Magazine | June 22, 2015, Issue

The Ballad of John and Cyn

‘I really don’t want to be looked upon as some kind of victim,” Cynthia Lennon told me in her low, purring voice. It was 2010, and after a year of rejection she had finally consented to a half-hour telephone interview about her long-ago life with her late ex-husband. I reminded “Cyn” of the heartbreaking 1968 snapshot of her and Julian that had appeared in her memoir John (2005), which I had reviewed for the Washington Post.

There was the adorable five-year-old, clad in a Peanuts sweatshirt and lying in his mother’s lap, a wan smile across his face, as his mother, beautiful at 28 and freshly deserted for Yoko Ono, stared sadly into the camera. “It’s hard not to look at that photograph of you with Julian, where he has his Snoopy sweatshirt on” — Right, she said, wearily — “and not see victims.” “Well,” Cyn replied, “in the eyes of other people, yes, you can say that. But neither of us are, because we have each other. . . . That’s the best thing that’s come out of it.”

That answer reflected Cyn’s admirable stoicism in the face of her abandonment and the deep bond she forged with her son. From 1971 to 1974, when the world swayed to “Imagine” and “Mind Games,” Julian never heard from his father, “apart from birthday and Christmas presents,” Cyn reported in her memoir, “sent by [Lennon’s] London office with no personal note or card.” The couple’s alimony agreement was austere, and Julian suffered from his father’s neglect and his schoolmates’ malign attentions.

Paul McCartney knew the score. Right around the time of the Peanuts photo, John’s old writing partner drove to Kenwood, the perennially unhappy mansion in London’s “stockbroker belt” that John had purchased, with newfound Beatle wealth, in 1964. It was also where Cyn, just days before Paul’s visit, had been startled to find Yoko Ono wearing Cyn’s bathrobe, luxuriating in post-coital bliss with the man of the house. Paying respects to the stricken mother and child was a generous gesture, typical of Paul, that neither of the other Beatles saw fit to bestow on the clinging wife who didn’t understand: the posh girl from Hoylake who, starting in 1958, had been the first female to join the Beatles’ inner circle and had witnessed firsthand their rise to godhood. On the drive over, Paul’s thoughts coalesced into a lilting new song: “Hey Jules / Don’t make it bad / Take a sad song / And make it better.” The song would go on to spend nine weeks atop the U.S. charts, the longest reign of any Beatles single.

Always, Cyn got the short end. When she and John were married at the Mount Pleasant registry in Liverpool, in August 1962, shortly after she broke the unwelcome news of her pregnancy to John, the noise from a nearby construction drill drowned out the ceremony; the couple’s vows were obliterated, as if never exchanged. For Lennon, whose group had sweated through the dives of Liverpool and Hamburg and now stood poised for stardom, having just acquired a recording contract and a crackerjack new drummer, Cyn’s pregnancy was the worst news possible: How could he live the rock-’n’-roll life, drink from the chalice of fame and female adoration, with a wife and baby? Being married, he confided, was like “walking about with odd socks on.”

The best man, Beatles manager Brian Epstein, took the newlyweds to lunch and loaned them a posh flat — and then ordered Cyn hidden away, so teenage girls would still think John “available.” For a time, Cyn’s life became as closeted and tormented as Epstein’s. When Fleet Street demolished the ruse, the fans’ love for John occasionally turned violent toward his wife. She put up with all of it, including his serial adultery and slide into drug abuse, partly in deference to the norms of the era but mostly for Julian’s sake. “I let him get away with an awful lot,” she wrote of John in John.

“I’d always had some kind of affairs going,” Lennon would tell Playboy in 1980. “I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know.” The other Beatles knew, however — and even their women knew. Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s first wife, recalled to me in 2011 the time George, the group’s lead guitarist, came to her with word of John’s affair with Sonny Freeman. She was the blonde fashion-model wife of Robert Freeman, the photographer whose pictures adorned the covers of four early Beatles albums. “‘John’s written this mad song called “Norwegian Wood,” and he’s obviously been hanging out with Bob Freeman’s wife in her kitchen,’ which was all made of Norwegian wood,” Pattie told me, quoting George.

John was moved to write about his adultery, but — in all the genius music that poured out of him in this period, the most creatively fertile of his career — he never expressly dedicated a tune to Cyn (in marked contrast to his later, near-constant expressions of love in song for Yoko Ono). Nor is Cyn listed by John’s biographers as having been, even vaguely, the inspiration for any of his Beatles-era compositions. In John, Cyn claimed, pitiably, that her husband wrote “All My Loving” for her; in fact, it was Paul’s song.

In retrospect, though, the lyrics to many of John’s plaintive early Beatles songs — those three-minute crucibles of love and pain — often read less like his own laments and more as if he were channeling, subconsciously, those of the partner he was treating so cruelly, the woman watching helplessly as her husband gave more and more of himself to the world, less and less to her.

Wasn’t it Cyn, amid the revelry of Beatlemania, who was left to wonder “what went wrong,” where her lover had disappeared to, and hated to let her disappointment show, like the singer in “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”?  Wasn’t there someone John knew — far more intimately than Brian Epstein — who had been forced to hide her love away? The sublimation is most marked in “Ticket to Ride”:

She said that living with me is bringing her down, yeah

For she would never be free when I was around. . . .

Before she gets to saying goodbye

She ought to think twice,

She ought to do right by me.

Wasn’t it John who felt that living with Cyn was bringing him down, who couldn’t feel free when she was around? And wasn’t it Cyn who wished he would think twice, and do right by her, before saying goodbye?

He didn’t. After they split, John never again mustered a kind word for Cyn. “Divorce is a wonderful thing,” he told an interviewer in 1971. In his unfinished 1978 autobiography, published posthumously as Skywriting by Word of Mouth (1986), he ridiculed her rhinoplasty, accused her of infidelity (something she always denied), and mused airily that until he encountered Yoko, at her London art exhibit in November 1966, he’d “never met anyone worth breaking up a happily married state of boredom for.”

Cyn also endured countless fabrications by others, most notably in The Love You Make: An Insider’s Account of the Beatles (1983), the salacious bestseller by journalist Steven Gaines and former Apple Corps executive Peter Brown. The book opened with the Lennons flying back from Rishikesh and John dramatically confessing “hundreds” of affairs to Cyn. I read her the passage. “He never, ever confessed to me anything,” she said. “He was a coward. Sorry. He wouldn’t do that.” She called the book “rubbish.”

In later years, through a succession of doomed marriages, Cyn capitulated to financial exigency and auctioned off her letters from John through Christie’s. She also peddled workmanlike portraits she had painted of her beatified ex-husband — they had met in art school — and published her life story three times: first, when John was still alive, in A Twist of Lennon (1978); the second time in 1993, across seven issues of HELLO! magazine; and the last time, to wide critical notice, in John.

That our interview grew contentious pained me. Presented with the fact that her three autobiographies sometimes diverged sharply on key events, with serious implications for historians and biographers, Cyn bristled. I realized no one had ever treated her as an important historical or literary figure, as someone whose words mattered. She was used to tired questions — How did you feel when John died? Do you and Yoko get along now? — and ours was not that kind of interview. “My God,” she exclaimed, “you frighten the life out of me!”

Despite all the painful memories, Cyn was not without shrewd observations about how and why the Beatles changed the world. Asked what it was about the group’s early stage performances that drove people wild, filled them with quasi-religious fervor, she spoke sharply:

Do you know what? They couldn’t give a damn about anybody. They used to smoke onstage, swear onstage. . . . Following the Fifties . . . everything was gray. . . . The English music was very tame. And the combination of the American rock ’n’ roll [with] the English, and then them, who didn’t give a damn . . . I think the kids needed to break out of the mold of post-war [life], and . . . they allowed them, with their music and with their coarseness, to do it.

On his visit to Kenwood that sad day, Paul proffered a red rose and said: “I’m so sorry, Cyn. I don’t know what’s come over him.” One wonders how history would be different if John had grasped the blessings of his first family and stayed with Cyn. Alternatively, one wonders what our world would look like without Cynthia Lennon’s suffering, if she had only sought out a more conventional lover: a man more like herself. For in choosing to be with John, against her better judgment that he was trouble, Cyn — who died in April, at age 75 — had committed the original sin. In a 2012 interview, Paul recalled her telling him once, during the Beatle years: “All I want is a pipe-and-slippers man.” “This phrase stuck in my head,” McCartney told me, “because I thought: ‘That is something that John is not.’”

– Mr. Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News.

James Rosen — Mr. Rosen, a former chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, is the author of three books, including Cheney One on One.

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