John Lennon: The Life
By Philip Norman
Hardcover, 822 pages
List price: $34.95
I was never really wanted
John Lennon was born with a gift for music and comedy that would carry him further from his roots than he ever dreamed possible. As a young man, he was lured away from the British Isles by the seemingly boundless glamour and opportunity to be found across the Atlantic. He achieved that rare feat for a British performer of taking American music to the Americans and playing it as convincingly as any homegrown practitioner, or even more so. For several years, his group toured the country, delighting audiences in city after city with their garish suits, funny hair, and contagiously happy grins.
This, of course, was not Beatle John Lennon but his namesake paternal grandfather, more commonly known as Jack, born in 1855. Lennon is an Irish surname — from O'Leannain or O'Lonain — and Jack habitually gave his birthplace as Dublin, though there is evidence that his family had already crossed the Irish Sea to become part of Liverpool's extensive Hibernian community some time previously. He began his working life as a clerk, but in the 1880s followed a common impulse among his compatriots and emigrated to New York. Whereas the city turned other immigrant Irishmen into laborers or police officers, Jack wound up as a member of Andrew Roberton's Colored Operatic Kentucky Minstrels.
However brief or casual his involvement, this made him part of the first transatlantic popular music industry. American minstrel troupes, in which white men blackened their faces, put on outsize collars and stripey pantaloons, and sang sentimental choruses about the Swanee River, "coons," and "darkies," were hugely popular in the late nineteenth century, both as performers and creators of hit songs. When Roberton's Colored Operatic Kentucky Minstrels toured Ireland in 1897, the Limerick Chronicle called them "the world's acknowledged masters of refined minstrelsy," while the Dublin Chronicle thought them the best it had ever seen. A contemporary handbook records that the troupe was about thirty-strong, that it featured some genuinely black artistes among the cosmetic ones, and that it made a specialty of parading through the streets of every town where it was to appear.
For this John Lennon, unlike the grandson he would never see, music did not bring worldwide fame but was merely an exotic interlude, most details of which were never known to his descendants. Around the turn of the century, he came off the road for good, returned to Liverpool, and resumed his old life as a clerk, this time with the Booth shipping line. With him came his daughter, Mary, only child of a first marriage that had not survived his temporary immersion in burnt-cork makeup, banjo music, and applause.
When Mary left him to work in domestic service, a solitary old age seemed in prospect for Jack. His remedy was to marry his housekeeper, a young Liverpool Irishwoman with the happily coincidental name of Mary Maguire. Although twenty years his junior, and illiterate,
Mary — better known as Polly — proved an ideal Victorian wife, practical, hardworking, and selfless. Their home was a tiny terrace house in Copperfield Street, Toxteth, a part of the city nicknamed "Dickens Land," so numerous were the streets named after Dickens characters. Rather like Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, Jack sometimes talked about returning to his former life as a minstrel and earning fortunes enough for his young wife, as he put it, to be "farting against silk." But from here on, his music making would be confined to local pubs and his own family circle.
Jack's marriage to Polly gave him a second family of eight children. Two died in infancy, a fact that the superstitious Polly attributed to their Catholic baptism. The next six therefore received Protestant christenings, and all survived: five boys, George, Herbert, Sydney, Alfred, and Charles, and a girl, Edith. Polly did a heroic job of feeding them all on Jack's modest wage. But their diet of mainly bread, margarine, strong tea, and lobscouse — a meat-and-biscuit stew from which Liverpudlians acquired the nickname Scouses — was chronically lacking in essential nutrients. This had its worst effect on the fourth boy, Alfred, born in 1912, who as a toddler developed rickets that stunted the growth of his legs. The only remedy known to pediatrics in those days was to encase both of them in iron braces, hoping the ponderous extra weight would promote growth and strength. Despite years burdened by the braces, Alf 's legs remained puny and foreshortened, and he failed to grow any taller than five feet four inches. He was, even so, a good-looking lad, with luxuriant dark hair, merry eyes, and the distinctive Lennon family nose, a thin, plunging beak with sharply defined clefts over the nostrils.
Jack's musical talents were passed on to his children in varying measure. George, Herbert, Sydney, Charles, and Edith all had passable singing voices, and the boys played mouth organ, the only instrument young people in their circumstances could afford. Alf, however, showed ability of an altogether higher order, allied to what his brother Charlie (born in 1918) called "that show-off spirit." He could sing all the music-hall and light operatic songs that made up the World War I hit parade; he could recite ballads, tell jokes, and do impressions. His specialty was Charlie Chaplin, the anarchic little tramp whose film comedies had created the unprecedented phenomenon of an entertainer famous all over the world. At family gatherings, Alf would sit on his father's knee in his Tiny Tim leg irons, and the two would sing "Ave Maria" together, with sentimental tears streaming down their faces.
Jack died from liver disease, probably caused by alcoholism, in 1921. Unable to survive on the state widow's allowance of five shillings per child per week, Polly had no choice but to take in washing. It meant backbreaking, hand-scalding work from four a.m. to dusk, scrubbing other people's soiled linen on a washboard, then squeezing out the sodden coils through a heavy iron mangle. Even so, as her granddaughter Joyce Lennon remembers, the cramped little house remained always spotless with "floors you could eat your dinner from," the kitchen range cleaned with graphite religiously every Monday morning, the front step scoured almost white, then edged in red with a chip of sandstone. Polly ruled her five sons like Mrs. Joe in Great Expectations, not hesitating to chastise them with
a leather strap even when they were nearly grown men. Like many Liverpudlians of the most down-to-earth kind, she had her mystical side, believing herself a psychic, able to read the future in spread-out playing cards or the pattern of tea leaves in an empty cup.
As hard as Polly worked, the task of supporting her six-strong brood proved beyond her. Fortunately, a means was found to take Alf and Edith off her hands without breaking up the family or damaging her fierce self-respect. Both were offered live-in places at Liverpool's
Bluecoat Hospital (i.e., charity school) in Church Road, Wavertree, a stone's throw from a then-obscure thoroughfare called Penny Lane. Founded in 1714, the Bluecoat still attired its male pupils in an eighteenth-century costume of gold-buttoned blue tailcoat, breeches, stockings, and cravat. The educational standard was high, the regime not unkindly, and any child granted admittance was considered fortunate. Alf and Edith, even so, found it traumatic to leave their cozy, soapy home in Copperfield Street and the mother they worshipped.
Of the two, cheery Alf adjusted better to institution life: he did well at lessons, became mascot of the soccer team, and entertained his dormitory mates with the same song and dance and Charlie Chaplin skits he used to do for his family and neighbors.
From earliest childhood, his one wish had been to follow his father into show business. It very nearly came true one night when he was fourteen, and his brother Sydney took him to the Empire Theatre in Lime Street to see a troupe of singing, dancing juveniles called Will Murray's Gang. After the show, Alf talked his way backstage and performed an impromptu audition for Will Murray, the Gang's adult ringmaster, who there and then offered him a job. When his brothers Herbert and George, now in loco parentis, refused to entertain the idea, Alf ran away from the Bluecoat Hospital and joined up with the Gang en route to Glasgow for their next appearance. But a Bluecoat teacher came after him, led him back in disgrace, and subjected him to ritual humiliation in front of his assembled schoolmates.
A year later, the Bluecoat sent him out into the world, equipped with a good education, plus two suits with long trousers to confirm his entry into manhood. He spent a few unhappy weeks as an office boy before realizing that a far preferable career — one, indeed, almost comparable with going on the stage — lay right under his nose. For this was the golden age of transatlantic liner travel, when Liverpool vied with Southampton as Britain's busiest passenger port. Huge, multifunneled ships daily nosed up the River Mersey to be met by emblazoned boat-trains from London, packed with rich people, their furs, and cabin trunks. In Ranelagh Place, the splendiferous Adelphi Hotel had just been built to provide a painless transition from shore to ship, with its Titanic-size palm court, its bedrooms like staterooms, its below-waterline swimming pools, hairdressers, and masseurs.
So Alf went off to sea as a bellboy on the SS Montrose. It was, as he soon discovered, a life he seemed born to lead. His friendly, cheery nature made him popular with passengers and his superior officers and kept him on the right side of the homosexual mafia who ran the ships' catering departments. "Lennie" — his onboard nickname — rapidly won promotion to restaurant waiter on the cruise vessels plying between Liverpool and the Mediterranean. In off-duty hours, he would entertain his fellow workers with songs and impressions in their cramped, fetid communal cabins or in the crew bar, known on every ship as the Pig and Whistle. His specialty (one his father Jack would have especially appreciated) was blackening his face with shoe polish and "doing" Al Jolson, the minstrel offcut whose schmaltzy anthems to "Mammy" and "Dixie" sold records by the million in the twenties and early thirties.
He could think himself always in a kind of spotlight, whether serving rich food to "nobs" in his gleaming white mess jacket and gloves, or crooning Jolson's "Sonny Boy," down on one knee, with clasped hands, to the beery delight of his shipmates, or returning home to Copperfield Street laden with the contraband ship's delicacies that are every steward's God-given perk. Between voyages, too, in some dockside saloon-bar or other, he could always find an audience eager to be regaled with stories about the exotic places and peoples he had seen and the racy shipboard life of a single young waiter.
Excerpted from John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman Copyright © 2008 by Philip Norman. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers. All rights reserved.