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'John Lennon Letters' Reveal A Life As It Happened

Oct 20, 2012
Originally published on October 22, 2012 4:21 pm

John Lennon loved word play; he wrote songs that have not only become standards, but also milestones, like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Strawberry Fields," which he wrote with the Beatles, and "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance," which he wrote on his own. For most of his life, he also composed letters to friends and family; then lovers, as he grew up; and strangers, as he grew famous. His notes, letters and postcards often contained small, funny drawings and self portraits.

Now Hunter Davies, who wrote the band's 1968 authorized biography, The Beatles, has helped annotate almost 300 of letters written in Lennon's own hand. The result is his new book, The John Lennon Letters. He joins NPR's Scott Simon to discuss the love and rage of Lennon's letters, and what the notes reveal about the man.


Interview Highlights

On Lennon's love letter to Cynthia Powell, who became his first wife

"That's the most tumultuous love letter. It goes on and on; it's an eight-page homemade Christmas card to her. And of course, one of the big things about John is that he went to art college. But he decorated almost every letter and postcard. So this one you mentioned, there's a lovely drawing of John and Cynthia together looking into each other's eyes adoringly. And he does this with every letter. There's a nice letter to his cousin Leila — she was slightly older and became a doctor — and if you look at the top of the page you'll see in green handwriting, he's drawn some palm trees. If you put your best specs on, you'll see his little face peeping up from behind a palm tree with his little nose and his spectacles. Then you'll also see in the corner a very small pyramid. And this was a visual joke, because Leila, his cousin, was born in Egypt, and he and Yoko were going to Egypt soon."

On the famous 1971 "rant letter" addressed to Linda and Paul McCartney

"That [letter] is well known, because it's come up in auction two or three times. It's sold for a huge amount of money. I mean, this is the most appalling letter from John, he's ranting and raving. The background to it was that it was the time they were suing each other ... so they're all fallen out; but also he was furious at the time because he got it into his head — I'm afraid rightly — that everybody hated Yoko, and the other Beatles hated Yoko. And they were being horrible to him, so John was very, very protective and very sensitive, so he lashed out even more. "

On the new letter collection and what Lennon's letters reveal about him

"It's just an accumulation of all the aspects of his life, from the age of 10 — writing that nice letter to his auntie thanking her for his Christmas towel, and he says it's the best towel he's ever had — up to a few minutes before he gets killed, aged 40. So you see the whole span of his life. The thing about it: You see it through his eyes, through his handwriting. A biography can never really get as close as letters can. With letters, he's not writing for posterity, it's all coming out there and then, and it's all emotion. And he sort of — he does it, then he's moving on; so it's very revealing, I think."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. John Lennon loved wordplay. He wrote songs that have become not only standards but milestones, including "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Strawberry Fields," with the Beatles; and "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance," on his own. For most of his life, he also wrote letters - to friends and family but also lovers, as he grew up; and strangers, as he grew famous.

Now, Hunter Davies, the British author who wrote the 1968 authorized biography, "The Beatles," has helped annotate almost 300 letters, notes and postcards written in John Lennon's own hand: "The John Lennon Letters." Hunter Davies joins us now from his home in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

HUNTER DAVIES: Thank you.

SIMON: Was John Lennon always writing something?

DAVIES: Yeah, his first reaction to any emotion - whether it was fury or anger or pleasure - was to write things down. It wasn't - he didn't just go to the guitar or the piano. And he also tried to tailor each letter, or postcard, to the recipient.

SIMON: We were fortunate enough to speak to Yoko Ono a few days ago. She has written the foreword. Yoko Ono says in this brief foreword: "You knew he was sending his heart to a friend." And this is what she told us:

YOKO ONO: He was quite the writer. Whenever we went somewhere, he would stop to get postcards and start writing to people at home. He doesn't write something that is just superficial, you know. He just remembered the friend, and he wanted to write to that person.

DAVIES: What Yoko says there, is interesting. When I was with John Lennon during those two years - doing the biography, all those years ago - he seemed to me, totally disorganized. He didn't know his own telephone number; he didn't know his own address; he couldn't drive properly. So he's so untechnical and yet when he went abroad anywhere - as Yoko says there - he obviously managed to take an address book, and he managed to get a postcard. It shows how organized he was. And it shows, also, how he loved sending postcards.

SIMON: Let me ask you about something - because I noticed in this book, specifically. One of the first notes we see - and it's embellished, with drawings - to Cynthia Powell, who became his first wife. And I'm struck by a phrase here, which I underscore. John Lennon wrote, "I love you like guitars."

DAVIES: Isn't that nice?

SIMON: Yeah. He goes on, "I love you - I love you like anything, lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely Cyn."

DAVIES: I mean, it's tragic, in a way, to read that. That's the most tumultuous love letter. It goes on and on. It's an eight-page, homemade Christmas card to her. And of course, we Beatles fans know what happened. And later in the book you get awful letters from John to Cynthia and they're arguing. But in this early flush of marriage and courtship, his letters and postcards are lovely. Now, of course, one of the big things about John is that he went to art college, that he decorated almost every letter and postcard. So, this one you've mentioned has a lovely drawing of John and Cynthia together, looking into each other's eyes adoringly. And he does this with every letter.

SIMON: Let me ask you about an entry in here that I think will just excite a lot of people to see it - and that's a stained, frazzled sheet of paper from the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. It's undated but, of course, it's pretty easy to determine it was 11 February 1964. This is the Beatles' playlist from a U.S. concert. And maybe I shouldn't give away what's number one.

DAVIES: Oh do so, do so, yeah.

SIMON: All right. Beethoven.

DAVIES: Roll over, Beethoven.

SIMON: Roll over, Beethoven. It's just written as Beethoven here.

DAVIES: Of course, yeah.

SIMON: And then "From Me to You" is two. Number three: "I Saw Her Standing There"; number four: "This Boy."

DAVIES: On one hand, it's totally banal and boring, but if you're interested in the history of popular music, it's an invaluable document. This is their first concert in the USA. And there was a girl in the front row screaming and shouting. And when it was over, a kindly security man gave her this list, which he picked up from the floor and she kept it as a souvenir of that evening.

SIMON: I think a letter that very famous for people who follow Beatles history - in your book, it's a 1971 letter to Linda and Paul McCartney. I guess it's sometimes called the rant letter.

DAVIES: That's right, yeah. That is well-known because it's come up at auction two or three times and sold for a huge amount of money. I mean, this is known as the Pauling letter from John. He's ranting and raving. The background to it is that it was the time they are suing each other over Apple, so they're all falling out. But also he was furious at the time because he got into his head, I'm afraid rightly, that everybody hated Yoko and the other Beatles hated Yoko. And they were being horrible to him. So, John was very, very protective and very sensitive, so he lashed out even more.

SIMON: We raised this matter with Yoko Ono a few days. Here's what she said:

ONO: I think that whenever people were nasty to me - and that was every day actually - but if it comes out in writing.

SIMON: Can you still remember ways in which you think people weren't nice to you?

ONO: Well, I mean, give me 20 different ways you can think of. I think that he was more hurt than me. Because by then I kind of accepted the fact that it's just going to be like that.

SIMON: Do you think she has it right?

DAVIES: Yeah, they didn't really accept her. I met Yoko when she was filming her famous bottoms film in whichever year - '66 - and then six months later I walked into Abbey Road. And in the bowels of the studio, where no one else was allowed to sit except the roadies, that was John and Yoko entwined in each other's arms and legs. And the other Beatles, I could see them mouthing some obscenity, saying who the heck is this? So, John really had brought her into the inner sanctum.

SIMON: Brought Yoko Ono into the literal space they consider theirs.

DAVIES: Exactly, yes, which no wives were allowed into up to then, as far as I had observed.

SIMON: Wait - is there anything in these letters that you read through that you didn't know that qualifies as a revelation?

DAVIES: No, there's no one revelation. It's just an accumulation of all the aspects of his life, from the age of 10, writing that nice letter to his auntie, thanking her for his Christmas towel, and he says it's the best towel he's ever had, up till a few minutes before he gets killed, age 40. So, you see the whole span of his life. And the thing about it, you see it through his eyes, through his handwriting. A biography can never really get as close as letters can. With letters, he's not writing for posterity, it's all coming out there and then, and it's all emotion and he does it, then he's moving on. So, it's very revealing, I think.

SIMON: Hunter Davies in London. He's edited and annotated "The John Lennon Letters." Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVIES: Thank you. That was brilliant.

SIMON: And tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION, even more about the Beatles. Rachel Martin discusses the new book "Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.