Longevity & Legacy Portraits 2019: The Man from Strawberry Fields

When the phone rings abruptly at 7AM on a school day Monday morning, and the voice on the other end says, “We’re going to meet John Lennon, he’s in town!” – what are you supposed to do? Jump into action and pretend you are a diligent student, out the door earlier than usual without looking like you are actually going to skip school to find a Beatle.

Well I never will forget May 26, 1969, fifty years ago, I did meet John Lennon.

My friend Mike and I met on the steps of the Old City Hall in downtown Toronto thinking hard about where to start our mission. After some quick thinking, we decided that where else would a Beatle stay but at the King Edward Hotel, which luckily was only a quick run, down Yonge to King Street.

Of course, what you do upon entering the lobby is go confidently up to the front desk and say, “We’re here to see John Lennon.” Answer from the desk clerk, “He’s not here”. This is too silly for me to make this up. Then as luck would have it, upon overhearing us both, in our frustrated attempt to dream up our next steps, a reporter from one of the radio stations directed us to follow him quietly up to the eighth floor. Down the long corridor was the door, where after only after ten minutes, it opened, and there stood John Lennon in his pyjamas waving to the man carting in his breakfast – or was it us he recognized?

Patience is a virtue. Two hours later John & Yoko Ono, dressed all in white, quickly glided along the corridor and then as in a scene straight out of the Beatlemania playbook, suddenly a bunch of young girls hiding in a broom closet joined Mike and I in a chase down the eight flights of stairs. Alas, we were not fast enough. In the small backstreet behind the hotel, the limo had whisked away to the airport, so we were told, for an immigration hearing.     

For anyone who dares to ask me more about what notable things happened that day, well as my friends would say, do not get him started, so I won’t. Well maybe just a little more, such as the short encounter in the hotel tuck shop with Yoko Ono’s daughter Kyoko. We thought she could be our ticket to ride. She traced her fingers for me on a blank sheet of paper, which I still have. John’s signature rests inside her little hand outline.

Later that afternoon, while still sitting in the hotel lobby of the affectionately called King Eddie, Mike and I stubbornly held on to the notion that they had to come back to meet us, but when and where and how much longer could we wait? Mike worked on calculations. I played with naivety, so I simply offered, “What if they just walked right in front of us here in the lobby?”

Surely as Mike quickly dashed off this lame idea, who should walk in but John & Yoko. I had never before, nor ever since moved so fast, leaping over three couches like a gazelle. Shortly from there at the elevators, we met John Lennon, spoke, shook hands and got autographs.

John beckoned us to get on the elevator with him. But for the sudden block by Derek Taylor and someone else, we would have had a fuller, saleable story to tell. Others did get closer and did get more of a story as is well documented. There is the book and short film I Met the Walrus by Jerry Levitan. He was the 14 year old who interviewed John in that same King Eddie hotel that day.  

Timing and happenstance is everything. John and Yoko went on to Montreal that evening and it was there that the song Give Peace a Chance was recorded during their famous Bed-In for Peace event. Missed that adventure by venture of being in Toronto serving a string of detentions at school and loving every minute of King Eddie reminiscences then and today.

cobblestone with 'imagine' lettering

Central Park, New York. May 2011. On a Sunday morning, I slowly walked around the lightly shaded Imagine that marks Strawberry Fields, the circular mosaic memorial to John Lennon, murdered almost thirty-one years before in December 1980.

Somehow, that lucky, happy day at the King Eddie in 1969 seemed to stand in such horribly sharp contrast to what happened just across the street at the Dakota apartments. I could not help but think how easy it was for someone else with an evil intent, could get much the same close access to John Lennon as I did with only innocent intent.

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