DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Our next guest on today's birthday tribute to John Lennon, who would have turned 70 years old tomorrow, is his first wife Cynthia Lennon. They were married from 1962 - two years before he appeared with the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show," where they superimposed the words sorry, girls, he's married - to 1968.
But when The Beatles were breaking out, pop stars weren't supposed to be married. So Cynthia was told to stay in the background. She spent much of her time at home with their son, Julian. Terry spoke with Cynthia Lennon in 1985.
TERRY GROSS, host:
What was it like in the days when you were a young mother and John was mostly on the road touring, and he'd have, I guess, like a couple of weeks here and there in between tours to come home and play the role of husband and father? Was he able to make that transition from rock star and figure of fantasy to young father and husband?
Ms. CYNTHIA LENNON: Extremely difficult for him, because even though -when he wasn't on the road touring, he was in the recording studio. So we saw very little of him. And when he did come home, he was so exhausted and so tired and so overwhelmed by the pressures of the outside world that when he came home, all he wanted to do was to collapse. And he used to sleep an awful lot, and he would wake up when we were ready to go to bed, if you know what I mean. With a small child, you have to be up early in the morning, and then you're pretty exhausted at night, whereas John's hours changed. You know, he'd be up at night and in bed during the day.
So the whole fabric of our life changed because of the work that he was doing and because of the pressures from outside.
GROSS: Were you able to maintain a private life of your own?
Ms. LENNON: Well, my private life was with friends, I suppose, the friends that I'd known from college days that I kept in contact with. I frequently went back to my roots, which was in the north. I mean, we moved down south.
And I had Julian, who I love dearly, and cared for him most of the time, when I was there. You know, I'd sometimes go away with John on holiday. But the problem with me was that I had to cope with a household. I mean, we moved into a virtual mansion, you know, as soon as the money came in.
We needed the space. So the first thing to do is if you're a pop star and you get a lot of money, you buy a mansion. That takes you from one extreme of life to another extreme. And John being away, the house was far too large for me to handle on my own.
So all of a sudden, you find yourself with a chauffeur and a housekeeper and a cook and an interior designer and all the things in life that you've never experienced before and you weren't brought up to, I was left to cope with and handle, which was hard work. It was a full-time job, actually.
GROSS: Did you want to go on the tours, ever?
Ms. LENNON: Well, I was allowed to go on the first tour - allowed, and I mean allowed - but I didn't ask John. I think John wanted me to go because it was so exciting to come to America for the first time. I'd never been to America, and it was a treat for me. It was really a fantastic experience. But that was enough. I wouldn't want to have done it again. It was just too much.
GROSS: Do you mean being on the tour was too much?
Ms. LENNON: It was just understanding and seeing what went on on a tour. It sounds extremely exciting. It sounds wonderful, you know, different hotels and wonderful food and seeing new places. But all we saw were the inside of hotel rooms, the inside of Cadillacs. We were surrounded by mounted police on one occasion, motorbike escorts on another occasion, trying to escape from hotels.
It was quite horrendous, apart from the actual performances, which were fantastic. The rest of it was horrendous because you couldn't see beyond the prison that you were in at that particular time.
GROSS: Were you exposed to any of the groupies who were hanging around John Lennon and the other Beatles then?
Ms. LENNON: Well, actually, the first experience - which was funny for all of us - when we first came to New York, and we were staying at the Plaza, and I think it was Murray the K was there. He was the first disc jockey that we'd ever met, American disc jockeys. I was very impressed. He happened to be there. And in the room, there were sort of all these draped, beautiful ladies. This is their suite, Murray the K, and about five beautiful model ladies all draped round.
And we all walked in and looked at them and looked at each other and wondered what on earth we were supposed to do in a situation like this, because it was obvious, you know, what they were there for.
And, of course, I was the fly in the ointment because I was the wife of one the Beatles. So it was embarrassing for them, and embarrassing for me. And it was situation that clicked with me. I mean, I realized then what it was going to be like, you know, in the future. I mean, obviously, that was what it was going to be like, just women throwing themselves at them the whole time.
BIANCULLI: Cynthia Lennon, speaking to Terry Gross in 1985.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1985 interview with Cynthia Lennon, the first wife of former Beatle John Lennon, who would have turned 70 years old tomorrow.
GROSS: One of the changes that he experienced, which I would assume you didn't, at least to that degree, was the introduction of marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs. I mean, the Beatles became famous for that.
Did you participate in any of that? Were you anxious to try it?
Ms. LENNON: I was never anxious to try it, but our first experience was a friend of George's, actually, a dentist person, and we went for dinner. And after dinner, he put sugar cubes in our coffee which were laced with LSD.
And, of course, it hit us all at the same time, and we had the most horrendous night and a very dangerous drive home. We could all have been killed, because we were absolutely out of our minds.
And for me, that was hell, sheer hell, mental torture. And I couldn't cope with it, and I would never, ever wanted to do it again. And yet for John. It was something else.
You see, John was a different animal. He was a searcher. He was a - he desired something new in life, constantly changing, constantly wanting new experiences. And, of course, he didn't have a bad time on this particular drug. So he tried it again.
GROSS: What are some of the others ways you saw him changed by the fame and the money that he achieved?
Ms. LENNON: I think he became extremely lethargic at home, really rather sad and tired. He just didn't have any stimulation anymore. He was losing out on concert tours, and he wasn't happy in his performance because he couldn't hear himself.
He wasn't getting any audience response. He wasn't close enough to the people that he was entertaining anymore. I mean, he was surrounded by adulation and material goods and all the things that other people would think were fantastic in life. But for John, it wasn't enough. It wasn't good enough. It wasn't honest enough.
GROSS: So what did it look like he was going to turn to instead?
Ms. LENNON: Well, I think what it was very hard to describe what he was going to turn to. I mean, he was on that particular road. We did turn to meditation and maharishi in India.
GROSS: Did you go to that?
Ms. LENNON: Yes. I was there for two months. But he took that wholeheartedly, again, and so did George - very, very deeply into meditation. And I didn't. I took half and half. I sort of tried to get a balanced view of it.
So I would do artwork. Half of my time was doing artwork, and half of my time was doing meditation because I didn't want to get hooked on anything. You know, I think you've got to believe in yourself and your capabilities, and I think John, again, was looking for an escape.
This time, it was a healthy escape. It was escape into meditation, into peace of mind, relaxation, away from the pressures. And it was at this particular time that he met Yoko. And, of course, again, before we went to India, Brian died.
So the whole thing - our whole lifestyle changed again, very quickly, you know, after the first time. It was constantly changing. And this was a great break and a great rift for all of us. I mean, we were all devastated by Brian's death.
GROSS: When John and Yoko went off together, their relationship was probably the most covered, press-covered relationship of the year. They were on the cover of everything. They were holding press conferences in their bed. I mean, it was one big media event after another. How much of that did you want to expose yourself to? Did you read it?
Ms. LENNON: Oh, I read everything, yes, because of course, the man we had divorced. I didn't mean to say I didn't - I'd stopped loving him or caring for him or worrying about him, I mean, because I didn't have any anger or bitterness about it. I had a lot of hurt.
But, of course, I was looking after his interests, in my own little way, and caring about his future and hoping that he was happy, because he'd had to go through such hell to do what he did. And he became almost a leper in the eyes of the British and the press.
And he had hell to go through because he'd broke away from the system of being one of the four mop-tops that were doing so well, and such good ambassadors for Britain. And he moved out of that, and he became an individual. And he did what he wanted - to the extreme, as John would always do, anyway.
And I felt extremely worried for him, really, at that time, because he had to take so much from the press and media and from fans and people who loved him.
GROSS: Did you hear about his assassination through the press, or did someone notify you before it got out on the wires?
Ms. LENNON: Yes. I was staying with Maureen Starkey at the time, and I had a she had a phone call from Ringo to tell her. So she told me.
BIANCULLI: Cynthia Lennon, speaking to Terry Gross in 1985. She now lives in Spain, where she's continued her career as an artist.