A Visit with Aunt
By Alanna Nash
Freelance writer Alanna Nash of Louisville, KY. Wrote the following account of her 1971 visit to Mimi Smith, John Lennon’s famous aunt. By the way, she says she took no photos that day at Aunt Mimi’s because “I got the impression that she didn’t want nay made.” (The truth is, she was pretty intimidating). Aunt Mimi also was none too pleased with Lennon’s activist lifestyle at that time.
When John Lennon was gunned down in front of his New York apartment building on December 8, 1980, his widow, Yoko Ono, made three phone calls.
According to Newsweek magazine, she called “the people that John would have wanted to know.” – his 17 year old son Julian, from his marriage to Cynthia Powell; his former partner Paul McCartney, and his aunt, Mimi Smith, who reared him from the age of four.
Twelve years ago, as a college student studying in England, I paid Mary Elizabeth Smith—Aunt Mimi—a visit in her Sandbanks, Dorset, home. During my teen years, when Beatlemania was at its height, I had carried on a long correspondence with George Harrison’s parents. But my only communication with Aunt Mimi had been a brief postcard she’d sent me some years back in response to my many letters.
Still, I figured that was enough to get me through the door, and I invited a fellow exchange student to go along. Once we got to Sandanks, a mechanic at a corner garage pointed the way to Aunt Mimi’s home- a large, $50,000 “holiday cottage” on Poole Harbor that Lennon had originally bought for himself.
“Mrs. Smith?” I began. She peered around the door the way women in Hitchcock films to just before they become victims. I quickly dredged up the ancient postcard and while Mrs. Smith stood there teetering between entry and denial, my friend, a tall soft-spoken boy with a Beatle haircut and round, Lennon like spectacles, convinced her we didn’t mean any harm, that we were just “into the Beatles.”
Slowly the door opened, and we got our first good look at her. What struck me most was how much older she looked than in Beatle days, but her resemblance to Lennon was unmistakable – the same straight, narrow nose, the same shaped eyes and face, the same intellectual bearing. “You can only stay a little while, I’m afraid.” I remembered that six hours later as we packed up to leave.
Aunt Mimi told us she lived alone, except for a housekeeper, who had the day off. She showed us the living room, a cozy room furnished with good pieces that looked as though they’d gotten a lot of use, and excused herself to make a pot of tea. I remember that the room was filled with books – and with Beatles mementos, displayed tastefully on the walls and shelves. We were looking at the awards – including a 1963 Billboard magazine plaque for Most Promising Group – when Mrs. Smith returned with the tea and asked us to look over the mantle. There hung a plaque that an anonymous American fan had sent immortalizing her famous words, “The guitar’s all right as a hobby, John, but you’ll never make a living at it.”
We started out slowly, exchanging pleasantries and asking questions about the Beatles early days (“the boys had talent, yes, but they had a lot of luck, too. When they first played me ‘Love me Do’ I didn’t think much of it), but soon Aunt Mimi was ready to move along to stormier topics.
“I don’t know what all this business between John and Paul is about,” she said of their breakup. “But I don’t dare ask John. I did ring Paul about it, and he told me things would straighten up. The boys have been friends so long. I remember them coming home from school together on their bikes, begging biscuits. I’m sure they’ll get back together again. This is just a phase they’re passing through.”
If Mrs. Smith was really certain of that, she was, however, disturbed by much of her famous nephew’s behavior. “I’ve just quit reading the papers now,” she said. “Apple sends me his records, but I won’t play them. And I’ve asked my friends not to tell me about them. That shameful album cover (Two Virgins) and that art show of his,” she said referring to Lennon’s London gallery exhibit of erotic lithographs. “He’s been naughty and the public doesn’t like it, and he’s sorry for it. Now he wants sympathy. That’s why he’s come out with these fantastic stories about an unhappy childhood.”
“It’s true that his mother wasn’t there and there was no father around,” she continued, “but my husband and I gave him a wonderful home. John didn’t buy me these furnishings,” she said with a sweep of a hand, “My husband bought these things. John and Paul and George wrote songs together sitting on the sofa you’re sitting on now, long before you ever heard of The Beatles. Why, John had a pony when he was a little boy! He certainly didn’t come from a slum! None of the boys did! The Harrisons weren’t as well-off as the other families, perhaps, but George wasn’t from a slum, either, the way the press had it. And that’s why you never see photographs of John’s boyhood home! We certainly weren’t impoverished, the way John’s talking now!”
I asked what she thought had changed him. Mrs. Smith leaned toward us and whispered as if there were someone else in the house who might hear. “She’s responsible for all this,” she said. “Yoko. She changed him, and I’m sure she and Linda are behind this split with John and Paul. Cynthia was such a nice girl,” she added, smiling, “When she and John were in art college, she’d come to my house and say, ‘Oh, Mimi, what am I going to do about John?’ She’d sit there until he came home. She really pursued him. He’d walk up the road and back until she got tired of waiting and went home. I think he was afraid of her, actually.”
With that, I said something about what a different man he had become, writing songs like ‘Power to the People’ and staging a “bed in “ for peace. Mrs. Smith became visibly enraged, “Don’t talk to me of such things!” she said. “I know that boy. He doesn’t know what he’s saying! It’s all an act. If there were a revolution, John would be first in the queue! First to run! Why, he’s scared to death of things like that! That’s Yoko talking, not John!”
“I had a fan tell me she went up to John and Yoko on the street for an autograph, and Yoko said she could have the signatures, but a far better thing for her to do would be to go up the street and jump in the fountain and feel the water of life rush over her!” Yoko, Aunt Mimi concluded, was not exactly right in the head.
“Every time John does something bad and gets his picture in the papers, “ she continued, “he rings me up to smooth me over. See that new color television? It was a Christmas present, but he had it delivered early. A big present arrives every time he’s been naughty.”
I remember reading that before Lennon returned his M.B.E. award to the Queen in protest again Britain’s involvement in Biafra and Vietnam, it sat on Aunt Mimi’s T.V. set. I mentioned that, and Mrs. Smith took us into the music room - John’s bedroom when he lived there. She opened the closet, and there in a haphazard pile on the floor lay John’s gold records. Mrs. Smith picked up a frame nearby. “He sent back the medal, but I still have this,” she said handing me the M.B.E. certificate. John had crossed out the Queen’s signature with red ink and neatly returned the paper to its frame.
“I usually have a large photograph of John hanging in there,” Mrs. Smith said on the walk back to the living room. “When he’s a good boy, it’ll go back up again.”
Five years later, in 1976, I recalled that visit to Rick Mitz, my editor at a now defunct magazine. We talked about my writing a story about it, and decided we’d better first find out if Aunt Mimi was still alive. Rick dashed off a letter to John at the Dakota, and back came the following reply:
Luv, John Lennon