Tag Archives: Tammy Faye

Barbara Walters looks back at past ‘American Scandals’

Though the fog of time may have clouded certain details, a parade of past scandals that each seized the public’s attention ring familiar to this day.

There’s Lyle and Erik Menendez, privileged sons who offed their parents in their Beverly Hills, California, home in 1989. Jean Harris, the girls’ school headmistress whose lover, celebrity diet doctor Herman Tarnower, was found shot dead after she visited him in 1980, landing her in prison with a murder conviction. Televangelist Jim Bakker and wife Tammy Faye, who built a faith-based empire before sexual and financial misdeeds wrecked their PTL Club money-machine and put him in the slammer.

Barbara Walters was there to cover these and other shocking events. Now the veteran journalist is updating the stories on American Scandals, a nine-segment series on Investigation Discovery.

“We had thousands of past ABC News 20/20 stories to choose from, and we brought some of them up-to-date by talking with subjects we could get to, as well as the people around them,” Walters said recently. “We’re exploring what is their life like now? What have they learned? And what can we learn from them?”

Fresh interviews supplement archival footage — some never before aired — which, viewed from as much as 30 years, often takes on new significance. “Footage from the past can look very different when viewed in the present,” Walters noted.

The series begins with the still-unsolved murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, whose lifeless body was found in the basement of her Colorado home in 1996, placing her parents, John and Patsy, under instant suspicion. Walters now talks with John, whose daughter would today be 25, about the lingering mystery and scrutiny that have plagued him ever since and that haunted his wife to her grave in 2006.

In its second episode, Scandals revisits perhaps the most galvanizing murder case of modern times — the vicious 1994 stabbings of Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson, the ex-wife of O.J. Simpson. Walters interviews Simpson houseguest Kato Kaelin, 56, who now pronounces his host (acquitted in that trial but currently serving time on an unrelated robbery conviction) guilty of the murders.

Walters also takes a new, perhaps gratuitous, look at one of the era’s most despised figures, Mark David Chapman, who at age 60 is remembered all too well for gunning down John Lennon in front of his New York apartment in 1980. Walters interviewed  the assassin in 1992 and for Scandals has landed what she says is the first-ever interview with Chapman’s longtime wife, Gloria.

Another enduring couple: Mary Kay Letourneau, the former schoolteacher and married mother of four who was twice jailed for her affair with a sixth-grade student. Now 53, Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, 32, have been married for a decade with two teenage daughters of their own.

“My God, they’re still together!” said Walters, who interviewed the pair a few months ago. “They’re an old married couple!”

Though reigning for decades as one of ABC News’ biggest stars, Walters said she’s glad to find a berth on niche-cable network Investigation Discovery, which affords her room for weekly hour-long explorations.

“We don’t have a newsmagazine anymore,” she said, referring to ABC. “We have 20/20, but — they’re gonna mind my saying this — it’s changed,” having narrowed the general-interest format Walters presided over.

“What Investigation Discovery gives me is the opportunity to present a whole interview and bring it up-to-date,” she said.

Other episodes include a look at actor Robert Blake, who was tried and acquitted of the 2001 murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley.

On another, she sits down with Kimberly Mays, who was switched at birth in 1978 at a Florida hospital with another newborn, resulting in a notorious custody battle between her biological parents and Robert Mays, who raised her. “We searched all over and found her living in poverty in Clearwater, Florida,” said Walters.

That points to the effort required to produce American Scandals, she added proudly. “They’re difficult to do. You can’t just pull out an old interview and throw it on the air.”

Tammy Faye’s remote Kansas grave is covered with tributes of mascara and lip gloss

On the edge of Kansas’ wind-swept prairie, near a nondescript grave, sits the most recent token of affection.

It’s a tube of lip gloss.

Since her death on July 20, 2007, fans and friends of Tammy Faye Bakker Messner occasionally make pilgrimages to where the ashes of the Christian television celebrity were laid to rest, The Wichita Eagle reported. There, they leave the types of cosmetic items — lipstick, mascara — that helped give Tammy Faye her distinctive look.

In a Harper County cemetery, remote and unmarked, Tammy Faye’s gravestone is far away from the glamor, controversy and cameras that followed the woman who helped build three Christian television networks: the Christian Broadcasting Network with Pat Robertson; the Trinity Broadcasting Network with Paul Crouch; and Praise The Lord ministry — and ultimately the ill-fated Christian theme and water park Heritage USA in Fort Mill, S.C., with her first husband Jim Bakker.

“I took her down there and showed her Waldron, she thought it was a quaint little community,” said her husband, Roe Messner, a mega-church builder who for decades was based in the Wichita area and in more recent years moved to a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri.

“She was glad to see where I grew up and all. She thought it was kind of neat.”

Waldron is a throwback in time. Houses, storefronts and garages are in varying degrees of neglect along the dirt-covered streets that lie quiet until a passing vehicle stirs up rooster tails of dust.

It was once a thriving town with a railroad, two banks and two newspapers. Its population is now 10.

“It is a nice quiet place to live,” said Mayor Shirley Nelson. “Most people here are second and third generation, raised here or very close by.”

It is a tight-knit community where neighbors watch out for one another and are both protective and proud of their town’s most famous celebrity.

Roe Messner grew up in Waldron. He buried Tammy Faye’s ashes next to his mother Nellie. When it is his time, Messner — who is in his eighth decade — said he will be buried next to Tammy Faye.

“That’s our family plot,” Roe Messner said. “I buried her next to my dad and mother. My little brother is buried there.

“The press never did know Tammy. It is a shame what the press had to say. She was not anything at all about what has been written.”

Harold Waldschmidt, the cemetery sexton, said he’s seen the lipstick and mascara when he mows.

“I don’t bother it,” he said. “I feel like that is a personal thing.”

In the late stages of the failing Heritage USA and PTL empire, Tammy Faye was often portrayed on TV in tears, mascara running down her cheeks. She divorced Jim Bakker in 1992 while he was in prison for defrauding millions of his followers and after his widely publicized infidelity with Jessica Hahn.

In the meantime, Messner, who had been the chief builder of the Heritage USA theme park, was convicted of bankruptcy fraud and spent two years in prison.

Tammy Faye married Messner in 1993. In 2004, she appeared on the reality show The Surreal Life and re-emerged as a television and cult personality, this time embracing gay men infected with the AIDS virus and appearing alongside ex-porn-star Ron Jeremy.

Her faith never wavered through controversy or failing health.

“You wouldn’t believe when Tammy passed away, you know those big mail sacks?” Messner asked. “I got 12 mail sacks the week she died. It was literally thousands and thousands of sympathy cards.

“She was the most common, down-to-earth person you ever saw. The press always made her out to be some nitwit type of person. She was totally different. Her IQ was 165. She was so sharp and different than everybody thought she was.”

Even now, he said, people will sometimes write and say they have visited her graveside.

“I was down there this summer, and I could see several people there had left stuff,” he said.

Getting to Waldron, which is about 95 miles southwest of Wichita and nearly on top of the Oklahoma state line, requires back-roads determination.

Washboard roads slow SUVs to covered-wagon speeds. There are seldom any road signs, and cellphone coverage is spotty.

“You have to be kind of familiar with the area,” Nelson, the town’s mayor, acknowledged. “Some roads you can’t take all the way.”

She pointed recent visitors down the road and to the right, to the unmarked cemetery.

“I’m tickled to death,” Nelson said of people who come to visit.

“I never did meet Tammy Faye, but I always heard stories about her,” Nelson said.

This is an AP Member Exchange story provided by The Wichita Eagle.