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O.C. Writer Helps Tell Billy Carter Odyssey

January 27, 1990|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was the only First Brother in history to have a beer named after him.

Billy Carter, President Jimmy Carter's grinning "good ol' boy" younger brother, became an overnight media darling as he swilled beer and wisecracked his way through the "malaise" of the Carter years from the vantage point of his self-proclaimed "press headquarters and bar": his two-pump service station in Plains, Ga.

But behind the flamboyant, don't-give-a-damn irreverence and well-publicized fondness for a six-pack, Miss Lillian's fourth and youngest child was actually a bright, hard-working businessman with a serious personal problem.

Billy Carter was an alcoholic.

At his lowest point, before entering a detoxification program in 1979, he was drinking half a gallon of vodka and whiskey a day. By his account, he had also begun having memory blackouts, couldn't go for more than a few hours without a drink and would shake so badly he couldn't even hold a glass.

"You hear how bad withdrawal from heroin and other drugs is, but I'm here to tell you they ain't nothing compared to alcohol--not if you'd been drinking like I had," Carter says of his 11 days of detox in a new autobiographical book that chronicles his better-known escapades and his lesser-known bout with alcoholism, recovery and the pancreatic cancer that would kill him in 1988 at age 51.

"Billy" by Billy and Sybil Carter with Ken Estes (Edgehill Publications; $17.95 and $8.95), offers, as the subtitle says, "Billy Carter's Reflections on His Struggle with Fame, Alcoholism and Cancer."

Estes, who lives in Laguna Niguel, said Billy Carter was drinking so much in the late '70s that if he hadn't stopped when he did, "he just wouldn't have lived longer."

The irony, of course, is that while traveling on the road of recovery and beginning to speak publicly about his alcoholism, he was diagnosed with cancer.

An intriguing, painfully honest memoir, "Billy" is told from the viewpoints of Billy and his wife, Sybil, in alternating chapters. But it also includes interviews with Billy's six children and others.

The underlying theme of Billy Carter's adult years is his alcoholism.

And that's how Estes, director of communications for the Irvine-based National Assn. of Addiction Treatment Providers, entered the picture.

Estes met Billy Carter in June, 1987, while Estes was doing public relations for Irvine-based CompCare, the nation's largest alcohol and drug treatment network.

One of Estes' jobs was to arrange to have a recovering person speak whenever CompCare opened a new facility. Dr. Joseph Pursch, the retired Navy doctor who treated Billy Carter in the alcohol rehabilitation program at Long Beach Naval Hospital in 1979 and who was CompCare's corporate medical director, recommended Billy to speak at the new facility in Orlando, Fla.

"Pursch kept saying Billy probably was doing as well as any of his former patients," recalled Estes.

At the time, Estes' view of Billy Carter was like most Americans--that he was a beer-drinking buffoon, who had been a political embarrassment to Jimmy Carter. And Estes wasn't at all sure how big the public interest would still be in Carter, who, at the peak of Billy-mania in the 1970s, was pulling down $5,000 for each public appearance.

But, Estes said, Billy "kind of blew my socks off" when he heard him speak to about 500 people in Orlando.

"I wasn't prepared for what I saw there," said Estes, who took an instant liking to Billy and vice versa: "I'm a recovering alcoholic. I think that breaks down a lot of barriers. Billy really disliked dealing with his alcoholism with people who didn't understand it."

Estes, a former newspaper reporter, had just finished editing a book on alcoholism for CompCare Publications and was looking for a book project of his own to write.

Later that evening in Orlando, Estes asked Billy if he had any interest in writing a book that would deal with his alcoholism, "along with his shenanigans." Billy told Estes that he had been approached several times to do a "tell-all" type of book during Jimmy Carter's presidential years but had turned them down.

But several weeks later, Billy called Estes to say he'd like to pursue the book idea further, and they met again when Carter came out to Los Angeles. "Billy hadn't seen any of my writing," Estes said. "It was kind of on trust at that point."

That was in August, 1987.

A month later, Estes heard on television that Billy Carter had a new diagnosis: cancer. "It was just a shock to me," Estes said.

He waited three days to call Billy, telling him he didn't know if Carter wanted to go ahead with the project. But he wanted to, if Billy did. "He said, 'Why don't you catch a plane and come on down and we'll talk about it,' " Estes recalled.

Estes said they signed an agreement to do the book in Billy's hospital room, "but when I saw him I thought he was doomed, really. He just looked awful."

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