With the success came all the trappings: the luxury homes, the groupies, the drugs, the divorces and the in-fighting. Sign up for the latest news alerts The Beatles experienced it all and the most iconic and inventive of them, John Lennon, paid the ultimate price when he was gunned down by a deranged fan inNew Yorkin 1980. Until now, the foundations of Lennon’s artistic success and his torment have been laid at the door of one woman, his formidable Aunt Mimi, who brought him up instead of his promiscuous mother Julia, Mimi’s younger sister. Mimi enlisted the help ofLiverpoolsocial services to rule that Julia, who was “living in sin” in a cramped flat, was an unsuitable parent.
She dubbed Julia’s home “the House of Sin” and her own “the House of Correction”. And although Julia lived only a short bus ride away from Mimi, for most of John’s childhood he was not even allowed to visit his mother and was taught to despise her. Now, for the first time, Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird, who was named after and brought up by their flame-haired mother, has a very different story to tell about the upbringing of one of the country-s most acclaimed pop heroes.
According to John’s sister, a former teacher and educational psychologist, far from being motivated by love and concern for John, Aunt Mimi’s disapproval was born of jealousy and spite, dating back to childhood rivalries when the attractive Julia, the fourth of five sisters, was their father’s favourite. Mimi was horrified when, despite being married, Julia enjoyed a scandalous wartime affair with a Welsh soldier while her husband was at sea. The result of the illicit affair was a daughter, Victoria, born in 1945 and given up for adoption. This event, unthinkable at that time, was the ostensible reason why the ambitious Mimi took little John away from his mother.
He suffered lifelong heartbreak at the cruel, separate living arrangements, and was nearly broken when, in 1958, his mother was mown down by a car and killed when he was just 17. And it appears that Mimi, whose reputation as a puritan has always rested on her refusal to consummate her marriage to husband George, went to her grave nurturing a dark secret. After George’s death in 1955, when John was still living with his 50-year-old aunt, the supposedly virginal Mimi embarked on a wild affair of her own with one of her lodgers who was half her age – and this time the relationship was consummated. So passionate was Mimi about this young man, 24-year-old biochemistry student Michael Fishwick, that she was planning to marry him and emigrate to New Zealand. While Mimi rubbished her younger sister as an unfit parent, she was prepared to abandon John for her lover, at a time when the teenager was grieving inconsolably over the tragically premature death of his mother.
So it seems John Lennon’s extraordinary artistry was nurtured in a family even more dysfunctional than we ever imagined. Even by the standards of pre-Sixties Britain, the rivalry and hypocrisy of his nearest and dearest must have had heart-rending repercussions on a sensitive young man. Torn between Mimi and Julia, he simply did not know which way to turn – finding peace from this turmoil only by throwing himself into song writing. Lennon’s mother Julia, it seems, was always a handful. She met his father Alf in the local park when she was 14 and he was a year older and, though neither her parents nor her four sisters approved of the relationship, she insisted on marrying him ten years later. Her frowning parents took her in when Alf went away to sea the day after their wedding. John was conceived in 1940 under her father’s roof at the now famous Penny Lane address during one of Alf’s rare shore leaves. But Merchant Seaman Alf saw his family only a couple of times in five years. Small wonder, perhaps, that towards the end of 1944, the passionate Julia fell into the arms of a young soldier while her husband was away.
When she fell pregnant, John was sent to stay with his Aunt Mimi in theLiverpoolsuburb of Woolton. The family forced Julia to give up her daughter, Victoria, for adoption as soon as she was born. And sinceVictoriawas never talked about at home again, John never knew of her existence – nor that she was the reason why his mother was ostracised from the family. Julia’s marriage to Alf failed and, at the age of five – when his mother’s next boyfriend, John Albert Dykins, always known as ‘Bobby’, moved in – John was taken to live with Mimi and her lodgers. In 1946, his half-sister Julia, the author of this revealing new memoir, was born. It was a household full of innocent affection, and in the beginning John was allowed to make regular visits toPenny Laneto see the extended family. But when his grandfather died, the Dykins moved to a house of their own and, despite the birth of their second daughter, Jackie, the vengeful Mimi banned all visits. Sometimes, John’s mother would find her way over to Mimi’s, hoping to see her son – only to be turned away at the door. She would return home and spend long evenings playing a well-worn record of her favourite sentimental song over and over again. Poignantly, it was called My Son John, To Me You Are So Wonderful.
All that changed when John turned 11. Old enough to go to school by himself, he started visiting his mother on the way home. Now he could enjoy a happy, post-war childhood, climbing trees, earning his first pocket money collecting golf balls on the local course, and testing his sister Julia’s spelling. He played cricket in the street with the local lads and went to Sunday school, where he met his first girlfriend and gave meddling Julia half-a-crown to go away while they kissed in the long grass. When John was younger, Mimi always sent him to Scotland for his holidays, but by the time he was a teenager her grip was slipping and she allowed him to take short breaks with his mother and sisters in North Wales. John, in turn, would take his sisters to visit Mimi and they would make paper skeletons to frighten their austere aunt. For by this time, his sister Julia says, John knew he was happiest with his real mother, and though he suffered guilt about betraying Mimi, his other aunts facilitated his visits.
It was his mother, a wonderful draughts woman, who taught him to draw the pen and ink cartoons which became world famous. She painted pictures with him and made up story books bound with red knitting wool. She fired his imagination by taking him and his sisters on the ferry across the Mersey or on the train which went under the river. She would say she could see goldfish swimming in the dark outside the windows. John went one better and claimed to spot sharks and whales. His mother taught him to play the ukulele, the accordion and the mother-of-pearl banjo his grandfather had brought back from a sea voyage. She had a wonderful repertoire of songs and did a particularly good impression of comedian George Formby. She loved to dress up in dramatic clothes, paint her nails and take her entire brood, including John, to the cinema, where they would see the same film several times. She introduced them all to Elvis Presley’s films, and even named her cat after the singer. This was certainly not your average suburban mother. In another age – or another family – she might have become a professional entertainer herself.
She and her common-law husband were always mastering the latest dance craze and, as Skiffle took hold in the mid-Fifties, John played the new songs on an improvised tea chest bass while his mother strummed the family washboard with her silver darning thimbles. She bought him his first guitar, picking it out of the popular magazine Reveille and paying the grand sum of £10 19/6d. She bought his first stage outfits – three cowboy shirts – and attended his first concerts staged on the back of lorries. He and his friends, dressed in Teddy boy gear? Black leather jacket, winkle-picker shoes and greased quiff? Used to practise in the family bathroom because it was the best place to get the echo they needed for their songs. It was his mother, too, who took the young Paul McCartney under her wing because his mother had recently died of breast cancer.
But this idyll was shattered in 1958 when the vivacious Julia, who had been visiting John at Mimi’s, left to catch a bus and was knocked down outside the house. John learned the news from a policeman. For a year, Lennon got wildly drunk, indulging the yearnings and heartache that would be the making of him as an artist – his bonds with Paul McCartney strengthened by their losses. And shortly after, he married Cynthia and called their son Julian, after his mother. Ten years after his mother’s death, he wrote the ballad Julia for her. By then he was famous and the property of the whole world. At first, John kept up with his family, buying Mimi a house in Dorset when herLiverpoolhome was overrun by Beatles? fans, and spoiling his little sister Julia with new clothes and visits to his first big house, in Weybridge, Surrey, where they all ate bacon and eggs in the formal dining room.
But when The Beatles hit the big time in America, Julia stopped hearing from her big brother. Then, one day in the early Seventies, John rang her up out of the blue from New York, asking for mementos of his early life: his high school tie and a clock which used to be at Mimi’s house. In return, he sent her £3,000. At times, Julia was amazed at the way fame had changed the witty little boy with whom she had played childhood games. He retreated into his new family, Yoko Ono and their young son Sean. “The grief and loss he had suffered as a child had been transformed into a desperate craving for love and attention,” his sister Julia writes sagely in the moving memoir. “He wanted to be loved by the whole world. And he pretty well was, but that did not do the trick. “John needed a mother figure running his life. He was still lost without Mummy. He was unhappy and he knew the answer. “For him, happiness lay in the security Yoko offered. John was playing the part of a child-man. Yoko was more than willing to organise his life, not only with John’s consent, but with his full approval. He was like a little boy lost.”
At the end of 1980, Julia was looking forward to a New Year visit by John, when tragedy struck in the form of assassin Mark Chapman. His sister was left in some unseemly tussles with his widow Yoko about a family house he bought, which turned out to have been registered in the name of his record company.
“You hardly knew John. You hardly ever met him,” Yoko declared to Julia dismissively. Aunt Mimi, too, who grew old alone after her young lover left her for a woman closer to his age, found that the Dorset home John had given her also belonged to The Beatles? Company Apple. John’s sister Julia was left with nothing but memories? And some of the most bizarre were the dying words of stern Aunt Mimi, the woman who had taken John from his mother to raise him properly, only to consort with a toy boy lover. “I’m terrified of dying,? She confessed to her nurse. “I’ve been so wicked.”
A casual word from another of Mimi’s sisters led Julia to unravel the mystery of Mimi’s double life. And the years since John’s death have resulted in other revelations, including the existence of the third sister Victoria, or Ingrid, as she was renamed by the Norwegian couple who adopted her.
But the saddest postscript to all their lives was her belated recent visit to their mother’s neglected grave. While Aunt Mimi will forever be remembered for her role in John’s upbringing, not so his real parent, it seems. For many years, his sister could not find the plot in Liverpool where their mother lies, which to this day has no headstone. Neither John nor anyone else from the family seems to have visited it since she died in 1958.