RALEIGH , N.C. — Tammy Faye Messner, who as Tammy Faye Bakker helped her husband, Jim, build a multimillion-dollar evangelism empire and then watched it collapse in disgrace, has died. She was 65.
Messner had battled colon cancer since 1996 that more recently spread to her lungs. She died peacefully Friday at her home near Kansas City, Mo., said Joe Spotts, her manager and booking agent.
A family service was held Saturday in a private cemetery, where her ashes were interred, he said.
She had frequently spoken about her medical problems, saying she hoped to be an inspiration to others. “Don’t let fear rule your life,” she said. “Live one day at a time, and never be afraid.” But she told well-wishers in a note on her Web site in May that the doctors had stopped trying to treat the cancer.
In an interview with CNN’s Larry King two months later, an emaciated Messner — still using her trademark makeup — said, “I believe when I leave this earth, because I love the Lord, I’m going straight to heaven.” Asked if she had any regrets, Messner said: “I don’t think about it, Larry, because it’s a waste of good brain space.”
For many, the TV image of then-Mrs. Bakker forgiving husband Jim’s infidelities, tears streaking her cheeks with mascara, became a symbol for the wages of greed and hypocrisy in 1980s America.
She divorced her husband of 30 years, with whom she had two children, in 1992 while he was in prison for defrauding millions from followers of their PTL television ministries. The letters stood for “Praise the Lord” or “People that Love.”
Jim Bakker said in a statement that his ex-wife “lived her life like the song she sang, ’If Life Hands You a Lemon, Make Lemonade.”’
“She is now in Heaven with her mother and grandmother and Jesus Christ, the one who she loves and has served from childbirth,” he said. “That is the comfort I can give to all who loved her.”
Messner’s second husband also served time in prison. She married Roe Messner, who had been the chief builder of the Bakkers’ Heritage USA Christian theme park near Fort Mill, S.C., in 1993. In 1995, he was convicted of bankruptcy fraud, and he spent about two years in prison.
Through it all, Messner kept plugging her faith and herself. She did concerts, a short-lived secular TV talk show and an inspirational videotape. In 2004, she cooperated in the making of a documentary about her struggle with cancer, called “Tammy Faye: Death Defying.”
“I wanted to help people ... maybe show the inside (of the experience) and make it a little less frightening,” she said.
More recently, Tammy Faye kept in the public eye via her Web site.
“I cry out to the Lord knowing that many of you are praying for me,” Messner wrote in a July 16 post in which she indicated she weighed 65 pounds. “In spite of it all, I get dressed and go out to eat. ... I crave hamburgers and french fries with LOTS of ketchup! When I can eat that again, it will be a day of victory!”
In 2004, she appeared on the WB reality show “The Surreal Life,” co-starring with rapper Vanilla Ice, ex-porn star Ron Jeremy and others. She told King in 2004 that she didn’t know who Jeremy was when they met and they became friends.
‘I know what it’s like to hit rock bottom’
Messner was never charged with a crime in connection with the Bakker scandal. She said she counted the costs in other ways.
“I know what it’s like to hit rock bottom,” she said in promotional material for her 1996 video “You Can Make It.”
In the mid-1980s, the Bakkers were on top, ruling over a ministry that claimed 500,000 followers. Their “Jim and Tammy Show,” part TV talk show, part evangelism meeting, was seen across the country. Heritage USA boasted a 500-room hotel, shopping mall, convention center, water-amusement park, TV studio and several real-estate developments. PTL employed about 2,000 people.
Then in March 1987, Bakker resigned, admitting he had a tryst with Jessica Hahn, a 32-year-old former church secretary.
Tammy Faye Bakker stuck with her disgraced husband through five stormy years of tabloid headlines as the ministry unraveled.
Prosecutors said the PTL organization sold more than 150,000 “lifetime partnerships” promising lodging at the theme park but did not build enough hotel space with the $158 million in proceeds. At his fraud trial, Jim Bakker was accused of diverting $3.7 million to personal use even though he knew the ministry was financially shaky. Trial testimony showed PTL paid $265,000 to Hahn to cover up the sexual encounter with the minister.
Jim Bakker was convicted in 1989 of 24 fraud and conspiracy counts and sentenced to 45 years. The sentence was later reduced, and he was freed in 1994. He said that his wife’s decision to leave him had been “like a meat hook deep in my heart. I couldn’t eat for days.”
While not charged, his then-wife shared during the 1980s in the public criticism and ridicule over the couple’s extravagance, including the reportedly gold-plated bathroom fixtures and an air-conditioned doghouse.
There was even a popular T-shirt satirizing her image. The shirt read, “I ran into Tammy Faye at the shopping mall,” with the lettering on top of what look like clots of mascara, traces of lipstick and smudges of peach-toned makeup.
‘I cannot pretend anymore’
In a 1992 letter to her New Covenant Church in Orlando, Fla., she explained why she finally was seeking a divorce.
“For years I have been pretending that everything is all right, when in fact I hurt all the time,” she wrote.
“I cannot pretend anymore.”
In the end, there wasn’t any property to divide, her attorney said. The Bakkers lost their luxury homes in North Carolina, California and Tennessee, their fleet of Cadillacs and Mercedeses, and their vintage Rolls-Royce.
Her autobiography, “I Gotta Be Me,” recounts a childhood as Tammy Faye LaValley, one of eight children of a poor family in International Falls, Minn. Her biological father walked out. She was reticent about her age, but a 2000 profile of her in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis said she was born in March 1942.
She recalled trying eye makeup for the first time, then wiping it off for fear it was the devil’s work. Then she thought again.
“Why can’t I do this?” she asked. “If it makes me look prettier, why can’t I do this?”
She married Bakker in 1961, after they met at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. Beginning with a children’s puppet act, they created a religious show that brought a fundamentalist Protestant message to millions.
A secular TV talk program, the “Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show” with co-host Jim J. Bullock, lasted just six weeks in early 1996. Shortly after it went off the air, she underwent surgery for colon cancer.
She said afterward that she endured bleeding for a year because she was embarrassed to go to a male doctor. And she wore her makeup even in surgery.
“They didn’t make me take it off,” she said. “I had wonderful doctors and understanding nurses. I went in fully made up and came out fully made up.”
Survivors include her husband and her two children, Jamie Charles Bakker of New York City and Tammy Sue Chapman of Charlotte.
Spotts said that the family is considering a public memorial service for the coming weeks, but that nothing had been finalized Saturday.
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