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John Lennon would be 80: Here's what his final months were like

Lennon's legacy of music is well known, but less chronicled is the living he packed into his final year.
/ Source: TODAY

John Lennon couldn't have known he'd only live to be 40 years old. And had he not been shot outside his home — New York City's famous Dakota Apartments — on Dec. 8, 1980, he might've lived to see his 80th birthday this year, on Oct. 9.

John Lennon
John Lennon, seen here on the day of his assassination, in December 1980. AP

Lennon's years with the Beatles, solo career and assassination have been discussed repeatedly, but Beatles scholar and author Kenneth Womack has now examined what the musician's life was like in those final months in his new book, "John Lennon 1980: The Last Days In the Life." He spoke with TODAY about Lennon's time in Bermuda, how he found fulfillment as a sailor — and inspiration from, of all things, a TV movie. Here are five things you might not already know about the man, the myth ... and his "Moldy" poems:

The Megan Jaye, which Lennon helped sail to Bermuda.
The Megan Jaye, which Lennon helped sail to Bermuda.Courtesy Brian San Souci

Late in life, Lennon took to the sea.

After learning how to sail at his home in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, Lennon decided to become a member of the crew on a charter boat called the Megan Jaye, which sailed from Newport, Rhode Island to Bermuda in June 1980.

"There was a massive storm and John took the wheel for a while when everyone else had seasickness, and he said it was the most exciting, self-affirming moment of his life," says Womack.

Lennon Ono
Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono at his 10th birthday celebration in New York City in 1985. He shares the same birthday as his late father: October 9. David Brookstaver / AP

Lennon commissioned a painting of himself with his son Sean.

While in Bermuda, Lennon admired paintings by American artist Nancy Gosnell, which hung in a home he was renting. He asked her to paint a portrait of Sean, then 4, and himself as a present for Yoko. The pair showed up in shorts and T-shirts, sat on the rug in the living room and she painted the scene as is. Back in New York, the painting hung in Lennon and Ono's Dakota apartment, right above the piano.

Ono and Lennon entering New York City's Hit Factory in August 1980, where he would record songs for "Double Fantasy."
Ono and Lennon entering New York City's Hit Factory in August 1980, where he would record songs for "Double Fantasy."Courtesy Roger Farrington

Lennon came up with the title to a song from a TV movie.

Also while in Bermuda, Lennon watched a TV movie called "A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story" starring Gwyneth Paltrow's mom, Blythe Danner. In the film, Danner's Eleanor receives a letter from her husband that quotes Robert Browning's 1864 "Rabi ben Ezra" poem: "Grow old along with me."

Meanwhile, his wife Yoko Ono woke up one morning with the music to a song, "Let Me Count the Ways" in her head, and called her husband to play it for him. That song was inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 1845 sonnet "How Do I Love Thee?" The two came together to become "Grow Old With Me," one of Lennon's final songs, which appeared on the posthumous album "Milk and Honey."

"So much literature has suggested that John and Yoko lived these bifurcated lives, but she really rooted hard for him — worked to get him in the studio. He had a lot of fear over that," says Womack.

A layout of some of the apartments owned by Lennon and Ono in the Dakota.
A layout of some of the apartments owned by Lennon and Ono in the Dakota.Courtesy Scott Cardinal

Lennon and Ono ultimately owned multiple apartments in the Dakota.

"Dirty Dozen" actor Robert Ryan, who appeared in movies and TV series from 1945 to his death in 1973, subleased his apartment in the Dakota to the Lennons. After his death, they wanted to buy the place, but the musicians were not initially welcomed as permanent residents.

"Ryan and his family were considered 'family types,' but having the Lennons as tenants wasn't something the co-op board was thrilled with," says Womack.

Fortunately, the Lennons eventually won the board over, and went on to buy more property in the building. Their primary residence was in Nos. 72 and 71 (and included a super-kitchen above the courtyard), plus a first-floor suite for office space, No. 9 for storage space, No. 4 for Helen Seaman (Sean's nanny) and her husband Norman, and No. 911, for storage. But first, they had to have a séance.

"They had to see if the apartment had good supernatural karma," says Womack. "Yoko called Ryan's daughter Lisa afterward to let her know her (late) mother was doing fine."

Dakota apartment building
After Lennon's death, the American flag flying at the Dakota was lowered to half-mast. David Brookstaver / AP

Lennon's neighbors included Lauren Bacall and Leonard Bernstein.

Bacall never had a problem with Lennon, but loathed that his fans lingered outside the building — and reportedly she'd go out and bark at the fans to find someplace else to hang out.

Meanwhile, Bernstein was a longtime fan of Lennon's, and during the annual building potluck (John and Yoko brought sushi) the conductor/composer and his daughter took a poem from one of John's books ("The Moldy Moldy Man") and turned it into a singing round that they sang for him.

"John Lennon 1980: The Last Days In the Life"
"John Lennon 1980: The Last Days In the Life"

So what would Lennon be doing today, if he'd lived? Womack speculates he'd be doing a lot of reading. "Probably his single greatest pleasure was reading ... and he would be very engaged with politics," he says. "Hopefully he would be enjoying a splendid retirement. He and Yoko had this dream where one day, when their travels and adventures were done they'd buy a seaside place in England and get postcards from Sean, all about his adventures."

"John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life" is now available in bookstores and online.