Lennon in America: 1971-1980, Based in Part on the Lost Lennon Diaries

by Geoffrey Giuliano

(Cooper Square Press)

Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon

by Robert Rosen

(Soft Skull Press)

I admit it: I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. On December 9, 1980, I was a senior at Loyola Academy, and I was preparing to head out for school when my mother told me that John Lennon had been murdered in New York City. There was no way I could sit through a day of classes, so I picked up a friend of mine and we drove around all day, trying to make sense of the fact that someone who’d relinquished fame for family, who’d spent so much of his career espousing peace and seemed finally to have found some measure of his own, could end up getting blown away by some crazy dweeb. The school must have sent home a truancy notice, but my mother never said a word about it (which was kind of her, considering the fact that in her mind’s eye John Lennon was always offering me a syringe full of rat poison).

It embarrasses me now that an entertainer meant so much to me. Even then, watching the national newscasts, I was repelled by the tearstained faces presenting themselves for the cameras, the true believers hoisting their enormous love letters to the martyred saint. None of them seemed to sense their emotional proximity to the killer, who not long before pulling the trigger had asked his victim for an autograph and then a job, and made his way into the frame of a snapshot that would soon grace the front page of every newspaper. No one who obliged the networks with a sobbing eulogy seemed to think twice about retailing his grief–after all, Lennon had become one of the great heroes of the day by doing exactly that, at one point releasing an avant-garde album on which he amplified the dying heartbeat of his miscarried child. He’d turned his own life into an entertainment, so who could fault the National Enquirer for publishing a paparazzo’s grainy close-up of the corpse on its slab? John Lennon had made his bed, and now he would have to sleep in it (forever).

In the two decades since, the public appetite for Lennon’s private life has never come close to being satiated. In the publishing arena alone it’s devoured at least a dozen biographies and oral histories, from Ray Coleman’s respectful Lennon: The Definitive Biography to Albert Goldman’s muckraking The Lives of John Lennon, not to mention memoirs by Lennon’s boyhood friend Pete Shotton, his half-sister Julia Baird, his mistress May Pang, his personal assistant Fred Seaman, and the Lennons’ personal mystic, John Green. There are oddities like Jim O’Donnell’s The Day John Met Paul, an entire volume on the day Lennon bumped into his future collaborator at a church fete in Liverpool, and Linda Keen’s Across the Universe With John Lennon, which purports to be a document of the singer’s afterlife as communicated to the author in her dreams. If that’s not weird enough for you, point your browser to the John Lennon Artificial Intelligence Project (www.triumphpc.com/john-lennon), which aspires to “recreate the personality of the late Beatle, John Lennon, by programming a highly advanced artificial intelligence with John’s own thoughts and words.”

But for years the Dead Sea Scrolls of Lennon’s private life have been the diaries, both written and taped, that he kept daily throughout most of his five-year hibernation inside the Dakota. Now two recent additions to the Lennon bibliography appear to be based on them. Robert Rosen, author of the brand-new Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, writes in his “prelude” that immediately after Lennon’s murder he was approached by Seaman, whom he’d known since college. “John had told him that if anything should happen to him, it was Seaman’s job to write the true story of his final years….I chose to believe him. I had no reason not to. I was a 28-year-old unemployed writer, with a master’s degree in journalism, whose last occupation was cab driver. I’d known Seaman since college; I was his editor at the school newspaper. He’d begun working for Lennon in January 1979. After one day on the job he told me, ‘We must collaborate on a book.'” Seaman was kept on at the Dakota as Yoko Ono’s executive assistant, and five months later he brought over Lennon’s journals, which Rosen began transcribing in October 1981.

In December, Yoko Ono fired Seaman after she caught him taking a bath in her private residence. According to Rosen, Seaman then suggested he take a vacation, and when Rosen returned his apartment had been ransacked. “Everything I’d been working on–the diaries, the photocopies of the diaries, the transcripts, the manuscript, the tapes, the photos–had all been taken. There was no sign of forced entry. It was Seaman; he had the keys.” In August 1982, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner persuaded Rosen to take his story to Yoko Ono, which he did; Ono used Rosen’s own diaries to prosecute Seaman, who pleaded guilty to grand larceny in May 1983 and was sentenced to five years’ probation.

Geoffrey Giuliano, whose Lennon in America was published earlier this year by Cooper Square Press, says on his Web page (www.geoffrey-giuliano.com) that his copy of the diaries was transcribed by Lennon himself, who was thinking about writing an autobiography. “John gave a copy to his close friend Harry Nilsson,” he writes, “who, in 1983, gave me that very document. At the time he took great pains to impress upon me that out of his deep affection for Lennon he wanted the truth about John’s troubled final years told.” No one can corroborate this story: Nilsson died in 1994, and according to Giuliano the only person to witness the transaction was writer Terry Southern, who died in 1995. As part of Lennon’s estate, the diaries belong to Yoko Ono, so neither Rosen nor Giuliano can quote them without inviting a lawsuit. “There’s no legal issue here,” Michael Dorr, editorial director of Cooper Square, told the Washington Post. “Information can’t be copyrighted, only the expression of that information.” A couple weeks after the book hit the shelves, Ono’s attorneys subpoenaed Cooper Square for all the materials used to write the book. An ad on Giuliano’s Web page touts Lennon in America as “the book Yoko Ono doesn’t want you to read!”

No wonder: Giuliano reports that Lennon had a sexual encounter with his mother at age 13, that he got a blow job from the Beatles’ original bass player, Stu Sutcliffe, that during a 1965 party he was caught “passively engaged in anal sex with a well-known male celebrity photographer,” that he “virtually raped” a young woman before a Beatles concert, that he stole a quickie with Linda McCartney during the Abbey Road sessions, that he spent an evening in 1974 hitting on New York disco king Tony Manaro, that he fantasized about being “spanked or whipped”–and that’s just in the prologue. The book’s more sensational claims have already been digested by the New York Post and other newspapers: the singer, we’re told, masturbated constantly and was sexually obsessed with Barbara Walters, briefly became a born-again Christian who swore by The 700 Club, obsessed over his weight to the point of bulimia, and physically abused the same wife and child he would later purr about on his final album, Double Fantasy.

Even if all that stuff were deleted, Ono would have ample reason to want the book quashed. Giuliano, who’s written or edited ten other books on the Beatles, interviewed her 17 years ago and includes among the book’s photos a shot of himself wrapping an arm around her. But the book begins with an attack on the “acquisitive Yoko Ono” for trying to “sanitize (and therefore commercialize) the life and times of the artist toward a more satisfactory bottom line.” His book, he promises, will present a truer and more complex portrait of Lennon, whom he crowns “the single greatest artist of the twentieth century.” The Yoko Ono of Lennon in America is the old dragon lady of Beatles legend, hypnotically subjugating the weak-willed musician for her own ends, and Giuliano can barely conceal his spite, using ironic quotation marks to frame her “career” and her “recitals.”

Occasionally that spite seems to impair his judgment, and when there are conflicting accounts of a situation he’s more willing to believe whichever paints a more sinister portrait of Ono. In October 1973, Lennon and Ono separated, and Lennon moved to Los Angeles with his young secretary May Pang, where he spent the next year carousing with Nilsson, Ringo Starr, and Keith Moon. “[Yoko] kicked me out is what actually happened,” Lennon told Playboy in 1980. “She wouldn’t let me come home. That’s why it was 18 months instead of six.” Yet in Giuliano’s version of events, drawn largely from Pang’s, the “calculating Yoko” came up with a “master plan” to reel Lennon back in and salvage her career. She “allegedly lured her estranged spouse to the Dakota with a secret treatment to stop smoking.” Pang was unable to get hold of him for three days, and when she finally located him he was “groggy to the point of stupor…John’s zombie-like demeanor was later confirmed by Pete Hamill, who had scheduled a chat with the musician. The New York journalist found him so disoriented he wasn’t even sure what year it was.” Giuliano speculates that the smoking cure was administered by “a Manhattan hypnotist well known for his potent black magic concoctions….Another clue had John comparing the treatment to Primal Therapy, suggesting that Yoko used the ultimate weakness, his ever-present childhood trauma, to finally rope him back in.”

Both Robert Rosen and Steve Gutstein, the former Manhattan assistant district attorney who read the diaries while preparing the case against Seaman, have questioned the veracity of Lennon in America, which Giuliano has denounced as a smear campaign. Unfortunately, while the author lists in “A Note on Sources” about three dozen interview subjects, not everything in the book is attributed to one of them. The subtitle trumpets that it’s “based in part on the lost Lennon diaries,” so when some juicy tidbit popped up without a source, I was inclined to assume it came from the diaries even though it might have come from some anonymous tale-teller with an ax to grind. Only the book’s proportions suggest that it was based on Lennon’s diaries: the author devotes 100 pages to the years 1976 through ’79, when Lennon was a fanatical diarist, but only six pages to 1980, the diary for which disappeared from the Dakota and has never been located. And he spends much of this space alleging that Ono had an affair with art dealer Sam Green, that she planned to divorce Lennon, and that she horned in on the album, demanding that she provide half the songs and that they be interpolated with his to emphasize “her equality with John.”

If Giuliano’s unsourced revelations are troubling, Rosen seems to abdicate any sort of accountability. “Nowhere Man is a work of both investigative journalism and imagination,” he announces at the outset, as if the two were somehow reconcilable. Though he spent six weeks poring over Lennon’s diaries, Rosen hasn’t seen them since they disappeared from his apartment 18 years ago. His publisher, Soft Skull Press (which made news earlier this year by republishing J.H. Hatfield’s George W. Bush biography, Fortunate Son), points out in a publisher’s note on Amazon.com that “Nowhere Man is not ‘based on’ the diaries of John Lennon, or any other material owned by the Estate of John Lennon.” Back in the 80s, when Rosen gave Ono his own journals, she put him on her payroll. In the preface to his book he cites “informal conversations” with her and several of Lennon’s friends, family members, and business associates as sources for his narrative. “At the time I was speaking with them, neither they nor I had any idea that what they were telling me would be used in a book.”

Given all these disclaimers, and given that Rosen’s other notable publications have been personal essays, film criticism, humor, and erotica, I had a hard time taking Nowhere Man at all seriously as journalism. It doesn’t help that the narrative proper is preceded by “Jerusalem: A Fantasy,” in which Rosen pictures Lennon praying in the garden of Gethsemane, hooking up with an American tourist, taking her back to his hotel room, and bathing her feet. (“This is what I must do,” he tells the stunned woman.) Much of the book, which covers the events of 1980 with frequent flashbacks to the earlier years of Lennon’s retirement, echoes more reputable published accounts, and whether by investigation or imagination, Rosen seems to understand his subject at least as well as Giuliano does. But Nowhere Man really belongs on the growing shelf of Beatles fiction, inaugurated in 1977 with Mark Shipper’s comic fantasy Paperback Writer and recently enlarged by the VH1 movie Two of Us (which imagines a post-Beatles encounter between Lennon and McCartney).

On the other hand, if modern life has proved that fact is stranger than fiction, it’s also shown that literature can be truer than journalism, because it acknowledges and as a result transcends its subjectivity. Rosen’s book may be half baloney, but it also offers more genuine insights than Lennon in America. Even its limitations become a virtue: denied use of the diaries, Rosen beefs up his text with references to Lennon’s favorite reading material and lengthy digressions on the assorted philosophies that he and Ono studied–tarot, astrology, numerology, and katu-tugai, which prescribed westerly travel around the globe to achieve mystical results. Like the rest of us, Lennon assembled his sense of the world from the odds and ends of pop culture, and the publications he used to fill the vacuum of his days–the New York dailies, the supermarket tabloids, books by Henry Miller and Hunter S. Thompson–form a collage of his consciousness even as they reduce him to a passive consumer like his fans. And the book’s primer on numerology (which figured into recordings like “Revolution 9” and “#9 Dream”) and quotations from Patric Walker’s horoscopes in Town & Country (the Lennons’ favorite) are as oddly seductive when correlated to someone else’s daily life as to our own.

Nowhere Man succeeds admirably in one respect: it captures with disturbing immediacy the pressure of being a celebrity–even in private. Lennon can’t sit in his own office without the administrative staff staring at him. “Everybody knew that John hated being stared at and that if you stared too much, he’d complain to Yoko and she’d fire you,” Rosen writes. “The best strategy was to pretend to work and try to steal looks at John’s reflection in the big mirror that covered an entire wall in the back of the office.” Actor Peter Boyle and his wife, Lorraine, are among the Lennons’ few friends, yet Boyle constantly tries to engineer situations where he and Lennon can be seen together. Forced at one point to fly coach, Lennon spends the entire trip trying to ignore the gaping passengers all around him, and during a trip to South Africa he can’t shake the feeling that reporters have gotten into his hotel room while he was out. Two months later he makes a sailing trip to Bermuda and stays in a small cottage with the crew, but like the office staffers they can’t help staring at him. By the end of the book you understand how a relatively normal person could spend the better part of five years locked in his bedroom.

Lennon’s life ended abruptly and senselessly, and the way each author tries to create a feeling of closure says a great deal about his relationship to the subject. In the last section of Nowhere Man, Rosen jumps from Lennon’s psyche into the mind of Mark David Chapman, the 25-year-old security guard from Hawaii who killed him. It’s an incredibly cheesy move that instantly compromises the narrative authority Rosen has labored to achieve in the preceding 200 pages; its potboiler tone isn’t the least bit convincing, and it elevates Chapman to the same level of importance and complexity as his victim. Yet Rosen’s description of his sentencing flirts with brilliance. The courtroom is buzzing with anticipation, just like a rock concert, and some of the spectators, Lennon fans with wire-rimmed glasses and hair parted down the middle, are angling to address the TV cameras. Everyone agrees that Chapman killed Lennon to become famous, but they all crave the spotlight as well. “In America in 1981,” writes Rosen, “particularly in a city like New York, fame is a crucial commodity, and anonymity is a toxic condition that can lead to murderous rage.”

Giuliano spends the last pages of his book attacking Ono for a variety of crimes against Lennon’s memory, writing that she had the body cremated against his express wishes; snubbed his Liverpool family after the murder; tried to evict his 78-year-old uncle from a house Lennon had bought him; feuded with his ex-wife, Cynthia, and their son, Julian; and immediately after the shooting “opened her home and her bedroom to Sam Havadtoy,” a decorator who’s been her companion ever since. He concludes with a breathless eulogy to Lennon: “His death left a giant void as an artist, icon, and compassionate humanist that no one before or since could possibly even begin to fill…. We miss you, John.” It’s no coincidence that the last line reads like one of those posters brandished outside the Dakota. Giuliano has built a substantial career as an “international celebrity biographer”; in addition to the Beatles he’s published books about Rod Stewart, Pete Townshend, and the Rolling Stones. Implicit in his criticism of Yoko Ono is the argument that he’s better qualified to tend the Lennon flame. “Can you imagine what it feels like,” he asks in his introduction, “to hold in your hand a document you know has the power to change the course of Beatles history completely and forever?”

I can’t, and I don’t care to. If John Lennon’s unhappy life proves anything, it proves that you can be known the world over without ever knowing yourself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.