On the way in to meet her, a woman from the gallery turned and said, "Uh, we want to keep this real upbeat for Yoko. Happy, all cheery stuff, right? It's basically an interview about John's artwork, okay, that's what we're here for, you know, focus on the opening, not all that junk about the past, right?"
The interview went 12 minutes, tops. Well, maybe 14. You see, she'd been doing them since 12:30, including the press conference, ever since she flashed into town off the Pan Am shuttle. It was now edging on 3:30. There was supposed to be more time allotted for this session, a full 45 minutes in fact, but you know how things always get shoved back, how these put-upon famous people are always under such terrible time pressures.
"How do you do?" said the small tight brown woman sitting at the table in the center of the room, not quite rising from her chair. "Sit down, please." The voice was surprisingly soft, as was the handshake. But you could pick up the intensity right off.
All around her, on the 200-watt walls of Georgetown Fine Art, which is a little boutique of a place on the top floor of Georgetown Park, hung the artwork of her dead husband, the fabled John Lennon.
All around her, in the same light, hung flunkies and flacks. Not to say bodyguards you wouldn't want to make lengthy speeches to when they were riled.
Outside, in the corridors, hung blue-haired prepubescent fans who'd seen the ads, hung the semicurious passers-by who hadn't. They were pressed, as one, this increasing mob, against the plate glass. A few had actually screamed things like, "That's her, that's her, Yoko Ono, jeeps, she's tiny."
Outside also were several off-duty D.C. cops dressed in mufti, the usual squawk boxes in their mitts. They were protecting the front door of the gallery from the unclean.
"Yeah, call it free-lance," said one. "We picked her up at the airport. She came off like a regular person. I didn't talk to her. I was in the follow car. She's the dead Beatle's husband, right?"
Call it the Malling of Yoko Ono -- and not only her. It took place Saturday at 3222 M St. The exhibition was titled "This Is My Story Both Humble and True." There were signed John Lennon lithographs about to go on sale for $2,400 a pop, and there were John Lennon T-shirts and aprons and tote bags and decks of playing cards that were going for something a bit less.
Everything had been licensed and approved by Yoko, of course. Yoko Ono is a very wealthy woman -- as in hundreds of millions of dollars. Two hundred thirty-five million at the time of Lennon's death in 1980, or so it was estimated. You could probably add on at least another $100 million or so since then.
She had on a rich dark herringbone sport jacket without lapels. She held her mouth in a thin flat line, not quite a grimace. She smoked little brown foreign cigarettes, one after another, halfway down, and then aligned each carefully in a brass ashtray before reaching for the next little brown foreign cigarette and flaring its tip with a white tube lighter. As she talked, she kept idly rubbing the side of the lighter between her thumb and forefinger. She sat stiffly, warily, toward the forward edge of her chair. She kept her right hand, no larger than a child's, folded into a loose fist. She kept watching as her sentences got scribbled down into a notebook; in fact, she seemed to be trying very hard to read the words upside down. She didn't take off her glasses, which covered her brows and hid her cheekbones and wrapped themselves around her temples. These glasses were actually closer to goggles of the size aviators in open cockpits used to wear. They were not opaque, more a kind of filtered gray. If you strained a little, you could make out something of the intensity and apprehension and age that lay behind them.
She will be 55 years old on Feb. 18. Her husband would have been 47 on the ninth of last month.
"I was just thinking about those days when we were so very very close," she said, letting it go at that. Was she referring back to something she'd said to the previous interviewer? She didn't explain.
"This artwork is something worthwhile to share," she said. "It gives everybody a chance to come back in touch with John."
"I feel if I stop this machine now, I might just be really ... let down," she said a moment later with the same slight air of mystery. The word "machine" seemed to refer to herself.
Her nose is wide and flat; her face is that remarkable Oriental wedge of smoothness; she is astonishingly small, probably about 85 or 90 pounds, probably about 5 feet 1. Think of a ceramic figurine posed on a shelf at the Freer. You wouldn't want to pick it up and try to hold it in your hand.
Something about her seemed to give off the immediate odor of fastidiousness. "My attendants always carried absorbent cotton dipped in alcohol on an occasion like a family trip," Yoko Ono once said of her childhood. "They disinfected every place I was likely to touch on a train. That was because of my mother's partiality for cleanliness. Thus, I became sensitive to cleanliness too. Once I dropped a pencil I borrowed from a classmate sitting next to me because it was still warm from her body temperature. Even now I find it unpleasant to sit on a cushion or chair that still retains the temperature of somebody who had just been sitting there."
Yoko Ono was born into a wealthy Tokyo banking family. There were always nannies. As a teen-ager she came to Scarsdale.
What could a woman, perhaps the most famous Japanese face in the West, hope to tell a stranger in 12 minutes about her life that would seem meaningful? That she didn't really break up the Beatles? That she was never the self-aggrandizing, dragon-lady calculating bitch that her detractors always wanted to make her out?
The wonder is she could say anything at all, given such a roil around her, given all the kibitzers and leaners-in. "Perhaps this will aid you in your questions," someone from the gallery had said, bringing over a press release about the show. Yoko had frowned at that.
And yet, despite all this, she seemed eager to try to say something that would establish a real if momentary contact with another human being. She didn't appear phony in the least about this. In a way Yoko Ono seemed a victim of what was going on Saturday afternoon at Georgetown Park. Which isn't to suggest she hadn't come to town with an agenda, an agenda that had to do with selling and promotion, things she has been very good at all her life.
"You see, John was always interested in art," she now said. "Until I came into the picture he was surrounded by musicians. He, as you know, went to Liverpool Art College. You might say his first love was always art."
She bit her lip, but ever so slightly. "Just as I was ridiculed by the music world -- though it was quite unfair, because I was, you know, composing music long before I met John -- so in the same way he was always accused by the press of not being a real artist but of being a -- "
It fell off.
"Yes, dilettante. And it was all so untrue."
Then: "To push, well, put, his artwork out is another way to be in touch with his spirit.
"Incredible energy. That is what I want people to get. John had incredible power in whatever he did. These" -- her hand now swept upward, toward the lithographs and serigraphs and kinetic neon sculptures -- "these are just pieces of the truth."
She said she first decided to show her husband's artwork about three years ago. "What would that be? 1984. Yes. John has been dead four years by 1984. At first I couldn't face it. At the time I opened a box and there were some of his things. Then I opened a book he had been reading and there were some more of his things."
Such as that piece over there?
She nodded. It was an etching, on Japanese rice paper, titled "John & Yoko." The price tag on it said $600. It was a rendering of two people who seemed to be one person. The lines were fluid. The widow looked upon it and smiled. "That has to do with unity," she said. "You see, the lines are very simple. He's expressing the total feeling of coming together. That's what I like about his work: It's not intellectual, it just comes out of him. No, no, he doesn't mull over it at all. That's how he was with his songs as well. He was very much an inspired artist in that sense. He just did it. And no matter what anybody says, we did not fight over art. There was never a competition between us. For one thing he was much more graphic, I was more conceptual."
Yoko Ono is the avant-garde artist who gave the world such conceptions as "Breathing Piece" (in which real people stand around and breathe), "Match Piece" (in which real people light matches and watch them until they disappear) and "Cut Piece" (in which real people with real scissors come to the stage and cut off Yoko's clothes).
But that was a long time ago, even before she met John Lennon.
She was talking now of her son Sean. If Yoko has opened the death box, 12-year-old Sean, in the years since that senseless 1980 murder outside the Dakota, has not.
"I think he did the right thing," she said slowly. "Which was just close the closet, so he doesn't have to look. I don't know, maybe in time. Maybe much later he can look into it. It is still so hard for both of us to look at photographs."
Not five feet away hung a huge blowup print of a Richard Avedon photo of Lennon. She wasn't looking at it.
A factotum from the gallery was homing in. She had earlier whispered to the photographer, "Tell him five minutes!" This was at about eight minutes in.
"Yoko's just got to go," she said. "She needs to rest before the exhibition opens tonight. There's going to be many hundreds here. The party will be moving down into the main part of the mall."
Yoko Ono stood up. She posed for a picture. She wrapped a soft mauve scarf around her neck. The scarf was longer than she was. A phalanx of bodyguards formed around her. She shook hands. She smiled. She clacked in her heeled black boots out into the glittery commercial brightness of Georgetown Park.
Her walk was quite cocky. It had punk in it, old punk.
The phalanx disappeared into a freight elevator. "We'll be at the loading dock in two minutes," said one of the off-duty cops into his squawk box.
That night. The crowd had gathered by 8, though the party wasn't due to start until 8:30. Eight forty-five came and went. Nine o'clock came and went. Nine fifteen. No Yoko.
Suddenly there she was, in a blazing white fur, coming down an escalator toward the podium. She waved, but there seemed little heart in it. Her mouth formed a small silent "thank you." She seemed tired. She almost looked like a fading movie star.
Her "speech" lasted no more than 30 seconds. "I know we are together," she said. Then it was over. The audience, some of whom had been standing for more than an hour, seemed dumbfounded.
Someone from the mayor's office presented a plaque. There was a quick negotiation at the side of the podium. It was announced that Yoko had graciously consented to "pass by" her husband's artwork -- which had been hung up on a temporary wall in the middle of the mall -- to shake hands with fans.
"But we have to clear a line, we have to clear a line!" a woman cried.
Yoko passed. She reached out for hands. The phalanx directed her back toward the escalator. Halfway up, she turned and blew kisses to the crowd. She was smiling. "I love you!" she called, and this time she didn't mouth the words, she shouted them.