Yoko Ono, a Decade After the ‘Horrible Thing’ : John Lennon’s widow still lives under a shadow, but, she says, ‘It’s not a bad time’
She sits alone.
“The widows of the world,” she whispers, “they understand this"--understand the mournful lament of “Ocean Child,” Yoko, a spirit filled with poetry.
“Sleepless night/the moon is bright,” she pens into her writing book. “Woke up this morning/Blues around my head/No need to ask the reason why. . . .”
Perched at the window of her fortress, the venerable Dakota, Manhattan’s oldest apartment building, scene of the “horrible thing” nearly 10 years ago, Yoko Ono stares below at Strawberry Fields.
The teardrop-shaped garden, an echo of John Lennon’s childhood days in Liverpool, nestles inside Central Park, winding paths and wildflowers maintained in perpetuity by the widow. “After John died,” she says, “some days, it just wasn’t that important for me to go on.” But there still was Sean, the son she bore at 42, just 5 years old when John Lennon died on Dec. 8, 1980. “As a mother I told myself, ‘I gotta survive.’ ”
And so she has. Sean, now 14 and tucked away in a Swiss school, already is testing his wings in a recording studio; Ono is jetting from London to Tokyo to Copenhagen, to Venice and Oslo and Milan and Moscow, overseeing retrospectives of 150 major works created in her avant-garde heyday; and she is supervising the elaborate celebration of John Lennon’s 50th birthday year, a celebration that kicked off Saturday in Liverpool, to be followed by events in Tokyo, Moscow and the United States.
And so, Yoko Ono, the artist, the singer, the composer of 150 songs, the widow, is doing just fine.
“It’s not a bad time in my life,” she says, gently stroking her three Persian cats--Sascha, Misha and Charro.
Still, the world never lets her forget. She is still defiled by many as the wicked sorceress who wrecked the Beatles; by others as a crass opportunist who used Lennon’s fame to promote her own recording career. Others see her as the savior of a man who was desperately in need of a mother and a stable home. She says they’re wrong too.
No matter. Yoko Ono can take care of herself. A shrewdly capable executor of a sprawling empire estimated to be worth between $500 million and $1 billion, she oversees with care the licensing and marketing of records, copyrights, artworks and souvenirs, and she is supported by Sam Havadtoy, a 38-year-old interior designer, her constant companion since 1981.
In “Sky,” the all-white living room so named by the Lennons when they founded their whimsical “Newtopian Embassy” in the Dakota, Ono sits bathed in white.
“My favorite color,” she says, compact in an “Imagine” sweatshirt, her figure and face that of a young girl.
In an interview, Yoko Ono chain-smokes her way through musings on widowhood, Lennon’s “lost weekend,” sex, drugs, reincarnation and survival.
Question: You would have been married 21 years; you’re consumed with John Lennon’s 50th birthday year; and he’s been gone 10 years. A bittersweet time.
Answer: A landmark time--a strange time for me. My gallery show in London last year fell on Earth Day--and I felt so moved because it was also our wedding anniversary.
Q: Proceeds from the Liverpool concert and upcoming albums all go to the Greening of the World Lennon Scholarship Fund.
A: Yes. The concert is not a widow’s vanity trip. John cared about the environment.
Q: More personally, what did you love most about him?
A: His tenderness, his affectionate nature. He was also a person who tried to be honest with himself, and he really worked on it. When fans see his life, maybe they see that anything’s possible.
Q: Even a poor, talented Liverpool boy becoming a hero, worshiped around the world and paying an awful price for his success?
A: How could it have been worth it? I mean, he died. He was killed. If he wasn’t John Lennon, he wouldn’t have been killed. It was a fan who killed him.
Q: Has that fan ever been an object of your hatred?
A: I don’t think about him. I just don’t.
Q: You’re usually seen around town in your dark glasses . . . one begins to wonder if you’re an eternally somber woman.
A: (Laughter) Well, I have that side. I started putting on the Porsche glasses after John’s death and they made me feel very safe. But I’m not hiding anything.
Q: How do you respond to recent gossip that you’ve refused to work in tandem with John Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, on her own proposed memorial concerts at the Berlin Wall and at the White House?
A: Cynthia Lennon is an innocent party. There’s a Milwaukee promoter, a former waiter, named Perry Muckerheide, working with Sid Bernstein (who brought the Beatles to Carnegie Hall in 1964), and his mission in life is to reunite the Beatles. But the Beatles aren’t interested. George has always said: “As long as John is not alive, the Beatles cannot reunite.”
Q: But what of Cynthia Lennon?
A: I object to two men wanting to stage a show for commercial benefit and bringing another woman into the picture as a smoke screen--unsuspecting Cynthia Lennon--and saying: “Let’s see the two women fight.” Whatever the smoke screen, they’re not going to get my permission. The whole thing is a hoax.
(Sam Havadtoy walks into the room.)
Q: Then why is Cynthia involved at all?
Havadtoy: Because she was offered a million dollars to approach the Beatles, and she told us she needs the money. As for memorializing John, she wrote a book about him after he divorced her, he sued her when it was published, and they weren’t on speaking terms for 22 years.
Q: After your husband died, was it your son who gave you the most comfort?
A: Yes, I think so. Work is consoling and gives you strength, but without your family, who needs you? Sean gave me the drive to survive. Some days, I felt life wasn’t worth it, but it was important that I stay around for Sean. Or he would have lost two parents.
Q: What went through your mind that night (Lennon was shot)?
A: I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about it. I’m sure most people can imagine what I went through.
Q: Do you believe in fate or accident?
A: I think it was a horrible accident, though in the big picture maybe there was a reason for it. I don’t know. To me, it was a horrible--accident is a distasteful word, it’s not strong enough. It was a horrible thing.
Q: In “Season of Glass,” you wrote, “Goodby, sadness . . . I don’t need you anymore/I wet my pillow every night/But now I saw the light. . . .” What was the “light” of your healing?
A: What healing? That’s another thing most people don’t know, but the widows of the world will know. Losing a husband is something you can’t shake. It’s not just a feeling of missing him. It’s something more that could never heal. His loss will always stay.
Q: Since 1981, Sam Havadtoy has been your companion; has he also been a father figure to Sean?
Havadtoy: I help him when I can. We’re friends, and I love him, but how do you adjust to losing your father?
Yoko: Sam carries a lot of it. Sean is not a person who openly shares his feelings. We’re talking about a child who has survived incredible loss and the threat of another loss, and betrayals as well. So he’s very self-protective.
Q: There are reports you and Sam are secretly married.
Yoko: I am not married.
Havadtoy: That’s a state of mind. We’re happy. We’re living together, boyfriend and girlfriend, yes.
Q: In a recent article, you were both painted as crass opportunists, stamping out John Lennonabilia--mugs, tote bags, stationery, dinner plates and kinetic neon wall sculptures. What of this?
Havadtoy: Nobody is asking that question about Marilyn Monroe’s estate or about the Graceland tours and the 1,500 licenses out on Elvis Presley. We have four licenses: T-shirts, posters, calendars, greeting cards. There are no rules for dealing with the memory of a rock ‘n’ roll hero who was murdered.
Q: By the way, with an estate valued at between $500 million and $1 billion, what does the money mean?
Yoko: I don’t think I have a billion dollars. (Laughter) But why is the press always talking about Yoko as a rich widow? Why the label? Rich widow. It’s an insult.
Q: Agreed: No matter what Yoko does, she’s frequently the victim of a bad press. Any idea why?
Havadtoy: After John’s death, newspapers wrote that Yoko was this selfish person hoarding John’s memory, controlling it, not willing to share it with his fans. So after two years, she puts out 200 hours of film footage and a record and they say she’s exploiting John’s memory. She can’t win.
Q: Why not?
Havadtoy: Racism. If she were blond-haired and blue-eyed, nobody would have blamed her for breaking up the Beatles. They were the darlings of the universe; she was an outsider, an Oriental, an avant-garde artist--easy to pick on. When John married Yoko, the British press wrote: “At least he will have clean laundry.” And it’s still happening. America is infatuated with Japan-bashing.
Ono: I was a scapegoat. Bad stories are written about me because the press knows they can make me into a weeping dog and few people will object. If they attacked Coretta Scott King, black people would stand up; if they attacked Jacqueline Onassis, the whole nation would stand up. When Orientals are attacked, they don’t hit back.
Q: According to the author of “The Lives of John Lennon,” Albert Goldman, you threw yourself at the married pop singer like a Mack truck, trampling into recording sessions, you name it. Have you read the book?
A: It’s so heartbreaking--very difficult to read. A friend read some of it to me and there were 20 lies on just one page.
Q: The book makes you sound seven feet tall.
A: (Laughter) Yes. I was the Dragon Lady and John was this incredibly weak man on drugs who was not in his right mind. None of it’s true. All myth.
Q: So when you first met him. . . .
A: What I saw was a very sweet person, extremely handsome, and I thought to myself it would be nice if I could have an affair with someone like that.
Q: It’s been reported that you had a series of affairs during, between and after both your marriages to musician Toshi Ichiyanagi and filmmaker Anthony Cox.
A: I was pretty monogamous, considering. Reports about me are exaggerated.
Q: You once said, “I was always having abortions because I was too neurotic to take precautions.” True?
A: Yes, that’s true. I had abortions, but who didn’t? Look, I was certainly no match for John, in that sense. (Laughter) If a woman has more than one man, she’s considered a whore; if a man has more than one woman, he’s a ladies’ man. I was no match for John.
Q: Is it true you literally orchestrated your husband’s well-known liaison with a former employee, May Pang?
A: I didn’t orchestrate it. John and I were becoming an extremely conservative couple. By that I mean both of us stood for freedom and individuality and we were against hypocritical relationships. When ours needed some freedom and expansion of spirit, I told him it was all right to pursue his freedom: “Go to L.A. and have fun.” That’s what I said. John called it his “lost weekend,” which lasted 18 months.
Q: But didn’t you feel jealous over his adventures with other women?
A: Well, I thought it was crazy. The world was calling me a very possessive woman, having a hold on him, never letting him go. I asked myself: Are we together because we really want to be, or because of some insecurity. John was experimenting in many ways.
Q: Including with a variety of drugs.
A: The Beatles were joiners, not starters, and in the ‘60s drugs were looked upon differently--as important experiments, so people could free their minds. You didn’t have to be extremely sad or unhappy to take drugs. John felt it was to celebrate life, like Woodstock--and it was recreational. But the recreation became an addiction.
Q: Were you addicted to heroin?
A: Yes. After the lost weekend, we both went on a juice fast for 40 days in 1975, just drinking fruit juice, and we cleaned ourselves. John had incredible will and once he decided to do something, he did it. Those 40 days were very hard, but we were totally clean.
Q: How had heroin affected your marriage?
A: When we were on it, we were both on it, so it wasn’t like we alienated each other. But it was self-destructive and unhealthy.
Q: With your son in the middle of his teen years, do you worry?
A: Sean is very aware of the danger of drugs, and his generation is saying no to peer pressure, which takes courage.
Q: With your son as your anchor, do you consider yourself maternal?
A: Well, I’m not the kind of woman who would love to make soup or knit sweaters. I never cherished that so much.
Q: With so many sadnesses in your life, how have you survived?
A: Nobody’s life is a bed of roses. We all have crosses to bear and we all just do our best. I would never claim to have the worst situation. There are many widows, and many people dying of AIDS, many people killed in Lebanon, people starving all over the planet. So we have to count our lucky stars.
Q: And your stars . . .
A: I have my health and a very wonderful son, and Sam.
Q: And you teach your son . . .
A: I tell him there are some nice things about life, but never that it’s roses, because after what he’s been through, I can’t sell him that. But nice things, yes.
Q: And the nicest thing about life for you?
A: Watching Sean grow. I love him very much, wish John was here to see him grow. Maybe he’s watching.