Rock Star Jerry Lee Lewis Marries Thirteen-Year-Old Cousin Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The career of rock music star Jerry Lee Lewis was nearly ruined after revelations that he married his young second cousin, Myra Brown. The marriage led to a widespread boycott of Lewis by radio and television and by concert venues, which effectively stalled a career that might otherwise have rivaled that of Elvis Presley. The incident made him as infamous for his behavior offstage as he was for his musical performances.

Summary of Event

The popularity of rock-and-roll singer Jerry Lee Lewis was on the rise when the London press learned of his secret marriage to Myra Brown, his thirteen-year-old second cousin. Myra’s youth, the secrecy of the marriage, and the discovery that Jerry Lee’s second marriage had not yet ended created a media sensation. Despite attempts to keep the marriage secret, Myra admitted her relationship to the press on the first day of her new husband’s 1958 concert tour in England, which was overshadowed by news of the marriage. The tour was canceled and the couple returned to the United States to find that Jerry Lee had been blacklisted by the entertainment industry. The incident would contribute to his reputation for reckless impropriety and reinforce the public’s association of rock music with immorality. [kw]Lewis Marries Thirteen-Year-Old Cousin, Rock Star Jerry Lee (Dec. 12, 1957) Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Myra Brown Marriage;underage Marriage;Jerry Lee Lewis[Lewis] Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Myra Brown Marriage;underage Marriage;Jerry Lee Lewis[Lewis] [g]Europe;Dec. 12, 1957: Rock Star Jerry Lee Lewis Marries Thirteen-Year-Old Cousin[01030] [g]England;Dec. 12, 1957: Rock Star Jerry Lee Lewis Marries Thirteen-Year-Old Cousin[01030] [g]United States;Dec. 12, 1957: Rock Star Jerry Lee Lewis Marries Thirteen-Year-Old Cousin[01030] [c]Families and children;Dec. 12, 1957: Rock Star Jerry Lee Lewis Marries Thirteen-Year-Old Cousin[01030] [c]Music and peforming arts;Dec. 12, 1957: Rock Star Jerry Lee Lewis Marries Thirteen-Year-Old Cousin[01030] [c]Public morals;Dec. 12, 1957: Rock Star Jerry Lee Lewis Marries Thirteen-Year-Old Cousin[01030] Lewis, Jane Mitcham Phillips, Jud Davis, Oscar

Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra Brown Lewis in London in 1958.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Though Jerry Lee and Myra realized their marriage would be controversial when discovered, they never suspected that the negative publicity would interfere with the tour’s success. This miscalculation reflected their rural southern background. In Mississippi and Louisiana, marriage at a young age was frowned upon but acceptable. Jerry Lee was sixteen years old when he married Dorothy Barton, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a local preacher; they had lied about their ages to obtain the marriage license. Their marriage lasted one year before Dorothy discovered an extramarital affair between Jerry Lee and a seventeen-year-old, Jane Mitcham. When Dorothy petitioned for divorce, Jerry Lee refused to appear in court. Deciding his marriage to Dorothy was over and that the divorce proceedings were a formality, he married Jane, providing false birth dates for their marriage license. Jerry Lee and Jane married on September 15, 1953, twenty-three days before Jerry Lee’s first marriage legally ended.

Jerry Lee met Myra in 1957 through another cousin—Myra’s father, Jay Brown. Jay was a bass player with contacts in the recording industry, and Myra was his twelve-year-old daughter. Jay helped Jerry Lee secure his first contract with Sun Records, eventually becoming the bass player of the Jerry Lee Lewis Trio. Jerry Lee lived at the Brown residence during this time and did not allow Jane to live with him. When he petitioned for divorce, she answered with a cross-petition that claimed he had not been supporting her or their two children. When it was discovered that their marriage had been illegal, Jerry Lee convinced Jane to drop the lawsuit but neglected to have the marriage annulled.

Jerry Lee then began to secretly date Myra, reasoning that he and Jane were never married. That December, an older-looking female friend accompanied him to the courthouse to pose as Myra, so he could register Myra as an eighteen-year-old on a marriage license. Myra and Jerry Lee married on December 12; Myra was thirteen years old and Jerry Lee was twenty-two years old. Jane learned of the Jerry Lee-Myra marriage the following March and divorced Jerry Lee in April.

Between September, 1956, and April, 1958, Jerry Lee had progressed from anonymity to national fame, with three major television appearances and record sales numbering in the millions. However, the public knew nothing about his personal life. Sun Records promoter Jud Phillips and manager Oscar Davis struggled to keep the marriage a secret. The tour in England was arranged with a warning to Jerry Lee: to keep the marriage a secret. However, they could not keep him from taking Myra to England with him.

Jerry Lee and Myra arrived in London on May 22 to find a crowd of reporters waiting for them at the airport, but none knew that Jerry Lee was married. That changed when after one reporter asked Myra who she was; she replied that she was Jerry Lee’s wife. Davis pulled Myra into a waiting limousine before the reporter could ask more questions. Two more reporters showed up at the hotel suite and interviewed Jerry Lee and Myra briefly before Davis arrived and forced the reporters to leave. Questions about Myra continued at Jerry Lee’s promotional press conference. Reporters were told that Myra was fifteen years old and a grown woman.

Newspapers the following day ran articles that focused more on Jerry Lee’s underage bride than on his concert tour. After some research, London’s Daily Mirror learned that Myra was actually thirteen years old and her husband’s cousin, and that Jerry Lee had not divorced his previous wife. On May 25, London police visited the couple at their hotel, inspected their passports, and questioned them on the validity of their marriage. The Home Office secretary briefly investigated the possibility of deporting the couple as “undesirable aliens.”

The unresolved legal issues and questionable morality of the relationship dominated press coverage. Some editorials called for the couple to be deported, accusing Jerry Lee of bigamy, incest, and Pedophilia pedophilia. In an attempt to quell the controversy over the marriage’s questionable legality, Davis tried to have the couple marry again, but the American embassy in England refused, citing conflicts with British law. Poor concert attendance and constant heckling led to the tour’s cancellation after only three shows. The Lewises left England a few days after they had arrived.

In the United States, Jerry Lee’s latest single peaked at number twenty-one on the pop charts before it abruptly stopped selling. Radio stations stopped playing his songs and he was turned down for appearances on television. In response, he published an open letter to the music industry, apologizing for his bigamy, characterizing it as a misunderstanding of his legal status with Jane.

Jerry Lee and Myra held another marriage ceremony on June 4, which did little to allay criticism. Myra’s age and her blood relation to Jerry Lee remained controversial, and the reaffirmation of their relationship demonstrated Jerry Lee’s disregard for those issues. A lawsuit by British tour promoters cost Sun Records $100,000. Sun tried unsuccessfully to restart Jerry Lee’s career, investing personal money and enlisting private investments to continue promoting its former star—but Jerry Lee had been blacklisted by the entertainment industry. He continued to play in small venues for a fraction of his former salary and eventually became a successful country singer during the 1970’s. However, he never approached the level of success he had anticipated in 1958.

Impact

Jerry Lee Lewis became a symbol of rock’s threat to traditional morality. Before the scandal, he had been a controversial figure because of his music. Opponents of rock music during the 1950’s associated it with lewdness and obscenity. Rock and roll was also associated with African American culture, leading some adults to worry about its popularity among white teenagers, especially girls. Indeed, some stations refused to play Jerry Lee’s early records on the radio because they thought he was black. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (1957), one of Jerry’s Lee’s first hits, had once been banned from radio stations because of perceived sexual innuendos. The sexually charged performances of male rock stars and the adulation of their fans made singers such as Jerry Lee especially threatening.

Jerry Lee’s marriage to Myra Brown shifted media attention from his professional accomplishments to his personal life. Though he was used to controversy over his music, the singer was unprepared for the reaction to his marriage. His grandfather had married a fifteen-year-old first cousin, and his mother had married at the age of sixteen. He had not been close to the Brown family until his adulthood. Myra later claimed that the couple had never thought of each other as cousins.

Financial and emotional strain would lead to the deterioration of the marriage, which ended in divorce in 1971. Subsequent arrests and hospitalizations for problems related to substance abuse merely added to his already poor reputation for impulsive and amoral behavior. By the time he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Jerry Lee had become a symbol of everything the public associates with rock, the good as well as the bad. Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Myra Brown Marriage;underage Marriage;Jerry Lee Lewis[Lewis]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baltakis, Anthony. “Jerry Lee Lewis and His Marriages: An Excuse to Attack Rock and Roll.” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 25 (2002): 51-56. Provides an overview of the scandal in the context of social and cultural opposition to rock and roll.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Myra, and Murray Silver. Great Balls of Fire: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis. New York: Quill, 1986. Presents Myra Brown Lewis’s perspective on Jerry Lee’s life and career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Police to Check up on Child Bride.” Daily Mirror, May 26, 1958. A representative article covering the scandal as it developed. Focuses on the marriage’s morality while demonstrating the couple’s focus on its legality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tosches, Nick. Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. New York: Grove Press, 1998. Emphasizes the role of Jerry Lee Lewis’s cultural and religious background on his music and his personal relationships.

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