by PAUL SANCHEZ
NEW YORK — On February 9, when the United States commemorated the 50th anniversary of The Beatles coming to America and performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, many were still unaware of unique aspects of John Lennon’s storied life. The famed singer-songwriter-guitarist of The Beatles was not a Catholic, but during his post-Beatle years he became a staunch advocate for the rights of Catholics in Northern Ireland and gave generous financial support to some Catholic priests in Northern Ireland who fought for civil rights. In addition, Lennon’s personal history conveys a strong message in favour of reconciliation between estranged family members by reconciling with his estranged father while the elder Lennon was dying in a cancer ward.
Lennon, whose great-grandparents were Catholics from County Derry in Ireland, was an Anglican raised by his mother’s family, who were both Anglican and of Welsh descent.
At the age of 11, John Lennon was permanently banned from his Anglican parish while serving in the children’s choir for “repeatedly improvising obscene and impious lyrics to the hymns”. John’s grandfather, minstrel singer Jack Lennon, had a brother William who was a Catholic priest in England.
In his post-Beatle years, Lennon began to identify himself as “Irish” rather than British or Welsh. During the 1970s, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono regularly participated in protests against British rule in Northern Ireland as well as ones in favour of the IRA. In fact, Lennon donated the royalties from his politically charged song “The Luck of the Irish” off his 1972 Some Time in New York City album to Irish Northern Aid, an organisation that gave financial support to the families of imprisoned IRA members.
Although Lennon was heavily involved in lending his name, his time and his money on behalf of the civil rights of Catholics in Northern Ireland, he never embraced Catholicism himself despite regularly boasting of his Irish Catholic background.
Two Beatles were raised Anglican — John Lennon and Ringo Starr — while both Paul McCartney and George Harrison were raised Catholic.
McCartney’s father was Anglican and his mother, Mary, was a staunch Catholic. Paul McCartney and his younger brother Mike were raised as churchgoing Catholics. In the Beatle years, McCartney would identify himself as “agnostic”, while in the early 1990s McCartney and his late wife, the former Linda Eastman, who was an American raised in the Jewish faith, listed their religious affiliation as being with the Church of England.
George Harrison came from a devout Liverpool Catholic family with Irish antecedents. “The Quiet Beatle”, as he was known, drifted into the Hindu faith in the mid-1960s to become a lifelong adherent to Hinduism until his 2001 death, as is his widow, the former Olivia Arias, who was born in Mexico and also raised Catholic. Harrison’s spiritual journey has been the subject of recent books, such as Love There That’s Sleeping: The Art and Spirituality of George Harrison by Dale C. Allison, and Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison by Joshua M. Greene.
About 52 years after The Beatles’ first record appeared on the British music charts, “urban legends” and false myths still abound that Alfred “Freddie” Lennon, John’s father, abandoned him as a youngster and then reappeared with his hand out after the Beatle had found fame. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Freddie Lennon tried his best to be a good father to John despite many unfortunate circumstances.
Freddie Lennon was born in Liverpool in 1912 and as a youngster was placed in an orphanage after his father’s death because his mother, the former Mary Maguire, felt she would not be able to provide him with any type of education because of her illiteracy.
Alfred worked in various positions on a crusie ship. He married Julia Stanley in 1938 and two years later their son John was born on October 9, 1940, during one of the most destructive Nazi air raids on Liverpool. Freddie was away at sea for long periods and his absences put a definite strain on the marriage. When Julia informed him that she wanted a divorce, Freddie made many pleas to keep the marriage together for the sake of John.
When Freddie returned home after a long period at sea, he was dismayed to find that Julia had left John to be cared for by her sister Mimi while Julia pursued her free lifestyle. At this time, Freddie’s brother Sydney and his wife loved John and efforts were made for the childless couple to formally adopt John. When the plan fell through, Sydney never spoke to Freddie again. Then, Freddie retrieved the five year-old John from Mimi as he had made plans to take John to New Zealand so the two of them to start a new life together.
Freddie took John for a long vacation of several weeks at the seaside resort of Blackpool, where father and son walked together on the beach several times a day. However, on June 22, 1946, just as plans for the move to New Zealand had been finalised, Julia appeared at their door with her boyfriend Bobby Dykins and wanted to take back John. Freddie made another plea that they try to patch up the marriage for John’s sake. Freddie was shocked that Julia did not object to his plan to take John to New Zealand, saying that he must love John if he was willing to start a new life with him. Julia asked to see her son one more time and John was asked if he wanted to go back with her or stay with his father. John emphatically said, “I’m staying with Daddy”. But as Julia left the house and began to walk down the street, he ran after Julia and yelled, “Come on, Daddy!” That same day Julia Lennon left her son John to be raised by her sister Mimi, which meant that the five year-old John Lennon lost both of his parents in the same day.
Shortly after Julia re-entered John’s life on a more regular basis during his teenage years, she was killed by a car crossing the street in downtown Liverpool when John was 15.
A couple of years later, Freddie contacted Mimi by mail in an effort to get back into John’s life, but Mimi threatened him by saying she would tell John of his father’s minor arrest and very short stint in jail which occurred after a night of carousing with his friends. He did not want John to be shameful that his father was a “jailbird”. The pain of losing his beloved son John lingered with Freddie for years. In the summer of 1963, with the Beatles on top of the charts in England with three consecutive number one hits, Freddie Lennon was working as a kitchen porter near London, and would entertain his co-workers by singing in the kitchen. One day, one of his colleagues said to him that he sounded like the new group from Liverpool called The Beatles and added, “Did you know that one of them Beatle boys is named Lennon like yourself? Perhaps he’s some relation of yours — he certainly looks the spitting image of you.” The statement of his co-worker had no effect on Freddie as he had never heard of The Beatles, and made absolutely no connection with the name.
The winter of 1963 founded Britain grasped by Beatlemania and the group was soon engulfied by the same hysteria in the United States before their February 1964 visit.
Freddie Lennon knew about John Lennon but could not be totally certain he was his son on account of minimal information about his family background. Freddie decided to meet with his younger brother Charlie to discuss the matter. The very first words out of Charlie’s mouth were, “You know that John Lennon the Beatle is your son, don’t you? The papers are running stories that you abandoned him as a baby. What the hell are you going to do about it?”
Freddie decided to take the initiative to try to meet his famous son on his own terms before the press exposed Freddie. A meeting was arranged that lasted about 10 minutes. The first thing John said was, “What do you want, then?” Freddie told him he wanted nothing but to try to set things straight. The 10 minute meeting was neither a disaster nor a success, and afterwards it was reported that John was telling people how much he loved meeting his father and how he was in awe of his eccentricity.
However, having been told by his Aunt Mimi throughout his childhood that his father had abandoned him, John did nothing to follow up with his father. A short time later, Freddie was convinced by Tom Jones’ manager to making a recording, which was a good idea to Freddie because he could couple that with an interview with the press to put an end to the lies they were printing about him. Freddie penned a song about his tumultuous life on the sea entitled “That’s My Life”, which was Freddie’s way of saying he was thankful for his life despite his lifelong hardships. Receiving airplay and predicted to top the British charts, Beatles manager Brian Epstein used his newfound influence to have the song removed from the playlists of all radio stations in the United Kingdom as well as preventing the song from entering the United States. Ironically, “That’s My Life” lives on in the age of YouTube so many decades later.
Near Christmas of 1966, the 54-year-old Freddie began the courtship of 18-year-old Pauline Jones and soon proposed to her. Taking a job as a tutor in Paris, Pauline went to pray at her favourite church, the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in Montmarte, which she had visited many times in her life. It was there after two hours of silent contemplation before the Cross that she felt God’s blessing in marrying Freddie.
In that period, Freddie once was in John’s neighbourhood and rang his doorbell only to have his estranged son slam the door in the face. Upon hearing of John’s action and long being horrified by the vicious press attacks on Freddie, Freddie’s loyal brother Charlie wrote his nephew John a letter without Freddie’s knowledge in which he did not mince words.
Charlie, who used to enjoy looking after John on occasions when John was small, exonerated his brother on the false charge of Freddie “abandoning” him as well as explaining the hard facts of the break-up of his marriage to Julia. John had been unaware of his mother’s infidelities and his Aunt Mimi’s campaign of lies about his father. He wrote to John, “There are two sides to every story, John, and I would suggest you forget everything your aunts have told you about your parents”. He suggested that the famous Beatle invite his father into his home so he could talk to him and make up his own mind about him.
A most surprised and enlightened John responded to the letter by writing to Freddie and saying that he would love to meet him after his return from a month’s stay in India. True to his word, Freddie was surprised by John’s driver appearing at his residence and demanding that he come to John’s grandiose Kenwood estate. After a half an hour of talking over tea, John shocked Freddie by demanding that he go home and collect his things because he insisted that his father come to live at the Kenwood compound in the guest quarters. Freddie lived with John for a while and then decided he would be better off in a small flat nearby, while Pauline worked for John as a nanny to his son Julian, as well as answering some of his fan mail. However, over time Freddie and John became estranged again as John experienced many changes in his life, such as the break-up of his marriage to wife Cynthia and the entrance of Yoko Ono into his life.
Freddie and Pauline, who married in 1968, moved into a house in Brighton bought for them by John. In 1969 they had a son, David Henry Lennon, and in 1973 they had another son, Robin Francis Lennon. Their parents gave the boys these names specifically so that if their surname became burdensome, they could simply drop “Lennon” and go by “David Henry” and” Robin Francis”.
On October 9, 1970, Freddie and his family were summoned to John’s house on the day of his 30th birthday. Looking forward to the reunion after two years of not seeing John, they brought him a modest birthday gift of aftershave lotion, which was all they could afford. However, John had recently gone through the Janov Institute for Primal Therapy, founded by controversial psychologist Arthur Janov, the author of The Primal Scream. The therapy included regressing into painful experiences of the past and screaming to heal oneself. The first words out of John’s mouth to his father were: “I’m cutting off the money and kicking you out of the house. Get out of my life — get off my back.” He then began screaming at Freddie at the top of his lungs, blaming him for his all of his personal problems. Pauline pointed out that he could not put all the blame on Freddie and that his mother was just as much to blame for his problems.
The soon-to-be ex-Beatle screamed at his father, “Have you any idea what I’ve been through because of you? Day after day in therapy, screaming for my Daddy, sobbing for you to come home. What did you care, away at sea all those years . . . I’m bloody mad, insane. I’m due for an early death like Hendrix or Joplin, and it’s all your fault!” Other parts of the maniacal tirade included swear words and off-colour references. Sadly, it would be the only time that John would meet his half-brother David.
Freddie and Pauline immediately left John’s home that day and agreed to put the ugly incident behind them. A couple of weeks later, John’s business manager sent them a letter saying that the house John had given them was actually in John’s name and they had to leave immediately.
Afterwards, Freddie and Pauline Lennon were intent on living in obscurity and instructed their solicitor never to reveal their whereabouts to John. Freddie mostly stayed at home with David, and later Robin, while Pauline worked. It was foremost in Freddie’s life to be a better father to his two sons than he had been to John.
In 1975, after the birth of his son Sean with Yoko Ono, Lennon became more interested in family history. He contacted Freddie and Pauline’s solicitor for their contact information, but was not given any. Freddie and Pauline could not be sure if John’s wish to contact them would include more verbal abuse.
However, tragedy would strike a few months later when Freddie, who had never been sick a day in his life, was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. As his situation began to deteriorate in the hospital, the couple made the decision to contact John, as death was imminent. Upon calling an executive assistant at Apple Records, Pauline was told that John had been constantly bothering the Apple staff to track Freddie down. Within hours of giving the assistant Freddie’s number at the cancer ward at Brighton General Hospital, John placed a transatlantic call.
At the time of the call, the famed celebrity was unaware that his father’s condition would soon dictate death. As a result, John talked about plans of the two getting together once he was well, discussing the past and putting it entirely behind them once and for all. John had grandiose plans of them re-establishing their relationship and starting anew.
Freddie told John he read about his new son Sean and congratulated him, while John was thrilled to know that he had a new three year-old half-brother Robin. Not having seen John since 1970, the elder Lennon gave belated congratulations to his son on his worldwide smash hit “Imagine” in 1970. John gave Freddie his phone number at the Dakota in Manhattan and urged him to call once he got out of the hospital, mentioning he wanted to bring Freddie and his family to New York for a visit.
After his highly positive conversation with his father, which seemed to put their differences in the past, John spoke with the attending doctor and was told the truth. That a day a massive floral arrangement arrived at the hospital, the biggest that hospital staff had ever seen. The card read “To Dad — Get well soon, with much love from John, Yoko and Sean”. Freddie Lennon was thrilled to receive it, and proud that the people in the hospital knew it was from his famous son John Lennon.
Freddie Lennon died a short time later. While till the end his painful relationship with his son was foremost in his mind, Freddie Lennon was ecstatic that he was able to make deathbed reconciliation with his famous son and end his life on that positive note. Freddie’s will provided to give to John Freddie’s unpublished autobiography that he wrote specifically for John to know the truth about his life, marriage to Julia, and his many unsuccessful attempts to be a good father to John. Fourteen years later, Pauline would use Freddie’s unpublished autobiography as the basis for her book Daddy, Come Home: The True Story of John Lennon and His Father.
About a year after his father’s death, John Lennon was interviewed on a New York FM rock station. In the interview, he made the astonishing remark, “I once told my father to get the hell out of my life, and it was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life because he died last year and I’ll never be able to tell him I love him again”.
It is ironic that John Lennon had such Catholic ties in his life despite never being Catholic. John Lennon’s reconciliation with his dying father is a strong testament to the need for people to mend family issues before it is too late and look to Christ for guidance in such family conflicts.
— Paul Sanchez is