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Merry Widow Of Country Legends

September 20, 1987|JOHN PRIME | Prime is a free-lance writer based in Shreveport.

In 1960, not quite 30, Billie Jean was a widow for the second time. Despite Horton's success, his estate amounted to little, and it was slow in coming. There were also tax bills due, but Billie Jean managed to pull through with help from Cash.

After Horton's death, Billie Jean took to the road again, recording some songs of her own and shepherding Horton's royalties and song catalogue. She also began her long legal battle to win her share of the Hank Williams estate.

That renewed the animosity between Billie Jean and Audrey Williams, Hank's first wife and mother of Hank Williams Jr. It also resurrected the ghost of another of her foes, Lilly Stone, Hank's mother. Billie Jean had differences with Mrs. Stone during her time with Hank. That animosity continued beyond Hank's death.

Even as Hank's body lay in state in the living room of Mrs. Stone's home, she and Billie Jean fought in the bathroom. Billie Jean was shorter and half the weight of her opponent. "I had to get up on the commode to slap her," she said.

The recently concluded "illegitimate daughter" case was not the first time Horton was faced with someone claiming to be one of her husbands' heirs. In 1981 she discovered that a young man in Washington state was performing in clubs, claiming to be the son of Johnny Horton.

She flew to Spokane and confronted the impostor, but discovered to her chagrin that many people were more sympathetic to him than to her.

"It turned out he had a prison record and was on parole at the time," Horton said, adding that he later returned to prison but still maintains a desultory correspondence with her. "He calls me collect and calls me 'Mom,' " she says. "Can you believe that?"

Billie Jean married once after Horton's death, to Shreveport insurance executive Kent Berlin in 1968. But within a week of the marriage, the problems surrounding "Your Cheatin' Heart" got in the way.

"I had to be on the road with the lawyers all the time, and that didn't work out," she said. The marriage ended in divorce, but she said she and Berlin are still "great friends."

Though her busy schedule of courtroom appointments, lawyer meetings and the tracking of songs she controls may be too much for a marriage, Horton makes time to enjoy her family.

Her two daughters by Johnny Horton live in Shreveport and her two young grandchildren are frequent visitors. And as if that all is not enough, she is also considering writing her autobiography. She has also been consulting with producers planning a film biography of Hank Williams.

After several marriages, myriad personal tragedies and more than three decades of forced legal education, Billie Jean Horton lives by a simple motto.

"Swing with whatever happens," she said. "Then you don't have time to get dull."

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