Williams Family Values
Long before they started sparring over their famous father's remains, Claudia, Bobby-Jo, and John-Henry actually liked each other. For a brief period, anyway. In fact, the first time all three children of Red Sox legend Ted Williams came together could almost be described as touching.
It was August 1993, and Claudia Williams had traveled to the heart of the Bible Belt to attend a memorial service for her father's longtime companion, Louise Kaufman. Like the other mourners gathered at the Dunbar Funeral Home in Columbia, South Carolina, she knew Ted Williams was at the wake before she ever caught sight of him. “I could hear him talking to someone in the hall,” Claudia recalls almost a decade later, sitting at the kitchen table in her father's home in Hernando, Florida. “And out of the corner of my eye, I see this woman react the same way I always reacted when I heard my dad's booming voice.” The woman flinched.
As she focused on the woman, Claudia saw in her face the softened reflection of her father's rugged features Â— and with that, she became certain the stranger across the room was no stranger at all. “You've got to be Bobby-Jo,” Claudia said to the woman. Claudia was 21; her half-sister, the product of the first of Ted Williams's three failed marriages, was more than twice her age. It was the first time they had ever met.
Claudia and Bobby-Jo hugged. Later, riding in the procession, they held hands. “For a full day, we were as close as we could be,” says Bobby-Jo, who had already spent some time with her half-brother, John-Henry, a few years earlier. “I remember having all the hopes in the whole wide world that we would build a relationship.”
Claudia returned the sentiment. As she revealed in an exclusive interview, her first since her father's death, she was grateful to find someone else who knew how hard it was to have Ted Williams as a father. “I thought I had it bad, growing up with Dad Â— here's someone with a common denominator,” she says. “I wanted to get to know Bobby-Jo better, to see if there were any comparisons to what I was going through.”
The two traded phone numbers at the funeral and spoke a few times in the months after, but, ultimately, the initial spark of connection didn't catch. They lost touch.
Years later, all three Williams children are communicating again Â— though not in a way likely to at long last establish any familial bonds. Since their father died on July 5, the siblings have been squared off in a widely publicized, broadly ridiculed, downright bizarre tug of war over their father's remains. Bobby-Jo, 54, wants to follow her father's 1996 will by cremating his body and spreading the ashes over the Florida Keys. But to do that, she first has to retrieve it from a cold storage warehouse in Arizona, where it's hanging upside down, in liquid nitrogen, at 320 degrees below zero, waiting for scientists to someday, somehow, bring it back to life. Claudia, 30, and John-Henry, 34, claim that's what their father wanted and have produced a handwritten, oil-stained, discolored piece of scrap paper purportedly bearing his signature to prove it. Barring a settlement, it will be up to a Florida judge to determine the final resting place of the Splendid Splinter.
There is no doubt, say those who knew him best, that Ted Williams loved his three children and they loved him. But in candid interviews, two of those children, and some of Williams's closest friends, admit that when it came time to fulfill his paternal duties, he showed little enthusiasm for the role. Williams admitted as much. “He acknowledged that everyone says he might have been a great ballplayer and a great fisherman, but he admitted he might not have been a great husband or a great father,” says Bill Nowlin, coeditor of the recently released oral history Ted Williams: The Pursuit of Perfection. Though Williams worked, in his own way, to correct that record in his final years, he succeeded only in pitting his children against one another. In fact, the feud over his body has ultimately been one of his own making. Rightly celebrated for his feats at the plate, his uncanny skill with rod and reel, and his service in two wars, Ted Williams, family man, was no role model.
Anyone who knows the Ted Williams story knows where he was when his wife Doris gave birth to daughter Barbara Joyce in Boston on January 28, 1948: He was in the Everglades, casting for snook. That the pregnancy had ended two weeks early proved an ineffective excuse, and the press pilloried him for taking five days before he caught a flight north. Less than a week after joining his wife and child, Williams was back on a plane, returning to Florida. “This place is too cold for me,” Williams told a reporter. “And, besides, the fishing is great.”
In 1950, Williams moved his family to Miami. Two years later, he was called up for his second tour of duty as a Marine pilot. (The first had been during World War II, early in his career with the Red Sox.) Two years after that, he was wearing a Red Sox uniform again, and Doris was filing for divorce.
After her parents separated, Barbara Joyce, known as Bobby-Jo, lived with her mother in Florida, visiting her father in Boston every summer. She stayed with him at the Somerset Hotel, taking late-afternoon naps with him before night games and strolling with him down Commonwealth Avenue on their way back from Fenway. Because he wanted his daughter to like the things he liked Â— fine food, for example Â— it was during one of these stays, Bobby-Jo recalls, that he first got her to try snails. Though not a religious man, Williams was there when his daughter was confirmed; despite an almost dogmatic opposition to neckwear, he even donned a tie. “I was 13,” she says. “It was a very special time for me.”
But Williams, famous for his discipline in the batter's box, also expected Bobby-Jo to adhere to a rigid set of rules that clashed with her mother's more relaxed approach. “Ted was very strict. He would tell her to sit up at the table, to act right. He was very domineering,” says Daria Stehle, whose husband, Jim, served in the Korean War with Williams. “Her mother was permissive. That conflict was horrible for Bobby-Jo. She was not a happy girl, not that I ever saw.” While the differing standards may have confused his daughter, they frustrated Williams. “If he were trying to have an influence on his children Â— and I believe he was Â— well, it's difficult to even say that you object to what they are doing when they're not living under the same roof,” says Miami author John Underwood, who collaborated with Williams on three books.
Maybe it was because Bobby-Jo was the only child of a broken family. Maybe it was the pressure of living in her father's shadow. Whatever the reason, she had her share of problems growing up. There are plenty of rumors about what those problems were, but what's clear is that Bobby-Jo did something to upset her father. She admits that her decision not to go to college Â— an ambition Williams held obsessively for all his children Â— deeply disappointed him. “Was it discussed? No,” Bobby-Jo says. “Nobody in the family had gone to college, and I'm sure he was hoping I would. But he never said anything about it until years later.”
Bobby-Jo was still in her teens when she married a Philadelphia-area man named Stephen Tomasco. In July 1966, pregnant with her first child and sporting a beehive hairdo, she drove with her husband to Cooperstown, New York, to attend her father's induction into the Hall of Fame. When a news photographer asked the three to pose for a picture, Williams stood in the middle, draping an arm over each of their shoulders. Bobby-Jo was all smiles.
Her marriage to Tomasco lasted just six years. She remarried in 1976, exchanging vows with Mark Ferrell, a former keyboard player who worked as a copyright enforcer for musicians and songwriters. Her father did not attend the wedding.
It's a humid morning in Hernando, Florida, an hour's drive from Tampa. Since their father died on July 5, Ted Williams's two younger children have been staying in his house, hunkered down on the highest peak in the county. A makeshift batting cage sits on the front lawn. John-Henry used it to prepare for his tryout with the Red Sox rookie-league squad, a much-lampooned exercise that was put on hold when his pursuit of a fly ball led him into a rib-snapping collision with a photographer's stand.
Eric Abel, a graying thirtysomething attorney who has worked for both John-Henry and his father, leads the way to the back door, which opens into the kitchen. As the family cook discusses the menu for that night's dinner, John-Henry enters. He offers his hand, takes a seat at the end of a long wooden table, and engages in small talk. He mentions “The Kid's Kid,” a story published about him in this magazine in 1990, in which he spoke reverentially Â— and more than a little plaintivly Â— about his father. Then, after a few minutes, John-Henry excuses himself; he doesn't want to be quoted for this story. Claudia does, however, and she settles into the chair next to his as he leaves.
By the time of Bobby-Jo's second wedding, Williams was done with marriages, his or anyone else's. His third and last one had ended after five years, when Vogue model Dolores Wettach divorced him in 1973. She raised their two children, John-Henry and Claudia, on a farm in her home state of Vermont, and they saw their father during fishing trips, at the baseball camp he ran in Lakeville, Massachusetts, or at the Red Sox spring training facility in Winter Haven, Florida. (“You always want to see him more, but I'd see him probably three, four, five months a year,” John-Henry said in “The Kid's Kid.” “I would love to have had Dad Â— just for a little bit, not for my whole life Â— come to a [baseball] game and watch me play . . . because he never was really there too much to force me into baseball like a lot of kids' fathers, out there in the yard playing catch with them all the time. . . . It's kind of sad sometimes. I mean, not sad, but what the hell.”) Absent from any of these family get-togethers was Williams's oldest child, Bobby-Jo.
“I never heard him say a nice thing about her,” Claudia says. “And that scared me, because I didn't want him to talk about me like that.” She is still dressed in the black T-shirt and shorts she wore during her morning workout Â— the first of three that compose her daily exercise regimen. A former triathlete, she hopes to compete in next year's Boston Marathon.
In 1982, when her father participated in the Red Sox' inaugural old-timers' game, Claudia watched from the stands, hoping her 13-year-old brother, who was serving as an honorary batboy, didn't mess up. For John-Henry, the reception Williams received that day helped him understand the legend he was inheriting; he had known about his father's statistics but not the extent to which he was revered. Claudia, meanwhile, maintained her indifference toward baseball, perhaps because her connection to her father had long been rooted in her own athletic pursuits. “That's how I got his attention,” she says.
When it came time for high school, Claudia chose not to follow her brother to Vermont Academy, enrolling instead as a boarding student at Northfield Mount Hermon School. “The one time I reached out to my dad as a father was during my first year there,” she says. Feeling homesick, she called her father, hoping he might lend some comfort.
“I want to go home, Daddy,” Claudia said.
“Jesus Christ! What do you want me to do about it? Call your mother,” her father snapped. And then he hung up.
When Claudia was 16, she moved to France, a decision she describes as equivalent to running away from home. “Let's put it this way,” she says. “My mom wasn't going to stop me. I was the black sheep at that point, but it was the best thing I ever did, because if I hadn't, I would have turned into Bobby-Jo. I knew I had to get away and find out who I am. And I think I did.” After finishing high school in France, Claudia's goal was to attend Middlebury College. But when she discovered that her father had used his celebrity to grease her application, she turned down the offer of admission and registered at Springfield College instead. “I was bound and determined that I could do things on my own,” Claudia says. “My attitude was, 'I'm not going to disappoint you, and I'm not going to embarrass you, and I'm not going to drain you or ask you for anything, either.'”
While Bobby-Jo was occupied as a homemaker in Tennessee and Claudia was completing her furlough in France, John-Henry Â— who had been admitted to Bates College and had given his acceptance letter to his father as a gift Â— interrupted his education in late 1989 to play semi-pro baseball in California. When a subsequent tryout with the Toronto Blue Jays failed to produce a contract offer, he returned to school at the University of Maine, where he had transferred. “John-Henry's birthday is three days before his dad's, at the end of August,” says Dave McCarthy, a former New Hampshire state trooper and longtime family friend. “During college, he used to call me and say, 'I'm going to go up to my dad's cabin on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick.' We'd drive all through the night, and we'd be sitting on the porch when Ted would get up to go fishing.” On December 21, 1991, John-Henry graduated with a bachelor's degree in finance, becoming the first member of his family to earn a college diploma. His father, whose public displays of emotion tended toward outbursts of anger, openly wept.
That year, to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of Williams's historic .406 season, John-Henry convinced his father to let him sell a T-shirt commemorating the achievement. It was the first of many such deals, and as their business partnership evolved, so, too, did their personal ties. When Williams traveled to his native San Diego to be honored at the 1992 All-Star Game, he brought John-Henry, showing him the valley where he used to hunt, the small frame house where he grew up. “He wants to know as much about me as he can,” Williams told his biographer, Ed Linn, at the time. “And that's a kick to me.” After the California legislature passed a resolution renaming a stretch of State Route 56 the “Ted Williams Parkway,” he took John-Henry and Claudia to the dedication ceremony. Along the way, they visited the San Diego Zoo, shared dinner at a Mexican restaurant with a group of Ted's childhood friends, and cruised up the Pacific Coast in a Lincoln sedan. Once again, Bobby-Jo, married and busy with two daughters of her own, was left behind.
Back in Florida, less than six months later, Ted suffered his third stroke in as many years. Within weeks, John-Henry, then living in Boston and running the Ted Williams Store at the Atrium Mall in Chestnut Hill, moved to Florida. There, father and son became patient and caretaker, and in their daily rituals they found a solidarity that rendered all others secondary. “John-Henry stopped his whole life to take care of my dad,” says Claudia. “He had a very special relationship with him. I'll be the first to admit I didn't have what they had.”
When John-Henry assumed control over his father's commercial interests, he launched an aggressive crusade to rid the memorabilia market of phony Ted Williams autographs, pursuing his cause with a zealousness that could be off-putting to the many who suspected that his only motivation was to profit from his father's name. He brought a similar approach to the way he ran his father's household. “There was a tremendous turnover of staff and personnel working for John-Henry,” says Bill Nowlin. “They just couldn't last.” But even as Williams's friends Â— and eventually Bobby-Jo Â— complained that John-Henry had cut them off and isolated his father, nothing could fissure the confidence Williams placed in his only son. “Ted had this attitude, with me and everyone else,” says Stacia Gerow, who worked as Williams's assistant for 34 years: “'Don't bother me Â— just take care of it.' When he turned his affairs, personal and financial, over to his son, it was done voluntarily. It wasn't any fault of John-Henry's.”
In 1996, John-Henry convinced Claudia to return from Germany, where she was teaching English and had begun to compete in triathlons. She found a place in St. Petersburg, Florida, which allowed her to continue her training with a local triathlon club; on most weekends, she made the 60-mile journey to her father's home by bike, an athletic feat she knew her father would appreciate. “Once, when she was out to dinner with her dad, someone came up to their table,” says Mark Kenton, a friend of Claudia's from Springfield College. “The person recognized her from the triathlon circuit but didn't know her dad. She said the look on her dad's face was like, 'Wow: That's my daughter!'”
During this period, says Rich Eschen, an employee of one of John-Henry's many business enterprises, “Ted would very rarely talk about Bobby-Jo.” Several other sources offer similar claims. But an equal number counter that Williams and his eldest daughter were far from estranged and that, in fact, he wanted to be closer to her. Whatever the case, Bobby-Jo and her husband decided in 1999 to move closer to the rest of the family. Fifteen years earlier, Ted had given each of his three children several plots of land in Citrus Hills, the development where he would later settle down. As builders erected a modest residence on a lot less than a mile from his hilltop estate, his daughter and son-in-law waited out the construction in their RV on the banks of the nearby Crystal River.
But if Bobby-Jo had moved to Florida hoping to reconnect with her ailing father, her efforts would end in disappointment. Soon after they arrived in Florida, Bobby-Jo and her husband were summoned to her father's house. “Me, Mark, Daddy, and [his attorney] Eric [Abel] had breakfast,” recalls Bobby-Jo. “We were done, and the table was cleared. And that's when my dad put his hands on the table and said, 'Sweetie, I want you to know that your old man, old Ted Williams, is broke.'” According to Bobby-Jo, Ted went on to explain she had been cut out of his will for reasons she says she completely understood. “He said, 'You know I've taken care of you, and you still have two trusts in your name.' He wanted to make sure he would be able to provide for John-Henry and Claudia, who were single and in their thirties. I told him, 'I don't want your money, Daddy.'” Before leaving, Bobby-Jo says she confirmed her father's wish to be cremated and have his ashes spread over the Keys.
Another person who was at the meeting, but who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalls a different version. At first, this source says, Abel did most of the talking about the changes to the will. Then Bobby-Jo confronted her father. “If that's what you want, Daddy, that's fine,” she said, according to the source. “But I want to hear it from you.” Williams exploded. “His message was, 'Don't you fucking challenge me again. If you've got a problem with this, you can say so right now.'”
What no one disputes is that after Williams's health began to decline, Bobby-Jo lost all contact with her father. In November 2000, just before he underwent surgery to be fitted with a pacemaker, Williams allegedly signed a scribbled pact with Claudia and John-Henry, a covenant that called for all three of their bodies to be frozen after their deaths. According to his lawyers, John-Henry left the small piece of paper in his car, treating it more like a takeout menu than a binding contract that would supplant the formally drawn last will and testament of a baseball icon.
Bobby-Jo says she first learned about the cryonics plan in June 2001, when John-Henry called her to discuss it. Incredulous, she appealed directly to Claudia, trying to convince her half-sister that their father wanted to be cremated. Claudia was unswayed. Desperate to see her father, Bobby-Jo met with three different lawyers about obtaining a court order granting access to him, a course of action likely to entail steep legal bills. Opting against that route, Bobby-Jo decided to present a proposal through one of her attorneys, John Heer: She would visit her father while accompanied by Eric Abel and a medical professional, either one of whom could ask her to leave if her father grew upset. “Ted still did not want to see her,” Abel says. “So I passed that bad news back to Heer, along with Ted's color commentary.” By this, Abel means that the foulmouthed Williams, as was his wont, had called his oldest daughter one of the vilest four-letter words imaginable.
In June, three weeks before Williams died, Abel broached the subject with him again. “I told him, 'Bobby-Jo really wants to see you.' I thought maybe he'd want to see her, too, now that he was feeling more . . . mortal.”
If Ted had agreed, perhaps he would have explained to Bobby-Jo his reasons for no longer wanting to be cremated. Maybe she would have succeeded in talking him out of being frozen. Maybe they would have reached an understanding that would have succeeded in finally uniting his children as a family.
Instead, Abel says, the old man's response was an emphatic “Hell, no.”
After giving this answer, Williams closed his eyes and turned his head to the side. A moment passed. And then Ted Williams, lacking parental instincts to the end, asked Abel for advice the lawyer refused to give him: “Unless you think I should.”