In the aftershock of his murder, as the fans of John Lennon gathered outside the Dakota and played tapes of his music on their cassette recorders, the sound of her husband's voice came eerily through the night that surrounded Yoko Ono. Numbed by the horror and alone in the bed they had shared, she would lie awake in their apartment listening to the songs that had been composed for her.
Even after all these years
I miss you when you're not here
I wish you were here my dear Yoko, oh Yoko
I'll never ever let you go.
At first she was strong, stronger than all the stricken friends and fans who turned to her for consolation. But now, a month later, all the people have gone, the music outside has stopped, and she is left to cope with the silence. Although neither she nor John considered themselves Christian, they viewed Christmas as a beloved occasion for public charity and family closeness. The holiday season was hard. She composed a Christmas message to the staff at her office elsewhere in the Dakota, apologizing for the burden of "the sudden trauma" and adding: "I am deeply touched by your expression of genuine grief and support at this trying time for myself and my family and wish you a happy Christmas nonetheless." But the composure that she mustered in the aftermath of the shooting began to dissolve. Now she cries. Some of her days are nearly unbearable; the rest are merely difficult. In the first three weeks after the December 8 killing, she did not once venture outside her fortress-like building.
Her life has mixed extraordinary privilege with intense suffering, but the loss of her husband poses the severest test yet to Yoko Ono's formidable will. To the outside world, she has often seemed cold and arrogant. But as the Lennons resurfaced after five years of refuge from the limelight, it became clear that Yoko—whose artistic career was aimed always at the few—had chosen to direct her life's performance to an audience of only one.
Yes, I'm your angel
I'll give you everything
In my magic power
So make a wish
And I'll let it come true for you.
While John reared their son, Sean, she took over the massive financial involvements that were distasteful to him. What he had sought in the Beatles and the Maharishi and primal therapy and drugs he found finally at home, "staring me right in the face," as he put it. "Yoko taught me everything I know." Even short separations from her could seem almost physically painful to him. "Ah, you're back, my love," a relieved John would sigh as Yoko returned from a business meeting. "Did you slay the dragons today, dear?" Her response was always a giggle and a loving grin, glimpses of a part of her that no one else evoked. She recalls such moments as if to engage her power over the grief and her faith that something survives. "It is still the two of us, really," she says. "Our dreams won't ever die."
No life can educate the mind to adapt to an event as brutal as John's murder, but perhaps Yoko is better prepared than most for the passage that faces her now. Her childhood was itinerant and emotionally rootless. The eldest of three children born to a Tokyo banker and his aristocratic wife, Yoko (her name means "ocean child") recalls that she had to make an appointment with a secretary to see her father. The family moved to San Francisco when Yoko was 3, but they returned to Japan at the outbreak of World War II. After the war they came back to the U.S., settling in the elegant New York suburb of Scarsdale. Yoko enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College but dropped out after three years. "It was such a dull scene—just a highly advanced finishing school," she complained.
What fascinated Yoko in the late 1950s was the yeasty art scene of Manhattan. Sharing a Greenwich Village loft with her first husband, avant-garde composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yoko staged such events as a show of paintings placed on the floor to be stepped on. Much of her work was conceptual, consisting of suggestions, for example, to dig "a shallow hole for the moonlight to make a pond" or to build "a house of many rooms designed so that the wind may blow through, creating a different sound for each room." Divorced in 1964, she married American filmmaker Anthony Cox the same year. One of their collaborative works, entitled The Stone, involved helping spectators into a black muslin bag (from the outside, the people-stuffed fabric resembled a stone). When Lennon came to see her exhibition at a fringe London art gallery in 1966, Yoko did not recognize him as a Beatle. "I was very artsy-craftsy and, you know, you did not talk about Beatles in that kind of crowd," she explained. John took an instant liking to her work—particularly a fresh apple on a plastic stand that sold for £200. When he asked her permission to hammer "an imaginary nail for an imaginary five shillings" into a piece entitled Hammer a Nail In, she thought, "This guy is playing the same kind of game I am playing."
Their immediate rapport led to an intense but platonic relationship that lasted three years. In 1969, with a tape recorder running by the bed, they consummated their relationship. (They used the tape in their first joint album, Two Virgins.) Having divorced their spouses (John had been wed for six years to his Liverpool sweetheart, Cynthia Powell), they were married in Gibraltar. Not everyone was as happy about it as they were. At the time, the Beatles were breaking up, and some thought Yoko was to blame. The rifts with Paul, George and Ringo were just healing when John died. "All the bad blood is over with," Yoko says. "All that remains is the love. The rest is past. John felt that way too."
They were not, however, at peace with Yoko's ex-husband Cox, who defied a court decree in 1972 and went into hiding with their daughter, Kyoko, then 8. Father and daughter are still missing. "Since Kyoko left, a part of me has been missing," Yoko says. One of John's last statements was a plea to Cox to let Yoko see her daughter.
The greatest challenge to the marriage began in 1973, when the couple separated for 18 months. John was drinking heavily and romancing his secretary, but he still depended on Yoko. One night he was thrown out of a Los Angeles club for heckling the Smothers Brothers. He telephoned Yoko in despair. "I'm miserable. They're laughing at me. What can I do?" he asked. She replied: "Don't worry what they think." The reunion was painful and tender. "We sat trembling in each other's presence, not talking, and sometimes crying the first times we were together again," says Yoko. When the strain became too great she remembers saying, "You'd better go now." But the reconciliation worked. Numerous physicians insisted they could never have children, but they would not accept the fact. They consulted an acupuncturist in San Francisco, changed their diets, abstained from liquor and drugs, and on John's 35th birthday Yoko gave birth to Sean. She was 42. John's enthusiasm for house-husbandry was equaled by hers for the business because, she says, "we were both working for the family."
Yoko did sometimes make financial decisions on the basis of astrology or numerology, and the couple was very superstitious about jinxing their happiness. On the Double Fantasy album, John briefly changed the title of Losing You to (Afraid I'm) Losing You, fearing that the unqualified title was an invitation to disaster. He then went back to the original, laughing at his "silliness." Faced now with the knowledge that John is lost, Yoko finds her greatest consolation in Sean, 5—and in the thought that the peace and love they had preached all those years had come closer to them than ever before. "After 14 years," says Yoko, "we were nearly there."
It has been two years now, but John Lennon is still very much present in these stately rooms on the seventh floor of New York's Dakota apartment house. Sean Lennon, looking startlingly like his late father, leads a visitor past a pair of real Egyptian mummy cases, past the huge closet that still contains John's clothes, down hallways lined with John's gold and platinum records, his lithographs, his little presents to Yoko and pictures of John with his family.
Sean brings out a collage he has made with cut-up photographs and a photocopier. It shows his 7th-birthday party last Oct. 9 (also John's birthday). Floating above the guests is a picture of John. Sean has pasted large paper tears streaming from John's eyes. "He wanted to be at my birthday," Sean says evenly.
His mother, Yoko Ono, is still at the recording studio, finishing It's Alright, her second solo album since John's death. Sean is disappointed to hear she will be late getting home. "I told Mommy she's been working too hard," he says. Between 8 and 9 it is his male "nanny," Dane, who tucks Sean into bed.
When Yoko arrives, her ever-present dark glasses fail to mask her exhaustion. She complains about the schedule she has maintained for months, literally spending sleepless nights perfecting the album. Then, too, she has had to deal with relentless public scrutiny, a numbing series of lawsuits, threats on her life and even blackmail attempts by former associates.
Through it all, Sean and Yoko have had many things to learn about each other too. John, as a self-professed househusband, had raised Sean, while Yoko ran the family empire. But now their shared grief over John's loss has helped engender a mother-and-child reunion.
At first after the murder it was Sean who comforted Yoko, saying, "Don't cry, Mommy, everything's going to be all right." He told her that his daddy was in heaven, and he would point to a crack on the ceiling and say, "That's Daddy. He's watching over us."
As for herself, Yoko recalls, "When John died, I was so shocked that I couldn't move. There is nothing of you left. I could barely stand. But by the time I came back from the hospital, there was someone asking, 'What do you want to do with his body?' " Her voice cracks with emotion and she reaches for a sip of apple juice and a cigarette. "Then people told me about all the suicides out there [because of grief over John's murder] and they asked me, 'What are you going to do about it?' One side of me was saying, 'How do you expect me to deal with something like that?' But the other side of me just starts to deal with it."
Yoko admits now that she could not face seeing Sean in the first few weeks after John's death. "I felt so guilty towards Sean, like, 'What did we do to him?' Well, we didn't do it, but somehow we had brought him into the world hoping that he would have a happy life. And then this terrible, cruel thing happens. How can a 5-year-old face that?"
Yoko still smarts about criticism of her decision to send Sean to their home in Palm Beach, Fla. soon after the death. "Sean asked me if he could go to Florida. I asked him why he wanted to go, and he said, 'The weather is good in Florida,' but I realized it was too much [for him] here."
"Soon after John was killed, I started going for a walk in Central Park every morning. One morning I thought, 'This is not right. I should take a walk with Sean.' So I said to him, 'You want to come with me?' He was overjoyed. But when we started out, he lay on the floor and closed his eyes and wouldn't move, he was so choked up. I said, 'It's not like going for a walk with Daddy, is it?' He shook his head."
Sean finally went on that walk, but every landmark evoked a bittersweet memory of his frequent walks with John, and he recounted the memories to Yoko. "Each time he said these things, my heart was breaking," she recalls. "I thought, 'No more walks in Central Park with Sean.' I couldn't stand it. But Sean is a remarkable child. I think he understands very well what is going on."
Yoko is unapologetic about her working-mother relationship with Sean. "He has his independent life, and I have my work, but I think he sort of enjoys it. I don't think he misses the fact that his mother doesn't make his chicken soup and say 'Drink your milk' all the time. He seems to like me." When Yoko finished her last record, Sean was waiting for her at home with a gift. The card with it read, "Thank you for making beautiful music." "He was sitting there waiting for me to open it, and he was so excited," Yoko recalls. "It was heart-shaped jade. It was so sweet. It was something John would have done."
Yoko's relationship with John's bereaved fans has been more problematical. Her role was akin to that of the widow of a head of state who must act out the rituals of consoling the masses grieving over their fallen leader. Even though during John's life she had been at best a cipher to many Lennon fans (some remained convinced that she had lured him away from their beloved Beatles), in his death she was the public's most visible link to him.
"I felt—I'm sure many widows go through this—I felt I lost the purpose of living," she says. "I thought, 'He's up there; I should go join him.' The thing that kept me going was Sean; he's going to be an orphan if I go. I have to stay. I'm responsible. I have to do it for both of us, for John and me, and I think John is helping from up there too. I keep saying to John, 'Please help.' "
Sean Ono Lennon has coped with his unique situation better than any 7-year-old should have to. "I'm a Pac-Man freak," he boasts, plugging a cartridge into his playroom Atari and proceeding to prove his point. Sean's playmates include his bodyguards, his "nanny" and one 7-year-old neighbor, Maxi. He had been close to a 7-year-old girl until she broke her arm playing at the Lennons' Long Island estate in Cold Spring Harbor and her mother sued Yoko for $1 million. (Other suits have arisen over a royalty dispute involving Yoko and John's Double Fantasy album and a copyright infringement charge concerning a song from the same album.) Sean lost two close adult friends recently when an employee was charged with stealing from the family, and the employee's aunt, Sean's nanny, took a temporary leave of absence.
Sean is close to his godfather, Elton John, who showers him with presents, such as the small racing car Sean drives around the country estate on weekends. He says his favorite Elton John song is Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny), Elton's tribute to Lennon.
Yoko rarely sees the surviving Beatles. "When John and I were in New York, we saw them once in a long while," she says. "When he and I were together we talked about them and they were in our thoughts, and it's the same now."
Sean does well as a second grader at a Manhattan private school, despite occasional I-have-a-daddy-and-you-don't taunts by classmates. And he sometimes exhibits a surprising maturity: "Mommy, please don't go out without a bodyguard," he reminded Yoko recently. "If you die, I'm going to be an orphan." Still, sometimes at night, Yoko says, she hears her son crying in bed, "I want my daddy, I want my daddy here."
To Yoko, John's presence is still so palpable that there is no place in her life for another man. "I'm okay being by myself. I sort of enjoyed the solitude in 1973 and 1974 when we were separated. It was a rest from the whirlpool of being Mrs. John Lennon. When we finally got back together, it was not out of desperation and loneliness; it was out of love." She adds, "It would be very difficult for anybody to try and have a normal relationship with me now, because this is not a normal situation. It would be nearly impossible."
Yoko's music and her involvement in running the various Lennon-Ono enterprises, with an estimated value of $150 million, occupy virtually all her time. She has postponed writing her much-talked-about autobiography: "I'm not ready for it. I'll do it eventually, to set the record straight." She says a number of former associates have contacted her, asking to be paid not to talk to the tabloids and other publications. "I am not going to comply with any blackmail," she says. "We never hid anything in our lives."
She pursues a detailed interest in her records, down to such fine points as using numerology tables to decide the number of seconds between tracks. Her new LP is much happier and more melodic than her past projects and has won over some critics. The first single release from the album, My Man, is getting extensive radio play. The song is, of course, about John: "My man is the best in the world, he's got the sun in his heart and the moon in his soul."
Yoko is also completing plans for Strawberry Fields, the memorial international garden in Central Park, set to be dedicated next spring. And she was recently visited by Julian, John's 19-year-old son by his first wife, Cynthia. Julian had at one point reportedly accused Yoko of forcing him to live on $100 a week. She says, "When he said those things, it hurt me terribly. But I told him I understood. If I can make mistakes—and I'll be 50—he's allowed some at 18." (Yoko has increased the amount of money that Julian receives from John's estate, supplementing his stipends from a trust fund and from John and Cynthia Lennon's divorce agreement.)
Julian never really knew John. Mindful of that, Yoko says now that she wants to spend more time with Sean. "Sean was always visiting the studio, and he was thrilled I was making the record, but I haven't had much chance to just relax with him," she says. "Now, for the first time after John's death, I feel that I want to relax with Sean. I went through so much guilt. I once even asked him, 'Sean, is it all right?' And he said, 'Is what all right?' And I said, 'I'm talking about life.' It was very awkward for me, but he immediately caught on and said, 'Well, I'm glad I was born. I'm glad I'm alive.' "
Yoko smiles at the memories. She will be 50 years old in February. "When I was 18," she muses, "I had this image of a 50-year-old as very mature, someone who knows all about life. But here I am turning 50, and it's like starting all over. I'm supposed to be old and wise, but I'm less sure of life than ever before. I thought I would learn by now, but things keep hurting me, knocking me down. I think to myself, 'You mean, it doesn't get easier?' "
Some friends have suggested that she might relieve some of the day-today problems of pressure and security by leaving New York, or at least the Dakota, so she wouldn't have to pass the spot where her husband was killed every time she leaves or enters her home. Rare is the day when there is not at least one Lennon fan at the Dakota gates. And on Oct. 9 Sean was startled to hear people on the street singing Happy Birthday to You. (This year Yoko sent cake down to the fans.) Every Dec. 8 brings an even larger, stranger crowd. Yet Yoko remains rooted here. She explains, "This is where John and I built a beautiful life for ourselves, and being here is almost like still being with John. There are still a lot of things from the life we had together that are unfinished. You just can't walk away from them."