Friday, April 3, 2015

R.I.P. Cynthia Lennon (1939-2015), The Original Beatlemaniac


Cyn in 1964
Before there were millions of screaming fans worldwide clamoring for more of the Beatles, there was Cynthia Powell of Liverpool, who died April 1st  of cancer at age 75. She deserves a place in history as one of the first to see something extremely unique in John Lennon, and went out of her way to become exactly the kind of girl he wanted (he had a mad crush on the blonde Brigitte Bardot). It worked because he fell for her. It didn’t work because she acceded to his every whim and desire for approximately the next decade. She’s overlooked in the John Lennon mythology because John’s second wife is in charge of that stuff, and Cynthia was the first wife as well as the mother of Julian, who’s just like his father because of his father.

It’s beyond simple to classify John and Cyn’s relationship as “early Mad Men marriage,” but that’s the only way to accurately describe the pair in less than six thousand words. It was more like Pete and Trudy than Don and Betty. Betty had aspirations of her own, Trudy had none. Like Trudy, Cynthia overlooked the womanizing in hopes of providing a domestic life that John and Pete never had growing up- and also never really wanted. Although nominally exclusive since just after high school, John never acted that way while the band was out in Germany or on the road in Great Britain and Cyn (John’s nickname for her) was back at home in Liverpool living in a bedsit, which is exactly as charming as it sounds.

Almost at the same time the Beatles finally got a record deal with George Martin and Parlophone Records in the summer of 1962, Cyn found herself expecting a child. At the time, everybody involved in the Beatles- from John and Paul to manager Brian Epstein to producer Martin- thought the worst thing that could happen to the most popular band in Liverpool was their leader becoming a husband and father. The image of the Beatles was, and still remains, four independent lads who are free to change the world without worry. For one to be re-classified as a tied-down normal human was, in their minds, disastrous.

It is hard to fathom such a mind-set today in this internet world of sex tapes and paparazzi capturing images of children of famous people every chance they get. But that was the entertainment world of not just 1962 Britain, but 1962 everywhere. Wives and children were hidden from public view at almost all times. They were only helpful in creating staged scenes of domestic bliss or during legal proceedings when it was important to show the celebrity in another light.

So Cynthia was hidden even further from public view. A child being born out of wedlock was unheard of whether it was secret or not, so John and Cyn were married in August of 1962, a few weeks before the band’s first single, “Love Me Do,” was released. The band was eventually asked about Cynthia and John- seeing as how a marriage is kind of public record- and everyone involved denied it. The way Cyn was being treated by him as well as everyone else began to trouble John, finally, and he wrote the song “Do You Want To Know A Secret?” based on the Snow White classic “I’m Wishing,” about his hidden wife and even more hidden unborn child. While Lennon claimed in later interviews that he gave the song for George to sing because of its simplicity, in all likelihood it was to bury the secret even further.

Cynthia and Julian were not revealed to the public until late 1963, well after Beatlemania had enveloped Britain and only after fans found out where she lived- still in Liverpool, while her husband and the rest of the band had decamped to London- and started harassing her. Cyn came on the first tour of America- to the Ed Sullivan show and so on- and John allowed her to be photographed with him, which angered band manager Brian Epstein. She was treated so horribly by fans and band associates she never went on tour again. That summer John bought the large Kenwood estate outside of London and stashed her there more or less permanently. She said many times that after going on the tour, she didn’t mind being tucked away.
Cyn and John at Heathrow Airport, one of the photos that angered Brian Epstein

John’s marriage to Cyn was basically eating him alive by the end of 1964, but it was his own doing by being an absentee husband and father to the nth degree. He receded into food and drugs, and admitted later that the title track to the band’s 1965 film “Help!” is little more than him begging to be rescued from the life he had created and felt responsible for but wanted no part of. (In his solo years, Lennon expressed an intention to re-record the song in a slower tempo to emphasize that. Deep Purple didn't do a bad job of it.) He called 1965 and early 1966 his “fat Elvis period,” where he lay around and felt sorry for himself. Cynthia didn’t help John here, in fact she started taking the same drugs as John just to be part of his life, the same way she completely changed her life to attract him in the first place. It didn’t help.

In late 1966 John met Yoko Ono and we all know what happened after that. Cyn was cast aside once more, but this time for good. She was waking up from that nightmare of a marriage and probably would have left him soon enough, but Yoko hastened the final breakup. For all everybody complains about Yoko, peace-activist John and political-activist John is a direct result of his relationship with Yoko, not Cyn. Cyn was content for the most part to be whatever John wanted her to be, not to challenge his world and personal views. Yoko did that.

Cyn gets the short end of the stick in the Beatles mythology, just like Ringo’s first wife Maureen (who died in 1994 of leukemia). She devoted her energy to raising Julian and trying to find herself. John treated Julian poorly the remainder of his life, a likely result of John regretting his own actions when Julian was a small boy. They were only starting to forge an adult friendship when John was killed in December 1980.

Most people probably don’t even know that John even had a first wife because of Yoko. Most people also probably don’t know Julian is John’s oldest son, and that’s a shame. Cyn was an important part of John’s early Beatle years, and his failure at being a father to Julian resulted in John quitting the music business for five years to raise Sean in the mid-1970’s.

Cynthia was a believer in John when few people were. She was the first Beatlemaniac, and for putting up with everything she put up with, she deserves better than to be an afterthought in the legend of the Beatles. It’s better that she’s getting some recognition now than not at all. Do you want to know a secret? Cynthia remained one most of her life.

Condolences to Julian and Cynthia's family and friends, who knew the secret Cyn and loved her all the more for it.


John Lennon's two wives and two sons

photos courtesy: beatlesthroughtheyears.com, flickr.com (but really Dezo Hoffman), showbiz411.com (but really Bob Gruen)