In the late 1950s, Jerry Lee Lewis stood on the brink of becoming legendary. Elvis Presley was off serving America in the military, so the stage was set for someone new to jump in and take his place as the king of rock ’n’ roll. When Lewis arrived in London for a tour in 1958, hordes of fans greeted him. But they were not there anymore by the time he left.
Lewis had arrived at England’s Heathrow Airport with a young girl by his side. The journalists reporting on the rock star’s tour were curious to know who she was. A Daily Mail journalist approached her and inquired about her identity. The answer changed the entire course of Lewis’ career.
The girl’s name was Myra, and she was the wife of Lewis. Lewis’ behavior regarding her would be unfathomable today. For a start, he immediately lied about her age to the questioning journalists. And there was more on top of even that. By the time Lewis left England, he would be a pariah, and still no one has forgotten what happened.
Lewis was a massive rock star at the time the scandal hit. Prior to the disastrous trip to England, he had the world at his feet. In America he was considered a sort of bad boy of rock ’n’ roll. Songs he performed, such as “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” proved too much for some radio stations.
Lewis’ onstage antics led to him being dubbed “rock ’n’ roll’s first great wild man.” On stage, he adopted a performance style that people weren’t remotely used to back then. He would kick away the piano seat and play the instrument standing up. Sometimes he would even stand or sit on top of the keyboard.
Consequently, Lewis gained a reputation that he wasn’t completely happy with. He had been raised as a Christian and believed that he might be dooming his immortal soul with what some people of his era called “the devil’s music.” The singer had a difficult relationship with his religion. He struggled with his beliefs throughout his career and almost turned down recording “Great Balls of Fire” because of them.
After Lewis became famous, people starting referring to him as “Killer,” but that was a leftover from his early life as well. In an authorized memoir by Rick Bragg, the claim was made that Lewis received that nickname after strangling a high-school teacher. Lewis himself confirmed that in a 2015 interview with The Guardian.
Lewis recollected it to The Guardian, “Yes, I was strangling him by his necktie. I was swinging on it. He was weakening, losing his breath.” All of that was bad enough in itself. But before too long the rather frightening reputation Lewis held in the 1950s would become a much, much worse one.
Prior to his 1958 tour, Lewis had made Myra his third wife. His personal relationships were a mess of scandal. Dorothy Barton was his first wife, and the marriage lasted less than two years. His second was Jane Mitchum, but his marriage to her (which resulted in two children) may not have actually been valid.
The England tour was supposed to be a chance for Lewis to bring his music to an international audience. British music fans were at the time feeling rather deprived of rock ’n’ roll, because Elvis Presley had never even visited the country. Things might have gone very differently if Lewis hadn’t brought Myra along.
But he did bring her, and journalist Paul Tanfield was instantly curious about the young-looking teenager following Lewis around. Consequently, he asked her who she was. She was Lewis’s wife, she said, Myra Gail Lewis. Tanfield directed his next question to Lewis: how old exactly was she? Lewis, himself 22 years old, answered that she was 15.
At the time, age of consent laws in the U.S.A. and the U.K. were very different. In Mississippi, where Lewis and Myra had married, it wasn’t unusual in that era for very young girls to be wed to older men. Lewis’ own sister had been married at age 12. In Rick Bragg’s 2014 biography of the rock star, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, he claimed that the Lewis family would have celebrated that kind of marriage.
Bragg’s book indicates that Myra’s family, however, had different ideas. Lewis and Myra were married “with no friends or family to witness” by a minister who was “accustomed to such things” and didn’t question them. After that, Bragg wrote, “they told no one, because Myra was afraid of what her mother and father would say.”
Britain was different. There, the age of consent for girls was 16 years old, and had been ever since 1885. The idea of a man in his 20s marrying a young teenager was very unpalatable indeed. Among the headlines published was “ROCK STAR’S WIFE IS 15 AND IT’S HIS THIRD MARRIAGE.” But the news was wrong. The truth was even more unpleasant.
Myra was not 15; she was 13. She was barely even into teenagerhood. And she was Lewis’ relative to boot. She was the daughter of Lewis’ cousin, J.W. Brown, making her second cousin to the rock superstar. And the marriage might not have been Lewis’ third but actually his second. It was a horrible tangled web.
Lewis himself would later try and explain which of his pre-Myra marriages were legal. “I was 14 when I first got married. My wife was too old for me; she was 17,” he told People in 1978. “Then I met Jane Mitcham. One day she told me she was going to have my child. Her brothers were hunting me with whips. I was real worried so I married her, but never properly… She was never my wife.”
The people of Britain were not accustomed to child marriage the way that Lewis appeared to be. As the musician wildly insisted that there was nothing wrong with the situation, British music fans made their feelings known. So did the police. Officers turned up to interview the pair at the hotel where they were staying: the Westbury Hotel.
According to the law, it appeared that no one could do much, but there was a great deal of protest. British M.P.s debated the issue in the House of Commons. The Westbury Hotel threw Lewis and his entourage out. And most of the shows that Lewis was meant to perform ended up being canceled. The ones he did go to were filled with angry Brits shouting “cradle robber” at him.
Lewis left England in disgrace. He flew back to the U.S.A. with Myra and had another wedding ceremony, the divorce from Mitcham having finally come through. But now promoters and radio stations wouldn’t touch him with a bargepole. The fact that his next single was called “High School Confidential” didn’t help matters either.
Lewis did not go to prison for his actions in marrying a 13-year-old, although plenty of people today would say that he deserved to. He did, however, see his success rate plummet dramatically. Plenty of Americans boycotted his music, and he lost thousands upon thousands of dollars.
And unfortunately things got even worse for Myra. In 1989, speaking to People for an article titled “Surviving Marriage to the Killer,” she alleged that Lewis had abused her. By the time of the interview, she had divorced him. That had taken place in 1970, after a long string of saddening things.
Myra’s first child with Lewis, Stevie Allen, died while still a toddler. Myra was in the family’s kitchen, and the child wandered outside, fell in the swimming pool and drowned. Lewis had been physically violent before that, Myra alleged to People, but after the horrible tragedy, it got worse.
Myra told People that she had felt unable to leave Lewis, no matter what had happened. “I didn’t know I had a choice,” she said. “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.”
The couple’s other child, daughter Phoebe, had to watch the relationship between her parents deteriorate horribly. “Phoebe was in the middle of the fire during the turbulent years,” Myra told People. “She was always jumping in the middle and trying to make it all go away. Phoebe had to grow up fast.”
Eventually, things came to a head in 1969. Myra was taking tranquilizers and had poor mental health. One day, while arguing on the phone with Lewis, she took out a handgun and told him she would kill herself with it. According to her, her husband simply said, “Put the phone close, so I can hear it go off.”
Myra decided that that incident was the end of it. “Something in me snapped,” she told People. “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.” Those were words of condemnation indeed.
In the People article, Myra spoke of her daughter, who was 25 years old at that point. “I don’t think Phoebe is a damaged child,” Myra said. “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.”
Over the years, society has thankfully adjusted the way it thinks about children having relationships with adults. Now such behavior is called abuse. After famous rock star David Bowie died, the media began questioning the relationships he had with young groupies, especially then-14-year-old Lori Mattix.
In a piece for The Daily Beast in 2016, writer Stereo Williams noted that predatory sexual behavior had long represented a huge problem in music circles. “Rock star escapades… have been glamorized for decades with no regard for how disturbing or illegal the behavior was,” he wrote. “It became a part of the mythos – a disgusting testament to how little the writers documenting the happenings of the day cared about taking their heroes to task.”
With the rise of the #MeToo movement, the conversation has become even more urgent. Allegations of sexual misconduct took down powerful men in the movie industry, such as Harvey Weinstein. But, as has been pointed out by the media, the same thing hasn’t yet really happened in the music industry.
Lori Mattix, the woman whom both David Bowie and Jimmy Page slept with when she was underage, these days seems to have mixed feelings about what happened during her teenage years. It’s not uncommon to see both Bowie and Lewis listed as statutory rapists on websites, with Myra and Lori their victims.
Lori spoke to The Guardian in 2018 about her experiences. The newspaper asked her if she saw people such as Bowie and Page differently in the wake of #MeToo. “I think that’s what made me start seeing it from a different perspective because I did read a few [articles], and I thought: ‘S**t, maybe,’” she said. And she added, “My perspective is changing as I get older and more cynical.”
As for Myra, she seemed to change her mind a little about life with Lewis over the years. In 2014 she gave an interview to the website Cuepoint, and had some things to say that were different from her older People interview. Two year prior to that interview, Lewis married his seventh wife: Judith Brown.
Myra herself was 70 when the interview took place. “I’m still the 13-year-old child bride,” she said. “Sometimes I say something about Jerry and people say, ‘Isn’t he the one married the little girl?’ and I say, ‘Wait a second, you’re talking to the little girl now – be careful what you say.’”
Myra retold the 1958 London trip from her perspective. “At that time, Elvis had gone into the Army, and Jerry was poised to be the king,” she said. “All of Jerry’s managers told him, ‘Do not take Myra to England,’ because the British press was known to rip Americans apart – that’s where all the tabloid journalism started. He said, ‘If Myra doesn’t go, I’m not going.’”
Myra went on, “In my little mind, I couldn’t believe that they could not see that I was a grown woman. I was only 13, but people said I was more mature than Jerry. I was serious-minded, I was like, ‘We gotta take care of this and do this,’ and he was like, ‘Where’s the piano?’ That’s what he is, that’s what he’s about.”
On top of that, Myra said that she “really, truly wasn’t a typical teenager” when she got married. “My generation was taught to hide under our desk when the bomb came, so you always had in the back of your mind that any minute, any day, life could come to an end. What I wanted was a baby in my arms, a home, a husband, a kitchen to cook in, a yard to raise roses,” she said.
On the scandal itself, Myra had some surprising thoughts. “I never lost the first name “13-year-old-child-bride-Myra”— I think that’s on my birth certificate now! I don’t think I ever resented it for me, though, I always resented it for what they did to Jerry,” she said. “It wasn’t harming me, it was harming somebody I loved, that was the pain of it.”
Myra continued, “I was seeing someone punished because of my age, my existence, and I always wanted to just stand up and defend him. We took a lot of hits for the music itself. Every day, you wondered what was going to happen next… They were looking for a place to stick the knife into rock and roll.”
Those seem like strange words from a woman married at 13. But Myra did add, “If you say to me now, ‘There’s a 13-year-old girl over here who wants to get married,’ I would say ‘God, please do not do that, little girl. Go to college, get an education, then figure it out.’ But it was a different world, things have changed so drastically.” Hopefully for the better.