NASHVILLE — Country superstar Tammy Wynette, who died at home under tangled circumstances on April 6, 1998, had become hopelessly addicted to powerful painkillers, primarily Demerol, Dilaudid and Versed, according to a controversial new book by one of Wynette's daughters.
"Tammy Wynette: A Daughter Recalls Her Mother's Tragic Life and Death," by Jackie Daly (Putnam), was published on Monday (May 8), the day that depositions were to begin in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the late singer's doctor.
The $50 million lawsuit, filed by the singer's daughters on April 5, 1999, alleges that the doctor maintained Wynette "on a regimen of narcotic and other addictive prescription medicine."
The time of death — Wynette was 55 — was never established, and no autopsy was performed.
The book recounts Wynette's tumultuous life, career and five marriages, including a stormy six-year union with country legend George Jones. Wynette (born Virginia Wynette Pugh) moved herself and her daughters to Nashville from a life of poverty in rural Mississippi, where the former hair stylist became a country music superstar with such hits as "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "Stand by Your Man"(RealAudio excerpt).
Daly charges that Wynette, at the time of her death, had developed a dependence on painkillers, which she injected with syringes. Daly writes that after the veins in Wynette's arms collapsed, she resorted to shooting the drugs between her toes and ultimately had a permanent catheter inserted into her side, into which a needle could be inserted for shooting the drugs directly into her bloodstream.
She died at home, on a living-room couch, with her fifth husband, country music producer and songwriter George Richey, present. The body remained there for hours as friends and relatives came and went and everyone waited for her private physician to fly in on a chartered plane from Pittsburgh to determine the cause of death.
Daly says that the National Enquirer knew about the death long before Nashville authorities were summoned. Daly writes that she herself had been to the house earlier that day and had found Wynette asleep — or at least totally unresponsive — on the couch, with Richey sitting in a bathrobe, uncommunicative.
Daly quotes the call from the house that finally went to 911 at 8:59 p.m. that evening:
Caller: "Yes ... We've had a death at 4916 Franklin Road. Could you send someone, please?"
911 operator: "OK. Was it an expected death, sir?"
Caller: "Uh, it was kind of unexpected, but it was a natural death, yes."
911 operator: "Well, we have been getting several calls and I'm not going to put this over the radio. Is this, by any chance, Tammy Wynette?"
Caller: "Yes, it is."
911 operator: "OK, sir."
Wynette's primary physician, famed Pittsburgh liver-transplant specialist Dr. Wallis Marsh, flew to Nashville that night and declared Wynette's death due to a blood clot to the lungs, although no autopsy was performed. The body was then embalmed.
Wynette's daughters obtained a court order last year to have Wynette's body exhumed for an autopsy to determine the cause of death. The autopsy proved that traces of the drugs Versed and Phenergan were still in her body, although no exact cause of death could be determined, other than the expected finding of heart failure. The daughters then filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the doctor and Wynette's widower, Richey. (They later dropped Richey from the suit.)
Richey recently sold the luxurious Nashville mansion where they lived for $1.2 million. The house formerly belonged to country music legend Hank Williams. Wynette died in the same room where Williams' widow Audrey Williams died in 1975 of alcoholism.
In one sensational passage, Daly writes that Wynette's infamous 1978 kidnapping from a Nashville shopping mall had been staged by Wynette herself — possibly in league with Richey. Daly says her mother told her she had been beaten by Richey and concocted the abduction/beating story to explain the bruises. Her mother told her, Daly writes, that she pretended to have been kidnapped from the Green Hills Mall and forced to drive out of town, and then claimed to have been beaten and dumped by the side of the road.
Daly hints that Wynette would deliberately hurt herself in order to gain access to drugs and once hurled herself offstage during a concert to earn a trip to the emergency room. During her life, Wynette underwent more than three dozen major surgeries, primarily due to abdominal adhesions. All of these occasions, Daly writes, triggered prescriptions for major pain-killing drugs.
She says Wynette's drug problems were linked to her disastrous marriages and stormy affairs, as with actor Burt Reynolds. Only George Jones, Daly says, truly loved Wynette, but she writes that his own addiction to alcohol doomed their marriage from the start.