When I met Cavern Club compere Bob Wooler, in 1995, he asked me straight off, “Are you going to be lionizin’ Lennon, then?” In other words, “Will your books be making John into a saint rather than the normal run o’ the mill ‘sinner’ he was proud to be?”
I quickly assured Bob that it was my intention in The John Lennon Series to present John as “a real boy,” warts and all. I promised that I wouldn’t make John over — change history, alter facts, or offer a fairy tale when the truth was more delightful.
Over the past 50-some odd years, many biographers have “retouched” the portrait of John Lennon’s life, daubing in color here and there, making his biography more appealing, so they seem to think. But as Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” And this is quite true in John’s case. His unembellished story is good enough.
So, in honor of John’s birthday, let’s look at nine retouched “Lennon facts” and discover the truth underneath the varnished legend.
1) On the night John was born, John’s Aunt Mimi courageously ran in an evening bombing raid on Liverpool so that she could hold John for the first time
This oft-repeated legend makes for a good story, but it’s just not true. The distance between Mimi Stanley’s (later Smith’s) family home and the Oxford Street Lying-In Maternity Hospital is exactly 3.6 miles. When John was born, Mary Elizabeth Smith was 34 (middle-aged in those days) and living sedately in a world where women did not run for sport or even own running shoes.
Furthermore, in World War II England, it was illegal to be out on the streets after dusk. But most important, according to the respected work, Merseyside at War, there was no 9 October 1940 bombing raid. There was a small skirmish over Aigburth in which a Junkers 88 was shot down, but that was the extent of it!
So, was the whole story manufactured?
Truth of the Matter: Mimi Smith did catch the late transport from Woolton into Liverpool against her family’s better judgment. Her father, Pop Stanley, insisted that “young women going into town alone in late afternoon and close to the ‘lights out’ curfew was inadvisable.”
But headstrong Mimi did it anyway. She set her face towards Liverpool and her new nephew against all odds. To Mimi, nothing was as important as holding her “beautiful boy” for the first time. And so, the real facts are still magical. Mimi holding her someday “son,” John: that much is true.
2) John’s close association with the number nine began when – as a young teen – John penned one his first songs, “The One After 909.” After that, the number clung mysteriously to him
Actually, John’s connection with the number nine began quite early: he was born on the 9th and was taken home from the Oxford Street Lying-In Maternity hospital to live with his mother and his grandparents, Pop Stanley and Annie Stanley, at 9 Newcastle Road. Throughout his life, extraordinary events happened to John on the 9th.
For example, the Quarrymen auditioned for Carroll Levis’s Search for the Stars (their first big audition which taught them the importance of “putting on a show” rather than just standing and playing rock ’n’ roll) on 9 June 1957. Brian Epstein visited the Cavern Club and saw the Beatles perform for the first time on 9 November 1961. And, drum roll, please… the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show for the very first time on 9 February 1964!
Truth of the Matter: There are many instances of nine-ism in John’s life! That uncanny connection began on the day of his birth. Sadly, it ended when he died (according to the time in Liverpool) on 9 December 1980; it was the 8th only in America.
3) John looked very much like the other Beatles — brown hair, coifed Beatle cut, and distinct nose
Brian Epstein sought a uniform look for the Beatles: same suits, same ties, same haircut, same boots. But the one “same” Epstein could not conquer was John’s vivid auburn hair. John, like his mother, Julia, was a redhead. This was minimized in photos, and John’s hair generally came across as brown, but in real life it was quite shockingly red. And here’s one untouched photo to prove it.
Truth of the Matter: Julia Stanley Lennon’s auburn hair was one of her best features, and she passed that along to her son, John Winston. A side note here: John’s father, Fred Lennon was balding, and John, too, had a frontal receding hairline. Therefore, John despised any photo that revealed his forehead and was careful to keep his “fringe” (bangs) combed forward.
In February 1964, when Dezo Hoffman photographed John water skiing in Florida, John was enraged that with the wind blowing in his face, his forehead had been exposed. John demanded that Hoffman give him the film, and when Hoffman refused to do so, the break between the photographer and the Beatle was final. John went to Brian Epstein and demanded that Hoffman never be allowed to work with the Beatles again!
4) Music was the first of the fine arts that John loved, and his first instrument was a sad little mail-order guitar with “no strings attached”
Actually, John’s first foray into the fine arts was literature. As soon as John learned to read and write, be began amusing his Uncle George by writing a daily “serial story” called “Sport and Speed Illustrated.”
After the first few editions of the story, John also began providing original illustrations for the work. He would greet “Uncle Ge’rge” each evening with another edition of the story, and George Smith encouraged the boy to continue writing, drawing, and being creative.
Truth of the Matter: We think of John Lennon primarily as a musician, but he was also a very gifted writer who won the Foyles Literary Award for his first book, In His Own Write. Both of his books (A Spaniard in the Works was the second book) were well-reviewed by literary critics who were more than ready to pounce on the books as “trash produced by a Beatle.”
Instead, the literati found John Lennon’s books to be “jewels.” Furthermore, John was a gifted artist who attended Liverpool College of Art. His single line drawings are still exhibited across the world to amazed audiences.
5) John’s Aunt Mimi (who, along with her husband George, reared John) was a villain. She never really loved the boy and was a harsh disciplinarian
Mimi Smith was certainly the personification of decorum. She made John do his homework, go to Sunday School, attend church, and do chores. And the stories of how Mimi mistreated Cynthia Lennon are a matter of record. But none of these things were done because she hated John. Quite the opposite — they were done because Mimi loved the boy and wanted the very best for him.
Mimi was not mushy or emotional, but she walked young John to school each day and was waiting for him at the school gate each afternoon. (See Michael Hill’s book, John Lennon: The Boy Who Became a Legend, for documentation.) Mimi cared for John’s needs exactly as any other mother would, and even provided the extras.
For example, John was permitted to participate in school plays with the appropriate homemade costumes. He was allowed to go on outings to the seashore with his class. And every December, John would attend the fancy Christmas pantomimes at the Empire Theatre with Aunt Mimi and Uncle George.
Truth of the Matter: Mimi shrugged off John’s “squeaker kisses” and acted perturbed when he hugged her and called her “an old bag of bones,” but she loved the boy in her own stoic way. She took John in and did her best by him. She taught him determination and doggedness, traits that certainly would come in handy during Beatlemania.
6) John’s parents abandoned him when he was a little boy, leaving John’s Aunt Mimi and Uncle George to care for the boy that no one wanted
During Fred Lennon’s absence from Liverpool during World War II, John’s mother, Julia, wrote to Fred, requesting a divorce. Fred, however, refused. So, when Julia fell in love with John Dykins — a swashbuckling young man who worked at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel — she decided to move in with Dykins anyway.
When Fred came home to Liverpool after the war and found Julia living with Dykins and his son, John, spending a good amount of time with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George, Fred decided to take the boy away with him. Fred whisked John to the seaside — to Blackpool — where Fred worked to purchase tickets on a transport ship to New Zealand, the location where John and he would begin a new life. But on the evening before their departure, Julia arrived on the scene.
Traditional biography (and John’s own account) tells us that the husband and wife squabbled over John and asked the boy to choose between the two of them. However, the recent account from Fred Lennon’s friend, Billy Hall, (who was not in the room but in the kitchen when the discussion occurred) is that Fred and Julia reached an amicable agreement that John would return to Liverpool with Julia.
Whatever really transpired that day, Julia took the boy back to Liverpool with her. And that afternoon, she took him to Mimi and George Smith’s home at 251 Menlove Avenue where John was to spend the remainder of his childhood days.
Truth of the Matter: Fred loved John and would have followed through with his plan to take the boy to New Zealand. Furthermore, Julia loved her son, but her new relationship with John Dykins, her son’s dislike of Dykins, and the recent loss of her second child (a daughter whom Julia had given up for adoption) had crushed Julia’s spirit. Julia was at her wits’ end and felt that John would receive better, traditional care with Mimi and George. So, reluctantly, she relinquished her son.
Both of John’s parents loved him. Yet for complicated reasons, neither of them ended up being there for the boy. His larger Stanley family (his mother’s sisters) all doted on John as did his father’s two brothers, Charles and Sydney.
So, John was not really ever “abandoned,” but neither was he reared in a regular home with a mum and dad, as he would have loved. It was a very complex situation – a situation that left John wailing at the microphones of the world: “Mummy, don’t go; Daddy come home!!”
7) John never loved Cynthia Lennon and only married her because she became pregnant during their college courtship
It is in vogue to act as if John never loved Cynthia, and this myth is only promulgated by John’s rash lyrics in “Don’t Let Me Down” in which he says, “I’m in love for the first time,” referring to his passion for Yoko Ono. But the truth is, John loved his first wife, Cynthia Powell Lennon. Let’s just look at just a few of the many, many facts that bear this out.
Larry Kane, who worked with Ron Howard on Eight Days a Week (and toured with the Beatles many times and was close friends with John Lennon), stated in his book, Lennon Revealed, “During my first travels with the Beatles in 1964, John was eager to talk about his family of three. When the subject turned to Cynthia, his eyes would sparkle and dance…
Kane: “So have you been in touch with the people at home?”
Lennon: “I talk to Cyn almost every night.”
Kane: “What is she like?”
Lennon: “Well, she’s beautiful, y’know, and what people don’t know is how smart she is. No matter what’s happening, you know, she’s there for me.”
Furthermore, Beatles press agent and friend, Tony Barrow is quoted in Lennon Revealed as saying, “…most people have no idea what a central figure [Cynthia Lennon] was in terms of keeping [John] somewhat stable during that hard phase [before Beatlemania] when no one knew if the boys were a passing fad or the real thing…People forget what a rock she was for him.”
In words and in action, John proved over and over again that he loved his first wife. For example, in January 1964, when the Beatles were in Paris, the boys were given one day off to rest and relax. John took advantage of that one day to fly home to London and be with Cynthia.
He didn’t have to even tell her he had a day off! He could have enjoyed a relaxing 24 hours in the City of Lights. Instead, John chose to go home to his wife. That same day, he invited her to accompany him on the band’s first trip to America, despite Brian’s prohibition. John wanted Cyn with him on that memorable visit, and he made it so.
Finally, many times John brings up the fact to journalists that he is married instead of trying to hide it. When asked by the BBC if he ever gets tired of being a Beatle, John says he gets tired of people saying he’s going to get a divorce from his wife. Here, he not only admits openly that he’s married; he also emphasizes in front of a huge listening audience that he plans to stay married!
Truth of the Matter: John loved Cynthia. When Brian would permit it, he toured with her. Even on the World Tour in 1964 (when John was in Japan and Australia) he called Cyn each night to tell her about his day. He sought and valued her opinion.
Like any other couple they quarreled, and the demands of Beatlemania gradually pushed them apart, but from their Liverpool College of Art days on through the better part of the harrowing Sixties, John loved Cynthia. It was a relationship that brought him peace in an era when everything else was topsy-turvy. When everyone else Shoulda Been There for John, Cynthia was.
8) John saw himself as a British rock ’n’ roller
One has only to listen to the acrid lyrics of “Luck of the Irish” or “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (the proceeds for which were donated by John to the work of the IRA in New York and Ireland) to know exactly how John Lennon felt. He was 100% committed to the cause of Irish freedom.
Speaking at University College, Dublin, Yoko Ono said it best: “John believed he was Irish.” In fact, he took Yoko to visit Ireland, and they had made plans to retire there. Throughout the 1970s, John closely aligned himself with those in New York who were actively working to get the English out of Ireland and to establish autonomy for the Emerald Isle.
On 5 February 1972, John took to New York’s streets with Jerry Rubin and 5,000 other Irish supporters, marching on the offices of British-owned, BOAC. Accoring to Paul Du Noyer’s We All Shine On: The Stories Behind Every John Lennon Song, Lennon and Rubin led the march that day, and although the BBC banned John’s Irish songs from the airwaves and protesters started picketing his concerts, John wanted to stand tall and be counted in the Irish cause.
Truth of the Matter: John made it clear that he saw himself as an Irish patriot. He risked his reputation and safety for the cause. He donated large sums of money to the IRA. He wrote songs in protest of British occupation. And when Walls and Bridges came out, John included in the LP what was then supposed to be his family tree. He proudly displayed his Irish heritage.
Now that John is gone, certain groups of people are trying to prove that his family ancestry is not as Irish as once believed, that John’s family was actually more British in heritage. The only problem is that John never knew this! John Lennon believed himself to be Irish. He hated internment and the political practices of the British in Ireland during the 1970s. And John acted accordingly.
9) John hated Liverpool and never wanted to return there
When John and his best childhood friend, Pete Shotton, were students at Quarrybank Grammar (their Woolton high school), they used to say that once they escaped “Liddypool,” they’d never ever come back. In art college, when John sat with his soul mate, Stu Sutcliffe, on the steps of Gambier Terrace and dreamed of venturing out past the Mersey River into the bigger world beyond, John swore he would never return again.
But on the wall above his bed in New York’s Dakota was a framed picture of Quarrybank Grammar. And many times during 1980, John telephoned Mimi and close Merseyside friends to say that he was homesick and headed back to Liverpool.
Truth of the Matter: John adored New York. He said that it was like living in Rome during the height of the Roman Empire. But John’s heart always remained in the city that is fondly referred to as “the Capital of Ireland,” Liverpool.
The older he grew, the more John appreciated his home town, and the more he talked of going back to “the places he remember[ed] all his life (though some had changed).” No matter where life led him, John was always a Scouser. He carried his heritage with him.