Even in Nashville, the town where fortunes are built on cheatin’ songs, folks still expect affairs behind closed doors to stay there. Which may explain why fans were just a bit shocked when country singer-turned-sausage king Jimmy Dean showed up on cable TV’s Nashville Now smiling and holding hands with a former country lounge singer named Donna Meade. The two even cooed a duet—”Have You Ever Been Lonely?”
Not lately. Dean, 62, and Meade, 37, have been inseparable for the past 10 months, a fact of considerable interest to Mary Sue Dean, 62, the singer’s wife of 40 years. Mary Sue isn’t talking right now, but in court depositions filed last year, she said Dean acted like “an angry tyrant” at times and accused him of mental cruelty, habitual drunkenness and adultery, naming Meade as the other woman. In a countersuit that read like a first draft for The War of the Roses, Dean charged his wife with being “completely unsupportive” and refusing to visit his hospital bedside during “life-threatening” oral surgery in 1987 and a bout with skin cancer last year.
Dean, who calls his relationship with Meade “the prettiest thing I’ve ever known in my life,” says he’s angered by the home-wrecker charges being hurled at her. “Nobody, man or woman, has ever wrecked a good marriage,” he says. “My marriage was shot a long, long, long time before.” The couple say they’ll wed as soon as the i’s are dotted on Dean’s divorce, and to hush gossip they have already signed a prenuptial agreement—at Meade’s insistence. “I don’t want anybody to think that I want to marry him for any other reason except that I’m in love with him,” she says of the pact, which states that she has no right to a share of any wealth Dean accumulated before their marriage.
That business tended to, the couple set out on a Bahamian cruise aboard Dean’s 110-foot yacht, the Big Bad John. Decked out in teak, with white carpeting (no shoes allowed on board), the boat has six bedrooms, five baths (some with gold-plated fixtures), a main salon with sectional sofas, a gourmet chef and a crew of two.
Mary Sue Dean, who has lived alone in New Jersey since Dean moved out last April, hasn’t said how she feels about her husband’s new love. But apparently not all of the couple’s children are thrilled. Dean’s eldest son, Garry, 39, a restaurateur who lives in Connecticut, says he “understands.” Son Robert, 30, who lives in New Jersey and owns a cellular phone-supply company, wished Dad had moved out of Mom’s house before he fell in love with Meade. “What you did was right,” he told Dean, “but your timing sucks.” Daughter Connie Taylor, 38, a New Jersey housewife, “has not adjusted as well as the boys,” Dean says. “But I think she’s been the recipient of a lot of one-sided conversation.”
Dean and Meade first met when they both guested on Nashville Now in June 1989. Smitten, Dean courted Meade first with a fan letter—it was mislaid for four months by her record company—then with an invitation to visit him on his boat in Palm Beach, Fla. Assured of a separate stateroom, the former Miss Richmond Pageant finalist and the sixth of seven children born to a Virginia builder and his wife, accepted. Once on deck, she was hooked. “We went topside, and we looked at each other, and he said, ‘Sit down, I want to know who Donna Meade is.’ I told him I was a very spiritual person, and he liked that. I fell in love right there.”
Meade, divorced and childless, had been singing six nights a week for the past nine years at Nashville’s Stockyard Restaurant, and her only album, Love’s Last Stand, had met with critical praise but poor sales after its 1988 release. Now she has put her career on ice to devote her time to Dean. “He means more to me than a career,” she says. What about their 25-year age difference? “He’s the youngest 62-year-old I’ve ever seen,” she says.
Dean was 22 and just starting in show business when he married Mary Sue in 1950. His career took off in the early 1960s, when The Jimmy Dean Show became a TV hit and his single “Big Bad John” sold 6 million copies. He continues to make occasional television appearances but has recorded only sporadically since. “I went further on less talent than anyone,” he says, “but I was a damned good entertainer.”
And an even better businessman, who put his money into real estate, citrus groves, rest homes and more. A 1968 hog farm investment in his hometown of Plainview, Texas, evolved into the Jimmy Dean Meat Co., purveyor of Jimmy Dean Sausage and now the largest fresh pork-sausage company in the country. “For me,” crows Dean, “every day is Groundhog Day.”
Semiretired since selling out to Sara Lee in 1984, Dean continues to serve as chairman of the board and television spokesman for the sausage company. Although his worth was recently estimated at $75 million, he disputes the figure, claiming that the real amount fluctuates $1 million or $2 million a day. While lawyers have haggled over the final divorce settlement (Dean offered $120,000 a year in support; Mary Sue demanded $621,600), Meade has been concentrating on her upcoming wedding, to be held in a 1902 Virginia cottage that she and Dean bought last summer.
“I love her so much it scares me sometimes,” Dean says. “The other day I said I should write a song, ‘When Does the New Wear Off?’ I think it would be a helluva title.”
—Steve Dougherty, Jane Sanderson in Palm Beach and Sabrina McFarland in New Jersey