THE OLD WAREHOUSE DISTRICT AROUND MATHEW STREET IN CENTRAL LIVERPOOL IS AS SACRED TO BEATLES FANS AS THE VIA DOLOROSA IS TO CHRISTIANS. At one end is the Cavern, the rebuilt but authentically dank former vegetable cellar where the band played 274 times in the early 1960s. Nearby is the Wall of Fame, where bronze disks commemorate each of Liverpool's No. 1 hit records; the statue of the early John Lennon in trademark leather jacket; and the plaques outside the Grapes and the White Star, the blue-collar pubs where the boys and their mates hoisted many a cheap pint. But there's nothing to mark the nondescript storefront on Whitechapel Street that was once the North End Music Store, known as NEMS, a record shop and appliance emporium owned by Harry Epstein and his wife, Queenie.
It was from this shop that their first-born son, Brian, set out just before noon on November 9, 1961, to catch the lunch-hour show at the Cavern a few hundred yards away. He made his way past a queue of teenage girls in beehives and boys in skin-tight drain-pipe trousers, and down 18 damp stone steps into the catacombs to check out four sweaty young men playing guitars and drums. What he saw and heard that day, and what he decided to do about it, forever changed their lives and his -- and ours, as well. Virtually every place in Liverpool where the Beatles lived, went to school or played music has been enshrined with a plaque, a statue or a stop on the tourist trail known as the Magical Mystery Tour. But the missing name at almost every Beatles site is that of the man who played such an essential role in their improbable rise.
The 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' masterpiece album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in June set off a predictable round of appreciation of the Beatles, their art and legacy. But few will linger over another milestone tomorrow -- the 40th anniversary of Brian Epstein's death, three weeks before he would have turned 33, from what a coroner's inquest ruled was an accidental overdose of barbiturates.
"I think Brian's one of the forgotten people," Cynthia Lennon, John's first wife, told me when we met last year. "It's almost as if he's been written out of the story. I don't think they'd have got anywhere without Brian."
Maybe he meant to kill himself that day in August 1967, and maybe he didn't. But the circumstances of Brian's death have overshadowed his life. He comes across in most accounts of the Beatles as a self-destructive and pathetic figure. He was a gay man in an era when homosexuality was illegal, and he led a classic double life, lying about his sexuality even while pursuing men, gay and straight, with reckless abandon. He left no wife or children to protect his legacy or promote his name. The Beatles themselves, after Brian's death, grew increasingly critical of his management. A handful of devoted friends have mounted a campaign in recent years to induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- so far to no avail.
Sex is never simple, and in Brian's case it was freighted with additional layers of guilt, frustration, secrets and lies. But sex helps explain why Brian believed so completely in the band and committed himself so deeply to its cause. It's widely claimed that John Lennon had Brian in mind when he wrote "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." But Brian Epstein's love for the Beatles was hidden in plain sight.
THE EPSTEIN FAMILY WAS A PILLAR OF BOURGEOIS RESPECTABILITY. Queenie was the daughter of a wealthy furniture manufacturer. Harry's father, Isaac, was a Polish immigrant who opened I. Epstein and Sons, a furniture store, on Walton Road in Liverpool at the turn of the last century. By the 1930s, Isaac and Harry had expanded the business by buying NEMS, the record and music shop at the end of the block. Coddled from birth, Brian, a beautiful child with delicate features, curly brown hair and full, moody lips, was his parents' pride and joy, and their great despair. He attended seven private schools by the time he was 15. He often blamed the fact that he couldn't fit in on anti-Semitism. But he himself had little use for the small, prosperous but insular Jewish world he grew up in.
Brian realized at an early age that he was "different." At 15, he announced that he wanted to leave boarding school to become a dress designer. His father and his teachers agreed that this was unacceptable. "There was, to their minds, nothing less manly," Brian later said in his ghostwritten 1964 autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise. He came home to work in the family business, got called up to the British army, served a year before being discharged on unspecified "medical grounds," then returned to NEMS. His brief period in the army, Brian would write, exposed him to "the strange homosexual life in London," but he insisted he never had a sexual encounter until he returned to Liverpool. After that, "my life became a succession of mental illnesses and sordid, unhappy events bringing great sorrow to my family," he wrote in a private memoir unearthed by a BBC-TV documentary team in 1997. Brian never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality. In the 19-page, handwritten "Background and History" that the BBC uncovered, he doesn't specify what those "sordid, unhappy events" were, but friends say he had a number of encounters in which he was beaten and robbed and, on one occasion, blackmailed. "My loneliness throughout has been acute," he wrote.
In 1956, he persuaded his parents to finance a course of study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He dropped out after a year, not long after he was arrested by a plainclothes police officer for "persistent importuning" outside the men's toilet at the Swiss Cottage underground station in London. His parents reacted with concern, disapproval and a good lawyer. Brian got off with a suspended two-year sentence upon the condition that he seek medical care for his "disease." But he was tortured by his feelings of guilt, shame and anger, his exposure before the authorities and his parents, and his own abiding sense of inferiority.
"Through the wreckage of my life by society," he wrote, "my being will stain and bring the deepest distress to all my devoted family and few friends. The damage, the lying criminal methods of the police in importuning me and consequently capturing me leaves me cold, stunned and finished."
A DEFEATED BRIAN RETREATED TO LIVERPOOL AND THE FAMILY BUSINESS. There, to everyone's surprise, he excelled. In 1957, NEMS opened a new shop on Great Charlotte Street in the city center, and Brian, just 23, took over the small record department. He stocked its shelves with the latest in classical and pop music, built an inventory system that guaranteed that the bestselling discs were always available, and created eye-catching window displays of the latest hits. His delighted parents gave him a new shop on Whitechapel in 1959. Queenie and Harry believed Brian was finally settling down. Indeed he was, but in the private world he built for himself and with the gay friends he was making. He became close to Peter Brown, a handsome and ambitious young man who ran the records section at Lewis's department store, a NEMS rival. Brown recalled that they met at a mutual friend's birthday party. Brian and his younger brother, Clive, arrived in their dinner jackets, having come from attending their parents' 25th wedding anniversary celebration. Brown says Brian wore tailored suits and smelled of Old Spice, and he had exquisite manners and a way of dominating every room he entered.
"I thought he was an amazing person," Brown recalls. "We instantly became good friends." Brian eventually persuaded Brown to come work for NEMS, and Brown modeled himself -- his clothing, his style, even his speech patterns -- after Brian. "We called them piss-elegant, how they spoke and sounded," recalls Terry Doran, a car salesman who became another of Brian's new pals.