What happened to Julia Lennon?
Half of what I say is meaningless. But I say it just to reach you, Julia…
from ‘Julia’ (Lennon & McCartney), The Beatles
Mother you had me/But I never had you. John Lennon ‘Mother’, from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band 1970
Musically, John Lennon first began explicitly exploring his relationship with his biological mother in the song ‘Julia’ on The Beatles in 1968. His thesis — that he had ‘lost his mother twice’ — was laid bare on his first solo album, released in December, 1970. This was strongly influenced by Arthur Janov’s primal scream theory. This centred on what Janov called the formative trauma: the separation from his mother as a young child.
The established narrative runs as follows. John’s mother is deserted by her wastrel husband. A combination of disapproving family and censorious social services intervene. They force him to live with a dour aunt in the suburbs.
In adolescence mother and son begin to have more contact. They finally build a close relationship. John finds that Julia is a kindred spirit, creative and rebellious, but this reconciliation is brutally curtailed when Julia is killed by a drunk driver. The seventeen-year-old John, then at art school, is devastated by ‘the worst thing that ever happened to me’.
Much of the above is broadly true, if exaggerated in places and subtly distorted in others. It is a little harsh on Lennon’s father (Alf/Freddie) and understandably indulgent towards Julia. John’s half-sister (also Julia) defends her mother’s role in the separation in similarly forceful terms.
He was taken from our mother, and notice the word ‘taken. Not given up. Torn away was more like it. Julia Baird, half-sister of John Lennon¹
In this ‘official’ version Julia is essentially bullied into giving up her child. Research carried out by Phillip Norman, Mark Lewisohn and others suggest that the reality was less clear-cut. In fact, there were genuine concerns about John’s welfare, which Julia ultimately acknowledged. When John did move to live with his aunt, it was with her consent — full story here.
The separation was never absolute and thawed with time. Though at first Aunt Mimi discouraged much contact to allow John to settle, the estrangement between the sisters was relatively short lived. The more practical issue was that Julia soon had two more children to care for: Julia (born 1947) and Jackie (1949). Nonetheless, by the mid 1950s the two households had become increasingly entwined.
There was no pretence that John was not Julia’s son. Mimi encouraged John to use her first name — something unusual at the time. Meanwhile, in the Allerton council house, where Julia lived with her new family, John was a revered figure. To his half sisters he was a much loved elder brother, whose photo was on prominent display in the front room.
This is not to deny the pain of separation between a mother and her first born son. But this should be seen in the context of an extended family in which the Stanley sisters were strikingly close. Mimi is often unfairly depicted as a Cruela De Vil, scheming to serve her own interests rather than John’s. This reading is perhaps framed by the tragic event that was to follow.
By early adolescence, John was spending increasing amounts of time with his mother, with his aunt’s blessing. This opened a new dimension in his life. While Aunt Mimi provided stability, Julia offered spontaneity and fun.
Not that fun was not entirely absent from Mendips. Mimi was immensely house proud but regularly clowned around with her nephew. She would cheerfully sing show tunes whiles polishing and dusting every inch of 251 to military standards. Julia, in contrast, hated housework and would clean floors with knickers on her head to entertain her children.
Julia was the most musical of the Stanley sisters. She showed John how to play banjo chords. She introduced him to Doris Day records (a secret pleasure he would share with Paul). Later, Julia would throw parties. These would leave John’s schoolboy friends awestruck at this beautiful, vivacious, Elvis-loving young woman, so full of sheer joi de vivre.
While John had inherited key character traits — most obviously dynamism, creativity and charisma — he also shared a certain waywardness. Julia provided the banjo chords but no banjo. It was Aunt Mimi who stumped up for his first guitar.
“For John, who’d grown up without Julia from the age of five, losing her again at 17, with such appalling finality, was the most tremendous and irreconcilable heartbreak,”¹
The catastrophe came on the 15th July on a warm Sunday evening, Mimi had been visiting Mimi and was returning to Allerton, where, ironically, John was staying with her. She left Mendips heading in the direction of her bus stop. Crossing the road she was hit by a car driven by a 24-year-old off duty policeman, Eric Cague. She died soon after from her injuries
That much is agreed. Speculation that Cague had been drinking is unfounded, as is the much repeated claim that he was driving faster than the speed limit. His defence at the inquest was that Julia walked out directly in front of him, without looking. This was found to be plausible, even though it was may have been weakened by Cague’s lack of a full driving licence
When Cague was acquitted on all charges, the Stanley family united in the belief that there had been a concerted cover-up. By the time The Beatles became famous, Cague had left the force to become a postman. His daily round included delivering sack-loads of fan mail to the McCartney family home.
John Lennon never forgave the man who had killed his mother. His anger metastasised into a general animus against all authority figures. Mark Lewisohn writes:
The fatal accident hardened, irrevocably, Lennon’s view of the Establishment, and especially the police. Coming to believe the driver who killed his mother was a ‘drunk off-duty cop’, his respect for authority, and especially the law, crumbled and would only ever worsen.²
There is no disputing the ‘irreconcilable heartbreak’ of the 17 year-old-John Lennon or that of his younger half sisters Julia (11) and Jacqui (9). Julia’s sadly drink-diminished second husband, Bobby Dykins was another victim(‘a broken man’ Norman p.148).
Only Dykins had been in the house when a policeman delivered the news — he and John travelled to the hospital together. Sadly this was not a bonding experience. John was contemptuous of his step-father, a man he had never taken to (‘I hated him. Only thinking of himself’). In his grief, Lennon became ‘embittered, more cynical, more harsh, more uncompromising, more edgy, more volatile than ever.” (Lewisohn, interview)
An often overlooked casualty in this sorry affair is Aunt Mimi. Julia had been returning from her elder sister’s house when the accident occurred, about 200 yards up Menlove Avenue. The noise was so loud that Mimi came running from the house and was one of the first on the scene.
‘When I ran across the road and saw her,’ Mimi later remembered, ‘I knew there was no hope.’
The Beatles Tune In by Mark Lewisohn. * Lennon by Phillip Norman *The Beatles: The Authorized Biography by Hunter Davies * Lennon Remembers by Jann S. Wenner * The Beatles Teaching Pack