Mitchell Fink, a former New York Daily News gossip columnist and best-selling author, has spent much of his life reporting on the inner lives of celebrities.
In his new book, "The Last Days of Dead Celebrities," he reports on their deaths, examining 15 of Hollywood's brightest stars, many of whom died tragically before their time. His subjects include John Lennon, Lucille Ball, John Ritter, Warren Zevon and Ted Williams.
Despite a harsh-sounding title, the book chronicles each celebrities' physical, spiritual and emotional journeys to their final days.
You can read an excerpt of the book below:
It took a long time for John Lennon to feel comfortable in New York.
Like so many others before him, Lennon had chosen to settle in the greatest of all American cities after spending a lifetime somewhere else. New York, in any era, has always promised its new residents lives of unparalleled excitement, round-the-clock action, and enough culture and contrasting beliefs to keep them on their toes for centuries. In public, Lennon seemed to relish the idea of becoming a New Yorker. "I love New York. It's the hottest city going. I haven't been everywhere, but it's the fastest city on earth," was how Beatles chronicler Geoffrey Giuliano quoted the former Beatle in his book Lennon in America.
Lennon had even told Rolling Stone in 1970 that New York was "the only place I found that could keep up with me. . . . I'm just sort of fascinated by it, like a fucking monster."
The trouble with fucking monsters, of course, is that they can often appear in the guise of an autograph hound, and if the sixties had provided Lennon with anything, it was definitely enough autograph hounds to last a lifetime.
Despite his public pronouncements, Lennon was undoubtedly looking beyond all the noise and fascination of New York on August 13, 1971, when he and his wife, Yoko Ono, moved their belongings into three suites on the seventeenth floor of one of the city's classic Fifth Avenue hotels, the St. Regis.
Lennon wanted something else from New York, something far more precious and comforting than the speed of the city. Being in New York was a chance, finally, for him to get lost, be anonymous, and walk among thousands of other New Yorkers, free of bodyguards, in a fatigue jacket, sunglasses, floppy hat, and with body language that politely suggested how unnecessary it would be to squeal, scream, cry, or demand an encore.
And for the most part, New York complied because of an unwritten rule that grants all new New Yorkers the benefit of the doubt. The famous and the near famous get it, along with the wannabes and nobodies. You want to be left alone? Fine, New York will leave you alone. You stay on your side of the sidewalk, and I'll stay on mine. Don't brush up against anyone else's body, certainly not without saying, "Excuse me," and life on the street will happily go on. Act like a New Yorker and you become one. Act like a schmuck, and New York will have you for lunch.
From the moment they got to New York, the Lennons kept mostly to themselves and never acted like schmucks. Gone were the lavishly planned bed-ins and the flip comparisons in popularity to Jesus. Sure, they protested the Vietnam War and started hanging out with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. But by the early seventies, this was hardly considered radical behavior. As Lennon found out years earlier, when you try to force-feed anything to New York, you do so at your own peril. But ask New Yorkers, rather, to simply "Imagine," and you may get them for all time. John and Yoko asked little of New York beyond that, and in return, to paraphrase a Beatles song, New York let them be.
"He liked it when people came up and said hi," Yoko recalled of those early days in New York. "We had burnt our bridges in London. I don't think that my people, the Japanese, were thrilled with our situation- John and Yoko doing Two Virgins, John and Yoko doing bed-ins. And we didn't have many friends. A lot of them turned their backs on us. They didn't like our union. They didn't like the fact that we were so political. A lot of them still blamed me for the breakup of the Beatles. We were different, and we were hoping that New York wouldn't be put off by that."
There is no evidence anywhere remotely suggesting that New York was put off in any way by the Lennons. They were just New York's newest superstars in a town that had seen many. It's not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that Lennon might have been caught off guard by New York's "so what?" attitude toward his fame. Lennon certainly did say at the time that he needed time to get used to the city, mainly because it wasn't his idea to move there. New York had been Yoko's decision, and he went along with it. He was quoted in Giuliano's book as saying, "It was Yoko who sold me on New York. She'd been poor here and knew every inch. She made me walk around the streets, parks, squares, and examine every nook and cranny. In fact, you could say I fell in love with New York on a street corner. . . . Not only was Yoko educated here, but she spent fifteen years living in New York, so, as far as I was concerned, it was just like returning to your wife's hometown." Nevertheless, if behavior counts for anything, New York had yet to become Lennon's hometown by October 10, 1971. It was one day after his thirty-first birthday, two days after the release of his landmark solo album, Imagine, and nearly two months since their move into the St. Regis. John and Yoko were getting dressed in one of their suites, preparing to go out. At that moment, and most likely unbeknownst to them, a Jewish wedding was in full swing in the hotel's main ballroom. It was in between courses, or that time during most Jewish weddings when the bandleader picks up the tempo and coaxes guests onto the dance floor. The bride, who was nearing thirty, had one sibling, a twenty-sevenyear- old brother, and he was in no mood to dance, or even feel merry. He just sat at a table looking at his watch, hoping the time would pass quickly, counting down to the end of his sister's big day. But he knew there were still hours to go and very few choices to make. Leaving the St. Regis and going home was not an option. His mother would have killed him.
But maybe there was a way out: marijuana, the ultimate and least offensive sixties panacea to everything. You want to put on earphones and tune into a coded message on The White Album, or something obscure on a Richie Havens record? Smoke a joint. On the other hand, if you want to tune out your sister's wedding and feel like you're a million miles away, even while you're asking a relative to pass the butter, well, that very same joint will likely get you there. And that's precisely what was needed here.
The bride's brother had been tipped off during the ceremony that another wedding guest was holding some good shit. The brother thought, if he could talk his sister into giving him the key to the bridal suite, he and this other guest could go upstairs, get high, and then return to the festivities and hide in plain sight in a decidedly more tolerant state. No one would even know they had been gone.
Of course, it never occurred to either man that John and Yoko were even at the St. Regis, much less readying themselves to go out. At that moment, the only mission facing the two wedding guests was to get into the bridal suite, smoke their pot, and alter their consciousnesses to the point where perhaps even the dance floor might not seem to be such a terrible idea.
But an extraordinary thing happened as the bride's brother put the key in the door to his sister's room: The door to the suite directly across the hall opened and John and Yoko stepped out. The boys would later bemoan the fact that they never had a chance to say hello, much less invite the Lennons inside for a couple of tokes, a perfectly reasonable thought that came up only in retrospect. As soon as John saw these two strangers, he yanked Yoko back inside and slammed his door shut. It was obvious, even to these two disgruntled, pot-smoking wedding guests, that Lennon appeared threatened by the close proximity of other New Yorkers.
There is an old saying from the sixties that goes something like this: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not trying to get you." Lennon had nothing to fear from the two men who were trying to enter another suite across the hall. As the two men remembered it, they had their backs to the couple when Lennon opened the door. Certainly no remotely threatening gestures were made. And yet Lennon's first inclination was to retreat and close the door as quickly as possible. Was he paranoid, or simply startled? Did he sense danger in New York in 1971, or was he just being careful? Whatever the case, it was clear that he had not yet made peace with his new surroundings.
Then again, maybe it was just the coldness and formality of extended hotel life that was getting to him. During the more chaotic years, when he was a Beatle, a hotel had performed essentially the same function as a prostitute. In, out, and on to the next town. As opulent as the St. Regis was, two months there was proving to be more than enough. The Lennons needed something a little homier, and on November 1 they left the St. Regis for a Greenwich Village apartment on Bank Street that was both smaller and homier than their hotel suite. The basement apartment had only two rooms, a kitchenette, and a spiral staircase up to a skylight. But the simplicity of it, along with its tranquil setting in a classic downtown neighborhood, proved more in keeping with Lennon's desire to blend into New York.
Photographer Bob Gruen was living in the Village then, in an apartment not far from Lennon's small pad. "I heard about it as soon as they moved into the neighborhood," recalled Gruen. "There was this buzz, like 'Hey, guess who just moved in.' But this being New York, nobody bothered them."
On November 6, just five days after their downtown move, the Lennons ventured uptown, to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, and gave a surprise performance to benefit the casualties of the recent Attica prison riots. "I went to the Apollo that night," said Gruen, "because Aretha Franklin was supposed to be there and I was going to photograph her. As I walked into the theater, I heard the announcer onstage say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.' It was incredibly exciting. I couldn't believe I was actually going to see John Lennon. They did a couple of funky songs. Backstage afterward, they were standing around waiting for their car, and people were taking pictures of them. So I took a couple of pictures of them standing there. At one point, John said, 'You know, people are always taking pictures of us and we never get to see these pictures. What happens to all the pictures?' "I said, 'Well, I live around the corner from you. I'll show you my pictures.'
"And he said, 'You live around the corner? Slip them under the door.'
"I said I would, and I made up a couple of prints," said Gruen. "A few days later, I went by their apartment and didn't quite slip them under the door. I rang the bell instead, and Jerry Rubin answered the door. I said, 'I have something for John and Yoko.'
"And Jerry Rubin said, 'Are they expecting you?' When I said no, he said he would take the pictures and give them to them."
Gruen heard nothing from the Lennons until their names came up a few months later when he was asked to shoot pictures of the couple for a story that a writer friend was doing on the hard-driving rock group Elephant's Memory. Jerry Rubin had introduced Lennon to the group, and he was planning to record a few tracks with them for their album.
"The writer asked me if I would like to take pictures of John and Yoko while he interviewed them," said Gruen. "I said I would definitely do it, and that's how I actually ended up meeting them. "I didn't say anything immediately about me being the guy who was supposed to slip those other pictures under the door because I like to stay rather quiet when I'm taking pictures," said Gruen. "So I just took pictures while they were talking. And because the story was about Elephant's Memory, I wanted to take a picture of John and Yoko together with the band. They said they were going to the Record Plant that night to record with the band. So I asked if I could come along. They said they'd be working, but if I wanted to wait around until the end of the night, I could take a picture of them with the band. And that's what I did. After I took the pictures at the Record Plant later that night, I went home, printed the pictures, and sent them to the magazine that was going to publish the story.
"I figured that my job was done, and no one else would need my pictures," said Gruen. "But then, I ran into one of the members of Elephant's Memory, and he said they'd been trying to contact me because I had the only pictures of them together with John and Yoko in the studio, and they wanted to see them. He brought me over to [the Lennons'] Bank Street apartment and that was the first time we really got to talk. I spent the afternoon there, talking and showing them my other pictures. And we just formed a relationship. At the end of that meeting, Yoko told me to start coming to the studio so I could take pictures of them. She said she wanted me to be involved with them. And so that's what I did."
The Lennons obviously liked Gruen's work but, more important, he had earned their trust. He said he would drop off the pictures from the Apollo, and he did. He never chased after the Lennons in an attempt to get more work, and he never tried to contact them after the Elephant's Memory shoot. He had proved himself without really trying. He was in.
Elliot Mintz's relationship with John and Yoko began in a similar fashion. A veteran West Coast public relations executive, Mintz had a side job in the early seventies hosting a nighttime radio show on KLOS-FM, the ABC affiliate station in Los Angeles. In 1971, he interviewed Yoko by phone, and then sent her the tape. "John apparently heard it and liked it," recalled Mintz. "Yoko then suggested that he, too, should do a phone interview with me, and he did it. A few days later, he called me to say that he was pleased with the way the interview went. He just liked the texture of it. Thus we began a telephonic friendship, John, Yoko, and myself, and we'd all speak virtually every day or every night for months. I'm an insomniac. I don't sleep. I'm up until 4 A.M., Pacific Time. That was their wake-up time in New York. So we would talk all the time."
By the spring of 1972, one of the subjects that monopolized these late-night talks was Lennon's desire to see America. And in this regard, he was really on even footing with his wife. Yoko might have thought of herself as a New Yorker by virtue of her fifteen years there, but when it came to the rest of the country, she was as much of a tourist as her husband.
"John had seen the United States only from an airplane, as a Beatle," said Mintz. "And Yoko had never seen the United States, outside of New York. So they got into this old white Nash Rambler, with a driver, and they drove from New York to Los Angeles, stopping off along the way to sleep, to go to all-night diners and twenty-four-hour coffee shops. Imagine yourself in 1972 sitting in an all-night coffee shop in Nevada and John and Yoko walk in. Well, as they got closer to Los Angeles, they took a wrong turn on the freeway and wound up in a field near Santa Barbara. And they called me and said they would like to meet me. Of course, I knew what they looked like. But they had never seen me. I drove up to Santa Barbara, found the white Rambler, got into the car, and we hugged. That's how we met."
Mintz's long phone calls with the Lennons continued unabated after the couple returned to New York. He talked them through their move from Bank Street to the Dakota, the landmark apartment complex on the corner of West Seventy-second Street and Central Park West. And he came to New York often to be with them for most special occasions, including the birth of their son, Sean, in 1975, and most of the traditional holidays. In the process, Mintz, like Gruen, proved to be someone the Lennons could trust.
"From the time that I met them to the time that he ran out of time, I spent most of my Thanksgivings, Christmases, and New Year's Eves with them," said Mintz. "I live alone in Los Angeles. I've never been married and I have no children. They were my extended family. But I want to make one thing clear: I never worked for John. There's probably been a misconception about that over the years. But no dollars ever traded hands."
The Lennons used some of the money they never gave Mintz to eventually purchase five apartments in the Dakota, two for actual living and three smaller spaces for employees and storage. The highlights of their eight years together at the Dakota have been well-documented: In the fall of 1973, John and Yoko separated. He went to Los Angeles with their secretary, May Pang, while Yoko remained in New York by herself. John said at the time that Yoko kicked him out. She said the separation was inevitable, and added that it might actually do him some good.
Fifteen months later, in January 1975, John returned to New York, reunited with Yoko, and got her pregnant, in that order. The couple's only child together, Sean Taro Ono Lennon, was born at New York Hospital on October 9, the very same day that his father turned thirty-five. By the time Sean was one, John Lennon was experiencing a new kind of freedom. For the first time since becoming a Beatle, he had no recording contract, having been dropped by his label, EMI-Capitol. Also during that year, he was finally awarded a green card and the promise of possible U.S. citizenship. And, most important, he had this one-year-old baby whom he desperately wanted to be with night and day.
With no professional commitments hanging over his head, and money issues nonexistent, Lennon retired from show business, beginning what Mintz described as "John's cocooning period."
"Between '75 and '80, he was with Sean every day," said Mintz. "And all those stories you've read about Yoko taking care of business downstairs and John being the house husband, in spite of anything anyone's ever said to the contrary, those stories were all true." Many writers over the years have attempted to debunk the image of Lennon at home doing the chores, most notably Albert Goldman in his book The Lives of John Lennon. Goldman always asserted that Lennon made up this "big lie" about his housebound lifestyle to reinforce the validity of his wife's business skills in hopes that the public would take her more seriously.
For his part, Lennon remained totally consistent about the quieter life he was leading after Sean's birth. "I've been baking bread and looking after the baby" was how Lennon began his now-historic 1980 Playboy interview with writer David Sheff. Stunned by Lennon's characterization of himself during the preceding few years, Sheff asked whether it was possible that Yoko had been controlling him. The question was enough to send Lennon into a rage.
"If you think I'm being controlled like a dog on a leash because I do things with her," Lennon said, "then screw you! Because-fuck you brother and sister, you don't know what's happening!" Lennon went on to say that his wife was the teacher "and I'm the pupil. . . . She's taught me everything I fucking know. . . . She was there . . . when I was the 'Nowhere Man.'"
According to Mintz, Lennon's version of how he and Yoko led their lives in the late 1970s "is 100 percent accurate." "That's what he did," said Mintz. "He cocooned. I don't think that reading Rolling Stone was so important during those years, and I don't think he paid that much attention to trends in music.
"But all during this so-called silent period, John remained incredibly interested in current events and politics," said Mintz. "He read the papers every day, and he used to call me to watch the evening news, which he saw in New York three hours ahead of me. He would tell me things to look for. He watched a lot of television, nonfiction television, primarily the news. He would have had a field day with all the cable talk shows today. He wouldn't have slept. He would have been glued to Fox and CNN. That's all he would be doing, that and sending e-mails, which hadn't been invented yet.
"But he was very up on the politics of the time, and, of course, John's political persuasions are extremely well known, so you can imagine his overall feelings about the emerging Reagan administration and the conservatism in the country," said Mintz. "And it has also been well documented that John continued to be under constant FBI surveillance, which he always viewed as a force with which to be reckoned. John and Yoko never told anybody how to vote. And John never voted because he wasn't a citizen. So he had no political party affiliation. He basically felt that both parties were about the same. Having said that, I do think that the coming emergence of Reaganism did send a chill up his spine. Not because of Ronald Reagan himself, but because John perceived that the country was moving in a direction that was the antithesis of the things he embraced in his life, like 'Give Peace a Chance' and the point of view expressed in 'Imagine.' If Ronald Reagan had read the lyrics to 'Imagine,' he probably would have recoiled in horror."
It was one of the few times in Lennon's life, according to Yoko, that he didn't purposely go out and make waves. "You must understand," she said, "we had a very difficult time with immigration. But when John finally got his green card, he thought, well, he has a son, he has his green card. Maybe this is not the time to be too dangerous." Then came the summer of 1980. Against the political backdrop of fifty-two Americans still being held hostage in Iran, which greatly diminished the chances of Jimmy Carter's reelection bid and made Reagan look more and more like the next president of the United States, Lennon traveled with a five-man crew to Bermuda on his yacht, Isis. His intention was to rent a house on the island and simply while away his time swimming and sailing. But something else happened on Bermuda, and it turned out to be a burst of creative energy that saw him writing more than a dozen songs in three weeks.
He knew Yoko also had been writing songs in New York, and they would spend days on the phone singing their latest compositions to each other. It was clear to both of them that they would start recording a new album as soon he got back.
"He was so excited on the phone," recalled Yoko. "He said, 'I wrote two songs.'
"And I said, 'I have two songs. Let's make an EP.'
"And then the next day, he said, 'Now I have two more.' "And I said, 'Well, maybe now it should be an album.' That's how it started. We decided to work on a theme, and he was very excited about that. He just kept thanking me and thanking me."
On Tuesday, August 5, John and Yoko entered the Hit Factory, on West Fifty-fourth Street in New York, to begin recording the album, Double Fantasy. Producer Jack Douglas was at the controls, and photographer Bob Gruen was given almost free reign to document the sessions with candid pictures.
"I visited the studio on and off from late summer through the end of the backing track sessions," said Gruen. "I was there a number of times while they recorded. We really had no set appointments. I just did things as the situation came up. John was extremely positive about the music he was making, and excited to be back in the studio. He was coming from a position of real strength in his life. He had spent five years out of the limelight, and he had taken time to raise his son and learn about parenting and about living.
"The album was to be about the relationship between a man and a woman," said Gruen. "And in that regard it was very much a John and Yoko project, not just John Lennon. A track of his would follow a track of hers, and then they'd stop to talk about their feelings and deal with the relationship. To me, he appeared so grounded."
"I had been in a hundred recording studios with different artists, and I'd been with John in various studios, as well," said Mintz. "The recording of Double Fantasy was unique because in many ways it was a metaphor for the way John's life was coming to completion. All these recording studios-the Hit Factory, where John and Yoko recorded the album, or the Record Plant, where it was mixed-have closed-circuit cameras at the front door. They have this so an engineer can see who is ringing the buzzer. A lot of sessions sometimes go on into the middle of the night. The studio may not be in the best neighborhood. So they need these cameras for security reasons. One of the things I remember about the Double Fantasy sessions was John and Yoko pinning a large photograph of Sean to the face of the TV monitor above the recording console. You couldn't see who was outside, but for John and Yoko it was more important to see Sean staring down at the console.
"Yoko also created this small anteroom just off of the control room, a white room, twenty by fifteen," said Mintz, "that she made to look like a mini version of their living room at the Dakota. The lighting in this room was lowered, and it was filled with candles and incense. A Japanese woman named Toshi served tea. It was a room John and Yoko would go to when there was a lull in the session. I remember going with them into the room. John was wearing slacks and a jacket and a shirt that was open at the collar. In that room, he spoke about the project softly, tentatively, and rhapsodically. It was a quiet room, unlike any room I'd ever seen at a rock and roll recording session. None of the other musicians or technical people ever entered that room. It was mostly a room where John and Yoko could relax."
On Thursday, October 9, a skywriting plane flew over Central Park and spelled out the smoky message "Happy Birthday John & Sean. Love Yoko." Below the message was a dual birthday party that Yoko threw at Warner LeRoy's famed Central Park restaurant, Tavern on the Green. "Mainly we concentrated on Sean," said Yoko. "He had a great time at the party. It was mostly his friends at the party, kids from school, a few parents, Sean's best friend, Max LeRoy, and his parents, Warner and Kay LeRoy. It was John's birthday and Sean's birthday, but John wanted it to be a day for Sean."
Sean's father kept mostly to himself in the cavernous multiroom restaurant, watching the party as though he were there as an observer and not a celebrant. There was, after all, much to reflect on. He was now forty.
"I don't think he felt forty was necessarily a milestone age for him," said Yoko, looking back at the day. "I mean, he wrote the song, 'Life Begins at Forty,' which was a serious song when he first wrote it. Then he listened to his own lyrics, and he said, 'I can't do this. I have to make it funny.' So he wound up creating a comic song about turning forty. That's how he wanted to look at it, especially that day. I think he wanted to play down his age and focus on Sean."
Mintz made one other trip to New York in early November, specifically to hear John and Yoko's new album. "The engineer would prepare cassettes for John, and he would take them back to the Dakota and play them on the little stereo in his bedroom," said Mintz. "He had none of the fancy equipment at home. He always believed music should be listened to the way it comes out on a car radio."
Mintz went back to the Dakota with John and Yoko that night, into what was called the "old bedroom," facing West Seventy-second Street. John's primitive hi-fi system was on one side of the bed. At the foot of the bed was a television, a large-screen TV that John had purchased a few years before in Tokyo. Mintz was with him in Japan when he bought the TV.
"He was one of the first people to import a large-screen TV from Japan," said Mintz. "But he really needed a large screen, because without his eyeglasses on he couldn't see more than four or five feet in front of him."
John and Yoko's bed was nothing more than a mattress on top of a piece of plywood, supported on each side by two church pews that the couple had gotten from an old church in the South. Behind the bed was a brick wall, and in front of it, up against the foot, was the large-screen TV. On either side of the television were these two large old-fashioned dental cabinets, the kind that you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting from the 1930s, with twenty or thirty sliding drawers, basically for clothing and John's ties.
"The whole look was simple, and it just worked," said Mintz. "And the room, of course, was either lit by candles or so dimly lit that you could hardly see a thing. And that's how I first heard Double Fantasy, in that setting. John put the cassette on and he kicked back in bed. He was in his pajamas, Yoko was in her nightgown, and I sat in a white wicker rocking chair on Yoko's side of the bed. The music just wafted throughout the open room. And the two of them were very stiff and quiet. The TV was on, with the sound off. John didn't have his glasses on, so to him everything was completely out of focus. He referred to the TV as his electronic fireplace."
When the music was over, Mintz and Lennon talked into the night. Yoko fell asleep. "She usually went to sleep when John and I spoke," said Mintz. "Yoko does not sleep the way most people sleep. She takes a series of catnaps during every twenty-four-hour period. She'll go down for two or three hours, come up, do what she has to do, and when she gets tired she goes to sleep again. She can sleep at the drop of a dime. She had heard thousands of hours of the John and Elliot dialogue. And with my kind of late-night FM voice, and John mostly talking about things Yoko already knew about, I would expect her to fall asleep. And that night she did.
"John was enthusiastic about everything that night, not only about the record coming out, but also about what the record symbolized, and where he was with his family," said Mintz. "A few weeks prior to this he had prepared his first loaf of bread that he baked in his oven. He sent me a Polaroid picture of the loaf of bread, which to him was a symbol of pride that he could do such a thing as create a loaf of bread. I still have the Polaroid of the loaf of bread. I know there's the impression that his life was very frenetic, very busy, but in fact it was Yoko who was generating a lot of the business stuff and taking the phone calls. John just seemed content with where he was, and completely at peace in terms of his relationship with Sean. Each night before he slept, he would put Sean to sleep by cradling him in his arms and whispering into his ears the various things that the two of them did that day.
"I asked him about going out on the road and performing live, assuming the record was a success, and he was affirmative about all of it," said Mintz. "He basically said, 'Whatever Mother thinks we should do.' In fact, Yoko had already laid the groundwork for a mini-tour, not something that would take them around the world on a jet plane, like Mick Jagger does with the Rolling Stones. It was just going to be some key locations in key cities."
There came a point in the middle of the night when Lennon was finally through talking. He wasn't bashful about kicking Mintz out. He just simply said, "Okay, I think I'm going to close my eyes now." "He said, 'Let me walk you to the door.'
"And I said, 'John, I know my way to the door.' But he was insistent," said Mintz. "So he got up, in his pajamas, and he led me to the door. There was a chain of bells hanging on the doorknob, on the inside of their front door. They were Tibetan or Buddhist bells, on a small chain not much thicker than a woman's large necklace. They rang with a high-pitched tone, not loud, not like gongs. And as we got to the door, he turned the knob and opened it, and the bells started ringing. And for no particular reason that I could discern, he smiled at me, and said, 'It's our alarm system.'"
Thanksgiving at the Lennon apartment, just a week after the release of Double Fantasy, turned out to be a simple celebration, with only three people in attendance that night: John, Yoko, and Sean. "It seemed like we were the only family we had then," said Yoko. "Thanksgiving is about collecting your family, and mine was in Japan, and John's was in England. John was an only child, his parents were both gone, and Thanksgiving is not an English holiday. So who were we going to invite? I mean, I could have called Japan, and said, 'Come to Thanksgiving at our house.' And they would have said, 'What?' "I didn't cook," said Yoko. "We had turkey brought in. But we were very into the idea of Thanksgiving. This whole idea of a pilgrimage, and the white people learning from the Indians, that was an important concept for Sean to learn. He was born an American, and Thanksgiving is an American thing. And we were feeling very American at that time, especially since John had just gotten his green card. We felt like we were starting over as an American family."
It is no coincidence that the song "(Just Like) Starting Over" became the album's first single. "It was not written until very late in the process," said Yoko. "It was like it suddenly came from left field. But we were starting over in a big way. We had the child we never thought we'd have. We tried so many times, and I was always having a miscarriage or something. So this was a big, important thing to us."
And it became a big disappointment when the single did not do as well in England as the Lennons had expected. "When the single hit Britain, we thought it would go to number one. When it got stuck at eight, I felt very responsible," said Yoko. "I felt I had to make sure that this whole project was good for John. And now the record stopped in England. I went to John, and I said, 'Look, I'm sorry. It's eight.' "He knew exactly what I meant," she said. "It was eight, and it was not going to go up any further. He just looked at me, and he said, 'Hey, you know, I still have my family.' But he also knew that a lot of what we did over the years was not popular. He had pride in what he was doing, and he was doing something he believed in. He was an avant-garde artist in that way. You do something not because you think it will be popular. You do it because you believe in it."
Back in California, Mintz continued his regular phone dialogue with the Lennons, speaking to Yoko daily, and to John maybe three, four times a week. "With the album still relatively new," said Mintz, "he talked to me about what I thought the public reaction to his reemergence might be, after all that time away. And I recall asking him, 'Do you care? Does it matter?' "He snickered," said Mintz. "He said for years he was always concerned when he saw any of the pop stars in the magazines because he was never one who enjoyed going to places like Studio 54 and having his picture taken. Because he had been out of the loop for so long, he wondered whether or not he would even be remembered, and whether or not the music would still be relevant or significant. I believe his questions to me on the phone were more rhetorical than anything else. He did say that none of his contemporaries had ever put their women on the same level as he did with Yoko. That's why Double Fantasy was so special to him, because it was not a reemergence of Beatle John coming back to say hello again, but a statement of where he was in his life.
"By this time he had also given up any kind of drug use," said Mintz. "He was very clear, very in-tune. He would divide his conversations between what was going on with the music, what was going on at the house, and what was going on in the political world. Whatever occurred on the news he would want me to pay attention. He also told me he didn't feel tired anymore. There was a long period of time that he complained of lethargy and weariness. But in these few conversations he was all upbeat."
On Thursday night, December 4, Bob Gruen met Lennon at the Record Plant, on West Forty-fourth Street, where he was mixing Yoko's single "Walking on Thin Ice." The song had been hastily recorded after Double Fantasy was completed.
"They did all their mixing at the Record Plant," said Gruen. "I took a number of pictures of John and Yoko around the studio that night. They posed in front of an eight-foot-tall guitar that John had fabricated for an avant-garde festival. It was too big for them to take home, so they ended up loaning it to the Record Plant for a while. I knew he had made it, so I wanted them posing in front of it.
"Then he told me about this coat he had at home, this fancy gold and red braided jacket with Japanese writing on it," said Gruen. "He wanted me to shoot pictures of him wearing this coat, so we made another plan for me to come back the next night, and I did." While Yoko spent most of Friday night, December 5, putting various vocal effects on her single, Gruen sat with Lennon on the floor of the Record Plant and talked.
"For a long time we talked about the future," said Gruen. "He was very excited that he had come back, and very excited about what Yoko had managed to do on the album. He was really amused by the fact that she was getting great reviews and that her music was being called new and interesting, as opposed to his music, which some critics called a bit tamer and middle of the road. He was very excited about that because he really liked Yoko's influence. He also talked about taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays, and then he wanted to start rehearsing with a band and record some videos by the end of January. He estimated that they'd probably be performing live by March. He even talked about the possibility of doing concerts in Japan. We both had a common interest in Japan. We were talking about places where we were going to go shopping, and restaurants where we were going to eat."
It was dawn on Saturday, December 6, by the time Yoko finished her work in the studio. All during the night Lennon never put on the braided jacket, and now he was carrying it over his arm as he walked outside with Yoko and Gruen.
"It must have been six or seven in the morning when we got outside," said Gruen. "I asked John if we could take the pictures right then, and Yoko said, 'Oh, I feel tired. Let's do it another time.' "And John said to her, 'Look, you've kept him up all night. Let's take some pictures.' So he put on the jacket and I took about half a roll of pictures out on the sidewalk. A car was waiting for them. John said to me, 'See you later,' and they left."
That afternoon, Lennon went by himself to his favorite West Side haunt, Cafe La Fortuna, a small Italian coffee shop on West Seventy-first Street, just around the corner from the Dakota. John and Yoko were regulars at Cafe La Fortuna, right from the time it opened in 1976. They would often go in together, with or without Sean, and there were many more times that Lennon could be found there by himself, drinking cappuccino, nibbling on Italian-made chocolates, reading the newspapers, and talking with the restaurant's owner, Vincent Urwand.
Lennon viewed La Fortuna as a safe haven, and over time he established the kind of relationship with Urwand that allowed for much teasing and playful banter. Urwand even teased him that day about Double Fantasy."Look, you've had all those years of wildness and success in the Beatles," Urwand was quoting as saying in Ray Coleman's exhaustively researched John Lennon biography, Lennon.
"You don't need the money," argued Urwand. "What are you doing all this for? You're enjoying being a husband and father!" According to Coleman's book, Lennon responded first by laughing, and then saying to Urwand, "I swore I'd look after that boy until he was five, and he's five and I feel like getting back to my music. The urge is there. It's been a long time since I wrote a song, but they're coming thick and fast now."
Back at the Dakota that night, Lennon phoned his aunt Mimi, his mother's sister and the woman most responsible for his upbringing, and gushed about the new album. Coleman documented the exchange, quoting Lennon's aunt as saying to him from her home in England, "John, you're an idealist looking for a lost horizon. You would make a saint cry!"
To which Lennon responded, "Oh, Mimi, don't be like that. . . . I'll see you soon and we'll bring Sean. Goodnight, God bless, Mimi." John and Yoko also talked that night about their planned trip to San Francisco. They discussed leaving New York on Wednesday, December 10, which would give them a few days to do nothing prior to their weekend appearance at a rally to help Asian workers gain the same kind of equal rights and equal pay as their Caucasian colleagues. "It was about Asians, and we have an Asian kid," said Yoko. "John really was looking forward to that benefit. When he said, 'Okay, let's do it,' it meant another kind of beginning for us, one where we could once again take a political stance in public."
On Sunday night, December 7, Lennon sat down with the cassette to Yoko's single "Walking on Thin Ice" and proceeded to listen to it over and over again. "He listened to it like crazy, all weekend long," said Yoko. "It almost drove me crazy. There's this room in the apartment, overlooking the park, and he was lying down on the couch, or half sitting, with his legs on the floor. And that Sunday night, he just kept listening to the song, and listening to the song. I went to sleep. And when I came back into the room early Monday morning, he was still listening. He said it was the best song I ever wrote, but there was something else going on. The song is really a very strange song. But at the same time there was something in the air that was starting to accelerate. I felt an incredible vibe around us. Not an actual noise, but a strong vibe circling us. I started talking to him over that vibration. I said, 'John, good morning.' And he was still listening to the song."
Later that morning, Lennon had his hair cut at a nearby salon and then returned home to do a photo shoot with Yoko for photographer Annie Leibovitz. At 1 P.M., Lennon did a phone interview with a disc jockey from the RKO Radio Network. John and Yoko spent the remainder of the afternoon making phone calls and playing with Sean. The only real plan they had was to return to the Record Plant so they could continue tinkering with Yoko's song.
"It was getting late," recalled Yoko, "and we both said, 'Oh, we better go now.' We were getting to be like this old couple who really knew each other so well, and knew each other's moves so well. I went out that weekend and I bought some chocolates because John loved chocolate. I had gone out to get something, I don't remember what, and I thought, 'Oh, I better get some chocolate for him.' And I did. "Then I came upstairs, and before I could open the door, he opened it from the inside, and he said, 'I knew you were coming back.' "I said, 'How did you know that?' "He said, 'I just knew.' "I said, 'I thought of your chocolate, and I got you some.'" Lennon graciously took the chocolate from his wife and set it down on a table, but he never took a bite.
At approximately 5 P.M. on Monday, December 8, John and Yoko came downstairs and were met outside by two fans, Paul Goresh, a photographer from New Jersey, and Mark David Chapman, a twenty-fiveyear- old former hospital security guard from Decatur, Georgia. Goresh had stationed himself outside the Dakota on several occasions, and as a result his face was recognizable to the Lennons. Chapman, however, was a new face, and when he thrust his copy of Double Fantasy in front of Lennon in hopes of getting an autograph, John complied. He scribbled "John Lennon 1980" on the album, and then handed it back to its owner.
John and Yoko knew they were not going to pull another allnighter at the Record Plant. Most of the work on Yoko's song had been done, and producer Jack Douglas promised that he would have a master copy finished by 9 A.M. the following morning. The Lennons were grateful to get out of the studio at a relatively early hour. As Yoko said, "John wanted to get home early enough to say good night to Sean." Goresh was already gone by the time John and Yoko returned to the Dakota. But Chapman was still there, waiting. The time was 10:49 P.M. Yoko got out of the limousine first, followed by her husband. Chapman said hello to her as she walked by, and then, as Lennon passed him, Chapman called out, "Mr. Lennon?"
As Lennon turned around, Chapman pulled out a .38 revolver, dropped into a combat stance, and fired five shots at point-blank range. The bullets hit Lennon in the back, shoulder, and arm. He managed to stagger up the few steps to the building's front desk before dropping to the floor and moaning, "I'm shot. I'm shot."
The desk clerk, Jay Hastings, pressed an alarm button that was wired directly to the Twentieth Precinct, and within two minutes police were on the scene. Lennon was taken by a police car to the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital, on West Fifty-ninth Street. A team of seven doctors worked feverishly to save Lennon's life, but the blood loss was too great, and he died.
"It wasn't possible to resuscitate him by any means," said Dr. Stephen Lynn, the hospital's director of emergency services. Chapman, who never left the scene outside the Dakota, offered no resistance and was taken into custody.
Some years later, Chapman was recorded on audiotape explaining his actions, portions of which aired on Dateline NBC in November 2005. He characterized Lennon as, ". . . a successful man who kind of had the world on a chain, so to speak, and there I was, not even a link on that chain, just a person who had no personality . . . and something in me just broke."
The news of Lennon's death was announced to a stunned world by Howard Cosell during a broadcast of ABC's Monday Night Football. "One of the great figures of the entire world, one of the great artists, was shot to death, horribly, at the Dakota Apartments, 72nd Street and Central Park West, in New York City. John Lennon is dead," Cosell said on the air. "He was the most important member of the Beatles, and the Beatles, led by John Lennon, created music that touched the whole of civilization. Not just people in Liverpool, where the group was born, but the people of the world."
Mintz heard the news, called American Airlines immediately, and flew to New York that night. "I inventoried all of John's possessions after his death," said Mintz. "My responsibility at that point was certainly to Yoko, and she wanted me to inventory his possessions and place them away for safekeeping. It was an operation that took months. His clothing came home from the hospital in a brown paper bag. In the bag was the cassette of 'Walking on Thin Ice,' which suggests to me that on the final night of his life, in the final moments of his life, that may have been the last song he ever heard. I always thought there was a metaphor in the fact that 'Thin Ice' was in his possession when his life ended at the hands of a man who had obtained his last autograph. Those two things, taken together, must have made for a strange crossing."
Yoko didn't notice the chocolate she had brought in for her husband until days after his murder. It was still sitting on the table where he had left it. "I didn't like chocolate at all," she said. "But after John's passing, I thought, 'Should I throw it away? No, that would be wasteful.' So I said to myself, 'Well, okay, I'm going to eat the chocolate, you know. And I did."
Mintz, who remains a fixture in Yoko's life to this day, said that very little about her Dakota apartment has changed since Lennon's death in 1980. "Everything looks pretty much the same, except she now has a new bedroom," said Mintz. "She doesn't sleep in the old bedroom. For months after John's death she slept in their bed in the old bedroom. For a while, she got solid comfort being in that room. Now she uses it as a guestroom.
"In terms of how Yoko is doing on a day-to-day basis," Mintz added, "if she's not traveling, she's in that apartment, most of the time by herself. There's not much going on. She's devoted her life to his memories, and she just doesn't laugh as much anymore."