John and Cynthia met at art school in Liverpool and became a couple at Christmas 1958. She was a nice middle class girl and he was already a rocker, fond of fighting, drinking and sex. Friends said they were opposites.
Lennon in later life was nothing but disparaging about her and their time together. His letters from the time tell a different story, like this one from the Beatles’ long residency in Hamburg:
It’s Monday night and we finished playing about 3/4 hrs ago (its 2 o’clock). I’m dead beat my sweet, so I hope you won’t mind if I finish now and have lovely sleep (without you but it’ll still be lovely – don’t be hurt – but I’m so, so tired). I love you Cyn – I hope you realise why this letter took so long lovey but there has been no post Fri, Sat, Sun, Mon – and this one will go by the early morning Tuesday post ’cause I will nip downstairs and post it any minute (handy isn’t it?) I love you, I love you please wait for me and don’t be sad and work hard and be a clever little Cyn Powell. I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, write soon ooh its a naughty old Hamburg we’re living in!!
All my Love for Ever and ever
Cynthia visited John in Hamburg and they corresponded almost every day. Back home in the summer of 1962, John and Cyn resumed their physical relationship and she was soon pregnant. He, a well-brought up lower middle class Englishman, ‘did the right thing’.
The Beatles were on the verge of success, so the marriage was held in secret and Cynthia was bundled into a bedsit for her confinement while John and his Beatle pals set the world on fire. He was later to describe those early tours as being “like Satyricon”, the Fellini film about the debauchery of the late Roman Empire.
John was back four days after the birth of his son Julian and then soon off on holiday to Spain with manager Brian Epstein where they attempted and failed at an affair.
Despite his later comments, Lennon did clearly love Cynthia and in some ways Julian. Hunter Davies, who edited Lennon’s letters for publication, noted to PBS one Christmas note to Cynthia:
“That’s the most tumultuous love letter. It goes on and on; it’s an eight-page homemade Christmas card to her. And of course, one of the big things about John is that he went to art college. But he decorated almost every letter and postcard. So there’s a lovely drawing of John and Cynthia together looking into each others’ eyes adoringly. And he does this with every letter.”
The magic of the Beatles was essentially the contrast between the sweet melodies and naivety of Paul McCartney and the dark, angry, violence and sexual energy in John Lennon’s work. This comes out even in early cover versions like Smokey Robinson’s ‘You’ve Really Gotta Hold On Me’ which in Lennon’s hands becomes a song full of menace and sexual obsession.
There were moments of domestic bliss and Cynthia recalls they did have one family holiday together. However Lennon was understandably distracted by the swinging 60s, the Beatles and drugs. Often he came home and beat his wife and/or child before disappearing again.
Cynthia seems to have remained faithful and even to be a contented Beatle wife coming out for film premiers or events and socialising with the inner circle. She took LSD with John and George and the usual things one did as part of the elite London ‘In Crowd’.
Inspired by Bob Dylan, John began to try and incorporate his inner life into his song lyrics. It was at this point, about 1965, that the Beatles moved from being a Tin Pan Alley pop band to the innovative artists they became.
Lennon’s life and wife started to appear in his darker songs; ‘I’m A Loser’ and ‘Help!’ were just two glimpses of his self imposed prison.
‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ was ostensibly for the closeted Brian Epstein but also reflected the fact that Lennon was having many affairs with anyone who offered themselves, from bar girls to Joan Baez.
Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine that in ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘I was trying to write about an affair without letting me wife know I was writing about an affair, so it was very gobbledegook. I was sort of writing from my experiences, girls’ flats, things like that.’
On the same LP he sings ‘ You know that I’m wicked guy / And I was born with a jealous mind.’
Many of Lennon’s songs deal with guilt and anger – emotions he felt towards himself and the family that was confining him. As he left the family he projected that anger and guilt on to Cynthia and his son. He must have been aware that he was abandoning his family just as his parents had abandoned him.
When Lennon met Yoko Ono, that was the final straw. Interestingly he couldn’t admit his own guilt when he filed for divorce – having had thousands of affairs and one night stands – but manufactured an affair he claimed Cynthia was having.
He was parsimonious in his divorce settlement and his legacy to his son. Part of this may be guilt and part of it Ono’s notoriously vice-like influence. A decade long relationship was swept under the carpet and the Ono Lennon pretended to enjoy their historic, epic life together.
The prosaic fact is that few teenage weddings lead to long marriages without the pressure of being a Beatle.
There’s no doubt that Yoko Ono helped John Lennon take his art to a higher and more complex level, but it’s in his letters and his early songs that you see a different Lennon; confused but in the first flush of romance. It was then that Cynthia gave Lennon the stability to unlock himself.
She, like most muses, was used and then cast aside on the artist’s journey.