The women at the Beatles' sides
Cynthia Lennon, Jane Asher, Pattie Boyd, Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman were among girlfriends, wives and inspirations
In the 1950s, the four lads who would become the Beatles were just typical teenagers. Len Garry of John Lennon’s group the Quarrymen recalls Lennon and McCartney as ordinary young men, courting “birds”, in a world where heavy petting could lead to betrothal.
Then came Hamburg, and what Lennon called “sexual awakening”. Certainly, there was a lot of casual sex in the Beatles’ early days, but Hamburg also offered a glimpse of artier things to come. It was there that Astrid Kirchherr, paramour of the then Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, was the queen of the “exis” — the hip existentialists — and, vitally, influenced the group to change their hairstyle from duck’s arse to moptop.
Back in Britain, the Cavern days set up a limitless Liverpudlian version of La Ronde, with the Beatles women providing a parallel intrigue. McCartney’s Liver birds included Dot Rhone, who later complained that he insisted she dye her hair blonde and wear fishnet stockings. “At that time, everyone was trying to turn their girlfriend into a bargain-basement Bardot,” McCartney would recall.
Cynthia Powell, the first Beatle wife, was similarly Bardot-ised by Lennon. She and John met at Liverpool Art College and married when the Beatles were on the cusp of fame. “When John and I fell in love we were students,” she recalls. “I was 19 and John was 18. As the Beatles were gaining popularity, Paul, Ringo and George did not have regular girlfriends.” When the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, the legend “Sorry girls, he’s married!” flashed up over Lennon’s TV image.
For McCartney, it was the 17-year-old actress Jane Asher, whom he met in 1963, who gave expression to his search for status. In 1964, Harrison met the model and his future wife Pattie Boyd on the set of A Hard Day’s Night. Then, in 1965, Ringo married a Cavern regular, Maureen Cox, who was 18 and pregnant. The era of the “birds” was over, and their romantic lives, which their manager Brian Epstein had assiduously kept secret, emerged.
Boyd and Asher were southerners to Cox and Powell’s Scouse, but they all shared one great quality: independence. “The first wives didn’t set foot into Beatles territory,” says Tony Bramwell, the band’s ex-road manager. “They shopped, looked after children, did their thing.” Powell recalls the solidarity of the four women, and a “mix that worked beautifully… a fascinating blend of personalities. Two from the north and two from the south, plus four tightly knit characters/musicians/comedians.”
Asher prefigured McCartney’s position as the culturally pioneering Beatle, and as with art, so with women: McCartney was engaged to Asher, but still slept around and dated the singer Julie Felix and the model Maggie McGivern. After Asher, McCartney saw a string of bohemian lovers, including Francie Schwartz, who, at 23, went to see the Beatles on the grounds of making a movie, and ended up singing “na-na” on Hey Jude.
In 1967, Pattie Boyd influenced the Beatles’ spiritual direction after she suggested they went to a lecture by the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But Harrison’s second wife, Olivia Trinidad Arias, was his strength and his abiding love. In 1999 she bravely fought with an intruder who stabbed Harrison in their Henley home, and she was at his side when he died from cancer two years later.
After Ringo’s marriage to Cox, he dated the actresses Shelley Duvall, Nancy Andrews and Stephanie La Motta, and the singer Lynsey de Paul. In 1981 he married Barbara Bach, once a Bond girl and now a psychologist. It was an uncontentious coupling compared with those of John and Yoko and Paul and Linda. The animus towards Ono as the destroyer of the Beatles still exercises observers such as Bramwell, who is writing a book about the era. “I don’t like the unhappiness she caused. She was horrible.” Yoko started almost as a stalker. “John wanted to avoid her at first. He said,
‘Get rid of the bloody woman!’ But after India, he saw her differently — perhaps filtered through an exotic mindset.”
Did Ono’s cultural influence outweigh her status as the fans’ most hated? She certainly served both as co-artist and muse: The Ballad of John and Yoko was about a kind of elopement, and of all the wives’ contributions, it was arguably the most meaningful. The musical duties of the Beatle Wags still exercises the Beatle-ologists: on Birthday, Pattie and Yoko contributed backing vocals. Cox sang on The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, Boyd on Yellow Submarine and more.
Anti-Yoko sentiment has engendered a curious solidarity: Bramwell says Cynthia and May Pang both hated her. Ah, May Pang: Lennon’s girlfriend at the time of the “lost weekend”. “She’s delicious,” says Bramwell. “She was just a secretary at Apple. As for the ‘lost weekend’, it was a year of boozing in LA.” Similarly, Linda Eastman was hated by the fans at first, yet Paul and Linda became one of rock’s most enduring love stories, with her death eclipsing even her derided backing role in Wings. Heather Mills, in turn, was the butt of revulsion. Now McCartney is alone in keeping the Beatles’ Wags story afloat, and it looks as if his current girlfriend, Nancy Shevell, an heiress, will be uncontroversial. “I doubt he’ll go for the limelight,” says Bramwell, adding that, as a millionaire herself, she will have no reason to relieve him of a fortunes.
The Sunday Times
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