Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Prisoner

 The Prisoner

By Stuart While

New of the World

October 23, 1977


In the fifteen shattering years since the Beatles first burst upon us, John Lennon’s sad sometimes tragic face has not been much of an advertisement for success.  It isn’t only love that money can’t buy.

“I enjoy the security of knowing I’ve got it,” he says. “But I’ve still got that lower-class fear. Wealth in itself doesn’t make me happy, but it’s like my Auntie Mimi always said – I’d sooner be miserable in luxury.

“That for me is a bed, a carpet and some food.”  A pause. Then the old jokey Lennon:  “If they took the TV away, I’d certainly call that suffering.  

Life is almost that simple for millionaire John. For he is, if anything, the Beatles who was trapped by success.  He has become a prisoner of 72nd Street, New York where he lives in a vast apartment in a Colditz-like mansion block.

He rarely goes out. He rarely entertains. His circle is close. He almost never gives interviews. It is Auntie Mimi who can tell us most about the most secret of the ex-Beatles.

It is 3a.m. and the telephone rings in the seaside home of 65 year old widow Mimi Smith. A world famous voice booms down the line from New York, 3,440 miles away.

“’Allo Mimi, ‘ow are yer?”

The accent in unmistakably Scouse. But there is more than a hint of what years of Manhattan living have etched into the nasal Merseyside tones of ex-Beatle John Winston Lennon. Aunt Mimi, who brought John up from childhood scolds him gently: “Do you know what time it is here?  Well do you?”  He laughs off the five hour time difference that makes it only 10pm in New York and says, “Never mind that Mimi.  How are you?  How are things? How are you going?”  She props herself on her pillows and for up to an hour, the man once known as the Cruel Beatle, the matter of the acid remark, the stinging cutting aside, shows a side to his character few people believe exist. Tenderness.

“Oh John can be very tender,” says Aunt Mimi as we speak at the luxury home he bought for her in Poole. “I know he has this reputation for being cynical and sharp, but I know him better.  I know that beneath all that he can be very warm. He asks how I am how my health is, what the weather is like. You know, all the little things that people seem to want to know what they’re living abroad.

“Then we’ll stat to talk about the old days.  The last time he was on, we started talking about his schooldays and the time he came home on the last day of term with his school report. He just rode up to the kitchen window on his bike, threw the report in and shouted ‘I’m off and out.’

“I knew it must be a bad report, so I chased after him shouting, ‘You come back this minute John Lennon.’ But he was off.

“We had a good laugh about that over the phone. I think in a way he’s a little bit lonely.  I’ve not seen him for over five years and though we talk regularly on the phone, it isn’t quite the same.”

She smiles as she recalls another late night call. “Sometimes he’ll stay on for ages and ages and it costs a pound a minute or something.  The last time he called he was on for over an hour, and I said, “John, this is costing you a fortune. You put the phone down this minute.’

“he sounded just like a little boy again. He said “Oh Mimi I haven’t finished yet. Besides, I can afford it.’

“I give him a good telling off sometimes.  Well, I can, can’t I? He’s not famous to me and he knows it.”

Lennon’s ex-wife Cynthia told me “Mimi is right about John. He’s an extremely tender person – or rather he’s capable of tenderness. This tough, bitter side he has is a kind of protection. I feel sad for him because a lot of people seem to get satisfaction out of hurting him.

“When I wrote about our marriage breaking up in a women’s magazine, I had no intention of hurting him.   I’m only sorry that with all his wealth and with all his fame, he doesn’t appear to be happy. One thing I really wish for him is happiness.”

Mimi proudly showed me postcards John has sent her from Japan where he is holidaying with Yoko and their song Sean Ono Lennon, now nearly two.

The first is straight Margate style “wish you were here” “Mimi: Are up in mountains really very nice. Love John, Yoko and Sean.”

Mimi says “You’d think he could have written a bit more than that, wouldn’t you?”

The next: “Mimi, Still up in the mountains. Here is the number in case you wanna give us a call. Love Da-da, mom-ma and Sean-chan.”

Mimi says: “I think ‘chan,’ means son.  That really is typical of him,” she added with mock exasperation. “He gives me some telephone number in the middle of the Japanese mountains.  I don’t know where, and expects me to call him.  I don’t know what time it will be there, whether he’ll be in or anything. IF he wants to talk, he can jolly well call me.”


John decided in Japan to let his professional career take second place to baby Sean.  “We’ve basically decided to be with our baby as much as we can until we feel we can take time off to indulge ourselves in creating things outside the family,” he said.  “Maybe when he’s three, four, or five, then we’ll think about creating something else other than the child.


There are weakspots in the Lennon armour. Each October 9 is his Achilles heel. This year on that date John Lennon, born during a Liverpool air raid in 1940 was 37.

Mimi told me, “He’s like a child about his birthday. He likes cards and presents, and he’s particularly keen that he gets one from me.  But John is so absent-minded he always forgets mine. So last year I thought, “OK If you can forget mine, I can forget yours and I didn’t send him a card.  It was unforgivable really.

 “Well about a week later. I got a letter from New York.  It just said ‘Mimi you forgot my birthday. John.’

“He didn’t phone for weeks. I’ll never do it again. I know just how much his birthday means to him. “

John didn’t let Aunt Mimi forget it this month. He sent her a present. “The postman knocked on the door and there was this small parcel from Japan,” said Aunt Mimi.

“It was a beautiful set of Japanese pearls.  They must have cost the earth.  It was his birthday and he sent ME a present.  That’s typical of the real John.”

A young New York couple discovered the sharp edge of the Lennon tongue when they walked into the Sensuous Bean a tiny coffee and tea store on Columbus Avenue, Manhattan.

John and Yoko had just bought 1 pound of Columbian and 1 pound of Haitian coffee at a total cost of 4 pounds. They were discussing whether to buy a coffee post costing 9 pounds when this couple spotted them through the window.

Shop partner Joe Pumphrey, aged 28, told me “They obviously recognized John and Yoko, walked on, walked back and then came into the shop.  They made this big pretense that they were looking for some herb tea and kept speaking very loudly about the relative merits of the various teas. I knew they had no intention of buying anything.  All the time they kept edging closer to John, almost begging him to join in the discussion.

“I saw John’s face and I could see he realized what was going on this couple and he had a sort of strange look on his face. It was a smile, but not a nice sort of smile.

“Herb tea? He said. “You want herb tea? Well in my opinion you’ll want this.”

“Then he picked up the most expensive brand of herb tea in the largest container we’d got, it must have been about 10 pounds.  ‘But this,’ he said.   This couple looked terrified.  It sounds when you repeat it as though it was a recommendation, but it wasn’t.  It was an order. 

The couple took the tea, paid for it, and hurried out of the shop. “

Rarely do John and Yoko venture out of the Dakota Mansions on Manhattan’s West Side, home of film actress Lauren Bacall, and husband and wife pop stars Carly Simon and James Taylor.

And no one gets in unless the security guard in his sentry box has written instructions. Black cast-iron gates electronically locked, seal off the giant inner courtyard.  The security guard on duty is former Panzer crewman, Heinz, who was born in Berlin.

He told me, “That John, you know, you hardly see him.  Even now there are girls, teenage girls, they wait on the corner for him.  It’s hard for him to go out getting pestered all the time for autographs.  “He’s a strange chap, John.  When he comes out and passes me, he always says, ‘Morning.’   It doesn’t matter whether it’s afternoon or evening, always the same. I suppose that is an English sense of humour.”

But when the Lennons do come out they push Sean in their English made baby carriage through Central Park, braving photographers, autograph hunters and well-wishers.

Almost all their needs can be met in less than a 400 yard walk from their home. And they go no further.  Inside the flat, the Lennons listen to records – many by Elvis Presley.  “I basically became a musician because of Elvis,” says John. “Elvis was for me and my generation what the Beatles were to the Sixties.”  There are several Japanese restaurants on Columbus Avenue, and John and Yoko are frequent guests.

Their favourite is the Lenge where they take a favourite corner table in the dimly lit bamboo walled dining area. Their bill rarely exceeds 11 pounds. A waiter said, “Yoko orders in Japanese and I think it’s a pleasure for her to speak.  Sometimes we chat about things in our language.  John just sits there and smiles politely. I think he only knows a few words of the language like “thank you” and “please.” He is a very polite man.  Mr. Lennon, not like Americans.  He is very considerate.”

Next door to Dakota Mansions is an underground car park open to the public – if the public can afford their prices, which are up to 55 pounds a month.   That is where Lennon leaves his old-style Rolls Royce, where it stands in an inch-deep pool of oily water while the couple visit Japan.

The Rolls rarely leaves the garage. The Puerto Rican garage attendant told me “It’s always there. I bet the battery is flat. If there was a fire here, we’d never get it out.  That Beatle, he never comes out of that apartment. I’m a poor man, but I bet I’m happier than he is. At least I can walk down the street in peace.”

The number of Lennon’s apartment is top secret.  But one stranger at least has got in.

Nelson Segal make furniture and sells wood products from a sawdust covered store at the corner.  One day last year a young woman walked into the shop and ordered 250 pounds worth of cupboards for the Lennon apartment.

Says Nelson aged 61:  “I gather she was the nanny and I think the cupboard were for her quarters.  But Lennon is paying.  OK. I established that from the beginning. In this business you got to know who is paying.  And that they can. I figured Lennon has got to be OK for a few bucks, right? 

“So I finish these cupboards and I ring the Lennon household.  They gave me a number I should call.  Some woman maybe it’s Yoko, maybe it’s the nanny; I dunno, says: “We don’t want them yet.”  “So I says, ‘Lady you may not want them yet, but , I want the money yet’ So I take them round, with an assistant, and they let us in and we are fitting these cupboards.   Next day, I get a cheque signed by Lennon.  That’s the sort of customer I like.  Good payers.”

Recently, John claimed he had given up drinking saying he used the tragedies of the poets Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas as a warning to himself.  “Those two poets are legendary,” he said.  “They came to America, did the college lecture circuit, and ultimately drank themselves to death probably with an audience around them.  When I’ve been drunk or disembowelled in one way or another, there are always friends and hangers on who sit around applauding as they hand me more and more stuff to kill myself with.

John has turned his back on the hangers-on. He feels safer with Aunt Mimi.



  1. the picture of Mimi is brilliant

  2. interesting article; John did get out more in the city however