John Lennon was killed in New York on 8 December 1980. According to the journalists who interviewed the famous couple prior to Lennon’s murder, Yoko Ono revealed the truth about their relationship.
Andy Peebles of BBC Radio One interviewed the couple two days before the murder.
Bound by professional obligations to the BBC, as well a natural sense of discretion, Peebles has never before told the story of the aftermath of his close, if improbable, friendship with John’s charismatic widow, Yoko Ono.
But today, in a frank and at times emotional interview, he raises a series of disturbing questions about her fame-hungry behaviour. He asks:
- Why did Yoko seem much happier after John’s death?
- Why did she parade her new lover Sam Havadtoy around New York, dressed in John’s old clothes?
- And why did she appear to exploit John’s memory and legacy for personal fame?
Peebles fears that John and Yoko – but especially Yoko – manipulated him for the sake of commercial profit. And, perhaps most troubling of all, he concludes that the couple’s ‘Starting Over’ episode in December 1980 was a sham promotional exercise, designed to restore John’s profile after a five-year absence.
He voices both sadness and anger at the BBC for keeping his most famous interview locked away instead of treating it as the public document he had hoped it would be.
Peebles had never before met John and Yoko when he flew to New York with his production team in December 1980, to talk about the new album, Double Fantasy.
John and Yoko realised that the key to its success was to regain contact with the UK, having walked away after the break-up of the Beatles, because Yoko had been blamed for it.
Now he was back on the music scene, promoting the album Double Fantasy, which featured an equal number of songs by husband and wife. And they wanted to talk to the BBC, the broadcaster that John held most dear.
‘We had agreed to meet her at The Dakota [the apartment block where she and Lennon lived] at midday on Friday, December 5,’ Peebles recalls. ‘Even though everything was arranged before we left the UK, we still had to be interviewed by her, to ensure that she wanted to proceed.
‘Their apartment was palatial, gorgeous. We were shown in to Yoko’s enormous office. She was seated behind an antique Egyptian desk. We were asked to remove our shoes.
‘What was I thinking as I sat there looking at her? I was thinking, frankly, “So this is the woman who broke up the Beatles”.
‘She said, “Right, if we are going to do this, I need to make very clear to you that this interview will be 50 per cent about John, and 50 per cent about me.”
Nevertheless, the interview the next day was a triumph, concluding with a celebratory dinner.
Peebles and his team spent the next day Christmas shopping, and boarded their return Pan Am flight on the evening of December 8. When they were halfway across the Atlantic, assassin Mark Chapman shot Lennon outside his home. Only when the plane landed was Peebles given the devastating news.
But soon after the historic interview was finally broadcast in January 1981, he began receiving calls from New York.
He spent private time with her on three continents over several years, and came to love the Lennons’ young son, Sean.
Each time the DJ went to New York, whether for pleasure or on business – such as when Elton John flew him over on Concorde to attend his concerts at Madison Square Garden – he and Yoko would meet up.
Whenever Yoko was in London, she’d get in touch. And they talked all the time on the phone.
It wasn’t long before the scales fell from his eyes, however. He was at first surprised, and then bemused, as Yoko’s energy grew and grew.
The grieving widow mounted exhibitions around the world, and expanded her profile as a musician. Indeed, she became more creatively active than ever before in her life.
‘It was obvious to me that John’s murder was working to her advantage,’ Peebles says.
‘She used John’s death to hype her own new record, for example, and rushed to record a sentimental B-side compilation of bits of John talking as a souvenir. She compared John’s killing to the assassination of John F Kennedy, and herself to Jackie Onassis, insisting that their influence was greater than that of the Kennedys.
A year after the murder, the BBC decided to organise a Lennon tribute. They wanted Martin Bell, the then Washington correspondent, or presenter Sue Lawley, to interview Yoko, but she insisted on Andy.
‘She cried, and said how much she missed John, and how stunned she still was by what had happened.
‘I referred to Mark Chapman, and she went berserk. She had never wanted his name mentioned in her presence.
‘But I found it hard to take her tears seriously. I knew she was in a new relationship with Sam Havadtoy, a sculptor and antiques expert 20 years her junior, and a former Lennon aide. It was quite scandalous.’
On the same night as John’s murder, it is said, Havadtoy moved into the Dakota. He barely left Yoko’s side for months.
But suddenly, Sam took on a new image. Yoko had her young companion dress up in John’s old clothes, and wear his hair long, just like John’s. It was an impersonation that shocked and embarrassed their neighbours, including ballet star Rudolph Nureyev, who commented on it.
Havadtoy and Yoko wound up spending 20 years together – far longer than her marriage to John – and separated in 2000.
‘I began to wonder if Yoko had encouraged John to go off and have a fling with their PA, May Pang. [May Pang later wrote and published a memoir, Loving John, about their affair] so that she could explore her attraction to Sam Havadtoy.
Was their “happy couple back together and making their marriage work” stance all about the “product” – the album – ensuring that they got a hit out of Double Fantasy?
‘I felt sick. If indeed I had been duped, they were the finest actors on earth, the pair of them. It was Oscar-winning. It convinced me.’
Peebles has never spoken publicly about any of this before, but feels, finally, at the age of 67, that it is time.
‘It will be 35 years since John’s death on December 8. I no longer have any allegiance to the BBC, nor to any other broadcaster. I am still angry, for various reasons.
‘I was never allowed to use any part of my exclusive recordings with John for my talks, or anything else. The BBC profited hugely from my interview and from the tragedy, but I was effectively dispensed with.
‘She had been very misguided – by her own ego. By her need to remain important in the context of John Lennon. But she isn’t. She is nothing. She is no more than his widow.
‘I got no real buzz from Yoko’s efforts to impress me, nor from the fact that she persistently stayed in touch. I knew it wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. The minute she heard that I’d left the BBC to go elsewhere, I never heard from her again.’