As a wistful dusk descends, the car ferrying Cynthia Lennon to her hotel passes the old registry office on Mount Street where she and an aspiring singer-guitarist named John Lennon were married 43 years ago. The witnesses that day included Paul McCartney and George Harrison, John's main partners in a pop band then hovering on the brink of unimaginable success.
Now the car's up to Hope Street, around the corner from the art college where in 1958 she first met the impossibly wild, angry, infuriating, talented, cruel, funny, magnetic young rebel who would love and torment her and eventually cast her aside; and Ye Cracke, the scruffy pub where they used to hang out, play music and dream crazy dreams. Even the corner shop where they would buy sweets and potato chips is still there, catering to a new generation of nutritionally challenged students.
"It's like Memory Lane up here," says Lennon, with a rueful, knowing smile but not, she insists, an unhappy one. "I'm having lovely thoughts seeing all of this."
She is here, in the place where the Beatles were born, to promote her new book, a memoir of him and her and those hyper-intense years when she was the girlfriend, and then the wife, in the background as four blue-collar kids from this bruised northwest England seaport clawed their way to the top. The title is simply "John," and the book is Cynthia's attempt, at 66, to come to terms with the life, death and aftermath of one of the 20th century's most iconic musical figures. In the United States it will be published by Crown this week, the same week John would have turned 65.
In the standard accounts of the Beatles' rise, she's usually written off as the impressionable and clueless young thing who ensnared John in marriage after getting pregnant. Her own version is very different: They were young and madly in love and good for each other until fame, drugs and a bizarro performance artist named Yoko Ono swept him away. In person she has survivor's radar and a sweet, knowing demeanor that seems anything but clueless.
She's been married four times -- her current husband, Noel Charles, a former nightclub owner, hovers protectively -- and she's had her share of ups and downs. Her divorce settlement with Lennon left her far from wealthy, and she has worked as a restaurateur, bed-and-breakfast owner and TV personality. She sold her old drawings and Lennon's love letters (Paul McCartney once bought one, framed it and sent it to her as a gift), and wrote a thinner, halfhearted account in the late 1970s that succeeded mostly at enraging John and Yoko.
She's written this new book, she says, in part because everyone else has written theirs and she often didn't recognize reality in the other versions and wanted to set out her own.
"It's like when you whisper one word at the beginning, and by the time it gets around to the end it becomes a totally different word," she says. "This is my book, my experience, and if it's not the same as somebody else's, that's fair game. I have to speak from my point of view and my feelings about the whole story."
There's not much new here, truth be told, but it's Cynthia Lennon's eyewitness testimony that vividly captures the time and place and the characters. She casts a new and harsher light on John's autocratic Aunt Mimi, who provided him with a stable home after his mother gave him up, but who treated him with bitter disdain, mocked his ambitions and drained him of self-confidence.
Cynthia's depiction of those early Beatles days -- when the boys were the closest of friends, loyally supporting each other and sharing the adventure of becoming famous -- is fresh and all the more poignant because we know that eventually the friendship imploded as the Beatles fell out and fell apart.
Her portrait of John is loving but candid. There are some fond moments: the scene of the boys dressed in black suits, like undertakers, at the wedding is hilarious, and John's joy at seeing his baby son Julian for the first time is heartwarming. But he could be vindictive, controlling, cynical and egocentric, she says. He insisted that she dye her hair blond to look like Brigitte Bardot and became furious when she cut it too short. Later on he bullied her into taking LSD even though it made her sick.
Then, as the madness of Beatlemania overtook him, he shut her out altogether. He hit her only once, she says, in a jealous rage early on after she danced with his best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe. It took him three months to apologize, and it never happened again. But the verbal abuse, the mocking and the demands never ceased, she says, although she confesses that she was far too passive and forgiving, inevitably shying away from confrontation for fear of losing him.
She lost him anyway, and the scene in 1968 of her coming home from a trip to find Yoko sitting in Cynthia's own bathrobe on the floor across from John is painful and shocking, even though it's been told elsewhere before. After that, she says, everyone in the Beatles' tightknit social circle cut her off for fear of angering John, with the exception of McCartney, who came to see her soon after the break and even wrote a song of healing for Julian that became "Hey Jude."
They haven't forgotten her in Liverpool. There's a line at noon stretching to the sidewalk outside Waterstones, the downtown bookstore where she signs for an hour, and another in the afternoon in a warehouse-size Costco. Jean Catharell, who revived the Beatles Liverpool fan club in the early 1990s, is there, and so is Brenda Powell, an old friend from art school who says she once dated Sutcliffe. One young man asks for a kiss -- he gets a peck on the cheek -- and others ask her to write "All You Need Is Love" alongside her name on the title page.
In the evening it's off to a small party at the Cavern, the subterranean nightclub where the Beatles played 274 times in the early 1960s. There are more old friends on hand, including May Pang, a New York artist and jewelry designer who had an 18-month affair with John in the early 1970s after Yoko kicked him out for a spell.
May says she and Cynthia became friends after May encouraged John to spend time with Julian. She's in town on business and came to the Cavern to honor Cynthia -- "She's a good person and a good friend." They're charter members of the John and Yoko Survivors Support Group.
The book's real love story is Cynthia's fierce commitment to Julian -- "my best friend and the love of my life," as she puts it in her introduction. Julian, now 42, has written the book's foreword, thanking her for finally telling the story of the father "who let me down in so many ways." There's a photo on the back cover of him and his mother, with Julian looking hauntingly like his late father.
One living person who won't care for Cynthia's account is Yoko, who comes across as manipulative and vindictive or just plain oblivious. The book will confirm every Beatles fanatic's worst image of the woman many still blame for breaking up the world's favorite band.
Yoko changed John, made him fragile and precious and needy, cut him off from family and friends, according to Cynthia's version. "He was a different man when he was with me -- much more gregarious and all encompassing. John was never really precious when I knew him, never fragile."
John's murder by a psychotic assassin in December 1980, just as he was reemerging on the music scene, also killed Cynthia's hopes for a reconciliation between father and son. Yoko's allegedly cruel treatment of Julian after John's death -- she issued a public statement on her own behalf and that of her son Sean but omits any mention of Julian -- is one of the saddest moments of the book.
But not as sad as the last sentence, where Cynthia concludes that if she'd known as a teenager where falling in love with John would lead, she never would have taken the plunge.
"I didn't really mean it as so final as that," she says. "It's such a double-edged feeling. When I say that if I'd known what was ahead of me I'd have walked the other way -- well, obviously I couldn't and wouldn't and didn't. I didn't take the easy path."