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Loretta Lynn Married at 15, Not 13

The Associated Press, Friday, May 18, 2012, 10:12am (PDT)
  • LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Country music legend Loretta Lynn is three years older than she has led people to believe, an age change that undermines the story she told of being married at 13 in "Coal Miner's Daughter," documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

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    Lynn's birth certificate on file at the state Office of Vital Statistics in Frankfort, Ky., shows that Loretta Webb was born on April 14, 1932, in Johnson County, Kentucky. That makes her 80 years old, not 77. Also on file is her marriage license and two affidavits from her mother, Clara Marie Ramey, and S.W. Ward Jr., who was not related to the family, listing the same birthdate.

    The records weren't filed until 1965, which meant that Lynn needed multiple documents to prove her age at that time. Lynn's signature appears on the document as Loretta Webb Lynn.

    Melvin Webb lists his daughter "Loretta" as 7 years old for the 1940 Census, according to a digital copy on file at the Kentucky Historical Society. Lynn's marriage license, obtained by the AP from the Johnson County (Tenn.) clerk's office lists her as 15 on Jan. 10, 1948.

    In "Coal Miner's Daughter," the autobiography that became an Academy Award-winning film, Lynn told a different story — that she was married at 13 and was a mother of four by 18. Most books and public references to Lynn list her current age as 77.

    When contacted by the AP, Lynn's spokeswoman, Nancy Russell of Nashville, Tenn., declined comment. She said that Lynn has told her before in no uncertain terms, "If anyone asks how old I am, tell them it's none of their business!"

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    Lynn's younger brother, Herman Webb, declined to disclose Lynn's age, although he said there might have been a "mix-up" with Lynn's paperwork after she moved to Nashville to launch her country career. Her parents and many other relatives are dead, including her husband, O.V. "Mooney" Lynn.

    Certainly Lynn isn't the first celebrity of a certain age to be less than forthcoming about a birthday, but the discrepancy is significant because age isn't just a number for the Country Music Hall of Fame member. It is woven into her compelling life story, made famous in her 1976 bestselling autobiography, "Coal Miner's Daughter," and the subsequent film starring Sissy Spacek. The movie made $67 million nationwide and was nominated for seven Oscars; Spacek won for her portrayal of Lynn.

  • The Grammy-winning singer recently announced that it will become a Broadway musical, starring actress and singer Zooey Deschanel.

    The way Lynn chose to tell it in the book, she was married at 13, moved with her husband to Washington State at 16 and was a mother of four by 18. Lynn has six kids in all. The marriage certificate shows that Lynn instead married just shy of her 16th birthday, which was not unusual in Kentucky at that time. Her husband was 21.

    It would have been illegal for a girl under the age of 14 to marry in Kentucky in 1948, said R. Eric Henninger of the Kentucky State Law Library. At that time, he said, "lots of folks didn't have any sort of official proof of age."

    The AP discovered the discrepancy in Lynn's age after a reporter found Lynn's Kentucky birth certificate online and changed her birthdate in the news agency's database of celebrity birthdays. The Country Music Hall of Fame contacted the AP after that to clear up the issue.

    Lynn addresses the perils of disclosing her age in her autobiography.

    "When I was born, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the president for several years. That's the closest I'm gonna come to telling my age in this book, so don't go looking for it," she writes. "I'm trying to make a living singing songs. I don't need nobody out there saying, `She don't look bad considering she's such-and-such years old.'"

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    Lynn's co-author on "Coal Miner's Daughter," New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey, said in a phone interview that he did not verify the age claims in the book with official documentation.

    "It's her book, and I never saw a birth certificate, marriage license. It's what they told me," he said. "I couldn't say that she was the one who told me first. Between her manager (David Skepner) who has passed and her husband who has now passed, it was at least three different people telling me that."

    Vecsey said he did not want to speculate on what the age difference means to Lynn's narrative.

    Lynn's daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell, did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

    Webb, her brother who lives in their hometown of Van Lear, Ky., believes "there might have been a mix--up somewhere along the line" when Lynn first arrived in Nashville and signed with the Wilburn Brothers.

  • "When she was with Teddy and Doyle (Wilburn), she just don't tell her age after that," he said. "I think they got some of her paperwork messed up."

    Webb declined to comment on Lynn's age. When asked his own birthday, like a good brother, he replied: "I was born a year and a half after she was."

    Research supervisor Walter Bowman at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives said in the early `30s it was more common for people to register their prized horses or livestock than the births of their children.

    Not until the Social Security system was founded in the mid-1930s did parents have a monetary reason to put their kids on record.

    Social Security Administration officials said privacy laws prevent them from releasing information about any living person, including a birth date.

    Music journalist and author Robert K. Oermann, who wrote "Finding Her Voice" about women in country music, said nothing can overshadow Lynn's accomplishments.

    "In the 1960s, you didn't have the 24-hour news cycle, saturation of personality journalism that you have today. So what appealed to people was the fact that the songs were so extraordinary. Her singing was so great. Everything about her was so refreshing and country," he said.

    "It wasn't until much later that people became aware of her backstory, but the music itself is what made her a star. The biography, the life story was just the icing on the cake."

    In 1972, Lynn became the first woman to be named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association. She is known for hits, including "Coal Miner's Daughter," "You Ain't Woman Enough," "The Pill," "Rated X," and "Don't Come Home A' Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)." Her last top 10 record as a soloist was "I Lie" in 1982.

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