WASHINGTON — In the parlor below the deck of her houseboat docked on the Potomac, a youngish woman--blond and dressed in white--recounts the dream and nightmare of her search for her long-hidden legend-filled past.
Among the framed old photographs decorating the wood-paneled room, there is only one that really matters to Jett Williams: a black-and-white picture of a handsome young man in a cowboy hat with a dreamy expression on his face.
It is no ordinary face, no ordinary family photograph. The man is famous, an immortal icon of popular culture. Pictures just like this belong to his fans all over the world.
But this 37-year-old married woman, who has embarked on a show business career of her own, is more than an overzealous fan. The man in the photograph is the object of a 15-year obsession that has taken her down a long, lonesome road of legal battles and family feuds that have resulted in a complete transformation of her identity.
He is the legendary country singer-songwriter Hank Williams. And she--unaware of it until she was 21--is his daughter.
Hank Williams is more than just a singer and composer; he can be credited, with the equally legendary Roy Acuff, of being a founder of country music. His songs emphasize the poetic beauty of romantic misery. Such Williams classics as "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" formed the basic vocabulary of the country repertoire.
The story of Jett Williams--adopted at age 3--and her struggle to establish her identity as her father's daughter is a tale of more pathos, more twists and turns, than a country ballad.
It is a story that has the ingredients of a Southern Gothic novel: a baby whose father dies five days before she is born and whose mother abandoned her; betrayal by relatives who placed her for adoption; a fight over an inheritance; the refusal of the legitimate son to recognize his illegitimate sibling; persistence in the face of great odds; a fortuitous discovery of a hidden document; and, for good measure, a love affair with and eventual marriage to the lawyer who helped right the wrongs.
Beyond and above all the maneuverings and scheming is the transcendent theme of the love of a daughter for a father she would never know and her belief in his love for her.
"I believe that I've had a guardian angel--I really, really do. And I've implied that I think my father is my guardian angel, and that he's looking down," Williams says in her Alabama accent.
With the help of ghostwriter Pamela Thomas, Williams has written about her life in "Ain't Nothin' as Sweet as My Baby" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). The book's publication date is today, the birthday of Hank Williams Sr.
If there is one thing Jett Williams has learned from her decision to get to the bottom of the truth about her past, it is that her efforts to establish herself as who she really is--Hank Williams' daughter--have been met with less than sentimental appreciation by many people, including relatives in her real and adoptive families.
Her half-brother, Hank Williams Jr., 42, a celebrated country singer in his own right, refuses to acknowledge his half-sister, although he and his lawyers have been aware of her existence for at least 20 years.
They declined to discuss the case. "Since there is ongoing litigation between us, our policy is not to comment," said attorney Chris Horsnell of Wyatt, Tarrant, Combs, Gilbert & Milom, the Nashville firm that represents Hank Williams Jr.
In 1987, Jett Williams--as she is known professionally and to most of her friends but whose legal married name is Cathy Deupree Adkinson--established in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Montgomery, Ala., that she was the biological daughter of Hank Williams.
But she has yet to succeed in laying hold on the corollary to that fact: her share of her father's estate and his royalties--which are said to amount to about $1 million a year.
Many of those who knew Hank Williams Sr. and have met his daughter agree that she resembles him. She has the same distinct features and steady gaze.
Her quest for her father has a character of almost religious intensity that represents an unsettling precedent for other families with adopted children who decide to seek out their roots.
She always knew she was adopted because she could remember arriving at the home of her adoptive parents, a prosperous Mobile, Ala., businessman named Wayne Deupree and his wife, Louise. When Jett Williams was 21, her adoptive parents visited her at the University of Alabama in Montgomery to tell her about a $2,000 legacy left her by a relative of her real father.
With a clumsiness that only well-meaning relatives can achieve, Louise Deupree informed her adopted daughter that her real father was famous, a famous musician from Montgomery, and suggested that she take a guess at who he was. The then-Cathy Deupree guessed Hank Williams quickly, not an odd coincidence in view of his celebrity in Alabama. Her mother went on to tell her that there was no proof.