All I know is, my life would make a damn good country song.
Jerry Lee Lewis, 1982
Last week it made a damn sad country song. At 47, rockabilly rebel Jerry Lee Lewis was suffering the latest controversial tragedy of his seemingly ill-starred life, the mysterious death of Shawn Michelle Lewis, 25, his fifth wife and bride of scarcely three months. Found by a housekeeper in the bedroom of the couple’s rambling brick home in Nesbit, Miss., Shawn was pronounced dead and taken across the state line to the University of Tennessee Center for the Health Sciences in Memphis. There a preliminary autopsy report by medical examiner Jerry Francisco listed the cause of death as pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid in the lungs. According to Francisco, who also performed the autopsy on Elvis Presley six years ago, such a buildup is “consistent with a drug overdose.”
Inconsistent reports about the condition of Shawn’s body when it was found further muddied the situation. Shawn’s mother, Janice Kleinhans, 47, of Garden City, Mich., said she felt there was a missing piece to the puzzle, “but I need to know what it is.”
While local and state authorities launched an investigation, Jerry Lee and those near him expressed only shock at the death. “I don’t know what happened,” said the singer. “I loved her, and she loved me. Everything was fine.” Echoed Lewis’ sister, Linda Dolan: “She and Jerry Lee were very happy.” Dolan added that Shawn had been taking prescription drugs because of recent dental work and hinted at an accidental overdose. Lewis’ personal manager, J.M. Whitten, recalled that the victim “had sleeping pills prescribed because of her life-style, trying to keep up with us on tour, where you just have to sleep when you can.” Lewis was at home when his wife’s body was discovered.
Certainly Shawn’s life with Lewis was far from ordinary, and the funeral for the former Detroit secretary was no different. At services in the clapboard Assembly of God church in Ferriday, La., the flamboyant singer arrived in a white suit and red ruffled shirt—just like the ones he wore to their wedding last June 7. “He looked like he was going dancing,” complained Kleinhans, who exchanged not a word with the widower. After a eulogy by Jerry Lee’s cousin, Gerald Lewis, a baby-blue hearse bore the brass-fitted, ivory-colored coffin to the Lewis family plot in nearby Clayton, La.
Personal tragedies have cast a pall over much of Lewis’ life. At age 22, after helping lead the rockabilly revolution with such hits as Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’On, he watched his career tailspin into scandal when he took his 13-year-old cousin Myra for his third wife. In 1962 his 3-year-old son, Steve Allen Lewis, named after the talk-show host, drowned in the family pool. Eleven years later Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., 19, was killed in an auto accident. Lewis’ bouts with drink and drugs came to be as commonly publicized as his marital woes, and in 1980 his estranged fourth wife, Jaren, took him to court, accusing him of threatening her life. Last year, while awaiting a final divorce decree, Jaren, 39, also drowned in a swimming accident.
Lewis, by then, had survived his own brush with death, having undergone two operations in 1981 for a ruptured stomach. Declaring that God had “spanked me pretty good” and “I’ve learned to cool it,” he returned to the stage—and the altar. Kleinhans concedes she did not oppose her daughter’s marrying Lewis, whom Shawn had known for three and a half years. “She was 25, and when they’re that old they know who they want to be.”
Kleinhans is skeptical of rumors linking her daughter to drugs. “That was a concern. But every time she talked to me, she said, ‘I hope you don’t think there’s anything like that going on with me, because there isn’t.’ I do know she had some teeth pulled, but that’s been a few weeks. I don’t believe she was taking any medication for that.”
Lewis, tight-lipped and depressed, says he doesn’t know what to think. “We had our usual arguments, but there was no reason for that [suicide],” he says. “God doesn’t smile on that.” Then he adds, sadly, “Even if she took her own life, I believe she went to heaven.”