Tammy Faye Messner

  • Born: March 7, 1942
  • Died: July 20, 2007
  • Location: Raleigh, North Carolina


Tammy Faye Messner and Jim Bakker

Ex-wife of disgraced evangelist Jim Bakker, dies at 65

RALEIGH, N.C.–Tammy Faye Messner, who as Tammy Faye Bakker helped her husband, Jim, build a multimillion-dollar evangelism empire and then saw it collapse in disgrace, has died. She was 65.

Messner, who had battled colon cancer since 1996 that more recently spread to her lungs, died peacefully at her home Friday, said her booking agent, Joe Spotts, in an email. 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 website 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 co-operated 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.

That same year, 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.

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 centre, 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 unravelled.

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 (U.S.) 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.

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.''

Condolence & Memory Journal

My Mother called the prayer room for a request for my daughter who was suffering from cyclic neutropenia, a rear blood disorder where she had very little white blood cells. She was very ill with small things like ear infections, cellulites and high fevers. Mom watched PTL every day. She loved you Tammy and said you were the blessed one who could take you to Jesus. Shortly after calling the prayer room my daughters doctor repeated more blood tests, came to me and said Angie was healed. Take her home and let her be a normal child. She had all the right amount of blood cells, When I asked him how this happened he replied It was a miracle. She knew God healed Angie thru the prayer room. I pray everyday and thank God you came to my Mom. May you always rest in peace and know you were very important in our lives.

Posted by Barbara Shipley - Batavia, OH - Mother was a PTL partner   January 14, 2016

Way to go Tammi Faye. You did it all with style and grace.

Posted by Marva Collins-Bush - Bastrop, LA   May 27, 2008

With All You Have Been Thru Tammy Faye, You Had Great Admoration, Love,

Posted by Joan Palmer - Tempe, AZ   October 24, 2007

You will be miss Tammy Faye, thank you for your wonderful music and preaching. rest in peace with our Lord Jesus Christ

Posted by Dennis Lopez - Highland, IN   July 24, 2007

I saw Tammy on Larry King 2 days before she passed into heaven. What great strength, courage and faith she had. She had asked Larry King to do that interview, she really wanted to tell everyone that she truly cared about all the people who were praying for her and her family. She was telling us that she knew she was going to heaven and that everything would be alright. How many of us would be able to do what she did in all the pain she was in? God bless Tammy and God bless her family and friends. What a better world this would be if we all had faith as strong as hers.

Posted by mabel cummings - Exeter, NH   July 24, 2007

May God Bless Tammy and her family...........Rest in Peace now Tammy you deserve too now............

Posted by debi rojas - Fort Collins, CO   July 24, 2007

She fought a tough battle with a terrible disease. RIP, Tammy Faye.

Posted by Kimmie G. - Beverly, MA   July 23, 2007

Tammy Faye was not afraid to die. I applaud her courage and faith in God. What an inspiration! I saw her interview with Larry King the other day and was so impressed by her ability to laugh at herself and her wonderful spirit. She is with the angels. God bless Tammy Faye always!

Posted by Marie Mayer - Glen Mills, PA   July 22, 2007

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Tammy Faye Messner and Jim Bakker
Tammy Faye Messner with ex-huband Jim Bakker in 1986
Tammy Faye Messner with ex-huband Jim Bakker and their son
Tammy Faye Messner with ex-huband Jim Bakker in 1986
Tammy Faye Messner with ex-huband Jim Bakker in1987
Tammy Faye Messner sings in North Carolina 1989

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Portrait of Tammy Faye Messner in 1987