For the adoring true believers who tuned in religiously to The Jim and Tammy Show and dug deep in their pockets at the behest of the cherubic-faced minister and his mascara-caked missus, the announcement on March 19, 1987, came like a bolt from the heavens. Pentecostal televangelist Jim Bakker — who, with his wife, Tammy Faye, was seen daily in 13.5 million homes on TV stations across the country — was resigning as leader of PTL Ministries. The 48-year-old Assemblies of God preacher said he had been blackmailed by ”treacherous former friends” into paying church secretary Jessica Hahn to keep silent about the 1980 one-night stand those same ex-friends had ”wickedly manipulated” him into having with her at a Clearwater, Fla., hotel. Praise the Lord and change the channel.
By November 1989, Bakker had descended from the PTL Club — the South Carolina operation that owned the 2,300-acre Heritage USA Christian retreat and gospel theme park and had 1986 revenues of $129 million — to ”Club Fed.” He was sent to the federal prison in Rochester, Minn., to serve 45 years for bilking his flock of millions; some of that loot had gone to buy the Bakkers’ 10,226-square-foot ”parsonage,” a Florida condo (into which they put $60,000 in gold fixtures), and his-and-hers Rollses.
Meanwhile, Hahn took her money and ran — first to the plastic surgeon’s, displaying born-again nose, teeth, and breasts in a 1988 Playboy spread (for which the magazine dropped roughly $1 million into her personal collection plate) and in a best-selling video. She did a Love Phone infomercial, a stint as a radio jock, TV guest shots, and frequent call-in jousts with Howard Stern. Three years into Bakker’s Minnesota retreat, a bereaved Tammy Faye saw the light and filed for divorce. Now wed to contractor Roe Messner — himself awaiting sentencing for bankruptcy fraud — the 53-year-old empress of eye shadow launched a short-lived career in January as cohost of The Jim J. (Bullock, that is) and Tammy Faye Show. (On Feb. 27 she quit, citing the ”stress” as ”more than I can handle at this personally difficult time in my life.”)
As for the defrocked televangelist, his sentence was reduced and he was sprung in December 1994. Today, he lives in seclusion in a rented farmhouse near Hendersonville, N.C. Inside, according to a neighbor, the walls ”are covered with pictures of Tammy Faye.” Bakker returned to the former PTL complex last year to speak at a memorial for his TV sidekick, Henry Harrison. To shouts of ”We love you, Jim,” Bakker spoke of his rise and fall. ”But don’t feel sorry for me,” he told the 1,500 mourners. ”Nobody put me in prison; God did to get my attention.”
Time Capsule: March 19, 1987
Moviegoers marched to see Oliver Stone’s Platoon; readers were blown away by Sidney Sheldon’s Windmills of the Gods; TV viewers ate up The Cosby Show; and Huey Lewis and the News climbed the charts on ”Jacob’s Ladder.”