50 Years Ago: John and Cynthia Lennon’s Tumultuous Marriage Ends
On Nov. 8, 1968, John and Cynthia Lennon's divorce became official. It brought to an end a tumultuous romance that included courtship, marriage, childbirth and infidelity -- all within the growing shadow of Beatlemania.
Lennon met Cynthia Powell in 1958 while both were attending the Liverpool College of Art. “He was a real scruff, a real teddy boy. He looked as if he would punch you as soon as look at you,” Cynthia remembered during an interview with journalist Alex Belfield. “He ended up in my calligraphy class and he didn’t want to be there.”
Even though she initially dismissed Lennon as some kind of troubled rebel, Powell was won over by his musical talent. “Everyone else had gone for lunch and I was trying to gather my pens,” she reminisced about one of their school days. “He sat and played ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ right through, and I looked at him and I thought, ‘That’s for me.’"
The two began dating. Even in the early days, there were warning signs. Lennon had a notorious temper, a characteristic that many have attributed to an estranged relationship with his father. During one particular argument while in college, Lennon struck Powell across the face. She dumped him immediately, but three months later they got back together.
“He was desperately sorry,” Powell remembered. “It was just an instant and he couldn’t help himself. He didn’t do it again, and I wouldn’t have been with him if he had. It was the first and last time he lifted a finger to me.”
During a 1981 interview with Playboy, Lennon admitted to his abusive nature. “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman,” he said. “I was a hitter. I couldn't express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women.”
While Lennon and Powell were working through the highs and lows of their romance, another relationship was growing: Lennon's band the Quarrymen had built a loyal fan base. Paul McCartney and George Harrison were already in the group. A residency in Hamburg, Germany, was arranged. The seeds of the Beatles were in place.
In 1962, the band fired drummer Pete Best and replaced him with Ringo Starr. Later that year, Powell had some news of her own: She was pregnant. Lennon decided they should get married, an occasion that would take place on Aug. 23 that year. All of the Beatles were in attendance, with manager Brian Epstein serving as the best man.
“It was a bizarre marriage by comparison to any others,” Powell said later. “There was no photographer. We don’t even have a photo from the day, and the guy who married us looked like he was doing a funeral, never mind a marriage.”
At this point, Beatlemania was just beginning to sweep across the U.K. Concerned that having a married Beatle may alienate some of the band’s fans, Epstein encouraged the Lennons to keep their relationship out of the limelight. Cynthia became a secret.
"If the main man in the group, John, was found to be married, then it might take away from that particular success," she told NPR in 1985. "So I walked around pregnant for quite a long time, hiding it. I'd wear very big, blousy clothes. In fact, I was asked many times if I was John's wife, and I had to refuse and say, 'No, no. I'm somebody else.'"
Julian Lennon was born on April 8, 1963. His father was on tour at the time and didn't meet his son until three days later. The demands of being a Beatle were already weighing on Lennon. ”We saw very little of him," Cynthia said. "And when he did come home, he was so exhausted and so tired and so overwhelmed by the pressures of the outside world that ... all he wanted to do was to collapse.”
Cynthia accompanied the band on its first U.S. tour in February of 1964. In New York, she witnessed firsthand how overwhelming Beatlemania had become. “We were surrounded by mounted police on one occasion, motorbike escorts on another occasion, trying to escape from hotels,” she recalled. “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.”
She also quickly learned the temptations available to the band, when she followed the Beatles to a hotel suite for one of their radio interviews. “In the room, there were sort of all these draped, beautiful ladies,” she remembered. “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.”
While she had suspicions of John's infidelity over the years, Cynthia ignored the whispers regarding affairs. “I was so naive and I prefer to stay that way," she said. "What you don’t know, you don’t worry about, but in later years you would read what they were up to.”
Their marriage problems reached a boiling point in February 1968 when Lennon drunkenly confessed to sleeping with other women.
Cynthia decided to take a vacation. She returned to find her husband sitting across from Yoko Ono on the floor. "She had been staying with John that night, and I came home and they were there," Cynthia later recalled. That moment "was sort of curtains for our marriage, as far as all of us were concerned, really."
Lennon's drug use had also been taking its toll. “Through acid — LSD — his vision did not include what he had, which was us," Cynthia said of the effects drugs had on their family life. "He was in a space where he didn’t know what kind of space it was."
Though Ono, and to a lesser extent drugs, are commonly cited as reasons for the couple's breakup, an unearthed letter from 1976 seems to indicate the marriage was doomed regardless. Penned by the Beatle and sent to his former wife, John wrote to Cynthia, “As you and I well know, our marriage was over long before the advent of L.S.D. or Yoko Ono … and that's reality!”
The divorce was settled out of court, with John agreeing to give Cynthia an initial lump sum, a small annual payment and custody of Julian. Though the breakup was messy, it did spark one of the Beatles most recognizable songs. McCartney penned the classic "Hey Jude" to help Julian cope with his parents' separation. Without the divorce, it's possible the song would have never been written.