Paul McCartney turns 64 on Sunday. He wrote the song “When I’m Sixty Four” nearly 40 years ago, when he was, in fact, 24. No doubt he never expected then that, on his own sixty-fourth birthday, he would be a billionaire. Nor that on that day he would be battling his difficult much-younger second wife, Heather Mills, over the custody of their two-year-old daughter and several hundred million pounds of his fortune. (A second wife, by the way, who his old friends in Liverpool could have told him, after just a couple of conversations with her, was a “nasty bit of work,” and definitely trouble.)
John Lennon, it was said, never liked “When I’m Sixty Four” and didn’t want to record it. The Beatles never released it as a single. It was part of their Sergeant Pepper album. Its lilting music-hall melody was somewhat out of place in the “turn on, tune in, drop out” spirit of much of that album. But now the song remains a favorite with the generation who first loved the Beatles and are now fast forwarding into their own sixties. Expect to be hearing it a lot along with birthday wishes for Sir Paul on Sunday.
Now I will admit that I am one of those Beatle-lovers. In fact, my very first assignment as an editor on a teenage magazine, when I was practically a teenager myself, was attending the Beatle’s first press conference in New York. The magazine I worked for was called Ingenue, and I always say I learned my first lesson in journalism there: never name a magazine something its readers can’t pronounce.
At the conference, I think I asked questions like “Beatle Paul, who cuts your hair?” It was with insightful questions like these that I also went on assignment to Miami Beach, where the Beatles took some much needed R&R after wowing my magazine’s readers, and every other girl over eleven in the country, with their hair-shaking performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Life would never be the same again for fathers who sat stunned as their normal, well-adjusted daughters, glued to the TV sets, turned into hysterical, weeping, love-besotted lunatics before their eyes. Mothers, I think, knew the Beatles were really very cute. And, let’s face it, just three months after Kennedy’s assassination, everyone needed a break. The Beatles, who wanted to hold our hands, seemed to supply it.
I remember the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami was jammed with fans and beer-swilling British journalists. Frank Sinatra was performing in the night club, and the Beatles didn’t even bother to pay their respects. In the performance I saw, Sinatra, at a low point, was sullen and dismissive (although, as things would turn out, his career perked up again and lasted much longer than the Beatles as a group did).
Celebrity journalism in that bygone day was so genteel that no one, not even the tough Fleet Street reporters who knew the Beatles’ every move, reported that Paul, John, Ringo, and George spent most of their time in their room with a coterie of eager-to-please groupies. The Beatles were having such a good time that they objected to leaving their Florida fun to return to Britain to receive an award from the prime minister at a long-planned luncheon in London. When their manager, Brian Epstein, told them they had to go, John declared, “Sod off.” No problem! The Conservative prime minister, shrewd Harold MacMillan, changed the date because, he put it, the Lads from Liverpool were doing such a good job for Britain, they deserved their time off. The power of celebrity to reshape events had begun.
But that was a long, long time ago. Those who know him say Paul, like almost any super- celebrity, can at times be both shy and petulant, both pompous and insecure. But his first wife, Linda Eastman, was able to handle him brilliantly. Linda and Paul met at a small press reception for the release of the Sergeant Pepper album, the very first time “When I’m Sixty Four” was played in public. A shrewd, fierce New Yorker, she created on their Sussex farm (while her family handled Paul’s money) a very private and quite simple–considering their fortune–family-focused life for the singer, especially when their four children were growing up.
In contrast, Heather Mills, according to her many critics, is an attention-seeking gold-digger obsessed with her causes, which include animal rights, and especially the hunting of baby seals. No doubt it is Sir Paul, so misguided in his choice of a mate, who must feel at the moment rather like a lamb being taken to the slaughterhouse. It has been reported he has offered Heather fifty million to go away, but she wants as much as ten times that. His best birthday present on his 64th will not be a “Valentine” or “a bottle of wine,” but an assurance from the lawyers that “We can work it out.”
—Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies’ Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness—and Liberalism—to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.