JOHN

By Cynthia Lennon

Crown. 306 pp. $25.95

"Big bastards, that's what the Beatles were," John Lennon famously told Rolling Stone in December 1970. And now, on what would have been his 65th birthday, Cynthia Lennon, who dated John in the late 1950s, gave birth to his son, Julian, and was married to the music legend from 1962 to 1969, has published an intimate memoir documenting Lennon's assertion, at least where he was concerned.

Her book paints an unsparing, if familiar, portrait of her late husband as the archetypal tormented genius: by turns tender and violent, kind and cruel, loving and unfaithful. In so doing, John also revives timeless debates about the interplay between art and life, and about how much a patron must know about an artist's life in order to savor his art fully. What value is there in knowing, for example, that John "had a thing about lingerie"? Of greater interest are Cynthia's descriptions of her husband's somnambulant work habits and her exposure of the wide chasm between the idealism of Lennon's lyrics -- imagining peace and love -- and the sadism of his behavior toward those most dependent on him.

Forced at first to hide their love away (the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, feared female fans would reject a Beatle who was married with a child), then left largely to care for each other with John forever off recording and touring, Cynthia and Julian were finally cast aside in the cruelest way when Lennon forsook them for the arms of Yoko Ono. Like the rest of the world, Julian worshipped his father, but he received "no word from him between 1971 and 1974, apart from birthday and Christmas presents . . . sent by [Lennon's] London office with no personal note or card." The boy had just begun to re-establish a tentative relationship with his moody dad when John was assassinated in December 1980.

For her part, Cynthia must have felt like the mother in "Rosemary's Baby." To some extent, her rude awakening derived from her own naivety and aversion to confrontation. "I let him get away with an awful lot," she admits. But everyone around her, including her closest friends, was, in a sense, conspiring against her, concealing the truth of Lennon's (and the other Beatles') Bacchanalian march through '60s superstardom. John's plunge into daily LSD use only further distanced him from the woman who shared his house but not his heart.

The end came in the spring of 1968, when Cynthia arrived home from an overseas trip to find John and Yoko rapt in post-coital bliss. "John was always loving and reassuring when we spoke [by phone] and I trusted him," Cynthia writes. "I believed that, wherever he was, Julian and I came first in his life." Now she knew better.

And once John divorced her, cynically accusing her of infidelity (even though, as he told Playboy in 1980, "I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know . . . I'd always had some kind of affairs going"), Cynthia found herself cut off, immediately and irrevocably, from the rest of the Beatles world. The lone exception was Paul McCartney, who visited her and the boy at the Kenwood estate Lennon had abandoned, composing "Hey Jude" in his head on the way over. Many years later, McCartney purchased at auction and bequeathed to Julian a 1965 letter his father had written that read, in part:

"I spend hours in dressing rooms and things thinking about the times I've wasted not being with him -- and playing with him . . . those stupid bastard times when I keep reading bloody newspapers and other [expletive] whilst he's in the room with me and I've decided it's ALL WRONG!"

Unlike its subject, John is without pretense, an honest and straightforward account that makes an important contribution to the first-person literature of the Beatles. Cynthia's insight into John Lennon's late teens is unrivaled, and she dispels many myths, including the idea that John's Aunt Mimi, who raised him, was a supportive figure, and the notion of a romance between her husband and Epstein, a canard pushed most aggressively in Albert Goldman's vile 1988 entry, The Lives of John Lennon.

By no means, however, should John be accepted as gospel. Despite conscientious research, the author gets many facts and dates wrong, and she errs spectacularly when she asserts that Lennon wrote "All My Loving" for her. The song was McCartney's, as all fans know and Lennon ruefully confirmed to Playboy ("a damn good piece of work").

Moreover, this is not Cynthia's first bite at the Apple scene; her 1978 memoir, A Twist of Lennon, told most of the same anecdotes, sometimes in the same words. This earlier work she now dismisses as a "superficial" volume into which she "deliberately avoided putting . . . anything that might offend" John and Yoko: a fair description. Still, a close review of both texts reveals some surprising authorial caprice: Where, for example, the new book is content to say that Ringo Starr "had the odd fling with other girls" behind the back of his first wife, Maureen Starkey, the earlier book went into great detail, even naming the fashion model whom the drummer "gallivanted around with." Conversely, while the old book made no mention of it, the new one pointedly notes on its second page that Maureen "had a brief fling with George Harrison," the Beatles' lead guitarist, after she and Ringo split up.

Finally, John recounts that Lennon once hit Cynthia, early in their courtship, so hard she stumbled backwards and struck her head on some metal piping, an incident first alluded to in print in Hunter Davies's authorized 1968 biography, The Beatles; in A Twist of Lennon, however, Cynthia wrote only that John had an "unpredictable urge to lash out verbally and physically." Lennon himself, in an interview published after his death, acknowledged with a chuckle "occasionally hitting my dear wife in the early days."

In his landmark Rolling Stone and Playboy interviews, Lennon spoke extensively about the origins of his romance with Yoko, but said next to nothing about Cynthia. In his unfinished autobiography, penned in the late 1970s and published by Yoko in 1986 under the title Skywriting By Word of Mouth, Lennon acknowledged his "numerous" affairs but said that prior to Yoko, "I'd never met anyone worth breaking up a happily-married state of boredom for" and claimed Cynthia had had her own "side-interests."

Cynthia denies that -- "I had never been unfaithful to John," she writes -- and the callousness of her accuser lends credibility to her denial. John contains a poignant photograph of her and little Julian taken shortly after John and Yoko ran off together. "Did they have any idea of the price of their happiness?" Cynthia asks.

It's heartbreaking stuff, particularly for fans wedded to a romanticized view of John Lennon as a gentle poet for peace. He was fond of saying his "real marriage" in the '60s was to the Beatles; perhaps his closest partner in that union, McCartney, had him in mind when writing the 1967 Beatles classic "Getting Better": "I used to be mean to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved/Man I was mean . . . " *

James Rosen is a Fox News Washington correspondent and author of the forthcoming "The Strong Man: John Mitchell, Nixon, and Watergate."

John Lennon at Madison Square Garden in 1972John Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, with their son Julian