Thursday, August 9, 2012

Meet John Lennon's Optometrist

As someone who is most likely legally blind without her glasses, I understand the need for a good eye doctor.   One of the things I would hate if I ever moved out of the area where I live would be where I would find a new hairdresser, dentist, doctor and eye doctor.   Here is what John Lennon's eye doctor from after he moved to New York City in 1970's has to say about having John as a patient.

John wearing small round frames in 1975
The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes
By Gary Tracy, O.D.

I was John Lennon’s optometrist for the last four years of his life, when he and Yoko lived on the Upper West Side of New York City. Thirty years later, patients are still asking what he was like. Here are some of my memories.

Still wearing the typical "John Lennon glasses" in 1976.
A Day In the Life
I first met John and Yoko in 1975. I had opened my practice a year earlier, at 284 Columbus Avenue. Back then, the neighborhood was still kind of “iffy.”

One winter night near closing, I noticed a couple gazing into the store, their faces pressed against the window. Minutes later, my friend Neil, owner of the flower shop next door, stopped in to tell me “That was John Lennon and Yoko Ono!”

I was excited, but not shocked. John and Yoko had moved into the Dakota apartment building on West 72nd Street in 1973, and sightings of the famous couple on the Upper West Side were common.
The next night, again near closing, I was finishing up with a patient when I heard an unmistakable British-accented voice inquiring about an eye exam. My receptionist—a middle-aged woman from Guyana who didn’t recognize our new walk-in—replied that she would be glad to set up an appointment.

Immediately, I bolted from the examination to explain that I was nearly done. Could I examine him momentarily? John agreed.

I remember my heart pounding while thinking, “I’d better get this prescription right!” I imagined headlines: “John Lennon Trips During Concert, Blames Optometrist for Poor Prescription,” or “Ex-Beatle Now Blind—Optometrist Charged with Misdiagnosis.”

Despite my nervousness, I managed to get through the exam. John picked out some new frames. He always knew exactly what he wanted, staying true to the round or slightly off-round (P3) shapes he had made famous as a Beatle. He also insisted on cable temples (wraparounds), explaining they kept his frames on while jumping around on stage.

At the end of the visit, I asked John for his telephone number to let him know when his glasses were ready. He appeared hesitant. But he seemed pleased, even amused, when I offered to write it on the back of his file in code, and gave me the number.

The Ballad of John and Yoko
John was a regular for the next four years. Between 1975 and 1979, John had two complete eye exams, purchased more than a dozen pairs of glasses, and dropped in frequently for adjustments and repairs.

John and Yoko almost always arrived around closing time. After taking care of business, they would sit and chat for a while. Just small talk, usually about things going on in the neighborhood.
During those four years, Yoko never availed herself of my services. She mostly stayed in the background, always quiet, polite and non-assuming. Although John often came in alone, I felt that when Yoko was present, she had a calming, soothing effect on him.

One day, John came with his son Julian, who was visiting from England. In a fatherly manner, he recommended that Julian should make sure that his frames had wraparound temples, similar to John’s preference. Julian selected an aviator shape that was popular at the time, and I managed to find one with the wraparound temples, so he could fulfill his father’s recommendation.
Like father like son in similar glasses in 1977.

One day John and Yoko dropped by to pick up new eyeglasses. John was toting a tiny baby in a papoose carrier on his back. They told me that this was the first time they’d ventured out of the Dakota in public with their newly born son Sean.

John wearing slightly larger but still round dark glasses in 1978.
Working Class Hero
I never asked John about The Beatles or being a celebrity. From what I learned later, he had an ordinary, blue-collar upbringing. I really think he enjoyed being in an environment where he was treated like an ordinary person.

Still, I remained somewhat in awe. One day, knowing John was coming in, I brought in a beat up copy of “A Spaniard in the Works,” an obscure book of John’s sketches and poems I’d purchased for 25 cents in one of the neighborhood antique stores. I was secretly hoping he would offer to sign it. He seemed pleased to see the book, but did not offer to autograph it—and I didn’t feel comfortable asking.

Another time, John and I were chatting in my office when he suddenly paused in mid-sentence: “Is that Paul?” I was taken aback, because there was no one else in the office or visible on the sidewalk outside the window. I asked John whom he meant. He had heard Paul McCartney’s voice singing from my radio upstairs. I wasn’t even aware the radio was on. I realized then how finely attuned John was to the music of his former band mate.

Several long-time patients fondly remember encountering John in my office, offering advice on the frames they were trying on. One patient recalls trying on contact lenses when John’s voice surprised him from behind: “I tried to wear them, but the only way I could keep them in my bloody eyes was to get bloody stoned first.”

One afternoon, walking back from lunch to my office on Columbus Avenue, I spotted John coming toward me. He seemed shaken. He told me that someone had been following him all morning, and asked me to accompany him. He thought that if we drew attention to this person, then he would leave. Pointing to a disheveled person with a trench coat, John started yelling, “That’s the person who’s been following me.” I joined John, pointing and yelling, “That’s the person!”

John in a totally different style for the first time in 1979.
It worked. He sped up and disappeared around the corner. John and I walked to my office, where I locked the door. John stayed until he was sure the person was completely gone.

On one of his last visits to my office, John finally strayed from his usual metal round frame. Wanting something different for his new sunglasses, he selected a rectangular, clear plastic frame with dark gray lenses. I believe these are the glasses that appear in photographs with bloodstains on them, on the tragic night he was killed on December 8, 1980.

A couple of years after John’s death, Yoko came in for an exam. Seated in the examination chair, tears welled in her eyes as she reminisced about John, and expressed concern that Sean was now old enough to recognize and hear negative publicity about his father. She asked if I would meet with Sean to share my experience with the “real” John. I agreed, but a meeting was never arranged. I never saw or heard from Yoko again.

Years later, Sean did come in, with a prescription in hand. I made many pairs of glasses for him over the years.

When I was young, I sometimes questioned whether I’d made the right decision to become an optometrist and move to New York. But it has been a privilege to be a part of the Upper West Side for so many years.

John in his last set of frames in 1980.

Being an independent optometrist in New York City has given me the opportunity to know many fascinating and diverse people, both celebrities and non-celebrities. Where else would I have had the opportunity to meet someone like John Lennon?


  1. I loved this! Some great stories in here, particularly about him being able to hear Paul and about having to get stoned to bear wearing his contacts! Scary about him being followed though. :-/

  2. I think some of this story doesn't seem entirely true to what we know. Maybe we can put it down to memories getting hazy over time.

  3. What an incredible thing to read! Thanks for posting it!

  4. i have known about this doctor for a long time since one of my best new york friends has been his patient for quite a while. she said he never disclosed any info on john - i asked her if she knew what was his prescription, as i am also quite shortsighted. his story sounds quite believable to me.

  5. jimilast: What part don't you think to be true? It all sounds like it matches up with what we know. I know that John tried contact in 1965. You can tell at some of the press conference close ups from Italy. He said that he never liked them because he didn't like to touch his eye (same issue I have)

  6. Really only in 1965? I thought he tried them earlier but have no info to base this belief on.

  7. Oh, don't get wrong, it's an interesting piece and I don't doubt for a second he was John Lennon's optician. I'd never claim to have the knowledge of a beatles expert but I find a lot of people connected to the fabs feel the need to embellish. It happens all the time, stories change over time, muddled from retelling, or trying to sound more interesting and the cynic in me sees through it. I just like the facts. I feel this is another case in point. How often would you seriously get your eyes tested in 4 years? Did John really change his lenses that often? There are 3 or 4 quite different "round" frames he wore during this time, max, some pre-date 75. Correct me if I'm wrong but the "new frames", the Mayfair design he died in, these were bought in bulk in Japan, right?

    Yours really is a fab blog which I love reading.

    1. Without doubt the glasses John Lennon wore on December 8th were not rectangular clear frames with grey lenses, what a load of B/S. He was wearing Hakusan Masachika "Mayfair" honey orange frames with dark brown prescription photochromic lenses.

    2. Just go look at the cover of Season Of Glass, by Yoko. Class dismissed.

    3. More like "Clive" dismissed.

  8. Nice story but the bit about him picking out those new frames which he wore in 1980 lead me to believe that this is false. Lennon had picked out those frames in Japan in 1979.

    1. He got frames from England, New York, and Japan.

  9. Hi,
    Just came across this forum. I have a question to ask. Apparently John's eyesight was extremely poor; mine is as well. I could never wear wire-framed glasses as my lenses were too thick for them. How did John wear such thin frames with his bad eyes?

  10. ive got a pair of lense working reading and writting specs that john lennon as worn please help me out to autentificat them

  11. Very interesting, always been a Lennon fan, i know Columbus Ave fairing well, after John died i came up to NYC to make a pilgrimage to the Dakota, said a prayer then left. Thxs for ur story!

  12. Every time I try to post something about John Lennon and/or The Beatles it leads into a novella rather than just a comment and I think many of us could just go on and on so I'll STOP to share this one thing. I think it was the late summer of 1971 or sometime after that which would put me at about 13 to 14 years of age. I was on vacation with my father, his new girlfriend, and my older brother. We went to Washington D.C. and than NYC. And this is true. We are walking down some street in the city and it was very busy so I remember Gene Rayburn host of The Match Game walking by and shortly after that, John and Yoko walking toward us and it wasn't until they'd already passed us and I turned around only seconds later to see they had turned into either a shop or maybe The Dakota, I don't know, that I realised it was him.