears she knows will inevitably fall.

“But people misinterpret why. Like, I was in Memphis last week and this interviewer asked me a question about the movie, and I just started to cry. And she grabbed me later and she said, ‘You’re still in love with him, aren’t you?’

“And I said, ‘No, I’m not in love with Jerry. But I’m a soft, warm, feeling person and I didn’t destroy my emotions when I cleansed myself of my past. I’m still very easily touched by the man. If I could walk away and not care, then I’m no better than an animal.’ ”

Skipped the Premiere

For that reason, she passed up attending Monday’s New York premiere of “Great Balls of Fire,” opting instead to escape to Hawaii. She hasn’t seen the movie yet. She doesn’t know when she will. “I’m told that this movie made Jerry cry. So I get this lump right here,” she says, touching her throat, “because I already know what it’s going to do to me.

“It’s going to rip me apart. And yet I’ve been dying to see it. But, all of a sudden, it’s here and I’m going, ‘Wait a second, I’m not sure I want to do this.’ So I’m putting it off.”

Last fall, when her curiosity got the best of her, she visited the Memphis set of “Great Balls of Fire"--even though the producers had politely requested that she and Jerry Lee Lewis stay away. “They just came out and said, ‘Look, we don’t want these actors playing you. We want them playing what we want them to play,’ ” Lewis recalls. “But it was impossible to keep us apart.”

Though she received $100,000 for her life story, Lewis is bitter about not being consulted on either the writing or casting of the movie despite promises to that effect. Someone from the office of producer Adam Fields simply sent her a copy of the screenplay and told her that 17-year-old Winona Ryder would be playing her. At first, Lewis didn’t even know who Ryder was.

“Then I ran out and rented ‘Beetlejuice’ so I could see this little girl who’s going to play me. I saw a little girl who can act, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is good.’ ”

Hanging Out With Quaid

And while her ex-husband was hanging out with his screen double Dennis Quaid, Lewis on the day before shooting was to start found herself sitting in Ryder’s trailer, sipping hot chocolate and talking for hours. “We talked about her going to school, we talked about her father, we talked about everything except the movie,” recalls Lewis, who learned that Ryder’s father had been a huge fan of Jerry Lee Lewis and given his daughter a copy of “Great Balls of Fire” when it was published in hardcover in 1982.

“It felt like she was my child, like I was her mother. She was the youthful Myra.”

A few weeks later, Ryder phoned Lewis and said: “I got married today.” Lewis went into immediate shock. “And then I realized that Myra got married today on the set,” she says, her eyes beginning to water again.

Another tear. Another explanation.

‘Not Just a Book’

“You see, it’s not just a book I wrote,” she says quietly. “It’s us.”

When she was researching her book, Lewis one day called up her ex-husband and asked when he realized he was in love with her. “And he said, ‘Girl,’ as he would affectionately call me all my life, ‘I loved you from the first time I laid eyes on you. You were sitting at the kitchen table doing your homework and I knew then I was going to marry you.’ ”

Lewis was touched by his memory, and she knew then and there she couldn’t trash him in her autobiography. “Because it’s a great love story. It’s a fantastic love story. And most great love stories end in tragedy.”

She was drawn to him in the beginning, she recalls, because “he was a little boy. And he needed someone to take care of him. I was supposed to be the child, but he was the child in our relationship, really.”

Immature for her age (she still played with dolls) though physically well-developed, Lewis looking back thinks she was drawn into such an early marriage because she had “an overactive nurturing instinct. From the time I could remember, all I wanted was a little vine-covered cottage with a husband and a baby in a high chair. My mother actually gave birth to my little brother for me because I had begged her so hard for one. And I would go baby-sit for my neighbors for free just so I could hold their babies.”

Sense of Urgency

Another reason for the marriage, she maintains, is that her love affair with Lewis took place against the backdrop of the Atomic Age. “I grew up in the ‘50s when it was said this H-bomb, or A-bomb or whatever bomb it was, could come at any moment, and then life as we knew it would cease to exist. I felt like it was going to happen any moment, and I was never going to have my life. So it was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ I didn’t instigate ‘Let’s do it,’ but when it presented itself to me and I was given Jerry’s ultimatum of now or never, well, I took it.”

Though Jerry Lee Lewis, who had been married twice previously, eloped with his child bride at the height of his stardom, a scandal didn’t ensue until May 22, 1958, when they arrived in England for a massively publicized tour and a Fleet Street journalist asked Myra, “Who are you, Miss?”

She innocently replied, “Jerry’s wife,” and all hell broke out.

For the next 10 years, Lewis found himself branded a “baby snatcher” and his singing career destroyed. He went from making $10,000 a night in ballrooms and concert halls to $100 split four ways in squalid Arkansas honky-tonks. “Guilty, that’s how I felt,” Myra Lewis recalls. “I just knew I was the stick they were going to use to beat him over the head with. All of a sudden, I wanted to say, ‘Let me explain this,’ to make all this bad stuff go away. You see, writing this book was something I wanted to do back then in 1958 when all the news came out. But I never lost sight of that dream of wanting to defend Jerry and just set the record straight, at least one time.”

While still grieving for their loss of income and stardom, the couple also endured the accidental drowning of their first born, Steve Allen Lewis, who was named for the TV talk show host who gave Lewis his first national exposure. They later had a daughter, Phoebe, now 25. (“I think my daughter takes good notes,” the mother explains. “She didn’t have a boyfriend until she was 16, she doesn’t drink and she’s never taken drugs.”)

As the years progressed and her husband’s career began to pick up again, Lewis became a scapegoat for his unhappiness and sometimes even his physical abuse. By 1970, their last year of marriage, she had to call the police the night he knocked her to the floor and threatened to kill her if she ever got up the nerve to leave him. That fall she found out he was cheating on her, hired a detective to tail him and finally served him with divorce papers.

A Final Plea

When she left, he was standing at the front door, arms outstretched, crying, “Please don’t leave.”

“I was angry at Jerry. Why did he have to be so mean? Why did he have to tell me I was ugly and stupid and nobody would ever have me? So he took my self-confidence to the ground. And I wound up turning to the first man that was nice to me.”

Immediately after her divorce was final, she married the detective she had hired, Pete Malito, and moved to Atlanta. The marriage lasted only a year and a half.

“Talk about a mistake. Now that was a stupid mistake,” she explains. “But I was glad to be out of Memphis because I could never have been anyone but Jerry’s ex-wife. In Atlanta, I could be Myra Malito and a nobody, and that’s exactly who I wanted to be.”

With an 8-year-old daughter to support, a paltry child support payment and a $125,000 alimony settlement payable over five years (“And we went to court every year for five years,” she notes), Lewis in 1973 had to figure out how to make a living. “There were not many job openings for ‘ex-wives of.’ After all the financial work I had done for Jerry, I did have a little business sense. But I had no training.”

The ‘Mundane’ Period

She found a job as a $93-a-week receptionist and embarked on the most “mundane” period of her life. For the next five years, she worked and raised her daughter and baked brownies. And she also hired a co-writer, found an agent and began her book. “There were a couple of times I almost gave it up because I felt as if it wasn’t worth it. I was going back and reliving it. I was waking up in the middle of the night and crying myself to sleep. But I didn’t give it up. I made friends with my past, instead.”

In 1982, when the book was published by William Morrow in hardcover, sales were sparse. “I was disappointed, but I was not really disillusioned by it. I just said, well, the real life of this book is going to come when it goes into mass paperback.”

Meanwhile, she had received her real estate license, met Williams and joined his Century 21 office, where she specializes in big-ticket homes. How did she tell him about her past?

“I gave him the book, he read it, and he just said, ‘My hat’s off to you,’ ” Lewis recalls. She says that, since then, her new husband has never had a need to feel jealous.

“I’m here to tell you,” says Williams, whom Lewis likens more to Alan Alda than her ex-husband, “that girl has pulled herself up by her own bootstraps. If ever there’s a woman out there who doesn’t need a man, she’s it.”


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