The John Lennon You Never Knew

A fresh take on the iconic Beatle

John Lennon has been dead 35 years, since deranged fan Mark David Chapman shot him outside New York’s Dakota apartment building in December 1980. He was just 40 years old.

Lennon may be strolling strawberry fields forever, but the co-author of some of the world’s best-known Beatles songs (along with Paul McCartney, of course) still garners a ton of attention.

October 9 of this year would have been his 75th birthday, and celebrations took place all over the world. His widow and collaborator, the experimental artist Yoko Ono, even attempted to create a large human peace sign with some 2,000 people in New York’s Central Park.

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In Lennon’s native England, his original band, the Quarrymen, headlined a tribute concert at Liverpool’s famed Cavern Club, where the Beatles performed nearly 300 shows before hitting the American stage in 1964.

John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono.
John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, in 1980.

There was also a three-hour walking tour of John’s childhood haunts, including the Liverpool home where he was reared by his Aunt Mimi, Mary Elizabeth Smith, Lennon’s maternal aunt and his parental guardian who took care of him for most of his youth.

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“The guitar’s all right, John,” she famously told him, with the words later immortalized on a plaque, “but you’ll never make a living out of it.”

Mother Figure
Aunt Mimi was an essential figure in Beatles history. For that reason, back in 1971, as a student living on England’s Isle of Wight and writing about pop music, I convinced a fellow American student, Thom Ewing, to accompany me on a quest to find her. Since 1965, through Lennon’s generosity, his aunt had lived in a lovely bungalow by the beach in the south of England, in Sandbanks, a district of Poole, in the county of Dorset.

We took a ferry to the mainland, and somehow made our way to Sandbanks. I had her address, but no idea how to get to the house. We stopped at a garage and asked a mechanic for directions, then headed her way. Aunt Mimi had a reputation as a stern, no-nonsense lady. I swallowed hard as I knocked at her residence.

Mimi, then nearing her 65th birthday, nervously opened the door, and peered around it like a Hitchcock victim-in-waiting. Her distinctive features, the elongated nose so like Lennon’s, brought to mind a thousand pictures.

If there were a revolution, John would be the first in the queue to get out.

Ewing was more of a Paul McCartney fan, but he wore long hair and round, Lennon-like glasses, all the vogue at the time. He introduced himself, and I flashed Mimi a postcard she had sent me years before in response to several letters. It was only a couple of lines, but I hoped she would see it as a badge of entry and invite us inside. Amazingly, she did.

“Essentially, she told us her whole life story,” Ewing, now general manager of WAY-FM, a contemporary Christian radio station in Huntsville, Alabama, remembered. “I got the feeling she didn’t get a lot of guests.”

I thought the same. She had no servants, kept a cat, and seemed as lonely as Eleanor Rigby. Perhaps for that reason, Mimi, who fixed us tea and seemed in no hurry, wanted to dish. She was charming and exceedingly frank, which surprised us both. Here’s part of what we remember:

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She had only fond memories of Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, but despised Yoko Ono and her influence on John. Mimi denounced the “Two Virgins” album cover, on which the couple appeared in their birthday suits, as “shameful.” (“She also thought they didn’t look that great naked,” Ewing added.) Lennon’s 1969 “Bed-In for Peace” was nothing but a fad (“That’s Yoko talking,” she said), as was his singing about “Revolution.”

zx450gy250_1007155In Mimi’s view, “If there were a revolution, John would be the first in the queue to get out.”

Lennon was not the rough working-class hero he championed. Mimi and her late husband, George, had reared him in a comfortable middle-class home, and she was hurt by his exaggerated Liverpudlian accent and hints at an unhappy childhood.

“She talked about how he was a really nice boy growing up,” Ewing recalled, “and he had become something different. She seemed really hurt by that.”

As Mimi put it, “I know that boy. It’s all an act.”

Whenever Lennon did something that rankled her — mostly public remarks or actions — he apologized to her in material ways.

“A big present arrives every time he’s been naughty,” she told us, a touch of humor in her voice. “See that?” She pointed across the room to a large color television set. “That was supposed to be a Christmas present, but John had it delivered early. I usually have a big picture of him hanging in the music room. When he’s a good boy, it’ll go back up.”

What really ticked her off was the indignity with which he treated his Member of the Order of the British Empire medal, awarded to Lennon in 1965 by Queen Elizabeth. He’d returned the actual badge to the queen in 1969, partly in protest “against our support of America in Vietnam,” as he wrote in his accompanying letter.

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Mimi walked us to a closet, where she unearthed the remaining certificate. Lennon had scratched out the queen’s signature in red ink. She let out an exasperated sigh, but a glimmer on her face said she was amused at what the Brits call “cheek.”

A few months after that visit, Lennon and Ono moved to New York. Mimi saw him little as it was, but it was clear he was still the center of her small universe. Three days before he was killed, he phoned her to say he was homesick for England, and planned a visit.

When Mimi died in 1991 at age 85, her attending nurse, Lynne Varcoe, reported that her last words were, “Hello, John.”

That’s something a whole new crop of Lennon fans may be saying right about now, as well as everyone else who knows and still loves his music.

This article has been updated. 

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