Here we go again, another centimillionaire via the Mega Millions lottery — $173.8 million after taxes. The winner was fifty-six-year-old Ira Curry, who bought her ticket at an Atlanta newsstand. A second winner, who bought his/her ticket at a gift shop in San Jose, California, had not yet come forward as of the time this article was being written.
Let’s hope that Ms. Curry doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the vast majority of past mega-lottery winners, whose lives became totally unraveled as a result of their newfound wealth. In this regard, perhaps West Virginian Jack Whittaker is the poster man for past lottery winners.
Back in 2002, Whittaker was the winner of $315 million in the Powerball multi-state lottery. Since he opted to take a one-time payout, Whittaker actually received “only” a little over $113 million after taxes.
The first reality of sudden wealth that Whittaker was confronted with was an endless parade of people with requests for money. Some folks didn’t even bother to ask for a handout in person. They just sent letters — fifty thousand of them! — telling him they needed some of his green stuff as soon as possible.
Whittaker forked over about $50 million before he came to his senses. But when he backed away from his role as year-round Santa Claus, the mooches became angry. A number of them even threatened him.
When their threats failed, many of the good folks in West Virginia started suing Deep Pockets Whittaker for a variety of alleged torts. In fact, he’s counted about four hundred legal claims against him since he won the lottery.
Confused and intensely unhappy, Whittaker began carousing, drinking, and propositioning young gals in strip clubs. His wife of forty-four years threw him out and, after giving away millions, he found himself with no friends.
But there was one glowing light in his life — his beloved granddaughter, seventeen-year-old Brandi. Whittaker gave her four new cars and an allowance of $2,000 a week. It was a real-life Beverly Hillbillies saga, only played out in West Virginia instead of California.
As one might have predicated, having that kind of cash in her pocket led Whittaker’s granddaughter to drugs. Soon after that, her boyfriend, Jesse Tribble, died of a drug overdose in Whittaker’s home in September 2003. Then, a little over a year later, Brandi, too, was found dead of an overdose.
Since then, things have only gotten worse for Whittaker. Stating the obvious in a tearful 20/20 interview, he said, “Money is not what makes people happy.” Of course, every half-sober, mature adult already knows that. But it’s important to understand that money also doesn’t automatically saddle a wealthy person with unhappiness.
As popular as the aphorism may be, money is not “the root of all evil.” And, in fact, that’s not what the source of those words — the New Testament (Timothy, 6:10) — actually says. Rather, it states, “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” (My emphasis.)
What makes money (and, I would suggest, fame) appear to be evil is the way some people react to it. From Marilyn Monroe to Anna Nicole Smith to Miley Cyrus, it’s as though money is a demon that brings weak people to their knees.
It seems to me that the trouble begins when people who find themselves with instant riches relate to it in a way that causes them to reflect on that age-old question, “Is that all there is?” And the answer to that question is always, “No, that is not all there is.” As Jack Whittaker discovered, money cannot buy friendship, money cannot buy love, and money cannot buy a meaningful purpose in life.
I believe that the reason we see so much of the lost-soul syndrome among Hollywoodites is because the odds of achieving success in the world of glitz and glitter borders on the same odds as winning the lottery. When you’re suddenly making $10-$25 million for memorizing someone else’s words and mouthing them in front of a camera, it’s not difficult to understand why it might have a detrimental effect on your psyche. In all honesty, I’d probably feel guilty, too, if I got paid that kind of money just for pretending to be someone else for a few weeks. (I’d take it, of course, but I’d feel guilty about it.)
This, I believe, is what causes so many celluloid stars to desperately search for meaning in half-baked causes, redistribution-of-the-wealth politics, or adopting a needy child halfway around the world (when they could do just as much good by adopting a needy child right in their own hometown).
To paraphrase Richard Bach in The Bridge Across Forever, when you suddenly come into a lot of money, it’s like being handed a glass sword, blade first. You had better handle it very carefully while you take the time to figure out what in the heck you’re supposed to do with it.
Bach should know. He went from journeyman writer to author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (which became the biggest-selling nonfiction book of all time) to bankruptcy in just a few short years. He took the bait and grabbed the glass sword by the blade.
That said, good luck to Ira Curry. I hope she reads up on how the lives of most lottery winners have played out and heeds Bach’s warning about money. Handle it very carefully, Ms. Curry, and, before doing anything foolish, ponder long and hard what it’s for.