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Tammy Faye Messner, 65; former wife of televangelist Jim Bakker, pop culture icon

July 22, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Tammy Faye Messner, the mascara-laden former wife of televangelist Jim Bakker, the charismatic TV preacher with the choir-boy face with whom she appeared on their popular Christian talk-variety show until his downfall amid scandal in the late 1980s, has died. She was 65.

Messner, who underwent surgery for colon cancer in 1996 and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004, died Friday, her booking manager, Joe Spotts, told the Associated Press on Saturday night.

In a letter posted on her website in May, Messner said that doctors had stopped treating her cancer and that her weight had dropped to 65 pounds. "Now," she wrote, "it's up to God and my faith."

She revealed that she had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer during a March 2004 appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live." That Messner would publicly announce her diagnosis on King's talk show underscored her status as a faded yet enduring pop culture icon.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Betty Ford Center: The obituary of Tammy Faye Messner in Sunday's California section said the Betty Ford Center was located in Palm Desert. The facility is in Rancho Mirage.

Indeed, her radiation treatments even became part of a 2005 documentary, "Tammy Faye: Death Defying."

"During radiation," she said at the time, "I did not lose my hair, but I lost my eyelashes, which is the funniest thing in the world to me, because it's my trademark."

As Tammy Faye Bakker in the 1970s and '80s, she was known as "the first lady of televangelism," a high-profile pioneer of the "electronic church."

At 4 feet, 11 inches tall (not counting 3 1/2 -inch spike heels) and with her red hair and heavily made-up eyes, Messner was described in the media as a "human kewpie doll" and someone who seemed to "ooze kitsch."

As prone to giggling as she was to crying mascara-stained tears on camera, Tammy Faye Bakker proved to be irresistible fodder for late-night comedians.

"She was the most laughed-at woman in the Western world," Fenton Bailey, codirector of "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," a largely sympathetic documentary on Messner's life, told the Los Angeles Times in 2000.

"I don't know of any woman in our time who has been so ridiculed, put down, maligned," singer Pat Boone said in the 2000 film. "Really, I equate her with Hillary Clinton, because these two women have both suffered tremendously by the things that their husbands may have done, and yet she just keeps going."

During the heyday of the Bakkers' television ministry, "The Jim and Tammy Show" reportedly was carried on more than 1,400 stations and their PTL ministry took in millions of dollars a month.

The centerpiece of their evangelical empire -- Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre Christian theme park, resort and ministry headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C. -- reportedly attracted some 6 million visitors in 1986. Those who stayed at what was often described as "a Christian Disneyland" could buy eight different Tammy Faye record albums, not to mention items from the Tammy Faye line of cosmetics and pantyhose.

PTL stood for "Praise the Lord" and "People That Love," but critics insisted it stood for "Pass the Loot" and "Pay the Lady."

The downfall of Jim Bakker began in 1987 with the revelation that he had had a one-time sexual encounter with a former church secretary from New York, Jessica Hahn, in a Florida motel room in 1980 -- and that $265,000 in ministry funds were later used to keep Hahn quiet.

In March 1987, the scandalized Jim Bakker resigned as president of the $129-million-a-year PTL ministry and turned it over to the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Three months later, Falwell placed the ministry, which was more than $60 million in debt, in bankruptcy and turned financial records over to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 1988, Bakker and former top PTL associate Richard Dortch were indicted on federal charges of fraud and conspiracy. The 24-count indictment, returned by a federal grand jury, charged that Bakker and Dortch had fraudulently oversubscribed at least $158 million worth of $1,000 "lifetime partnerships" that guaranteed contributors three nights lodging per year at Heritage USA to help maintain Bakker and Dortch's "lavish and extravagant lifestyles."

The indictment further alleged that at a time when the PTL was in poor financial shape, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker received bonuses totaling some $3.5 million for their personal use.

Messner, who was treated at the Betty Ford Center in Palm Desert in 1987 for prescription drug dependency, was not named as a defendant in the indictment.

She publicly defended her husband, who pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, and she complained that the media vilified both her and her husband unfairly. "We lived no differently than any of the other evangelists," she told People magazine in 1996.

Dortch pleaded guilty to four fraud and conspiracy counts in a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony against Bakker. In 1989, Jim Bakker was convicted on all 24 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy. He ultimately served about 4 1/2 years of an eight-year sentence and was released from prison in 1994.

The Bakkers had divorced two years earlier, after three decades of marriage and two children, Tammy Sue and Jay.

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