In the parlor below the deck of her houseboat docked on the Potomac, a youngish woman--blond and dressed in white--recounts the dream and nightmare of her search for her long-hidden legend-filled past.
Among the framed old photographs decorating the wood-paneled room, there is only one that really matters to Jett Williams: a black-and-white picture of a handsome young man in a cowboy hat with a dreamy expression on his face.
It is no ordinary face, no ordinary family photograph. The man is famous, an immortal icon of popular culture. Pictures just like this belong to his fans all over the world.
But this 37-year-old married woman, who has embarked on a show business career of her own, is more than an overzealous fan. The man in the photograph is the object of a 15-year obsession that has taken her down a long, lonesome road of legal battles and family feuds that have resulted in a complete transformation of her identity.
He is the legendary country singer-songwriter Hank Williams. And she--unaware of it until she was 21--is his daughter.
Hank Williams is more than just a singer and composer; he can be credited, with the equally legendary Roy Acuff, of being a founder of country music. His songs emphasize the poetic beauty of romantic misery. Such Williams classics as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” formed the basic vocabulary of the country repertoire.
The story of Jett Williams--adopted at age 3--and her struggle to establish her identity as her father’s daughter is a tale of more pathos, more twists and turns, than a country ballad.
It is a story that has the ingredients of a Southern Gothic novel: a baby whose father dies five days before she is born and whose mother abandoned her; betrayal by relatives who placed her for adoption; a fight over an inheritance; the refusal of the legitimate son to recognize his illegitimate sibling; persistence in the face of great odds; a fortuitous discovery of a hidden document; and, for good measure, a love affair with and eventual marriage to the lawyer who helped right the wrongs.
Beyond and above all the maneuverings and scheming is the transcendent theme of the love of a daughter for a father she would never know and her belief in his love for her.
“I believe that I’ve had a guardian angel--I really, really do. And I’ve implied that I think my father is my guardian angel, and that he’s looking down,” Williams says in her Alabama accent.
With the help of ghostwriter Pamela Thomas, Williams has written about her life in “Ain’t Nothin’ as Sweet as My Baby” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). The book’s publication date is today, the birthday of Hank Williams Sr.
If there is one thing Jett Williams has learned from her decision to get to the bottom of the truth about her past, it is that her efforts to establish herself as who she really is--Hank Williams’ daughter--have been met with less than sentimental appreciation by many people, including relatives in her real and adoptive families.
Her half-brother, Hank Williams Jr., 42, a celebrated country singer in his own right, refuses to acknowledge his half-sister, although he and his lawyers have been aware of her existence for at least 20 years.
They declined to discuss the case. “Since there is ongoing litigation between us, our policy is not to comment,” said attorney Chris Horsnell of Wyatt, Tarrant, Combs, Gilbert & Milom, the Nashville firm that represents Hank Williams Jr.
In 1987, Jett Williams--as she is known professionally and to most of her friends but whose legal married name is Cathy Deupree Adkinson--established in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Montgomery, Ala., that she was the biological daughter of Hank Williams.
But she has yet to succeed in laying hold on the corollary to that fact: her share of her father’s estate and his royalties--which are said to amount to about $1 million a year.
Many of those who knew Hank Williams Sr. and have met his daughter agree that she resembles him. She has the same distinct features and steady gaze.
Her quest for her father has a character of almost religious intensity that represents an unsettling precedent for other families with adopted children who decide to seek out their roots.
She always knew she was adopted because she could remember arriving at the home of her adoptive parents, a prosperous Mobile, Ala., businessman named Wayne Deupree and his wife, Louise. When Jett Williams was 21, her adoptive parents visited her at the University of Alabama in Montgomery to tell her about a $2,000 legacy left her by a relative of her real father.
With a clumsiness that only well-meaning relatives can achieve, Louise Deupree informed her adopted daughter that her real father was famous, a famous musician from Montgomery, and suggested that she take a guess at who he was. The then-Cathy Deupree guessed Hank Williams quickly, not an odd coincidence in view of his celebrity in Alabama. Her mother went on to tell her that there was no proof.
In her 20s, Williams married and worked as a recreational officer in the parks system of Montgomery. The idea of Hank Williams would not go away, and she set about trying to garner information about her past. She encountered many brick walls. Finally, as she was about to give up, she was introduced by a relative to a Washington lawyer, F. Keith Adkinson, who had served as chairman of Democrats for Reagan in the early 1980s.
Almost immediately, Adkinson took an interest in the case and, subsequently, a personal interest in Williams. After Williams was divorced from her first husband, she and Adkinson married in 1986, and Williams says much of her strength is due to her relationship with her husband.
In 1985, she and Adkinson had initiated legal action in Alabama and New York. In July, 1989, the Alabama State Supreme Court found that Williams had been the victim of fraud and ruled that the estate of Hank Williams Sr. be reopened, 15 years after it was closed. Williams has been judged an heir of equal dignity with her half-brother; his application to have the case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court has been denied.
In New York, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed earlier orders denying Williams a claim on her father’s royalties and the Federal District Court, Southern District of New York, has judged that she should be given a jury trial to hear the merits of her claim.
Williams and Adkinson are understandably delighted with their legal achievements. For five intense years, they have lived with the emotional repercussions of intra-family litigation. Since that time, Williams has also sued her adoptive family over the contested will of her adoptive mother, who died in 1987.
There have been few questions in Williams’ mind as to whether it has been worth it. “I feel I’m a more positive person now,” she says.
“You don’t choose your real parents. For me the point is finding out what my father wanted and then carrying out his wishes,” says Williams, and she returns to this idea, over and over again.
Anyway, she says, her life, from the time she was adopted, has always been in the power of the courts. “My life is still being decided by the stroke of pens--somebody signs an order, and all of a sudden ‘Bingo.’ ”
There have been many personal changes as a result of the pen strokes that have brought her closer to her real father.
She has adopted a stage name made up of the last names of both her natural mother (Bobbie Jett) and father. She moved from Montgomery to Washington after she met and married Adkinson. And she has long since ceased being a recreation officer and embarked on a singing career that emulates that of her father, including singing his songs, and wearing white, his signature color.
Williams recognizes that her quest has not been without its complications: “On this hand, I got this, and on that hand, I lose that. You win a father and you never saw him.”
Her story is different in several respects from that of the typical adoptee. Although her natural parents were not married, they never planned to put her up for adoption. She was put up for adoption because of the action of her father’s sister, contrary to wishes he had expressed in writing. This distinction has given extra credence to her camp’s legal arguments that she is a legitimate heir.
Before her birth, Williams’ parents signed a contract that provided for her custody, partly with her father, Hank Williams, and partly with her mother. This document had been hidden for 30 years and came to light in circumstances that Adkinson will not divulge except to say that it was found in 1984 in Montgomery.
For Williams, who never dreamed she would see written, signed, notarized evidence that she was her father’s daughter, it was the high point of her search. “When I got that contract and I knew that he wanted me and that he was my father, I just knew that I had to carry out his wishes, which I feel weren’t carried out.”
Hank Williams’ songs aptly reflected a life of emotional confusion. Williams’ mother, Bobbie Jett, was six months pregnant with her when Hank Williams married his second wife, Billie Jean Eshliman.
In 1953, five days before his daughter was born, Williams died in the back of a baby blue Cadillac. The cause of death, though never definitely established, has been presumed to have been from complications brought on by alcohol and drug addiction. He was 29 years old.
However, Hank Williams had considered what would happen to his daughter should he not be around to take care of her personally. He had asked his mother, Lillian Stone, to adopt the child should such a situation arise.
This she did. But her action did not protect the little girl, then called Cathy Yvonne Stone, from the state adoption system. In a second twist, Lillian Stone also died a short time after the adoption was legal. Provisions that had been made to care for the baby in the Williams’ family by Hank’s sister, Irene Smith, were not taken up. Hank Williams’ daughter went to the state for eventual adoption.
“I don’t know exactly why Irene Smith chose not to keep me. I think it might have been because of wagging tongues, but I’ll never know for sure,” Williams says. Contacted by telephone in Texas, Irene Smith said she did not want to comment.
As part of her battle to assemble the truth about her past, Williams has had to face unpalatable facts. “I guess, as an adopted child, once you cross the barrier of ‘I want to know’ then you pursue it. It’s the ‘want to know’ strength that keeps you going, even when you hit a dead end.”
But Williams cautions other adoptees to think carefully before pursuing a course like hers: “I wanted to warn adopted children to be careful when you do this because it doesn’t always turn out. You have to prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario. I encourage adoptive parents that if the time comes, you should be a part of it--if you can be a part of it, then you don’t alienate yourself.”
In Williams’ own case, her adoptive father, Wayne Deupree, who died in 1983, had been able and willing to support his daughter in her search. Her adoptive mother found every part of her daughter’s efforts toward her parents emotionally painful.
Now that she knows who she is and where she came from, Williams’ life has some of the trappings of celebrity that her father knew.
Shortly after they met, Adkinson had the idea that Williams should consider a singing career and saw to it that she was introduced to country music producers in Nashville. Owen Bradley, who produced Patsy Cline and other country stars, listened to her sing and felt she had potential.
Williams received voice coaching and took steps toward her own singing career. Members of her father’s original backing band, “The Drifting Cowboys,” play for her whenever she performs, which she does with increasing frequency at state fairs, nightclubs and charity events. She says Hank Williams fans seem fascinated to see what she calls “the little more of him” that she represents.
The Adkinsons live on a restored house boat, “The Jett Stream,” moored on the Potomac in sight of the Washington Monument. Although her legal battles have yet to bear financial fruit, she hopes she is on her way to becoming Jett Williams, country star.
“They say my father was the king of country music, which makes my brother the prince, the crowned prince,” says Williams. “But I’m Cinderella, not that I marry the prince but that my life is totally transformed into being the princess.
“To be a celebrity in the United States is like being royalty. Fairyland is the word you’re looking for. For me, at this point in my life, it’s happening. I haven’t gotten to that fairy land, totally, but it’s happening.”
For Hank Williams’ baby, it has been a long, lonesome, mixed-up road to get there.