When Jerry Lee Lewis Married His 13-Year-Old Cousin
Jerry Lee Lewis had been warned ahead of his British tour in May 1958. He’d been told by his advisers that he shouldn’t take his new wife to the U.K. with him, but he didn't listen. He couldn’t see any problem with bringing her with him on the road. He was one of the few who saw things so simply.
There were several issues in the eyes of others. Firstly, Myra Gale Brown was 13 years old. Secondly, she was his cousin, the daughter of his bassist J.W. Brown. Thirdly, she was his third wife. Fourthly, their marriage had taken place before the second divorce had been finalized. And for a bonus, Lewis’ second marriage had also taken place before the previous one was terminated.
When Lewis and his entourage arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the first American stars to make the journey, many of them expected great things. Elvis Presley had recently joined the army, so the way was clear for Lewis to claim the rock ’n’ roll crown. All those hopes were smashed when British journalist Ray Berry, who was patrolling the airport, asked a simple question of Myra: “Who are you?” Since she hadn’t been given any advice about how to treat reporters, she replied honestly, saying she was the wife of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Within days the British tour had been canceled, and within weeks the rising rock star would be appearing for $250 in bars and clubs instead of the $10,000 big shows he’d been playing before the scandal. Radio stations stopped playing his songs, former friends abandoned him and Myra later said she’d never shaken off the “Jerry Lee Lewis’s child bride” prefix to her name.
Watch Jerry Lee Lewis Talk to the Press in 1958
It took Lewis a decade to rebuild his career. Even though he a handful of rock ’n’ roll successes, he only began hitting big again when he became a country artist in 1968. But he remained bewildered about what he’d done wrong – though the fact that Myra had originally been said to be 15 rather than 13 suggests someone, somewhere thought there was a problem.
“I plumb married the girl, didn't I?” he said to one reporter. The newlyweds had moved in with her parents -- surely another indicator that everything was above board? They’d staged a second marriage ceremony to clear up the divorce doubt – didn’t that stand for something? And by 1959 wasn’t Presley – who voiced his support for the marriage, as long as the couple was truly in love – dating 14-year-old Priscilla?
The marriage ended in 1970 (Lewis' seventh wife was formerly married to Myra’s brother) but the couple remained in contact. They had two children: daughter Phoebe and son Steve, who died at the age of three. In a 2014 interview, Myra, then 70, explained her philosophical approach to what had happened to her. “The only problem was that nobody told me anything,” she said. “So when a reporter asked me, ‘Who are you?’ I was the one who let the big ol’ cat out of the bag.
“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. … Everyone underestimated me being aware and possibly knowing what to do. I could so easily have said, ‘I’m J.W. Brown’s daughter.’ … If anybody had told me anything, I could have prevented this thing.”
She argued that the truth behind the tour cancellation was that the British police had told them they couldn’t guarantee the band’s safety due to the passion of their fans, rather than a response to the tabloid headlines. “They said Jerry played to a half-empty house, and they booed and that kind of stuff," she said. "And that was not true.”
In 1958 she told one reporter that a girl could marry at 10 years of age if she could find a man who’d have her. In the 2014 interview she reflected, “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.
"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 added that her parents had her younger brother because she'd pleaded so desperately for a baby to look after; she happily took on the role of his second mother.
Lewis enjoyed a further rehabilitation of his reputation in the ‘80s. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural event in 1986, he instigated the end-of-show jam that remains a mainstay of the ceremony to this day. In another twist of fate, the 1989 movie Great Balls of Fire also helped rebuild his name – with a script based on Myra’s book about their lives together. Their daughter Phoebe was Lewis’ business manager from 2000 to 2012, though the partnership ended in acrimony, with lawsuits filed in 2017.
In 2014 Myra commented on the situation. “Okay, 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,’" she said. "But it was a different world, things have changed so drastically. Options, mindsets – this world has gone so fast the last 50 years that you can’t keep up with it.”
Asked about the controversy in a 2015 interview, Lewis told the Guardian, “I never done anything I’m ashamed of. I wasn’t the kind of guy who’d take a girl and put her up on a hill, and live with her for eight years, and then just marry her when I got her pregnant” -- apparently a dig at Presley -- “Sure he did it. It’s well known. I married my girls.”