REMEMBERING JOHN: CYNTHIA LENNON INTERVIEW
FIRST PUBLISHED: Uncut Legends, December 2005
By Chris Hunt
After meeting John Lennon at art school and falling in love, Cynthia Powell became Cynthia Lennon on 23 August 1963, having fallen pregnant with the couple’s only child, Julian. A secret from the fans through the early days of Beatlemania, the press soon discovered the only ‘Beatle wife’ and Cynthia became a newspaper story in her own right.
Claiming that her relationship was on the rocks from the point that John took to cannabis and LSD, for a short while Cynthia tried to fit in with John’s changing lifestyle, but as John’s drug intake increased, Cynthia became more estranged from her husband and his circle of friends.
In May 1968, returning home from a holiday in Greece with Pattie Boyd’s sister and John’s friend ‘Magic Alex’ Mardas, Cynthia discovered her husband with Japanese artist Yoko Ono. After a brief reconciliation, the couple divorced on 6 December 1968, Cynthia retaining custody of Julian.
In July 1970 Cynthia married Italian restaurateur Roberto Bassanini, but the relationship was short-lived and she later married John Twist, but this came to an end shortly after the death of her famous first husband. With the relatively small financial settlement that she’d received from John running out, Cynthia embarked on a series of careers, including bed-linen designer and television presenter. To raise money she sold most of her letters and memorabilia from her time with John at auction in 1991. Today she lives in Spain with her fourth husband Noel Charles. Her biography ‘John’ was published earlier this year.
When did you first meet John Lennon?
“I saw him around college frequently and he was a scruffy teddy boy, but what fascinated me was that he was always surrounded by crowds of people who were laughing. He kept them all laughing – he joked and he was grotesque, but he was a clown. I was just an onlooker until he came into the same class, that’s where we came into close quarters. He was changing at that point. He’d got rid of most of his teddy boy outfits and was trying to blend into the arty style, the bohemian style of dress.”
What made him special?
“It was his charisma. Even though he didn’t fit into any kind of pattern in terms of college, I think if he’d done anything in that college he would have succeeded if he put his mind to it. But music was his greatest love and that’s what ended up in his life.”
John could be a man of tempers. He even went as far as striking you.
“That was in our college days. John was very insecure. He was very raw inside and full of pain, emotional pain. I think he really relied on me, and he kept testing me to make sure I was constant and that I wouldn’t do anything to hurt or harm him. On one particular occasion I was dancing with our mutual friend Stuart [Sutcliffe] and he happened to walk in and see it and of course got the wrong idea. The following day, in a blind fury, he just smacked me across the face and I hit my head on the pipe that was running down the wall. I walked away. It could have been the end of the relationship if he hadn’t phoned me, but he was the one who came back to me. And I just couldn’t resist.”
John was brought-up by his Aunt Mimi, but you were never able to establish a close relationship with her.
“Aunt Mimi was not a very easy lady. She came from a family of very tough and strong-charactered women. Most of their husbands were very weak and they did as they were told. Mimi was a bit of a harridan. She wasn’t a very warm lady and she even admitted, just before she died, that she’d been a very wicked woman. That spoke volumes. She just couldn’t show her emotions because she didn’t have a great deal of warmth in her.”
Did she manage to warm to Julian during the course of his life?
“Oh, I think for about five minutes, yes. When we bought her the house down in Poole [in 1965], we went to visit and she was all over him then, but apart from that there was no contact. She wasn’t a doting surrogate grandmother or anything like that.”
In May 1968 you returned home to be surprised by finding John and Yoko together, but Yoko has said recently that your house staff had already made you aware of their relationship.
“Absolute rubbish, I had no idea whatsoever. I can’t answer any more than that, because I had no idea that there was any kind of relationship going on. I thought that there might have been some kind of artistic connection, but not in any way an emotional relationship or an affair. My staff didn’t tell me anything. I had a housekeeper and all she did was tell me that Yoko would come to the house and leave things behind for John. That didn’t mean anything to me because there were lots of fans who came to the house.”
You briefly reconciled with John, but while in Italy ‘Magic Alex’ arrived to inform you that your marriage was over and that in the event of divorce proceedings, he would claim to have slept with you.
“It was almost collusion between ‘Magic Alex’ and John and Yoko. They thought that I was going to be so frightened by the whole thing, but I knew that it hadn’t happened and I wasn’t guilty.”
It was also suggested that you were having an affair with Roberto Bassanini, who later became your second husband.
“I was in Italy with my mother, my aunt, uncle and Julian, so there was no way that would have happened. I have a feeling that there was a private detective around. The mere fact that ‘Magic Alex’ arrived in Italy in the middle of the night without any prior knowledge of where I was staying made me extremely suspicious. He was bringing a message that John was going to divorce me and take Julian away and send me back to Liverpool. The whole thing was just so surreal and bizarre. And then of course the following day in the newspapers there’s the photo of John and Yoko. At that point everything fitted together in my mind… I was being coerced into making it easy for John and Yoko to accuse me of doing something that would make them look not so bad.”
While John had started a new relationship, he was intent on claiming that you were the adulterer.
“When your back is to the wall, the best form of defence is attack. He had come out to the world that he had left his wife and family and he was now with ‘Japanese Bottoms artist Yoko Ono’. Love is blind sometimes. You do these things and don’t realize the consequences. I honestly don’t think he felt that he would get the backlash that he did.
“They were bizarre times and it was hard to understand what was happening. I knew something terrible was going on but I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was only when all these other things came about that I became aware that I was being set-up.”
Towards the end of the marriage John confessed he had slept with hundreds of women…
“No, he didn’t say that he’d slept with hundreds, he said he’d had affairs and that he’d slept with women, not hundreds. I wasn’t that stupid, not to know that when the boys were on the road anything could happen.”
Have you subsequently discussed this with any other Beatle or with a member of their entourage?
“Their roadie Mal Evans was a good friend. I met him in LA and asked him then. He would say ‘I’m not going to give any details, but it happened all the time, all pop stars did it’. They’d need women – he’d go out, find the good-looking ones, and bring them up. That was the way it happened.”
After your separation, Paul McCartney was the only Beatles to visit you. Is he someone you’re still in touch with?
“I haven’t seen him for ages, but I have spoken to him on the phone and I’ve had postcards from him. It doesn’t matter because that kind gesture to me at that time, and the fact that he actually wrote The Beatles anthem, ‘Hey Jude’, speaks volumes to me. It touches me because there was one person who really felt strongly enough to write about it, to actually care, and to care about me at the same time. If I never spoke to Paul again, that will be very precious to me and I’ll never forget it.”
The biggest irony is that John thought “Hey Jude” was Paul’s nod of approval to his relationship with Yoko.
“Yes, I know. It probably made Paul chuckle too, as they weren’t getting on at that time. It’s very touching when ‘Hey Jude’ is sung at the end of any concert – everybody knows the words and they all sing it with their arms in the air. That makes me think there is a little bit of justice in this world.”
You never managed to establish a relationship with Yoko, but you became friendly with May Pang. What do you think each of them offered John?
“Well I can’t compare. I don’t know what Yoko offered John – only John could answer that question. But I did meet May frequently. I met her the first time I took Julian to see his father after he had split with Yoko. She was a very young girl and she was so kind and so lovely to Julian – she was completely the opposite. She embraced him and she talked to John about his responsibilities. She was only 23 at the time and I’ve never forgotten that. I see her each time I go to New York. I’ve a really soft spot for May and you can communicate with her – I’ve never ever been able to communicate with Yoko, on any level.”
Have you tried to get on with Yoko over the years?
“Yes, I have. And there’s a certain point when you stop hitting your head against a brick wall. The reason I did it was that there are two boys there, Sean and Julian. They’re half-brothers, they have the same father – they should be best buddies, they could really be helping each other, working with each other and enjoying each other’s company, but that wasn’t to be.”
Does Julian still have a relationship with Sean?
“I think the last time that they saw each other was when they both had their albums out at the same time . Sean was in Japan and Julian went to see his show. That’s the last time they spoke.
How have you and Julian coped living with the Lennon legend, and how do you reconcile it with the man you knew?
“I knew the man up until our divorce – after that I didn’t know the man, but it didn’t stop me caring about him and worrying because of the complete change that I saw in him. He’d lost his sense of humour and he got aggressive; he wasn’t for the world any more, he was just for Yoko. Before that he opened his arms and embraced the world with his wit and humour – afterwards he was a completely different kind of person.”
If you ever show any bitterness, it’s seems to be largely on behalf of Julian.
“Well, it’s mothers and their children, they die for them. When you see your child in pain and having nightmares, you see all the sadness of betrayal and rejection – that is really hard to live with because there’s not a thing you can do about it. You have to double up on your own love, but nothing compares with having a father AND a mother, they are two different aspects of caring for a child. Half of that had gone and Julian missed it. And I missed the fact that John couldn’t advise his son or talk to him, because it would have made the path so much smoother for everybody.”
Do you think time could have ever healed Julian’s relationship with John?
“I always lived in hope that they could get together and have fun, that they could go out for a pint together, have conversations about music together. That all went out of the window. It WAS on course for that to happen, but then a bullet cut the whole thing short.”
What is your favourite John Lennon song?
“There were so many but let me say ‘Woman’. I just thought it was so beautiful – the overall sentiment about women. I know it’s said that it was written for Yoko, but I always felt it was written for all the women in his life, a little bit like ‘In My Life’, looking back in retrospect. It was such a gentle, beautiful love song, and that’s how I’d rather remember him than for his battling political songs or for all the anger that came out. I just felt that at the end he was mellowing and softening.”
What is your favourite memory of John?
“There are quite a few but probably when we were at college and he sang ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ to me. Did my heart melt? Yes, and I walked out in embarrassment. It was so beautifully done. That always sticks with me.”
Do you have a favourite keepsake of your time with John?
“I’ve kept one thing and that’s a jade ring that he brought back from Japan for me. I’ve had to sell things but there’s no good looking back and regretting it – I needed to pay the bills. When most people need some money they have a car boot sale… well, I had a very expensive car boot sale.”
Your recent autobiography was very candid, but you didn’t mention “Norwegian Wood”, the song infamous as John’s attempt to write about an affair.
“Well I don’t remember who it was about [laughs]… and if I do, I don’t want to mention the name, because there are certain people who I really don’t want to mention.”
Does “Imagine” mean as much to you as it does to other people?
“No, that was John The Dreamer. I always believe you practice what you preach, that’s my philosophy in life and in my eyes John wasn’t doing that.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007