Many have viewed Cynthia Lennon as the clueless girl who met a pre-Beatles John Lennon when she was 18, and snared him into marriage when she became pregnant with their son, Julian.
In her new book, "John," Cynthia Lennon tells a much different story, painting the picture of a young couple madly in love until drugs, fame and the spell of a formerly unknown artist named Yoko Ono tore them apart.
"I have read so many books and seen so many films, and it's like we don't really exist. We are like walk-on parts in his life," Cynthia Lennon told "Good Morning America." "We did spend 10 years together."
Cynthia and John met in an art class in Liverpool in the 1950s. At first, Cynthia dismissed the would-be Beatle as not her type. That soon changed.
"You couldn't resist being around him," Cynthia Lennon said. "You couldn't resist watching what he was up to. I mean, he was a total rebel. Everybody was amazed by him."
Cynthia and John were married in 1962, but their relationship was sometimes rocky. On one occasion, she claims her husband struck her.
"He was a very jealous young man at the time, and he had a lot of pain inside," Cynthia Lennon said. "He wanted to trust me and he thought by seeing me dancing with a friend of his that I was being disloyal or messing around. So he smacked me, but that was the only time."
This is Cynthia Lennon's second book. In the late 1970s, she published "A Twist of Lennon," which told much of the story of their marriage from 1962 to 1969. In "John," Cynthia fleshes out the details of John's relationship with Julian after the Lennons' divorce, as well as Julian's story after John was slain on Dec. 8, 1980, in New York. John Lennon would have been 65 on Sunday.
"Near the end, before his tragic death, of course, they (John and Julian) were getting close on the phone; they were connecting," Cynthia Lennon said. "It was just coming back and it was wonderful. Then, of course, his life was cut very short."
You can read about Cynthia and John's first meeting at an art school in Liverpool in the excerpt from "John" below.
The late fifties was a wonderful time to be young and setting out in the world. The grim days of the war and postwar deprivation were over; national service had been lifted and teenagers were allowed to be youthful and unafraid. It was as though the gray austerity of the forties had been replaced by a brilliant spectrum of opportunities and possibilities. Britain was celebrating survival and freedom, and the time was ripe for dreams, hopes and creativity.
I started at Liverpool College of Art in September 1957. I had just turned eighteen and could hardly believe my luck. A year earlier my father had died, after a painful battle with lung cancer. My two older brothers had left home, and my mother and I had little money. Before he died Dad, who was desperately worried about providing for us, told me that I wouldn't be able to go to college: I'd have to get a job and help Mum. I promised I would, but it was hard to accept that my college hopes were at an end. Mum said nothing at the time, but she knew how much college meant to me, and after Dad's death she said, "You go to college, love. We'll manage somehow." She took in lodgers to make ends meet: she crammed four beds into the master bedroom for four working lads, young apprentice electricians who were happy to share. From then on home was more like a boarding-house – there were always queues for the bathroom and I had to get up at dawn if I wanted to be first in, but I was hugely grateful to Mum and determined not to let her down.
When I got into art college, I set out to be a model student. I turned up promptly every day, neat in my best twin sets and tweed skirts with my pencils sharpened, ready to be the hardest-working girl in the place. My dream was to be an art teacher. Art was the only subject I'd ever liked at school and I was thrilled when, at the age of twelve, I got into the junior art school, which was down the street from the art college. It was there that I became best friends with a girl called Phyllis McKenzie. We planned to go on to college together, but Phyl's father refused to let her go and insisted she get a job. She had to settle for evening classes in life drawing, after spending the day working as a commercial artist for a local corn merchant.
A couple of other girls from the junior art school, Ann Mason and Helen Anderson, started college with me. We were thrilled to be there, and in awe of the older students, many of whom wore the kind of bohemian, beatnik clothes we considered incredibly daring and could only stare at with a mixture of envy and admiration.
Most of us starting college then had been born just before or during the war – in my case a week after war was declared. My mother, with a group of other pregnant women, had been sent to the relative safety of Blackpool, where she gave birth in a tiny cell of a room in a bed-and-breakfast on the seafront on September 10, 1939. It was a nightmare birth: she was left alone, in labor, for a day and a night, and when the midwife finally got to her it was clear that, without immediate help, neither my mother nor I was going to make it. The midwife locked the door, swore my mother to secrecy and dragged me into the world by my hair, ears and any other part of me she could get hold of. My father, who had arrived hours earlier and burst into tears at the sight of my exhausted, terrified mother, had been sent for a walk. He returned to find that his wife had survived and he had a daughter.
My parents both came from Liverpool, but at the outbreak of war they decided to leave the city for the relative safety of the Wirral, across the Mersey in Cheshire. They moved with me and my brothers – Charles, then eleven, and Tony, eight – to a two-bedroom semi-detached house in a small seaside village called Hoylake. My father worked for GEC, selling electrical appliances to shops, and had to travel into the city each day to make his rounds, but at home we were away from the worst of the relentless bombing that ravaged so much of Liverpool. When the bombers flew overhead my mother would scoop us into the cupboard under the stairs, where the force of the explosions jolted us off our seats.
I grew up with rationing as a way of life. Like all the other families around us, we dug for Britain, with an allotment where we grew our vegetables and a little hen coop in the back garden. As in so many households in those days, the boys generally took precedence over the girls. When my brothers got bacon, I got the rind, and when they got scraps of meat from a bone, I got the bone to chew. It was my job to clean their shoes and help my mother look after them and Dad. I was a quiet, timid child and I accepted my role in the house, as the youngest and the only girl, without question.
Rationing went on for some years after the war, so for most of my childhood scarcity was normal. I used to shop for two old ladies in our street and in return one gave me her sweets coupons and the other gave me old clothes that had belonged to her children. Both the clothes and the sweets were rare treats. My brother Charles left when he was sixteen and I was five, so I have few memories of him living at home. He went to work for GEC, first in Birmingham, then London. He was a wonderful pianist – the whole street used to listen to him.
I was closer to Tony, and when he was called up for national service in 1950, at the age of eighteen, I missed him dreadfully. After the army he joined the police to please his girlfriend, who wanted the accommodation that went with the job. He hated being a policeman and was relieved when she left him and he could resign.
By the time I was ten it was just my parents and me at home. They were opposites in many ways, but they loved each other and I never heard them argue. My father, also Charles, was easy-going, kind, robust and jolly. I remember him losing his temper with me only once, when I came home from school and used a swear word. I adored him and after I got into the junior art school I traveled into Liverpool on the train with him in the mornings and evenings. He used to carry a bag of sweets for his customers, and he'd slip me a couple on the way home.
My mother, Lilian, was unusual for her day: she had no interest in housework and cleaned our home about once a month – the rest of the time it gathered dust. But Mum had a strong artistic streak: she always had a vase of flowers in the window, which she took pleasure in arranging, and she knitted fantastic Fair Isle sweaters. Her real passion, though, was the auction rooms to which she would head every Monday to spot the latest bargains.
On Monday evenings Dad and I would arrive home to find the front room changed. There might be a new sofa, carpet, curtains, table or even all of them, the old ones already dispatched to the same sale rooms. We didn't mind: it was always fun to see what she'd done and, most important, it made Mum happy.
When Dad became ill, at the age of fifty-six, everything changed. Like so many others in those days, he smoked untipped cigarettes, unaware of the damage it was doing to him. When he developed lung cancer he went downhill rapidly: his solid frame wasted away and his breathing was labored. Before long all he could do was sit in his chair in the bedroom, where I would sit with him after school each day. After his death only Mum and I were left, grieving for him and wondering how we would manage. Art college gave me a new focus, something to be excited about, to work for, and to take me out of our quiet little house of mourning into the world.
Watching the older, more confident kids at college, I longed to be like them. I envied their casual, arty style and their long hair. I had arrived with my short mousy hair in a neat perm, courtesy of my mother's friend who was a hairdresser. The trouble was, most of her clientele were over fifty and she made me look middle-aged and dowdy. Every few weeks she would experiment, giving me a different style, but they were all ghastly. And, to make things worse, I wore glasses. I'd arrived at college thrilled to be rid of my school uniform and pleased with my smart new clothes. But I soon felt frumpy and dull, with my matronly hair and conventional outfits. I longed to be more daring, but in those early days I didn't have the courage.
To add to my problems I was saddled with the "over the water" posh image that Scousers had of anyone who lived across the Mersey. I spoke differently, and to them this meant I was stuck-up, even though many of them were better off than I was. My shyness didn't help: it made me seem aloof, when most of the time I was going through agonies, trying to think of the right thing to say. I was hopeless at sparkling conversation and witty repartee, and watched enviously as others bantered while I remained tongue-tied. But despite the drawbacks I loved college. It gave me a sense of independence and freedom I had never experienced before.
During my first year I was seeing a boyfriend I'd met while I was still at school. Barry was a bit of a catch: he was the son of a window cleaner but he looked Spanish and exotic, and he was the Romeo of Hoylake. I was the envy of the local girls when he asked me out. He'd seen me in my white duffel coat, walking my dog Chummy on the beach, and one day he followed me and asked me to the pictures. I was just seventeen and he was five years older. Flattered, I said yes.
By the time we'd been together for a year I was starting college and we were thinking of getting engaged. Barry was working for his dad and saving in the building society for our future. One day he persuaded me to make love with him on the sofa in my parents' front room when Mum was out. It took him hours to talk me into it, promising we'd get married and telling me how much he loved me, but when I finally agreed I didn't think much of it: over in a flash and no fun. I went on seeing Barry, but I made sure we never got the chance to be alone in the house again. One day he announced that he'd fallen for a red-haired girl who lived up the road, and I was heartbroken. It was the first betrayal I had experienced and I vowed I'd never forgive him. But, a few months later, when he begged me to go back to him, swearing he'd made a mistake and I was his true love, I relented.
Two-thirds of the way through my foundation year Phyl arrived at college. She had won a grant, and had finally persuaded her father to let her attend full-time. We were both delighted and in between classes we hung around together most of the time. At the end of that year we had to choose which areas we wanted to specialize in. I went for graphics, but I also signed up for a twice-weekly class in lettering. Phyl decided on painting and lettering, and we were glad of the chance to do a class together.
I arrived for my second year in college just as keen as I had been in the first, but I'd softened my appearance a little. I'd plucked up the courage to say no to Mum's hairdresser friend and was growing my hair. I'd acquired some rather hip black velvet pants to replace the tweed skirts, and I'd begun to ditch my glasses as often as I could. I could hardly see without them – I'm very short-sighted – so this caused me all kinds of problems: I'd frequently get off the bus at the wrong stop or misread notices in college – but I didn't care. I hated my glasses so much that it was worth the odd hiccup. I only put them on when I was working in class, because without them I couldn't see the board or even what I was drawing on the paper in front of me.
We had all taken our seats for the first lettering class when a teddy-boy slouched into the room, hands stuffed deep into his coat pockets, looking bored and a shade defiant. He sat at an empty desk behind me, tapped me on the back, twisted his face into a ludicrous grimace and said, "Hi, I'm John." I couldn't help smiling. "Cynthia," I whispered, as the teacher, who had begun to talk, frowned at me.
I'd seen John around the college but had never spoken to him, as we moved in completely different circles. I was surprised to see him in the lettering class – he didn't seem the type for the painstaking, detailed work involved. He hadn't even brought any equipment. As soon as we started work he tapped my back again and asked to borrow a pencil and a brush, which I reluctantly handed over. After that he always sat behind me, borrowing whatever he needed from me. Not that he used it much: most of the time he did no work at all. He spent his time fooling around, making everyone in the class laugh.
It turned out that John hadn't chosen to do lettering. He'd been ordered into the class when most of the other teachers had refused to have him. He made it clear he didn't want to be there and did his best to disrupt the class. When he wasn't teasing someone he'd give us a wicked commentary on the teacher, or provoke hoots of laughter with his cruelly funny and uncannily accurate cartoons of teachers, fellow students or of twisted, grimacing, malformed figures.
When I'd first looked at John I'd thought, Yuck, not my type. With his teddy-boy look – DA (duck's arse) haircut, narrow drainpipe trousers and a battered old coat that was too big for him – he was very different from the clean-cut boys I was used to. His outspoken comments and caustic wit were alarming: I was terrified he might turn on me, and he soon did, calling me "Miss Prim" or "Miss Powell" and taking the mickey out of my smart clothes and posh accent.
The first time he did it I rushed out of the room, red-faced, at the end of the class, wishing he'd disappear. But as the weeks went by I began to look forward to seeing him. We never met anywhere but the lettering class, but I found myself hurrying to it, looking out for him. He made me laugh and his manner fascinated me. I had always been in awe of authority, anxious to please and do well, but John was the opposite: he was aggressive, sarcastic and rebellious. He didn't seem to be afraid of anyone, and I envied the way he could laugh about everything and everyone.
A mutual friend told me that his mother had been killed in a car accident at the end of the previous term. I missed my father desperately, so I felt for him. He never mentioned it and neither did anyone else, but the knowledge that he was hiding grief behind the acerbic front made me look at him more closely.
One morning the students in the lettering class were testing each other's eyesight for fun. It turned out that John and I were equally short-sighted; just like me he couldn't see a thing and hated wearing glasses, most of all, ironically, the little round lenses you got on the National Health. Instead he had horn-rimmed black ones, which had cost quite a bit. Laughing about our rotten luck and the blunders we'd made when we couldn't see gave us our first real connection, and after that we often chatted during class.
John usually had a guitar slung across his back when he arrived and he told me he was in a group, the Quarrymen, named after his old school, Quarry Bank High. Sometimes when we were sitting around after class he would get it out and strum the pop tunes of the day, by Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry or Lonnie Donegan. As soon as he began to play I saw a different side of him. It was plain that he loved his music: his face softened and he lost his usually cynical expression.
Halfway through the term I realized I was falling for him and scolded myself. I was being ridiculous: he wasn't at all the type of boy I'd imagined myself with and, in any case, I couldn't see him being interested in me. But that changed one day when everyone else had left the class and I was packing up my things. John was sitting a few feet away with his guitar. He began to play "Ain't She Sweet," a song that was popular at the time and which the Beatles were later to record.
I blushed scarlet, made an excuse, and fled before the end of the song. But I'd seen the look in his eyes, which he'd kept fixed on me as he sang – could it be that John fancied me, too?
I confided in Phyl, who told me he wasn't my type and not to be so daft. She knew John: they lived near each other and traveled together to college on the seventy-two bus. Although she often had to lend him the fare, she liked him – but she didn't think he was for me. She reminded me that I was thinking of getting engaged to Barry … but my plans with Barry were taking a back seat. I saw less and less of him as I continued to moon over John, and the lettering class was the highlight of my week.
One lunchtime I saw John staring at a girl as she walked up the staircase. She was dressed in a tight black skirt and had long blond hair. John whistled. "She looks just like Brigitte Bardot," I heard him say to a friend.
I wasn't about to be outdone. The following Saturday I went out, got the latest Hiltone blond dye and got to work on my hair. On Monday I arrived in college by several shades blonder. I was delighted when John noticed: "Get you, Miss Hoylake!" He laughed, but I could see he liked it.
One afternoon all the intermediate students were asked to be in the lecture theater for a discussion. John was a few seats away from me, and my friend Helen Anderson, who was also friendly with John, suddenly leaned forward and stroked his hair. Helen didn't fancy John – it was a friendly gesture in response to something he'd said. But when I realized how jealous I was it brought me up with a jolt.
Although John and I chatted in lettering classes we spent our free time in college with our different groups of friends and virtually ignored each other. I thought of him as unattainable and, despite my fantasies, still didn't think for a minute that we might actually get together.
We were all getting excited about the holidays, when someone suggested we hold a party one lunchtime before we broke up. One of the staff, an ex-boxer named Arthur Ballard, a tough but excellent teacher, gave us permission to use his room, provided he could come, too. We happily agreed, found a record player and chipped in for the beers.
I was looking forward to the party, not because I thought John would be there – I felt sure a tame little students' do wouldn't be his style – but because I thought it would take my mind off him. After that we'd be on holiday break. I was looking forward to that and was determined to get over my crush on John.
The day of the party was warm and the sun streamed through the grubby windows of Arthur Ballard's first-floor room, where we gathered once a week to produce paintings on a chosen theme. We pushed the tables and chairs to one side, set out the food and drink and put on a pile of records. The usual gang were there, a group of ten or fifteen of us who'd been friends since our first year. I arrived feeling good: I was wearing a new baggy black cotton top over a short black and white skirt, with black tights and my best black winklepicker shoes.
By now several romances were budding so the atmosphere was heady. Ann Mason was getting together with Geoff Mohammed, a close friend of John's. They smooched away – Phyl and I glanced knowingly at each other. Then John walked in. My face was hot and my stomach contorted as I pretended not to notice him. Like me, he was in black – his usual drainpipe trousers with a sweater and suede shoes. He made a beeline for me and said, "D'you want to get up?" I blushed, but leapt to my feet to dance with him.
While we were dancing to Chuck Berry John shouted, "Do you fancy going out with me?"
I was so flustered that I came out with, "I'm sorry but I'm engaged to this fellow in Hoylake." The moment I said it I wanted the ground to swallow me – I knew I sounded stuck-up and prim.
"I didn't ask you to f------ marry me, did I?" John shot back. He walked off and, convinced I'd blown it, I was plunged into gloom. But a couple of hours later, as the party was breaking up, John and his friends asked me and Phyl to the pub. This was good news – perhaps all was not lost.
I persuaded Phyl we should go and we followed them to Ye Cracke, a pub where the students often hung out. The place was packed and we had to yell to each other above the hubbub. We'd never been there before, we'd always headed straight home like the good girls we were, and this was our first taste of student social life. We loved the noise, the laughter and the buzzy atmosphere – and realized what we'd been missing.
John was with a couple of his cronies, Geoff Mohammed and Tony Carricker, on the other side of the pub, and made no move to come over to us. Phyl and I had found some friends and were chatting with them, but after a couple of black velvets – the mix of Guinness and cider that all the students drank – I felt a little wobbly and decided I'd better head for my train home. I was disappointed that John hadn't talked to me, and wondered if, after all, he had been laughing at me when he invited me to the pub.
As I made for the door he called me over, teased me about being a nun and asked me to stay. Phyl said she had to get her bus home and asked if I was coming. I knew she didn't approve of John, but I was hooked: if he wanted me to stay I was staying. I smiled apologetically at her. She gave a helpless shrug and headed for the door. John and I had another couple of drinks and then he whispered, "Let's go." The two of us slipped away from the crowd.
By this time it was evening and the street outside was quiet. Almost as soon as we'd left the pub John kissed me, a long, passionate, irresistible kiss. He whispered that his friend, Stuart, had a room we could go to, grabbed my hand and pulled me down the road. I was happy, hugely happy, to be with John and that he felt the same. At that moment I would have gone anywhere with him.
Stuart's place was a large room at the back of a shared house, with no curtains, a mattress on the floor and clothes, art materials, empty cigarette packets and books scattered around it. We couldn't have cared less about the mess and headed for the mattress, where we made love for the next hour. For me it was special and very different from my previous brief experience. And I think it was equally special for John, whose cockiness and tough-guy demeanor melted away as we lay wrapped in each other's arms.
Afterward John said, "Christ, Miss Powell, that was something else. What's all this about being engaged, then?" I told him my romance in Hoylake was over. John grinned and said he thought I was incredibly sexy and he'd been lusting after me all term. "By the way," he added, "no more Miss Powell. From now on, you're Cyn."
We snapped back to reality when I realized I was about to miss my last train home. We pulled on our clothes and raced to the station, where we managed a hasty good-bye kiss before I leapt into a carriage. "What are you doing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next?" John called, as I waved out of the window.
"Seeing you," I shouted back.
Others might have seen us as an unlikely couple, but I knew from the outset that we had made a deep connection. My feelings for John were very different from those I'd had for any other boy – more powerful, more exciting and totally unshakable. And I sensed in John the same strong feelings. Perhaps each of us recognized and was drawn to a deep need in the other. But at the time I didn't analyze it. I simply felt certain that this was no passing fling. It was real love.