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John Lennon's First Wife Out to Set the Record Straight


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LONDON - She had a ticket to ride with one of the greatest rock bands of all time. But if Cynthia Lennon had known the emotional pain that would accompany her decade-long journey with John, Paul, George and Ringo, she says she would have walked away in a heartbeat.

In an interview nearly 25 years after the death of Beatles founder John Lennon, Cynthia Lennon recalled her former husband as both a genius and hugely flawed man whose insecurities drove him to commit acts of cowardice, cruelty and betrayal against the people closest to him.

He was mean, she suggested. He beat her (once) and kept her apart from the things she loved - most notably, him.

She said he abandoned their son, Julian, for years, and his behavior became more irrational and withdrawn as he experimented with drugs such as LSD and heroin in the late 1960s. Much of her private experience differed sharply from the image Lennon enjoyed publicly as a campaigner for love and world peace.

"I always believed that idols have feet of clay," Cynthia Lennon, 66, said. "I thought it was important for the fans and the people who really believed in John ... (to remember that) he was human. He was no saint, and he was no sinner. But he had a special talent that touched everybody's hearts."

A gunman shot and killed Lennon on Dec. 8, 1980, as he walked with his second wife, Yoko Ono, outside their Manhattan residence. He would have celebrated his 65th birthday on Oct. 9.

Cynthia Lennon published a best-selling book, "John," in October to commemorate his life but also, as she said, to "balance the scales" between the myth and reality.

The first half of the book focuses on the couple's romance in art school during the late 1950s, Lennon's early musical career and the skyrocketing fame of the Beatles from the early 1960s onward. The second half chronicles the Beatles' experimentation with drugs and transcendental meditation, Lennon's growing distance from his wife and colleagues and, subsequently, the couple's divorce that followed his extramarital affair with Ono in 1968.

"It wasn't a derogatory story. It was a true story. I think my intention in writing the book was to enlighten people who loved John and his memory about certain facts that I lived through - we lived through - and just to fill in a few spaces, really," she explained.

Although Lennon and Ono attracted enormous publicity with various stunts, such as their repeated "bed-ins" for peace, Cynthia Lennon said it is important to understand a fuller picture of his life.

"I knew John from the age of 18, and it was part and parcel of my life to live with this man and to see who he was, his talents and his weaknesses," she said.

She attributes his bitterness later in life to lingering feelings of loss after the death of his mother, Julia, in 1959; the domineering influence of his aunt and surrogate parent, Mimi Smith; and his upbringing without a father, who left the family after forcing John, at age 5, to choose between him and his mother.

Her book gives detailed accounts of Lennon's intense jealousy and fear in adulthood of being abandoned. He physically attacked Cynthia in 1959 after he learned that she had danced with his best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe, at a party. Conversely, she includes the text of various letters he wrote to her throughout their marriage vowing his eternal love and devotion.

Drugs and, subsequently, Ono's controlling influence turned Lennon into an unsmiling and seemingly unhappy man from the late 1960s onward, when he outwardly preached messages of inner tranquility and world togetherness, his first wife said.

Cynthia Lennon said she had received no warning in 1968 that her marriage to Lennon was over. She arrived home one day to find him sitting on the floor of the couple's bedroom next to Ono, who was wearing Cynthia's bathrobe.

Rather than talk to her directly, he announced his divorce plans to her through the British news media, she said.

Julian Lennon, their son, was subjected to repeated violent outbursts and mocking criticism by his father. John Lennon once so severely criticized the boy's manner of laughing that, to this day, Julian rarely laughs, Cynthia Lennon said.

"I think John lost an awful lot of his humor and his wit, which were part and parcel of his creativity," she said. "I felt he was fighting many, many battles. And I think he had a lot of guilt for what had happened. But John was never one to admit to anything. He would battle on and fight. I think a lot of aggression came out in his music, especially in the latter years."

In the foreword to her book, Julian Lennon, 40, described John Lennon as "the father I loved and who let me down in so many ways. ... (He) was a remarkable man who stood for peace and love in the world. But at the same time, he found it very hard to show any peace and love to his first family - my mother and me."

Paul McCartney wrote the Beatles hit song, "Hey Jude," originally entitled "Hey Jules," as a sympathetic message to Julian Lennon as McCartney witnessed the family's breakup.

In her book, Cynthia Lennon describes how her former husband gave Ono full control over his vast fortune, including a small trust fund he had established for Julian. After John Lennon's death, she wrote, Ono tightened control over the funds and sold off property that John Lennon had purchased decades earlier for various members of his family, including his sisters.

Ono has not responded to the numerous allegations and criticisms leveled at her in the book.

Asked whether she feared the possibility that Ono could use her wealth to bankrupt Cynthia Lennon in litigation, the author said, "I've never been afraid of Yoko. Never, ever. ... Everything I've written in the book is absolutely true, so I don't feel particularly afraid of being sued or anything else. I've got the evidence. I have letters, I have all the things necessary."

She said she had no intention of engaging in a war of words with Ono, who is routinely described by music critics and Beatles biographers as a principal factor in the group's breakup. But she suggested that Ono's failure to make peace with her critics is something "she should think about."

Although Cynthia Lennon used words such as "cowardly," "cruel" and "brutal," to describe her former husband, her overall impression of him remains a positive one.

"He was hysterical, he was historical. He was fun. He was so multitalented. When he was good, he was really, really good," she said. "And when he was bad, he was horrid."

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(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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