Yoko Ono is still a figure who splits opinion like few others in popular culture. Ever since she met John Lennon on November 9th, 1966, she’s an artist who has remained in the limelight. Ono has famously enjoyed the wrath of millions of Beatles fans who have pushed the blame of The Fab Four splitting up purely on the shoulders of Yoko. The reality of the situation, however, is rather more nuanced and there were many factors in play which accumulated to the end of The Beatles.
Ono had allegedly somehow never heard of The Beatles when she locked eyes on Lennon, a factor which remains incredibly difficult to believe considering that she lived in New York at the time. Her love affair with experimental art began when she started college in New York in the 1950s and Ono’s family had moved to Scarsdale, New York in 1945 following the Tokyo bombings devastating the city — however, she opted to stay in Japan until 1953 when she enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College. This course gave Ono a new lease of life and she loved mixing with fellow artists, poets, and other fellow bohemians.
The decade leading up to Lennon meeting Ono was a turbulent one for the Japanese artist who left New York in 1956 to secretly marry Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. That marriage ended in disastrous fashion and, after filing for divorce in 1962 after living apart for several years, she returned back to New York to live with her parents. Upon her return, Ono was diagnosed with clinical depression and her parents then sent her to a mental institution in Japan for a brief period.
When she first met Lennon in 1966, she was married to American jazz musician Anthony Cox who she met in 1962 and she then gave birth to their daughter, Kyoko Chan Cox, in 1963. The relationship didn’t last long and Ono went on to focus on her artwork, leaving Cox to raise Kyoko whilst publically remaining a couple for the sake of their careers when the truth was that they were living two very different lives. Lennon, meanwhile, was married to Cynthia Lennon, who had given birth to their son Julian in 1963. The Beatles were arguably at the zenith of their creativity at this moment in time and were on top of the world but that didn’t mean that Ono had the slightest clue of his existence, even if everybody else on the planet did.
Her work in the art-world had brought her to London for an exhibition titled Unfinished Paintings and Objects, which was hosted by the Indica gallery and bookshop in Mayfair. Lennon turned up at the exhibition that evening because it was co-owned by art dealer John Dunbar who was then married to Marianne Faithfull, with musician Peter Asher and future Beatles biographer Barry Miles also in attendance. On top of that, Paul McCartney was a huge supporter of the Indica and would attend as many exhibitions as he could.
Dunbar invited Lennon to check out the gallery to see Ono’s work the day before the show opened to the public and when he arrived to see the art, he was completely bemused and beguiled. The musician, for some reason, expected the exhibition to involve a woman artist in a bag and be of a sexual nature. It’s fair to say when he arrived at the gallery, the avant-garde conceptual pieces that greeted him were not what he had envisioned. “I thought this is a con. What the hell is this?” he later told the BBC. “Nothing’s happening in the bags. I’m expecting an orgy, you know…and it’s all quiet.”
Lennon was less than impressed with the art that was in front of him and thought that the invitation to ask him to come down was purely to get him to open up his wallet and spend some of his new-found fortunes out of sympathy or social pressure. However, this changed in one moment when one piece caught his eye, Ono had placed a ladder that arrived at a canvas on the ceiling of the gallery, on the canvas was one word written in minuscule writing that was only possible to see with the use of a magnifying glass.
“And in tiny little letters it says ‘yes.’ So it was positive,” Lennon later told Rolling Stone in 1971. “I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes.’”
At the time, John Lennon was at the height of his fame, using his words through both his songs and prose to become one of the foremost artistic figures in the world. It was a globe that hung on his every word and Ono’s ability to communicate without such need for vocabulary appealed to The Beatle. She was who he barely dared to be (and as an artist, he was as brave as they came), and in more of a challenge to him, she was smarter than he was. Like his decision to either allow McCartney to join the Quarrymen and make them better and he weaker or not, he had to decide whether he wanted to be challenged by a woman and dare to call her his equal…or even superior.
Trying desperately hard not to fall in love with her, despite having been largely unfaithful during Beatles tours, John and Yoko fell into a dance, each obsessing over the other via drawn out and distant communications. It took something like 18 months to resolve, both parties feeling trepidation and fear. Yoko worried her association with a Beatle she’d never heard of would end her art career, Lennon worrying that if he were to show his new love that it would be rejected. Both were alarmingly right. Neither were ever mentioned without mentioning the other ever again.
The two were married and John Lennon’s new mission away from The Beatles became emboldened by Yoko Ono’s presence. The fact that she can be rightly credited as the creator of songs such as ‘Imagine’ is impressive, but the personal pains she helped to ease for Lennon cannot be underestimated. When John Lennon met Yoko Ono he was in a world of substance abuse, hollow fame and meaningless art. After he met her he was whole for the first time in his life.
They would live out the rest of Lennon’s days together along with their son Sean until John’s tragic death in 1980 in her adopted hometown of New York which would also take on John as a son of the city before his heartbreaking departure.