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Peter Jackson’s documentary Get Back showcases the Fab Four as no-frills songwriters. Mugs of tea are just about the only creature comfort on show. That is, aside from John Lennon’s white Rolls-Royce Phantom, in which he and Yoko Ono travel to the studio each day.
Wasn’t Lennon a self-styled “working-class hero”? Hardly, says Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Mail. Lennon was “a supreme individualist”. He was worth £87m when he was murdered by a crazed fan in 1980. (Paul McCartney was worth double that at the time, and is now on a reported £820m.) Lennon was also the poshest Beatle: after his father disappeared, his mother, Julia, handed him over to her sister and brother-in-law. They gave him a middle-class upbringing in a suburban semi-detached house called Mendips. “No one had houses with names where I came from,” recalled council-estate kid McCartney of his childhood visits.
And Lennon only got richer? Indeed. He was a multimillionaire by his mid-twenties thanks to the Beatles’ meteoric success. One scene in the 1965 film Help! required Lennon to dash through the London jeweller Asprey, during which time he spent the equivalent of £20,000 today. Lennon recorded Imagine, his hymn to a world with “no possessions”, at Tittenhurst Park, the 26-room, 72-acre Berkshire manor he’d bought in 1969. He also acquired a taste for Rolls-Royces. One was given a psychedelic paint job that, in Lennon’s telling, so offended the sensibilities of one woman that she attacked it with an umbrella while he was cruising down Piccadilly.
Did he have a head for business? Not when it came to Apple Corps, the Beatles’ commercial arm. The company haemorrhaged money in the late 1960s, says Craig Brown in his book One Two Three Four. Employees and hangers-on would waltz out of its Savile Row headquarters with televisions, typewriters and even the lead from the roof. The company employed a full-time mystic named Caleb, and in 1968 its manager, Neil Aspinall, wrote a memo pleading: “Please keep drunken Irishmen out of our board meetings.” Lennon kicked off one emergency meeting by taking acid. Eventually the “New Jersey bruiser” Allen Klein was brought in to restore order.
What about after the Beatles? In 1971, the year after the band’s acrimonious break-up, Lennon and Ono moved to the exclusive Dakota building overlooking Central Park, New York. They filled the 25 rooms in their four apartments with ancient Egyptian artefacts, including a sarcophagus in the living room. When Elton John visited, he discovered that Ono had a specially refrigerated room for her fur coats. John later sent Lennon a satirical verse for his 40th birthday: “Imagine six apartments/It isn’t hard to do/One is full of fur coats/The other’s full of shoes.” When Aspinall made a similar suggestion about hypocrisy, Lennon shot back: “It’s only a bloody song.”
A very profitable one at that True. Lennon and Ono also spent a reported $1.5m on a 122-strong herd of prized Holstein dairy cows, one of which Ono later sold for $250,000. Happily, business nous ran in her family: she was born into a Japanese banking dynasty in 1933, and grew up in a house of 20 servants. She soon took charge of her and Lennon’s business empire, negotiating his record deals and buying up property across America.
What happened after Lennon’s murder? Ono was handed control of the estate, which still makes about $12m every year thanks to its stake in some of the world’s most valuable songs. Now 88, she started transferring ownership to the pair’s son, 46-year-old musician Sean Lennon, last year. John had another son with his first wife, Cynthia, 58-year-old Julian, whom he dismissed as being unplanned and having come “from a bottle of whiskey”. Julian was left just £100,000 by his father, but got hold of a reported £20m after a lengthy court battle. In a 1998 interview with the Telegraph, Julian called his father a “hypocrite”, saying: “How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces?”
He’s got a point Despite Lennon’s obvious personal flaws, the fascination surrounding him has cultivated a thriving market in memorabilia. Rather ghoulishly, the blood-stained shirt of the doorman who tried to save him after he was shot was sold for £31,000 in 2016. Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for All You Need Is Love went for $1.25m in 2005. And in 2011 a tooth given by Lennon to his housekeeper in the 1960s was sold for £19,500 to a Canadian dentist – Dr Michael Zuk, whose surname means “beetle” in Ukrainian. He once said he planned to clone Lennon with the tooth’s DNA.
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