Cynthia Lennon, who died on Wednesday, April 1st, aged 75, had the predicament of many women—a life defined and overshadowed by her husband’s—amplified to an unprecedented degree.
When, in 1963, John Lennon and the other Beatles suddenly became the most famous people in the UK, and then the world, her existence, and that of the Lennons’ son Julian, was not even acknowledged.
While her husband’s subsequent relationship with Yoko Ono was conducted entirely in public, Cynthia Lennon was at first kept firmly in the background by the band’s manager, Brian Epstein.
Even after their divorce in 1968, there was no escape. After two subsequent marriages, she reassumed the surname Lennon by deed poll, telling a newspaper in 1999 that she would never have got a design contract with her original surname of Powell. “When it is necessary to earn a living, it is necessary to bite the bullet and take the flack.”
Having to make the best of her association with Lennon also led to two memoirs, a brief foray into recording, the launch of a perfume called Woman, and a restaurant called Lennon’s (which served Rubber Sole). None was terribly successful.
Cynthia Lillian Powell was born on September 10, 1939 in Blackpool, a seaside resort to which her mother had been evacuated in the run-up to the outbreak of the Second World War. Her father worked for the engineering firm GEC, and she had a middle-class upbringing in the suburb of Hoylake, across the River Mersey from Liverpool.
After winning a drawing prize in competition in the Liverpool Echo, aged 11, Cynthia enrolled in the Junior Art School, from which she went on to Liverpool College of Art, where she met Lennon in a lettering class. After singing Ain’t She Sweet to her in class, he asked her out. She at first told him she was engaged, but later relented. They went to the pub, where Lennon ignored her until closing time, then grabbed her hand and took her to Stu Sutcliffe’s room, where they first had sex.
It was a stormy courtship. They both broke off other relationships, but Lennon was frequently jealous and sometimes verbally and physically abusive. But he wrote to her during The Beatles’ first stint in Hamburg, and she visited during their second residency there. She briefly rented a room from Lennon’s aunt, Mimi, who had brought him up.
Though, unlike Lennon, Cynthia graduated, she failed her teaching diploma and at the same time discovered she was pregnant. “There’s only one thing for it, Cyn,” he said. “We’ll have to get married.”
By this time The Beatles—without Sutcliffe, who had died in Hamburg, and Pete Best, replaced as drummer by Ringo Starr—were wildly popular in Liverpool. Epstein, who was best man at the Lennons’ wedding on August 23rd, 1962, and accompanied them (uninvited) on a belated honeymoon to Paris the following month, insisted that the fans would be upset to learn of John’s marriage and their child.
Remarkably, this subterfuge was successful until the end of 1963, by which point Beatlemania was well underway across Europe. John and Cynthia had moved to a flat in west London that was regularly besieged by teenage fans, and she often felt directly physically threatened.
Cynthia, despite Epstein’s protests, accompanied The Beatles on their first visit to the U.S., the only time she joined them on tour. During their second trip that summer, she stayed in the U.K., organizing a move into Kenwood, a large house in Surrey, where the other members of the band had also bought property. Much of her time was spent with George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd, and Ringo’s wife, Maureen Starkey.
By 1965, Lennon had supplemented his use of cannabis with a heavy LSD habit, a drug which had effects Cynthia Lennon found frightening when she tried it. However, she thought it had some beneficial effects on her husband’s aggressive temperament. Drug use was soon—at least publicly—replaced by meditation. Cynthia was almost left behind when The Beatles went to meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in north Wales, but accompanied the band to India.
By this time she was concerned not only by John’s drug-taking and increased remoteness, but his relationship with the Japanese artist Yoko Ono. On the plane back from India, Lennon confessed to a string of liaisons with other women. Cynthia went to Greece on holiday and, after returning early, found her husband and Yoko Ono together when she returned.
Lennon at first tried to divorce her, but after Yoko Ono became pregnant, she was granted a divorce, and custody of Julian, on the grounds of his adultery. Lennon refused to give her more than £75,000, though eventually the settlement was raised to £100,000.
Cynthia Lennon declared that “macho Northern men” like her husband wouldn’t “dedicate anything to anybody,” but Lennon’s song Norwegian Wood was about one of his affairs, though disguised to avoid alerting his wife.
Their divorce, in November 1968, did, however, lead indirectly to one of the Beatles’ best-known songs, when Paul McCartney went to Kenwood to visit Cynthia, and wrote Hey, Jude on the journey down from London for Julian.
In 1970, Cynthia Lennon married Roberto Bassanini—“a sunny day in Italy compared to a hoary frost in February”—an hotelier and restaurateur. They divorced in 1973. In 1977 she married an engineer, John Twist, and published a memoir, A Twist of Lennon, about her first marriage.
After Lennon’s death in 1980, she and Twist separated (they divorced in 1983) and she re-adopted Lennon as her surname. She began to auction off mementos of her life with Lennon and with her long-standing partner Jim Christie, with whom she lived from 1981 until 1998, embarked on a set of business ventures, most of which fared poorly.
In 1995, she recorded a single Those Were The Days, which failed to make the charts, worked as a television interviewer, and had sporadic exhibitions of her painting. From the 1990s on, however, much of her work centred on Beatles conventions, chat show appearances and a second memoir, John (2005).
There was a rapprochement of sorts with Yoko Ono when they met in 2006 at the premiere of a Cirque de Soleil show in Las Vegas inspired by the Beatles. In 2010, Yoko Ono and Sean, her son with Lennon, met Cynthia again at an exhibition of Julian Lennon’s photographs.
Her final marriage, to Noel Charles, lasted from 2002 until his death in 2013. They lived in Mallorca, where she died of cancer, with her son Julian by her side.