"I wake up and think, why didn't I just ram the car into an empty car in the parking lot? I think of a hundred things I could've done . . . but then again, I think, well, I'm alive. If I'd done that he might've shot me. They'd have caught him, but still - I'd be dead."
As she says this, placing one word carefully after another as though walking a tightrope, country music star Tammy Wynette is sihouetted against the staff-and-notes ironwork which bars the windows. Her doorbell is answered by intercom. Guard dog warnings are posted around the circle drive. Security guards drink coffee in the kitchen and escort guests to their cars.
Twenty-four hours a day, Wynette's Nashville home a fortress against the unidentified enemies who have made phone threats, painted X's on the doors, planted warning notes in her dressing room, walked over the roof, wiretapped the phones, set fire to the house (three times in one night, causing $100,000 in damages) and shopping center and drove her 80 miles to a rendezvous with a beating.
"It just seems to be a never-ending thing. But it's got to end, somewhere - I just want it to before somebody's really hurt badly."%TBy "hurt badly," Wynette means killed. She believes that the kidnapper who was hiding in the back seat of her car on Oct. 4 intended to kill her; she feels lucky to have escaped with a broken cheekbone and shifted teeth. But there are other aftershocks: the insomia, the nervous stomach, the loss of privacy and peace of mind.
I've always said I could never live the life that Elvis did or people like Tom Jones who are hounded everywhere they go. It's really sad, because I've always been a very free person and I've enjoyed that so much.
"I love my freedom.It's out of my character to have someone with me all the time every time I make a move, every time I go shopping or to pick up food." Her voice drops as though she's ashamed. "It's not a very good feeling to know there has to be somebody with you. Yet on the other hand, since it happened I find myself looking at people and looking at cars and thinking you know, 'Is that the one?'"
But she prepared for the physical bruises. "To be honest, the only thing going through my head when I saw that gun was staying alive. I thought, 'Who cares about being raped as long as I can live?" (She was not sexually assaulted.)
But she was not prepared for the barrage of rumors and suspicions which inevitably swarm around kidnap victims - the hints of collusion which have haunted Patty Hearst and Samuel Bronfman and Frank Sinatra Jr., and on back to Aimee Semple McPherson. The Music Row rumor mill ground out one "inside" story after another about kinky bedroom games gone astray or jealous ex-husbands. According to Wynette, one music industry executive even said her brother-in-law, "I think I'll go down Broadway and see if I can't stand around and watch Tammy Wynette being raped." There is shock in her voice as she tells this. Wynette and her husband, songwriter-producer George Richey, were aghast.
"Two-thirds of the people were wonderful," she says evenly, settling her skirt around her drawn-up legs. "The other third I would have to say were the cranks who said it was all done for publicity stunt, which broke my heart, or that it was done to hide an affair I was having. That was all in People magazine, which killed me.
"It says all those things were discounted because 'Tammy was seen doing this' or 'Tammy was seen doing that,' but a lot of people won't even read that line - they'll get just so far down and quit. 'Ah, hah, she did it herself.' But that doesn't make sense; I don't know any woman who would want her face damaged.
"If I wanted publicity, I'd go down to Possum Holler (a club belonging to ex-husband George Jones) and dance all night."
Publicity and rumor and soap opera in the spotlight are old hat to the woman who has had at the same time one of the most successful music careers and one of the most disastrous private lives in country music. Her life - and the trial-and-error songs she has written from it - are literally the stuff of which fanziness are made.
She married for the first time at 17, a true child of the Mississippi Bible belt. Ten years later, determined to break into the Nashville scene, she was carrying her material with her - a beautician's license, and the bleached hair to match, three kids and her first divorce.
In country music's version of the Lana Turner/Schwab's Drugstore leg-end, Wynette finally walked into the office of the one producer who heard something "every woman can identify with" in her voice: Billy Sherrill. Three months later, they recorded the first of a long string of hits written together: "Stand BY Your Man," "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," "I Don't Want To Play House," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E". One song at a time, Sherrill and Wynette explored every nook and nuance of her domestic life. The formula worked for both: Wynette became the first woman country singer to sell a million records, and Sherrill, with her as his good-luck talisman, went on to "make" such other stars as Charlie Rich, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Paycheok.
It was through Sherrill Wynette first met, partnered and finally married one of her childhood idols, long-time star George Jones then 38 to her 28. It was a stormy union, primarily because of Jones' heavy drinking, and marked by widely-publicized separations and reconciliations. It was also to some extent a "Star-Is-Born" marriage, where the selling power slowly shifted from Jones to Wynette.
Even after they were finally divorced in 1975, they continued to record and make headlines together: She would be hospitalized (for bronchitis, gall bladder trouble, intestinal obstruction, flu) in Tuscon, Atlanta, London, Reno, Rochester, and Nashville, and Jones would fly to her side. More than a year later, he was still declaring to reporters, "There will never be anyone else for either of us."
Wynette, however, was linked romantically with one personality after another, notably Burt Reynolds, still a close friend who has given her children four apaloosa horses. She and New England Patriots tackle Tom Neville woke up one morning a few years ago to discover that they were "married," according to published reports.
In July 1976 she sailed into a wedding with Nashville realtor Michael Tomlin, whom she had known only a few months. The marriage failed weeks later when, according to a story in the April Cosmopolitan, Tomlin ran along the beach outside her Florida house firing a pistol into the air, which Tomlin has denied doing.
At the Tomlin wedding, Richey played the organ.His wife, Sheila, was matron of honor. The Richeys were divorced earlier this year, and he married Wynette in June.
This time, she says with the bubble and confidence which characterize her declarations of affection, she married not a child, not an idol, not a crush, but a friend. "To like somebody to me is as important as being in love with them, because if they like me and really like what I am and like what I stand for, then they're gonna love me."
She tilts the buttermilk, which is the only thing she can "keep on her stomach" around the rim of the glass. "I hate living alone, I hate it. I don't like to play the dating game, it's not for me.If I'm in love with someone, I don't want to waste my time with him dating somebody else and me dating somebody else. I'd rather we be married."
Caution catches fractionally at her throat, then she goes on. "I have together for almost a year before we got married. That's something both of us were taught against; it's against every belief we ever had. But at the same time he couldn't get his divorce over with for us to get married right away."
She is a woman who wants what she wants right away, and more of it: a recording career, 160 nights on the road, an 11-bedroom house, her four kids and Richey's two - then she wants to adopt another baby, preferably an American Indian.
She wants one life in Nashville - "This is where the business . . . this is where we're happy" - and another life in Florida, in private. She won't run away from her troubles or from the streak of bad luck which has seen her $130,000 bus "melt" from a generator fire and her plane go down into Lake Pontchatrain, killing the pilot. And she won't run away out of the security of her niche in country music.
"This is what I've always wanted. . . . I'm very happy where I am. Dolly (Parton) has the personality, the beauty, the wit; she has eveything it takes to [cross over to a general audience]. But it would scare me to death if I had to start all over again.
She is a fighter. She was "tickled" when Jones gave her a gold Cadillac for her birthday after they were divorced, but when he fell $360,000 behind in child support, she marched him into court. She is capable of cutting and pasting the pieces of her past together.
"It's nothing really personal. It's just that I'm very happy for the first time in my life. I want to keep it that way and I don't want anything with George Jones and me to interfere with my life now."
Saying this, she starts to square her shoulders and throw back her chin - but the inflamed muscles of he jaw stop her and she carefully returns her head to a straight-on position. Instead, her eyes drift toward the windows, beyond the bars. "I want to live as much of a normal life as possible - I guess I'll just increase security again (if necessary). I've had two guns here at the house and both of them have been stolen. I'm going to the pistol range next week and learn how to really shoot a pistol and do it the right way and be accurate.
"Because I don't intend" - this is said very firmly - "for this to go on forever."