Cynthia Lennon, first wife of legendary singer-songwriter John Lennon, died this Wednesday in Mallorca, Spain at the age of 75. Her son Julian indicated on his website that she’d lost a recent battle with cancer. Lennon was married to the former Beatle from 1962 to 1968, during the days that the band went from local Liverpool sensation to global phenomenon. She witnessed Lennon’s evolution from rough-edged Northerner to hippie spokesman — and had to suffer through the star’s dark side. John Lennon’s death in 1980 turned him into a rock martyr and a sanitization of his public image, but his first wife was living proof of his many demons and misdeeds.
Born Cynthia Powell, she lived a relatively modest-but-stable life until her father’s death when she was 17. Her mother worked and rented rooms in their home to be able to send Cynthia to the Liverpool College of Art, where she met John Lennon. A brash but creative teenager, Lennon asked her out and the two began dating after she broke her engagement with another man. Lennon had been known as a troublemaker both in school and around his neighborhood, and Powell was drawn to his charisma and rebellious nature. “You couldn’t resist watching what he was up to,” she said of her initial attraction to Lennon. “I mean, he was a total rebel. Everybody was amazed by him.”
They began dating, with Cynthia doing things like dying her hair blonde for Lennon’s tastes (he was infatuated with Brigitte Bardot.) Lennon’s anger also quickly became apparent to Cynthia. She later wrote of his jealousy and temper; John once hit her after she danced with his friend at a party, leading to a breakup with him that lasted several months. There was also an incident where a cleaning woman saw Lennon physically assault her and suggested she get away from him.
However, upon learning she was pregnant in 1962, Lennon married Powell at a local registrar’s office with no family members in attendance — only fellow Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison and their manager, Brian Epstein. Their son, Julian, was born the following April. Initially, Epstein worked to keep Lennon’s wife and child a secret from the band’s young female fans.
“I didn’t marry a Beatle,” Cynthia told The Independent in 1999. “I married a broke student who played the guitar and ponced all my grant money off me.”
During the Beatlemania years, Cynthia was at first a total secret, then a disregarded afterthought. By the time the Beatles hit America in 1964, John was regularly cheating on his wife and hardly ever seeing his son, caught up in the rush of the Beatles recording, touring and movie shoot schedules. In 1966, after Lennon discovered LSD, Cynthia later admitted that it became even more difficult to relate to her husband.
The following year, John met Japanese-American artist Yoko Ono at a gallery showing, whom he stayed in contact with for several months. Eventually, the pair developed an intense relationship. Cynthia returned home from a trip and found her husband and Ono in her home after their weekend consummating their love for each other. John would sue Cynthia for divorce after his associate Alex Mardas claimed he’d slept with her while she was on her vacation — a claim she denied.
After her split from John Lennon, Cynthia would go on to marry Roberto Bassanini, an Italian hotelier, and in 1976, she wed engineer John Twist. In 2002, she married nightclub owner Noel Charles. He died in 2013. She published her first memoir, A Twist of Lennon, in 1978. In the 1980s, following her split from Twist, she legally changed her name back to Lennon — admitting later that it was in the best interest of her business.
“Do you imagine I would have been awarded a three-year contract to design bedding and textiles [for Vantona Vyella in 1983] with the name Powell? Neither did they. When it is necessary to earn a living,” she told The Independent. “it is necessary to bite the bullet and take the flack.”
Cynthia Lennon was a reminder of the unpleasant side of John Lennon that was often glossed over in the decades following his murder. But she was also one of the legendary musician’s biggest advocates and was enthusiastic in her role in preserving his legacy. But while Yoko Ono and the Beatles as a brand have been more invested in the martyrdom of “The Smart One,” Cynthia was important in communicating how conflicted the man truly was. She was an indelible part of his story.
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