With her thin lips, strong nose and sturdy jaw, she is the image of her father. For years, Jett Williams had only that haunting resemblance—and hints from her adoptive parents—to support her claim that she was the natural child of country-music legend Hank Williams Sr. Now, after an epic court battle against her half-brother, Hank Jr., and the Williams estate, she can claim her place as his daughter—and, she hopes, forge her own singing career. For a woman who has been in limbo for most of her life, the victory is sweet indeed.
On a sun-washed morning at a Washington, D.C., marina, Williams, 37, is relaxing on the mahogany-and-teak deck of the vintage yacht where she lives with her husband and manager, lawyer Keith Adkinson, 46. The pilot house has been fitted out as a compact recording studio where she writes songs and sings along with tapes of her band, which includes two members of her father’s old group, the Drifting Cowboys, and uses that same name. In June, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Hank Williams Jr.’s appeal of a decision awarding Jett a share of Hank Williams Sr.’s estate, “the neighbors came by in their boats, blowing their air horns and yelling congratulations,” she says. “I think it makes people feel good to see someone win after having been done wrong.”
Particularly when they stand to win so big. The royalty income from Hank Williams Sr.’s 150-odd songs is $1 million a year, by one estimate, and a lower court will now determine how to divide those proceeds between, among others, Jett, Hank’s widow, Billie Jean, and 41-year-old Hank Jr. (who reportedly refuses even to speak Jett’s name). A U.S. district court in New York will begin to hammer out the details in November, and Jett could walk away with millions. While she’s happy about the potential windfall, “proving he’s my father—that’s more important to me than whether I get $1 million or $10 million,” she says.
In her memoir, Ain’t Nothin’ as Sweet as My Baby, which arrives in bookstores this month, Williams details her arduous search for her natural parents and gives a chilling account of what her book calls “the elaborate conspiracy of greed and silence” that was intended to keep her from claiming Williams Sr.’s name. Shot through with the kind of melodrama that Hank himself would have understood, it captures both her agony over being at odds with her father’s family and the joy she felt when she discovered that Williams Sr. had planned to help raise her. “This is a story about a father who wanted his child,” she says. “But writing that book was tough on me. I had to confront my real feelings.”
Growing up she knew only that her life was defined by uncertainty: Adopted at the age of 3 by Wayne and Mary Louise Deupree—he a successful businessman in Mobile, Ala., she a mercurial beauty—Cathy Louise, as she was known, had been bounced from one temporary home to another as an infant. Even with the Deuprees, there was no emotional stability. An aloof woman whose first marriage had failed. Louise was an alcoholic who suffered chronic depressions, for which she was treated with electroshock. She forbade her husband to pick his daughter up, and she left the child’s care to a housekeeper.
Then, on her 21st birthday, Cathy received a rare visit from the Deuprees at the University of Alabama, where she was a junior, majoring in recreation therapy. They had come to tell her something they had suspected for several years: that Hank Williams Sr. was her natural father. A Montgomery, Ala., woman named Lillian Stone, Louise-said, had bequeathed Cathy $2,000—which she was to receive on her 21st birthday. Not only was Stone Hank Williams Sr.’s mother, but it seemed that she had had custody of baby Cathy during the first two years of her life and that the Williams family was aware that Hank Sr. might have had an illegitimate child. But then, recalls Williams, Louise cautioned Cathy that ” ‘there’s nothing you can do about it, there’s no proof.’ It was like when you’re taking a nice warm shower and all of a sudden the water goes cold.”
Still, Williams set out to find proof. “I was obsessed,” she says. The Alabama Department of Pensions and Security, which had the adoption records, was reluctant to give her information. But they did tell her enough to help her locate the uncle of her birth mother, and with help from him and Hank Sr.’s cousin Marie Harvell, Jett was able to start piecing together the story. She discovered that her real mother was a Nashville secretary named Bobbie Webb Jett. Jett, 29, became pregnant in the spring of 1952. and several months later—not long before Hank Sr. was to wed Billie Jean Eschliman—the singer took her to stay at his mother’s house in Montgomery. He also had Bobbie sign an agreement in which he pledged to pay her medical bills and give her a one-way ticket to California; in return, Bobbie consented to leave her child with his mother, who was to have legal custody for two years. After that, Hank Sr. was to take custody.
Instead, five days before the baby was born in January 1953, Williams Sr. died of a drug and alcohol overdose in the back seat of his baby-blue Cadillac. Nevertheless, Bobbie surrendered the child (named Antha Belle Jett) to Stone and left for California, where she died in 1974. When Stone died in 1955, the toddler, renamed Catherine Yvonne Stone, was briefly taken in by Hank Sr.’s sister Irene Smith but then turned over to the state and put up for adoption. (In 1989 Smith, who administered Hank Sr.’s estate, and the family’s lawyer were found by the Alabama Supreme Court to have committed fraud in order to suppress the child’s true identity, finding that the pair had “conspired to keep certain facts relating to plaintiffs existence, identity and potential claim concealed.”)
By 1984 Jett’s quest had stalled. But that year she was introduced by a friend to Adkinson, a Washington lawyer who took up her cause. He managed to locate a copy of the agreement between Bobbie and Hank Sr. (though he won’t tell even Jett how he did it) and immediately held a press conference. Hank Jr. and other parties then filed suit to bar any claim by Jett to Hank Sr.’s estate; Jett countersued, and the legal battle has raged ever since. Through it all, the 46-year-old Adkinson has been Jett’s strongest ally. Still married to her college sweetheart, Michael Mayer, when she met the intense, Virginia-raised lawyer, she soon fell in love with Adkinson. Since their 1986 marriage, they have rarely spent a night apart, and he is now the manager of her fledgling career. “I was one of those cynical males when I met Jett,” Adkinson says. “I was coming out of a bad marriage and a bitter divorce. If you’d told mc back then that I would have been living 24 hours a day in such close quarters with another human being. I would have told you, ‘No way.’ But we’ve never had a cross word.”
Recruiting two of her father’s old side-men, Jerry Rivers, 62, and Don Helms, 63, to play in her band—and to reminisce about Hank Sr.—has helped give Jett some sense of her father “behind the myth and legend,” she says. “I’m never going to have memories of Christmas with my father or of sitting in his lap, but I still feel I know him.” At least once, that feeling has been so strong it hit her “like a bolt of lightning,” she says. Jett was watching a rare kinescope of Hank Sr. on The Kate Smith Evening Hour in 1952. “It was the first time I ever saw him move,” she recalls. “He’s singing ‘Hey, Good Lookin’,’ and when he turns to look at the camera, it felt like he was looking straight at me. When my eyes met his, I thought I was looking at myself.”
—Michelle Green, Teresa Riordan in Washington