TWENTY-ONE years ago when John Lennon was shot dead by a deranged fan, his widow Yoko Ono was one of the most hated women in the world.
When I meet Ono, it is a sunny May morning. I am invited inside the enormous, sumptuously-furnished apartment on the top floor of the gothic Dakota building opposite Central Park in Manhattan. Roman Polanski filmed Rosemary’s Baby here but it is now more famous as the building in front of which Lennon was gunned down by Mark Chapman in December 1980 as he passed through the elegant entrance archway on his return home from a recording session. As I walk in, swarms of awe-struck tourists gaze up at the building from the other side of the street. Ono moved into the Dakota with Lennon in 1973, first renting the apartment for 1,800 a month and later buying it. Almost 30 years later, it is full of reminders of Lennon and his untimely death. The walls are lined with pictures of the former Beatle, as well as original artwork by Warhol, Matisse and Ono herself.
The first thing Ono talks about when I meet her is Lennon. She signs a copy of her latest CD Open Your Box and hands it to me with a twinkly smile. When I ask her what music she listens to these days, she answers: "John Lennon. John’s music is great. He is an incredible singer. Just incredible.
"It’s nice to have memories," she adds after a pause in her heavily-accented, lilting voice. "When John died there was an incredible sadness and fear and shock but I was angry too. But I decided not to let the anger kill me."
We sit drinking tea at the mosaic-topped dining table in Ono’s vast, sun-drenched kitchen. At 69, Ono is alarmingly youthful-looking. The broad face with its strong features, that were so despised by Lennon’s fans and mocked by her detractors, is make-up free and unlined. Her brown eyes are intelligent and searching and her long wiry dark hair has been cut into a short pixie-style cut and dyed honey brown. She doesn’t seek to explain why her looks have been the subject of such criticism when I ask her about the personal insults flung her way. She says simply, "Even my mother told me: ‘you are a handsome woman but you’re not pretty. Pretty girls don’t have those big bones’". In fact, Ono is petite, standing at around 5ft and moves with the agility of a woman 30 years her junior. She says that nobody could deal with her being an Oriental woman who was "not like Madam Butterfly."
"The hate is still there," she says all of a sudden. "I didn’t like it and it does still hurt me. Lennon was suddenly standing with a non-blonde. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody."
When Lennon was murdered he left Ono in control of his estate, a fortune she has stated is "as much as McCartney’s got." Lennon’s first-born, Julian was left out of his will and has harboured a deep resentment towards his step-mother, blaming her for the fact the he barely knew his famous father. He is also critical of the way Ono has treated him since the death. "I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it. I don’t like the silk ties that I’ve been sent with his lithograph drawings on them. I don’t like the mugs that I’ve received. I think there are other ways to deal with his memory than how she’s dealt with it, and I’m not fond of it at all. And I’m just sad that I have no control over that whatsoever. That sickens me. That peace and love never came home to me."
According to newspaper reports, Ono paid Julian a settlement sum of 20m, a figure her step-son says has been inflated by the press. "It certainly wasn’t the figure that’s been quoted in the papers by any means," he says. "It was minimal compared to that figure."
According to Julian, his father completely ignored him after he met Ono and it was left to McCartney to perform the paternal duties. "Paul had a much more tender way with people," says Julian. "When I was a kid, Dad wasn’t necessarily the playing-around type, whereas Paul was, so there was cowboys and Indians and all that kind of stuff."
In 1968, McCartney wrote a song for the five-year-old called ‘Hey Jules’ which metamorphosed into ‘Hey Jude’, possibly the greatest ever Beatles song.
Perhaps because Julian never had the opportunity to get to know his father, it feels as if he has accepted Lennon is dead and moved his life on. With Ono the complete opposite seems to be the case. She manages to mention Lennon’s name in most sentences and just stops herself from referring to him as "my husband". As she points to the piano where Lennon composed ‘Imagine’ it’s almost as though for her he has never died. While he was alive, the other Beatles, friends and family became intensely irritated by the bond between them and their obsession with one another. He called Ono "mother" or "it" and she called him "businessman."
Apart from a self-imposed, 18-month split in 1973, the couple were inseparable from the time they met in 1966. Lennon, then 26, had been invited to Ono’s art exhibition at the Indica Gallery in London. He grabbed one of 33-year-old Ono’s exhibits - a green apple - and took a bite out of it. "I was very attracted to him. It was a really strange situation," she recalls.
Although Ono was 36 when she married Lennon, she says he was her first true soul-mate. Born in Japan in 1933 into an upper-middle-class banking family who moved to America when she was a teenager, Ono studied classical music and art. She married Japanese pianist and composer Ichiyanagi Toshi in 1956 and moved back to Japan with him. By 1961 she was divorced. Two years later she married American artist Tony Cox and returned to live in New York where in August of that year, she gave birth to a daughter, Kyoko.
Within three years of their first meeting, Lennon had left his wife and young son to be with Ono and she had divorced her husband and lost custody of Kyoko. Cox cited Lennon and Ono’s louche, drug-fuelled lifestyle as a reason for keeping the child away from her mother.
After marrying in March 1969 the pair chose their honeymoon to stage their first "bed-in" at the Amsterdam Hilton with the aim of promoting world peace. Lennon said of his new wife: "When I fell in love with Yoko, I knew, my God, this is different from anything I’ve ever known. This is more than gold, more than anything."
But five years after several miscarriages and the loss of a still-born child in 1968, Ono and Lennon split. He had a highly-publicised affair with his secretary, Mai Pang - a liaison alleged to have been orchestrated by Ono to ensure her husband’s fling became nothing more. They got back together and their son, Sean, was born on Lennon’s birthday in 1975. He penned the tracks ‘Woman’, ‘Jealous Guy’ and ‘Imagine’ for her. Their relationship inspired the Beatles track ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ but it also started to destroy the chemistry in the band. Ono accompanied him to all the Beatles’ recording sessions and when she was ill, Lennon insisted on bringing her sick bed into the studio so that she could watch the band record. The other Beatles quickly grew tired of her constant presence.
Stories soon started leaking to the press, which was equally scathing about Ono. In 1969 Esquire magazine ran the racist headline ‘John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie’ above an unflattering picture of Ono. Fans screamed abuse at Ono whenever she went out with Lennon. To this day, Ono doesn’t understand the feelings of bitterness directed towards her: "But we were in love, like teenagers. He didn’t want to leave me alone," she says almost by way of an excuse.
Since Lennon’s murder, Ono’s romantic life seems to have been frozen in time. She has dated formerly-gay antiques dealer Sam Havadtoy but insists that she is not involved with anybody at the moment. Her career, however, has begun to thrive. Initially Ono’s projects - which include the film Bottoms (featuring the naked bottoms of 365 of her friends and colleagues) were laughed at.
"The art world was not initially really accepting my kind of work," she says. "I was ahead of my time. And the kind of thing I’m interested in is not so much what is actually on paper or actually there - it’s something that is beyond that. It’s a kind of freedom from just being tied to objects and things that are in the ‘real world’. By conceptualising things you have an incredible freedom.
"The fact that I was a Japanese woman had a lot to do with the kind of attitude I received in the art world. Women are very intelligent and not appreciated. We try to pretend that we are not clever and it’s such a pity that we can’t show how clever we are."
But Ono has had a good crack at it; in recent years she has released her own music (as well as previously unreleased music by Lennon), sometimes to critical acclaim. She has worked energetically on her own portfolio of photography, sculpture, installation art and film. In 1986 she produced the Lennon documentary Imagine and spent 1997 touring America with son Sean’s band IMA.
Last year Ono received an Apple Pie Award from the Million Mom March organisation for her concert Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music at the Radio City Music Hall. The concert, held last October, was hosted by the actor Kevin Spacey and featured Lou Reed, Cyndi Lauper and Nelly Furtado and raised money for September 11 relief efforts.
Ono feels that Lennon’s quest for world peace is even more significant now than it was when he was alive. Earlier this year she paid an estimated 150,000 for a billboard in Piccadilly Circus bearing a line from Lennon’s ‘Imagine’: ‘Imagine all the people living life in peace.’
After the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, she paid for the erection of billboards in New York and Los Angeles that bore the image of Lennon’s blood-splashed spectacles. "So many people are being killed with guns." she says angrily. "It’s such a waste of human life. After the student killed his classmates I thought that was a good time to show what happens."
But despite her anti-violence efforts and an increasing appreciation of her art, Ono remains largely unforgiven. The world still wants to know what he saw in her. Ono stands accused of having bewitched Lennon after chasing him mercilessly, of somehow tricking him into falling in love with her. When I put that to her, Ono swears Lennon pursued her, that she was not looking for a new relationship when she met him and that, in fact, "it seemed like the wrong situation at the wrong time."
Ono enjoyed a rare moment of triumph this March when she was invited to Liverpool with the Prime Minister’s wife Cherie Blair to unveil a 7ft bronze statue of Lennon to mark the renaming of the airport to John Lennon International Airport.
"It was a beautiful moment," says Ono, staring into the distance. She tells me suddenly that she telephoned the remaining band members last year. "I apologised to them for what happened. I think that together we learnt a lesson."
Did they apologise too? "No. They just ignored me," she says, sounding more rejected than bitter. "I was met with silence."
How does she deal with the relentless rejections?
"I just laugh," she says, sounding so sad that I wonder if her tinkling voice might dissolve into loud sobs. "When you are totally depressed, you should try giggling. Just make yourself laugh. Force yourself to laugh."
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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