- F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Lennon - July 1, 2020
- The Artist as a Dissipated Man: Fred Seaman’s “The Last Days of John Lennon” - February 15, 2020
- John Lennon, Alma Cogan, and the Delicate Mechanism of Efficient Beatles Operations - December 21, 2019
This article and this article from the Daily Mail have long intrigued me, less for whether or not it they are definitely true or false than because their truthiness is revealing. They claim that John Lennon had an affair with Alma Cogan, a British singer eight years his senior, and that he apparently believed she was the reincarnation of his late mother. Cogan, as the article points out, was very much a traditional entertainer of the sort whom the Beatles quickly rendered culturally antiquated. But offstage, Cogan and the group mixed in the same relatively small world of British show business, with Brian Epstein (like Cogan, Jewish) an obvious nexus. Cogan never married; rumors as to her sexuality have existed, and supposedly there was talk about her being engaged to Brian Epstein. On the other hand, sexuality is certainly more fluid and wide-ranging than early-Sixties showbiz was prepared to acknowledge, and I see something recognizable in Lennon’s expressions and body language in this video with Cogan.
Whatever her orientation, it doesn’t strain credulity at all to believe that Cogan and Lennon had some type of affair, physical or simply emotional, or that John felt strongly about her. John spent his Beatlemania years sleeping with nearly everyone who didn’t happen to be his wife, and he also had a distinct preference for women older than he, whether flings like Maureen Cleave and Eleanor Bron, or both Cynthia Powell and Yoko Ono. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he identified something reassuringly maternal in a woman who, like Julia, was lively and musical. Where I get interested is that thinking about this possible affair can reveal a lot about the unseen mechanisms that made the Beatles work—and how the story of how the Beatles ceasing to work remains both more mysterious, and more plainly human than the one we’re told.
First, the inner workings. (Warning: this is total speculation.) If you were Brian Epstein, and John Lennon happened to be having an affair with celebrity Alma Cogan, and you yourself were closeted, what better cover for everyone involved than to arrange for Alma to be your beard? You get plausible deniability and a good answer to the question of your bachelorhood. People are less inclined to suspect anything between Cogan and Lennon. Beatle John stays happy and doesn’t do anything that might blow up the band’s public image and/or seriously disrupt his life, like leave his wife and baby son for another woman. For the manager who helped McCartney swat away paternity claims and Lennon duck out from serious scrutiny about nearly beating Bob Wooler to death with a chair, this seems like a rather easy and obvious thing to arrange. It illustrates a broader theme we’ve talked about here: the Beatles depended on Brian to protect/parent/enable them, not just to choose their stage outfits and book their tours, and when he died, their machinery lost its necessary grease.
Second, let’s suppose Lennon really did feel something strong for Cogan, even if only for a little while (whether it was love, infatuation, or something weirder and closer to calling Yoko ‘Mother’ is beside the point). Cogan died of cancer unexpectedly in October 1966. That would be another unexpected death of someone John felt close to, after his Uncle George, his mother, and Stuart. And Lennon responded to this death in a way that echoes his responses to at least Julia’s and Stuart’s deaths: he proceeded to swiftly and comprehensively lose himself in a chemical, seeming to seek not just escape, but oblivion. With Julia, it was alcohol; with Stuart, alcohol and speed. (Any guesses as to when young John started smoking cigarettes? I’d bet it was shortly after Uncle George died.) After Alma dies, it’s LSD.
It’s during the few weeks after he returns from Spain and before the Beatles start the Pepper sessions, in fact, that two things happen which would fundamentally change the course of John’s life. The first is the beginning of the 18 months in which he’s regularly, possibly daily, taking LSD, which seems to have changed something in Lennon’s core circuitry—he’s just not the same person after. The second is his meeting Yoko Ono, which happens in the middle of a multiday acid binge, three weeks after Cogan’s death. If John had just lost someone who offered something Cynthia could not (i.e., a hybrid romantic/mother figure) and was deep in grief, it makes sense that he would have been, if not actively searching for another such figure, at least open to one. Given that non-Yoko-approved sources say the first Ono/Lennon coupling occurred about three weeks after they met, not 18 months later, the proximity between Cogan’s death and Yoko’s arrival seems particularly relevant.
And that gets to something else these little Daily Mail pieces illuminate: maybe we’ve never heard about the Cogan/Lennon affair not because it’s not true, but because it threatens to complicate a story John and Yoko wanted to tell, one that, post-1980, Yoko has a particularly strong interest in promulgating. If it were reported that John gravitated to Yoko while grieving Cogan (especially if he thought she was the reincarnation of his mother), might his interest in Yoko look more confused and less like romantic destiny? Might Lennon’s strong feelings for Cogan call into question how quickly those feelings seem to be transferred to Yoko? Could the speed with which this all happened and the swirl of LSD use suggest that all those emotions—for Cogan and for Yoko—were temporary and situational?
It’s not hard to play the “if this one thing hadn’t happened” game with the Beatles’ breakup: if Epstein hadn’t died, if Klein hadn’t showed up, if Yoko hadn’t introduced John to heroin, if they hadn’t gone to India. The Cogan story is interesting because it’s the only pre-Epstein’s death incident I’m aware of that, if true, could have plausibly shifted the next two years’ course: Cogan remains alive; Lennon has one more connection to the real world and London at a time when he needs those more than ever; he doesn’t have one more death—one he really can’t talk to anyone about—hanging over him; he has one more source of validation at a time when Paul’s confidence is at an all-time high; he’s not looking for sex and salvation from an avant-garde artist who’s willing to stalk him and send him postcards that fuck with his mind and suggest he snort heroin; and maybe he uses LSD the way he used pot and coke: to excess, just like every other drug he tried, but not to oblivion, the way he used booze in the early Sixties and heroin in the late Sixties.
This makes sense. I read so many Beatle books in the ’70s and ’80s. I never heard of Alma Cogan until I saw her mentioned in this blog. It’s interesting and sad how events (and people) who don’t fit agreed-upon narratives can be so successfully memory holed.
@HologramSam these people are and were human beings, and human beings’ emotional lives are rarely as orderly and narrative-friendly as the sixty minute documentary distillation would have it. There are so many things we didn’t know about the Beatles in the ten years between the breakup and John’s death. And this is an example of something that would really complicate the Ballad of John and Yoko if it came out, and which is very easy to keep quiet—Epstein and Cogan had been dead for years, John had his own reasons not to talk about it, and Cynthia was always tasteful and discreet. When you consider that, for example, every semi-official Beatles book published between 1980 and 2005 says that John and Yoko didn’t so much as hug each other for 18 months, and then you get Tony Bramwell, who was there, saying it was three weeks—just like Peter Brown and Albert Goldman et al said—it’s not hard to imagine what else is reported incorrectly, or not at all.
Well, we lost Neil Innes yesterday.
Yes. If I can shake off some carefully cultivated indolence, I’ll write some thoughts.
Several thoughts on this post, great as ever @Michael B. I tackled some of this earlier, and liked it when I re-read it, so here ’tis: https://www.heydullblog.com/brian-epstein/brian-epstein-marriage-tidbit/
It’s very easy to forget just how STRANGE the Beatles saga is. What happened — John meeting and marrying an obscure Japanese conceptual artist, after a group-trip to India to study TM — is much much stranger than, say, Brian and Alma setting up a companionate marriage as cover for all three. I just watched the Scotty Bowers documentary last night and marriages of convenience — the whole creaking armature necessary to hide any star who wasn’t a Kinsey Zero — were simply the price of doing business in showbiz. To some degree I suspect they still are.
I’ve always felt that the hidden key to the Beatles story is the nexus of Epstein, Old British Showbiz, dissolute royals, the casinos, the gilded closet, and organized crime. I was planning on writing a sequel to my Beatle novel drawing on all that, but…it was not to be.
I saw that John/Alma video quite apart from this post and thought, “Those two people are totally fucking.” So there you go: scientific proof.
As to what has been reported incorrectly or not at all — just look to your own life. What is publicly known about you and your motivations, past what you tell people? What is known about the vagaries of anyone’s heart? Yes, we have much much more data on the Beatles, but they also had a phalanx of PR people, handlers, and literally everyone around them felt the pressure to stay in the good graces of the Boy Emperors. We cannot know. We can only guess.
“As to what has been reported incorrectly or not at all — just look to your own life. What is publicly known about you and your motivations, past what you tell people? What is known about the vagaries of anyone’s heart?”
I think about how little we know about Paul McCartney’s or Bob Dylan’s emotional lives, and I tend to suspect that John, who was every bit as sensitive and complex as they, likely kept things from us, the public. This is especially true before 1968, when there isn’t the *pretense* of “I’m being totally honest with you! Here’s my abandonment issues and my penis!” It’s equally true about post-1968, but in a different way. My point is, we have no idea who inspired “Girl” or “In My Life”–two of the finest love songs of the rock era, which are both actually shrouded in more mystery than “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or “Caroline No” for those who care about biography.
My gut tells me that John protected the most vulnerable parts of himself from public knowledge, just like the rest of us do (and just like his famous peers did). If he was in love with someone other than his wife and shattered when she died, I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t keep it a secret, then or later, not only because it conflicted with whatever image he was trying to protect but also because it hurt.
I’ll go further: I think John felt the public *had no right* to know who he really was, and said basically whatever came into his head. And I can totally understand that.
My favorite part of the “Two Virgins” cover is Paul saying, “John admitted to me that he’d shined it up a little.”
Who was Brian Morris? I read that Alma was engaged to him at the time of her death.
Manager of the Ad Lib Club. There’s a Bailey shot of him if you google his name and “ad lib”
here ’tis — from V&A: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O92438/david-baileys-box-of-pin-photograph-bailey-david/
The Alma Cogan affair saddens me. I think both knew how difficult/impossible it would be for them to make it happen. John being married with a child, and Cogans family perhaps not accepting John because he wasn’t Jewish. However we’ve seen the way John can be…he moved heaven and earth to make John and Yoko happen. If he had to convert to Judaism and change in certain ways to make a union with Alma Cogan happen…he probably would’ve!
Cogan was attractive, a bit older than John and had that maternal presence and steady guiding hand that he craved. She was savvy, highly intelligent, talented, nurturing, but also fun and somebody who excited John. It would’ve been a healthier and more stable union for him than the bizarre and manipulative Yoko who really preyed on Johns weaknesses, played games emotionally with him, kept his life tumultuous.
I could see with Cynthia how, despite being a lovely woman, was just too boring and conventional for John. He probably never really loved her. He got her pregnant and that was that back then.
The more I think about it, the more I think John would’ve really benefited from doing what Paul has sort of done throughout his life, finding a girl that works for him that has a rich, tight nit family like the Ashers, Eastmans, Shevells…someone that can love and give John direction but also bring him into a supportive group that would love him and look out for his best interests, with an involved father and mother in law, brothers and sisters in law. John would know, “This family doesn’t need my $ they have their own…they want me around because they like me.” I think John saw that with how the Cogans operated and liked that sort of dynamic
@MichaelGerber- My favorite part of the ‘Two Virgins’ cover is Paul saying, ‘John admitted to me that he’d shined it up a little.’
I have never read or heard that quote before, and I thought I’d seen it all. Did Paul help polish it for him?
Alma Cogan was lovely. Here she is hosting her own show and introducing Phil and Don:
Here’s something I didn’t know until today: The first version of Chains was recorded by the Everly Brothers, but they didn’t release it. Their version predates the one by the Cookies, and of course the later cover by the Beatles. I thought the Cookies were the first to record it. I didn’t know the Everlys had a crack at it. From what I now understand, by 1962 Don was having drug problems and he became increasingly obsessive in the studio, recording take after take without ever being satisfied. Maybe this is why their version of Chains sat in a vault for over twenty years.
But this record really demonstrates the influence their harmonies had over John/Paul/George (even though it wasn’t released until four years after John’s murder).
I could see the attraction of Alma for Lennon. Dark haired, older, smart and witty. She was turned by EMI when she wanted to record a full album of Beatles covers for what was her last album. Her producer for that album speaks about her last recording project here with a brief mention about the Beatles.
Thanks very much for this article, Michael.
I have to say that, in addition to intelligent speculation on the subject matter, it is like a breath of fresh air to me to read something which is written well – something, unfortunately, I cannot say about 99% of Beatles’ ‘journalism’.
Oh, and it is obviously comforting to find more people who are as fixated on The Fabs as I am.