By AUDREY FISCHER
Some stories are too good to be kept secret. Fortunately, country singer Jett Williams has chosen to share hers with the world–not only in her autobiography titled "Ain't Nothin' as Sweet as My Baby" but also through her many speaking engagements.
"If I made up my story, it wouldn't be this good," said Williams during her March 5 keynote address to kick off the Library's month-long celebration of Women's History Month. "When people tell me I should write a book, I tell them I have, and it's in the Library of Congress."
The daughter of country music legend Hank Williams, Williams has often been referred to as "country music's best kept secret" since her paternity was unknown to her until she was an adult–and then it was only hinted at. This began her quest to find out who she was and what had happened.
She was born in Montgomery, Ala., on Jan. 6, 1953, just five days after her father's sudden death at the age of 29. She was subsequently adopted by her paternal grandmother who died shortly thereafter. Her father's sister, Irene, agreed to adopt her, but instead placed the two-year-old in foster care and sued her for any claim to her grandmother's estate.
"I had four families before I was four, was orphaned three times, and had six name changes," recalled Williams. "My life was repeatedly changed with the stroke of a pen, be it by an attorney, social worker, judge, family member, or the courts." It wasn't until her thirties that she christened herself "Jett Willams" to represent the union of her natural mother, Frances "Bobby" Jett and her famous father, Hank Williams.
At the age of 21, Williams was first given some basic information by her adoptive parents about her possible connection to the famous country singer. Armed with these "crumbs," she continued her search in the local library and then in the Alabama Pensions and Securities office, which maintained state adoption records. For about a decade, Williams came up against "one brick wall after another." It became clear that her search would have to extend outside of Alabama. Keith Adkinson, a Washington, D.C., investigative attorney, helped open doors that were previously closed to her.
"Through faith I met Keith, my knight in a three-piece suit," said Williams, who married Adkinson in 1986. "He believes in justice and what's right. But he warned me that I might not find out the truth, or I might find I wasn't wanted, or I might find I was wanted. I had to be prepared to face those realities."
Fortunately, Williams found out that she was indeed wanted, a fact that fills her with enormous pride. In a move that Williams characterized as "unbelievable in 1952," her father, then already a superstar, came forward to accept full responsibility for his unborn child.
"My daddy loved me enough to do something just for me," she said. "He entered into a pre-birth custody agreement that gave him full custody and responsibility for me."
In a quest that can only be characterized as "relentless," Williams was able to prove that she was not only Hank Williams' daughter but also the rightful heir to half of his estate (to be shared with her step-brother Hank Williams Jr.).
"The presidential elections had nothing on me," joked Williams, referring to her persistence in arguing her case in the courts. "My case was argued in probate court, circuit court, the state supreme court, the federal courts in New York, the appellate court and no less than five times in the U.S. Supreme Court." At issue was not only the establishment of her paternity, which was well-documented, but also her inheritance rights as a presumed adoptee.
"I wasn't born adopted," said Williams. "My father never intended for me to be adopted. He just didn't count on dying."
As a result of her case, many laws have been changed, including those governing the inheritance rights of adopted children.
Williams was ultimately able to prove that she was deliberately defrauded.
"Everyone knew there was a child, but they deliberately concealed my identity, not to protect me, but for their own financial gain."
In the end, Adkinson was able to convince three appellate judges to review his wife's case again, and, in a stunning move, they reversed their earlier decision.
"Our country is so great because you can stand up and fight for what you believe in," said Williams. "I'm grateful to live in the greatest country in the world where I have the freedoms that I have."
While searching for her identity, Williams also pursued a singing career. As evidenced by childhood photos of her with a guitar, music was in her blood long before she was linked to her legendary father. In 1989, she made her professional debut, blending her father's classics, such as "Your Cheatin' Heart," with her originals. In 1993, she appeared for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. For more than a decade she brought to life her father's legacy for a new generation of fans. In addition to her autobiography, her credits include two compact discs, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "That Reminds Me of Hank."
A few years ago, on what would have been her father's 75th birthday, she reconciled with half-brother Hank Williams Jr.
"I believe my daddy was finally at peace, knowing his kids were no longer fighting," said Williams.
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.