Excerpt: 'The Last Days of Dead Celebrities'

ByABC News via logo
July 7, 2006, 2:30 PM

July 10, 2006 — -- 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 inthe greatest of all American cities after spending a lifetime somewhereelse. New York, in any era, has always promised its new residents livesof unparalleled excitement, round-the-clock action, and enough cultureand contrasting beliefs to keep them on their toes for centuries.In public, Lennon seemed to relish the idea of becoming a NewYorker. "I love New York. It's the hottest city going. I haven't beeneverywhere, but it's the fastest city on earth," was how Beatles chroniclerGeoffrey Giuliano quoted the former Beatle in his book Lennon inAmerica.

Lennon had even told Rolling Stone in 1970 that New York was "theonly place I found that could keep up with me. . . . I'm just sort of fascinatedby it, like a fucking monster."

The trouble with fucking monsters, of course, is that they can oftenappear in the guise of an autograph hound, and if the sixties hadprovided Lennon with anything, it was definitely enough autographhounds to last a lifetime.

Despite his public pronouncements, Lennon was undoubtedlylooking beyond all the noise and fascination of New York on August13, 1971, when he and his wife, Yoko Ono, moved their belongingsinto three suites on the seventeenth floor of one of the city's classicFifth 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 inNew 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 languagethat 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 unwrittenrule that grants all new New Yorkers the benefit of the doubt. The famousand 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'tbrush up against anyone else's body, certainly not without saying, "Excuseme," and life on the street will happily go on. Act like a New Yorkerand you become one. Act like a schmuck, and New York will have youfor lunch.

From the moment they got to New York, the Lennons kept mostlyto themselves and never acted like schmucks. Gone were the lavishlyplanned bed-ins and the flip comparisons in popularity to Jesus. Sure,they protested the Vietnam War and started hanging out with AbbieHoffman and Jerry Rubin. But by the early seventies, this was hardlyconsidered radical behavior. As Lennon found out years earlier, whenyou try to force-feed anything to New York, you do so at your ownperil. But ask New Yorkers, rather, to simply "Imagine," and you mayget them for all time. John and Yoko asked little of New York beyondthat, 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 ofthose early days in New York. "We had burnt our bridges in London. Idon'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 onus. They didn't like our union. They didn't like the fact that we were sopolitical. 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 putoff by that."

There is no evidence anywhere remotely suggesting that New Yorkwas put off in any way by the Lennons. They were just New York'snewest superstars in a town that had seen many. It's not unreasonable,therefore, to assume that Lennon might have been caught off guard byNew 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 becauseit 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 assaying, "It was Yoko who sold me on New York. She'd been poor hereand knew every inch. She made me walk around the streets, parks,squares, and examine every nook and cranny. In fact, you could say Ifell in love with New York on a street corner. . . . Not only was Yoko educatedhere, but she spent fifteen years living in New York, so, as far asI was concerned, it was just like returning to your wife's hometown."Nevertheless, if behavior counts for anything, New York had yet tobecome Lennon's hometown by October 10, 1971. It was one day afterhis thirty-first birthday, two days after the release of his landmark soloalbum, Imagine, and nearly two months since their move into the St.Regis. John and Yoko were getting dressed in one of their suites, preparingto 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 wasin between courses, or that time during most Jewish weddings when thebandleader 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 passquickly, counting down to the end of his sister's big day. But he knewthere were still hours to go and very few choices to make. Leaving theSt. Regis and going home was not an option. His mother would havekilled him.

But maybe there was a way out: marijuana, the ultimate and leastoffensive sixties panacea to everything. You want to put on earphonesand tune into a coded message on The White Album, or something obscureon a Richie Havens record? Smoke a joint. On the other hand, ifyou want to tune out your sister's wedding and feel like you're a millionmiles 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 whatwas needed here.

The bride's brother had been tipped off during the ceremony thatanother wedding guest was holding some good shit. The brotherthought, if he could talk his sister into giving him the key to the bridalsuite, he and this other guest could go upstairs, get high, and then returnto the festivities and hide in plain sight in a decidedly more tolerantstate. No one would even know they had been gone.

Of course, it never occurred to either man that John and Yoko wereeven at the St. Regis, much less readying themselves to go out. At thatmoment, the only mission facing the two wedding guests was to getinto the bridal suite, smoke their pot, and alter their consciousnessesto the point where perhaps even the dance floor might not seem to besuch a terrible idea.

But an extraordinary thing happened as the bride's brother putthe key in the door to his sister's room: The door to the suite directlyacross the hall opened and John and Yoko stepped out. The boyswould 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 perfectlyreasonable thought that came up only in retrospect. As soon as Johnsaw these two strangers, he yanked Yoko back inside and slammed hisdoor shut. It was obvious, even to these two disgruntled, pot-smokingwedding guests, that Lennon appeared threatened by the close proximityof 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 getyou." Lennon had nothing to fear from the two men who were trying toenter another suite across the hall. As the two men remembered it, theyhad their backs to the couple when Lennon opened the door. Certainlyno remotely threatening gestures were made. And yet Lennon's first inclinationwas to retreat and close the door as quickly as possible. Was heparanoid, 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 hadnot yet made peace with his new surroundings.

Then again, maybe it was just the coldness and formality of extendedhotel life that was getting to him. During the more chaoticyears, when he was a Beatle, a hotel had performed essentially thesame function as a prostitute. In, out, and on to the next town. As opulentas the St. Regis was, two months there was proving to be morethan enough. The Lennons needed something a little homier, and onNovember 1 they left the St. Regis for a Greenwich Village apartmenton Bank Street that was both smaller and homier than their hotel suite.The basement apartment had only two rooms, a kitchenette, and a spiralstaircase up to a skylight. But the simplicity of it, along with its tranquilsetting in a classic downtown neighborhood, proved more inkeeping 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 soonas they moved into the neighborhood," recalled Gruen. "There wasthis 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, theLennons ventured uptown, to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, andgave a surprise performance to benefit the casualties of the recent Atticaprison riots. "I went to the Apollo that night," said Gruen, "becauseAretha Franklin was supposed to be there and I was going to photographher. As I walked into the theater, I heard the announcer onstagesay, 'Ladies and gentlemen, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.' It was incrediblyexciting. I couldn't believe I was actually going to see John Lennon.They did a couple of funky songs. Backstage afterward, they were standingaround waiting for their car, and people were taking pictures ofthem. So I took a couple of pictures of them standing there. At onepoint, John said, 'You know, people are always taking pictures of us andwe 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 mypictures.'

"And he said, 'You live around the corner? Slip them under thedoor.'

"I said I would, and I made up a couple of prints," said Gruen. "Afew days later, I went by their apartment and didn't quite slip themunder the door. I rang the bell instead, and Jerry Rubin answered thedoor. 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 upa few months later when he was asked to shoot pictures of the couplefor a story that a writer friend was doing on the hard-driving rock groupElephant'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 andYoko while he interviewed them," said Gruen. "I said I would definitelydo it, and that's how I actually ended up meeting them."I didn't say anything immediately about me being the guy whowas supposed to slip those other pictures under the door because I liketo stay rather quiet when I'm taking pictures," said Gruen. "So I justtook pictures while they were talking. And because the story was aboutElephant's Memory, I wanted to take a picture of John and Yoko togetherwith the band. They said they were going to the Record Plant thatnight to record with the band. So I asked if I could come along. Theysaid they'd be working, but if I wanted to wait around until the end ofthe night, I could take a picture of them with the band. And that's whatI did. After I took the pictures at the Record Plant later that night, I wenthome, printed the pictures, and sent them to the magazine that was goingto publish the story.