Exploring the myth: Did John Lennon have a gay affair?
Larry Kane was the only American reporter to travel with the Beatles on their first historic American tour, and he kept up a long and close relationship with John Lennon throughout his career. Kane’s book, “Lennon Revealed,” includes extensive personal memories as well as interviews with Yoko Ono, May Pang (with whom Lennon had a 10-year relationship) and more than 70 friends and experts on Lennon’s extraordinary life. Here is an excerpt:
(Editor’s note: This book excerpt contains explicit language and references.)
The man, the myth, the truth
From his early days to the afterlife of the 1980 tragedy, perhaps no human being in the contemporary culture has been written and talked about more than John Lennon. The analysis of his life and times matches the sort of detailed scrutiny usually reserved for the careers of world leaders. To that end, legends persist, myths remain, and clarity is a rare commodity.
The life of John Lennon was a duality: the private man and the public personality. But in his case, the public persona wasn’t far removed from the private person, a rare thing at that level of fame. John may have feared the dangers of entertaining people in public, but he was fearless in allowing the world to witness his strengths and his weaknesses. Perhaps he knew that the vulnerability he exposed endeared him to anyone who experienced similar miscues in their own lives.
Yet the burden of the famous is the sense of hero-worship that exists outside their control. The worshippers, in their zeal to idealize or crucify, forget the fact that their idol is a real human being just like themselves. They overanalyze facts just as quickly as they conveniently omit them. They define and compartmentalize. All the while their fantasy expectations blind them from seeing — or even seeking — the real deal.
Few have allowed us to see the real deal so well as John Lennon. Still, the myths persist and the rumors swirl. Was John Lennon a mean bastard? A foolish prankster? An aggressive sex-fiend? A musical tyrant? A drug abuser? A gay man?
The answer to such questions — like the man — is complex. But the clues are out there, and there are many. When it comes to certain lingering myths surrounding John Lennon’s legend, there are clear-cut explanations, and I will give them. But to understand and grasp the man as a whole, there is only subtle revelation like the layers of an onion peeling away, and in that revelation, there is truth.
Seething anger, sincere remorse
London tabloids portrayed John as always being in trouble with the law. In fact, outside of routine punishments in school and his overplayed marijuana conviction in London in 1968, he had no remarkable legal difficulties. Although he lived his personal life quite dangerously, John paid his taxes, stopped for red lights (after he finally acquired a driver’s license), and enjoyed being an upstanding, if not quiet, resident of the two nations he called home. The bad boy reputation that often followed him was a source of great aggravation and agitation and was simply not deserved. His respect for law enforcement, for instance, is underscored by the generous donations he arranged to provide protective equipment for the New York City Police Department.
Still, there was no question that John Lennon had “edge” written all over him, and it often grated others. As we walked down the steps of the Beatles’ plane at the airport in Minneapolis on August 21, 1965, a print reporter came up to John to ask him a question, her face only inches away from his. I didn’t hear her remark, but I will never forget the response. John slapped her in the face and moved quickly toward the car. Approaching the limo, I asked him, “What was that all about?” Before I could blink, he answered, “None of your f------ business.”
Technically, he was right, but I’ve always had solidarity with my fellow reporters and was especially curious. Slapping a reporter because you don’t like their attitude is not something I would advise or endorse. Later on in the hallway at the Leamington Motor Court in downtown Minneapolis, I chided him again about the slapping episode. He said, “The s--- asked me if I was faithful to my wife.” I replied jokingly, “Instead of slapping her, why didn’t you say ‘no’ and have a laugh over it?” He didn’t answer, but a bit of a smile curled on the edges of his lips, a silent message that he knew he had screwed up. Still, being the year 1965, that particular reporter was light years ahead of her peers in her extremely audacious line of questioning. Lennon’s extreme reaction to her (while unfortunately physical) simply proved that he was willing to dish out more than he would take. And it never mattered who was doing the dishing.
The risk of instant anger always lurked just below John’s surface. And one thing that usually set it off was prying questions — especially those that had to do with fidelity. In the Beatles’ rented mansion in Hollywood on the 1964 tour, John was sitting on a sofa chatting with a young woman during a party following the Hollywood Bowl concert. “Long John” Wade, a popular deejay from Hartford, Connecticut, walked into the room, tape recorder in hand, and casually approached the woman. He pointed the microphone toward her face and said, “And who might you be?” Wade was holding the microphone with an animated gesture, trying to be funny. The recorder happened to be turned off, but Wade’s joking was off limits. Lennon didn’t think it was all that funny, especially since he didn’t know the recorder was off. He sprung out of his seat and punched Wade in the forearm. Wade looked like he was in shock as the microphone detached from the recorder and flew across the room.
“I was stunned,” Wade said. “But what was interesting was how hard John tried in the days ahead to make up for it. He became so accommodating, so friendly.” At one point in the following days, Lennon asked Wade to join him for a drink. “He did everything but come on to me,” Wade says. “He was a tough customer, but he was the real thing. I was scared to death when he struck out at me, but considering my little prank, as I look back, I’m not surprised.”
This pattern of trying to make amends and be loved — after lashing out — was very clear to those around him. May Pang talks repeatedly about John’s drunken fits in Los Angeles, and how sweet and tender he became after realizing just how far he had gone toward the precipice of indecency or even violence. It was a character trait that revealed itself consistently, as if a Jekyll & Hyde existed inside him. Those who only see the negative side of things say that Lennon was an ornery bastard. But, as many insiders attest, very often his lashing out was justified and the remorse intensely sincere. Whether John Lennon was reacting to outside forces or just his own gut, you always got the truth out of him. And sometimes the truth can be an intimidating, powerful force.
Even in the early days as leader of the Quarrymen and Johnny and the Moondogs, Lennon often emitted signals of danger ahead. Pauline Sutcliffe remembers how that element of impending peril made John an unparalleled conductor of live musical electricity:
“I thought he was frightening, overwhelming, interesting. I found him quite magnificently attractive. My brother tried to calm him down, and often did. I knew he could be explicit and rude. I never wanted to be at the end of his acidity, but that also made him so electrifying. I used to marvel at my brother who handled that and still loved him.”
Upon my arrival at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco, the 1964 tour’s first stop, I was stunned by my initial encounter with John. I had met and interviewed him and the Beatles back in February of that year, and was looking forward to reconnecting with the boys even while wondering what was in store. I was stunned, to say the least, by John’s “greeting.” Puffing on a cigarette and looking tired, John publicly chided me about my clothing and general appearance, calling me a “fag ass.” I roared back, “It’s better than looking like a slob like you!” Minutes later, he ran out into the hallway outside the room, spun me around, and rather heartily apologized. In life, there’s something to be said for candor. There is also much to be admired for realizing that you’ve screwed up and doing something about it. Few of the chroniclers of John Lennon’s life have ever given him credit for loving more than hating, for creating more than destroying, and, ultimately, for leaving the world a better place.
Many of John’s professional acquaintances became his good friends. He was especially tight with Mick Jagger and Elton John. Beatles historian Denny Somach suggests that friends like Elton were willing to put up with John’s emotional roller coaster because they respected him as a loyal friend, and they were captivated by his personality and presence:
“Actually the best description of John Lennon was given to me by Elton John. He said, ‘John Lennon was my friend — my best friend in the world. He was the greatest, but he could be an a--hole at times.’ And that’s how he described him. Nice guy, nicest guy, but he had his moments when he could be a problem.”
More than anything, Lennon saw humor in people and enjoyed chiding and cajoling the people he met and worked with. Vince Calandra, a young producer for “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, remembers an encounter with John in Miami Beach:
“I just know that he had a real dry sense of humor. I didn’t find him abrasive or anything. In fact, when they went to Miami, right in the middle of the press conference, he started ragging on me with Ringo, you know, like ‘Here’s the boob from “The Ed Sullivan Show” following us around,’ [as if to say] get him arrested or something. It was a funny, funny remark. I mean, that was his sense of humor. It was warm and it was fun.”
Lennon also had an uncanny ability to inject humor into sticky situations, especially those that he created. In the party following the Hollywood Bowl concert in ’64, we were chatting with a woman from Capitol records when he suddenly blurted out, “Tell me, can you give me a blow job?” As I blushed in horror, the woman responded, “Are you kidding! No way!” John replied, “Well perhaps you can get me a referral?” The three of us laughed, if a little uncomfortably. John ended the conversation by saying, “Mind you, only kidding, ya’ know.” Kidding or not, he knew that thinking out loud could get him into trouble, but he also knew that he could always manage to bring prickly situations to a comfortable close.
Nowhere can the caring side of John Lennon be documented more accurately than in his relationship with Malcolm Evans, the very tall and bespectacled man who became a regular as a road manager, along with Neil Aspinall, on the Beatles’ tours. Evans had a magnetic personality and was a favorite with reporters and the women who tagged along. His smile and charm could be deceptive; he would have done anything to protect the Beatles. At one point on the touring aircraft, while traveling from Jacksonville to Boston in 1964, a tired Mal Evans sat next to me in the rear of the aircraft with tears trickling down his face. I asked, “What’s the matter?” Mal answered, “John got kind of cross with me ... just said I should go f--- off. No reason, ya’ know. But I love the man. John is a powerful force. Sometimes he’s rough, if you know what I mean, man. But there’s no greater person that I know.” I never learned what the dispute was about, but I do know that a few minutes later, a sullen Lennon walked by and embraced Evans.
In February 1965, while in Nassau, Bahamas, for the filming of the Beatles’ feature film “Help!,” Evans asked me to join him for a few drinks in town. There, Evans would introduce me to the facts behind a Lennon myth that has persisted to this day.
Did Lennon have a homosexual affair?
The greatest myth and mystery in Lennon’s legacy is whether he had same-sex encounters — particularly with Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Many fans, authors, and screenwriters — amateur sleuths all — believe they know what really happened. But in my estimation, if it were indeed valid, John Lennon, with his determined desire to be blunt and honest at all costs, would have come out years ago.
If you fast forward the tape on John Lennon’s life, this story surfaces to the world at large shortly after his death, but it was leaked early and often by those on the musical scene in Liverpool.
First of all, some background. Malcolm Evans would have stood in front of a freight train to protect John Lennon’s life, so it will come as no surprise that the lanky Mal was enraged at the accusations that were flying in 1965. It all began with a vacation.
Several weeks after the birth of his son Julian, Lennon took off with Beatles manager and impresario Brian Epstein on a twelve-day vacation to Spain. The pair left on April 28, 1963, for a simple retreat filled with sun and rest. The holiday, however, quickly brought about whispers and innuendo that continue into this century. The question was, and for many still is: Did John Lennon have a gay affair with Brian Epstein?
The whispers were mostly local until John struck out quite famously at the 21st birthday party of Paul McCartney. Bob Wooler, a popular local deejay and Lennon friend, said something to John about the Spanish trip. Lennon, ugly drunk, answered with his fists and pounded Wooler. The episode made the papers, but there was no mention of why John hit him. Instead, Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ careful and wise press secretary, managed to spin the story so there was no mention of any potential homosexual tryst. In the end, John apologized to Wooler and blamed it all on too much drink. Years later, he would say that he made his first big national headlines in Great Britain “when I punched a friend who called me a fag.”
So, what really happened in Spain?
While it is common knowledge today that Brian Epstein was a homosexual, it is important to note that homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom in the mid-sixties. “The love that dare not speak its name” was scorned by most of the world, in fact, and so Epstein was always extremely discreet about his sexual preference. He disclosed his innermost secret to only a few people, and to only one member of the media that I know of, namely, myself.
On a late night during the 1965 tour, Brian invited me to his cottage room at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel. We talked about the Beatles and had some food. Most of his conversation was about his problems with John. He had a sense of losing control of the band and he was clearly worried. Toward the end of the evening, he brought out some wine and said, in a toast, “Here’s to you and me.” With that, he put his hand on mine. And rather abruptly, but kindly, I called it a night.
Rather naïve at the time, I failed to connect my social time with Brian Epstein to the story I had heard about Spain from Mal Evans a few months earlier. In recounting the entire story in Nassau, Evans had complained to me that Lennon was still aggravated by the rumors, and so was he:
“He’s a man, you know, John is, and it’s awful what they were saying about him.”
Mal’s anger, his detailed storytelling of the episode, and Epstein’s hand on mine along with his toast “to you and me,” all finally clicked later that night. So I wondered, like many have for decades, was it true? Did John Lennon and Brian Epstein have physical sexual relations with each other?
It was a question that was on many minds within the Beatles’ circle, and to a lesser degree within the Liverpool music scene. Later, it would be written about by the Lennon biographer, Albert Goldman, in his book “The Lives of John Lennon,” and it was the focus of the screenplay and feature film, “The Hours and Times.” Goldman recklessly stated in his book that John used sex with Brian Epstein to advance his career as the self-proclaimed leader of the Beatles. It was a tawdry assumption, designed most likely to sell books, yet it doesn’t make sense in light of the fact that John was already the band’s unquestioned leader. Furthermore, Lennon’s key power and tool in terms of leverage was his talent. “The Hours and Times” also leads the viewer to believe that Epstein’s famous infatuation with John Lennon may have been requited while in Barcelona. Its portrayal of the four-day interlude is more subtle than Goldman’s take, but it does have Lennon and Epstein practically flirting with each other, while leaving the big question itself unanswered.
But Lennon’s friends and associates have their own views on the matter, based on better primary evidence than either Goldman or the countless other speculators have had access to.
Beatles’ insider Tony Bramwell, there from the beginning in Liverpool with John, dismisses it all angrily, saying, “I don’t think it ever happened. I think it is furious, pure bulls---.” Bramwell, who worked for Epstein and called him “Eppy,” explains it this way:
“Brian was close to all of us. He never came on to any of us. He was a very private gay person. Homosexuality was illegal. The terror of being found out was one of his main horrors. Revelation of it would have destroyed everything. It was, after all, a jailing offense.”
Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ extraordinary spin doctor, has his own take on the Spanish getaway.
“No one really knows. John was daring, ever blunt, so determined to be different. I would never say, ‘never.’ But knowing both of them, I would say it never happened. There is no question that Brian was attracted to John in a sexual way; Brian was a sensitive man. His cheeks would go purple when Lennon was tough with him, and John could be gruff. He was stand-offish quite a lot, which was John’s way of saying, ‘I’m not gay, you can’t love me, but you can be my best friend.’ But remember, there was pressure. John was the reason that Brian Epstein got involved with the Beatles in the first place. Brian had a strong bond with him, but he also knew that his homosexuality itself could shatter the Beatles. He may have wanted John, but as far as I know, it only happened in his dreams.”
The timing of the trip was a source of family anguish. Lennon had decided to go to Spain shortly after the birth of Julian. Instead of staying home with the newborn, he elected to take a vacation.
For some, the question of whether or not John Lennon and Brian Epstein had sexual relations on the trip to Spain begins with the question of why they even went on holiday together in the first place. Tony Barrow explains the reason for the trip in terms of timing and other circumstances in John’s life:
“In those days, if your girlfriend got pregnant, it was quite simple — you got married. [John] wasn’t happy about the baby, although I knew he began months later to really love Julian. But the fact that he had to marry was disturbing to him. His decision to go to Spain, although very selfish, was a ‘f--- you’ to all the things that were happening to him. It’s kind of ironic because months later at a West End pub called the Speakeasy, we were chatting after a recording session. Both of us sensitively talked about our infant children, and how good it felt to be fathers. John loved Julian, but he didn’t love the circumstances surrounding his birth.”
May Pang, who saw all sides of John Lennon, dismisses the speculation surrounding John and Brian as nothing but revisionist history:
“The likelihood of John having an affair with Brian Epstein is absurd, and actually impossible. Even when Phil Spector once tied up and threatened male sex against him, John was terrified.”
One thing is certain: if John were alive today, surely he would relish the debate and do his best to leave us guessing, as he tried to do in a 1973 interview:
“I went on holiday to Spain with Brian — which started all the rumors that he and I were having a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated. But we did have a pretty intense relationship. And it was my first experience with someone I knew was a homosexual. He admitted it to me. We had this holiday together because Cyn was pregnant and we left her with the baby ... lots of funny stories, you know. We used to sit in cafes and Brian would look at all the boys and I would ask, ‘Do you like that one? Do you like this one?’ It was just the combination of our closeness and the trip that started the rumors.”
Cynics who fan the flames of rumor would say that of course Lennon would deny the gossip. But the ultimate truth is in the single revelation that Brian Epstein himself offered to me the night after our uncomfortable encounter in his cottage room. The Beatles were performing that night at Balboa Park in San Diego. I walked up to Brian as he stood outside the makeshift dressing room. His face turned beet red, but I broke the ice by saying, “Thanks for the time last night. I really enjoyed it.” Awkward moments are never a pleasure, but in an effort to show my support, I whispered to him, “Did all that talk about the Spanish trip upset you?” He responded, “Larry, I love John, but nothing (pause) nothing happened. It was simply an impossibility.” I may have been the first and only reporter ever to pose that question to Brian Epstein.
If I knew at the time what a fable would develop from the trip to Spain, I would have pursued the story more aggressively. But in the journalism of the sixties, such talk or even the suggestion of it, was off-limits. And besides, Epstein’s brief characterization of the trip couldn’t have been more emphatic, or sincere. Meanwhile, the story of the Spanish trip would not surface in the general public for years. In retrospect, Brian Epstein’s answer to my question — which I have never reported until now — provides all the truth anyone needs to know.
Excerpted with permission from “Lennon Revealed” by Larry Kane (Running Press, 2007).