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She can work it out

Cynthia Lennon has sold most of her souvenirs of the late Beatle but still has his surname. Nearing 60, she remains the sensible girl John met at art school and - as she prepares to exhibit her paintings - she may finally be ready to conquer first-wife syndrome. By E Jane Dickson. Photograph by Tim O'Sullivan
First wives of the famous have their own special circle of Hell. Trapped for all time in the tabloid moment of their divorce, they float, wronged and restless, on the edge of celebrity. And Cynthia Lennon is the mater dolorosa of first wives. In 1968, when John Lennon left her for Yoko Ono, Beatlemania was in full, sobbing, fainting cry. "Our Cyn" was mythologised as the blonde next door, a Scouse Snow White to Yoko's evil imp. Life and legend slowly separated and for 30 years, Cynthia has looked on as ever more exaggerated versions of her younger self are served up on stage, screen and the printed page. Now, approaching 60, she would like to set some small matters straight.

"I never had a Liverpool accent," she says, a model of modulation, "and I never wore a headscarf and rollers. I was from Hoylake." Born on the gentler shores of the Wirral, Cynthia Powell, the daughter of a travelling salesman, fell in with John Lennon at Liverpool College of Art. Lennon was a loudmouth, the bad boy of life drawing, who, Cynthia recalls, would spend the whole hour sketching the model's wristwatch. Cynthia, in her twinsets and embroidered collars, warmed quietly to the subversive teddy boy and the two were soon at item. Cynthia worked steadily towards her Art Teacher's Diploma and sat John's lettering exam for him when he bunked off to Hamburg to play in a band with his mates. In the summer of 1962, Cynthia found out she was expecting. "I became pregnant because nobody told me how you did it, or rather what you did about it," she says, laughing at the innocence of the times.

The couple were married on 23 August and, two weeks later, the Beatles cut their first single, "Love Me Do". The timing, for Cynthia, is crucial. "I didn't marry a Beatle," she points out. "I married a broke student who played the guitar and ponced all my grant money off me for fags." But if she hadn't married into money, she had married into myth. Pop stars at the time were supposed to be "available" for their fans. It did not fit Lennon's rapidly rising profile as "the hard man" of the Beatles to admit that he was married with a baby, and Cynthia found herself in the absurd position of going about her home town incognito. "I went to stay with my mother and the press must have been tipped off, because I was chased in and out of shops with the pram. My mum went out to face them, and when they said, "Is that Cynthia, John's wife?" she said, "No, it's her twin sister."

Later, when the John and Yoko circus started to roll, the fans felt betrayed on Cynthia's behalf. "The support I had was fantastic," she says. "Once the fans knew about me, they decided they would love me, and they still do; they're still pro-me and anti-Yoko. But that doesn't really work for you on a day-to-day level. Good vibes don't pay bills."

Which is why, perhaps, Cynthia has been moved to tout, once again, her memories of John and her time married to the mop-tops in an exhibition of her drawings and paintings. She shares the space at Portobello Road's KDK Gallery with Phyllis McKenzie, a friend from art college days. The work varies widely in style and execution. The most recent Lennon pictures are strictly figurative, pastel life drawings of her son, her friends and her cats, while the McKenzie canvases include some appealing airy abstracts. Cynthia would be the first to admit that Phyllis is the more evolved artist, but really, it isn't that kind of exhibition.

KDK is co-owned by Pauline Sutcliffe, the sister of Stuart Sutcliffe, the proto-Beatle who died of a brain haemorrhage in 1962, and the gallery specialises in exhibitions themed around the Sixties music scene. Undoubtedly, the big draw of Lennon and McKenzie will be Cynthia's 15 line drawings originally done to illustrate her 1978 autobiography Twist of Lennon (she was married at the time to an electrical engineer called John Twist). The closely worked, cartoony drawings show key moments from Cynthia's life with Lennon. They fall squarely into the "memorabiliart" genre, but are certainly no worse than, say, Ronnie Wood's rock'n'roll portraits or Prince Charles' watercolours, and will almost certainly be snapped up by some Lennon nut who thinks nothing of paying pounds 999 for a drawing by the hand that once touched their hero. For Cynthia, however, the exhibition, and her return to full-time painting, marks a personal breakthrough. "I've done a lot of commercial paintings over the years - designs for napkins and bedding and that sort of thing - and everything else I have done has always been connected with communication and art, but it has never been just for me, for my own personal pleasure. So it's a sort of full-circle situation, which is a joy."

Cynthia Lennon looks the same as ever she did. The fair hair, originally dyed to satisfy John's Bardot fixation, still sweeps her shoulders, although the shade is now more golf-club gold than beach-baby blonde. The beatnik black leathers have have given way to nicely cut linens, but she is essentially the same sensible, spectacled girl who appears in her drawings. In one of her illustrations, Cyn, snug in her duffle coat, looks on aghast as a young, bouffant John Lennon tickles the bald head of an unsuspecting bus passenger. In another, Cynthia, pregnant, sits in bed with the sheets up to her chin in the flat she and John borrowed from Brian Epstein, while hooligans threaten to break down the door and John stares helplessly about him. In a third, entitled My Gahd, did you ever see anything so ugly as that Ringo?, Cynthia is eavesdropping on a clique of Miami matrons in a boutique. "It was the first American tour," she remembers, "and everything had just gone crazy. We were locked up in our hotel, but I wanted to wander round. So I went down to this boutique and heard all these gross women going on about Ringo. When I got back to the hotel, security wouldn't let me in, because all the fans were saying, "I'm Cynthia!" "No, I'm Cynthia!" to get past the door."

What strikes you, looking at this pictorial autobiography, is how the author seems to be continually sidelined from the action, as if, even at the height of her involvement with Lennon, the Beatles had stolen her life. "I look back on that time," she says, without rancour, "and it's almost like watching a film, with me just a bit-part actor." Since the day the Beatle caravan rolled on without her, however, Cynthia has been anything but passive. Nor has she fought shy of her starry connections. It is surely significant that she has twice remarried (to an Italian hotel owner, Roberto Bassanini, and to the aforementioned Mr Twist), but retained the name of her first husband. Apart from her commercial art contracts, she has run three restaurants and once tried out as a TV interviewer (she interviewed her son, Julian, about his dad). Together with the promoter Sid Bernstein, she has tried to marshal the remaining Beatles and other music luminaries such as Liza Minnelli, Phil Collins and Michael Jackson into a "show of the century" as a tribute to Lennon. But although dates have been set and venues booked, the gigs have never got off the ground. In 1995, she even made a late debut as a recording artist, with a cover version of "Those Were The Days", as sung by Apple's Mary Hopkin in 1968, the year of Cynthia's divorce from John. Accusations of cashing in on Lennon's memory were met with perfect self-possession.

When she did decide to cash in, she did it literally. In 1991, she offloaded most of her Lennon relics at Christie's for pounds 60,000. "All my memories are intact," she told the piously shocked media, "but the past is over now. It's time for a change." It may seem mercenary, but worse things are done with higher motives. And as Cynthia points out, she never screwed John for cash when he was alive. At a time when Lennon didn't know what he was worth, Cynthia's pounds 100,000 divorce settlement, though hardly pin money in 1968, was by no means extravagant. "Everyone told me to go for more, but I couldn't do it," she shrugs. "I took what I needed and I think it's made me a better person. I would rather," she says with a rare flash of amour propre, "be me without [the money] than Yoko with." There is also the case to be made that if someone is willing to pay pounds 8,000 for someone else's Christmas card, they must have more money than sense, so where's the harm? And don't even try the "but John was so anti-materialist, it was against everything he stood for" line on Cynthia. She has no truck with the elevation of her pop-star ex-husband into the philosopher-king of the 20th century. "If only he had kept his own house in order," she sniffs, "he wouldn't have had to preach peace and love to the whole world. There was always that discrepancy with those who were close to John."

With this latest exhibition, there is the unmistakable sound of barrels being scraped. But you never know: maybe this is the last big clear-out that will finally free Cynthia from first wife syndrome. Once an indefatigable regular on the Beatles convention circuit, she has announced her intention to retire from that particular scene. "I could do conventions, one a week, if I wanted to," she says. "But they only ever want you to say the same things over and over again, and to me, as a communicator, it was not very creative. I suppose I also got to thinking, `They [the Beatles] don't go round talking about me. Why the hell should I be endlessly talking about them and supporting their careers? I must be mad!'"

Now living "so happily" alone in Normandy, where nobody cares who she used to know, and painting for pleasure, Cynthia can finally allow herself the indulgence of wondering what might have been. "Just before John was gunned down, he had said he was coming back to England. That would have helped; it would have put him back in touch with his roots. He might have got to know his son properly, we might have got on ... it would have been normal and natural. But then," says Cynthia Lennon, shaking out the reverie like a labrador shaking its coat, "that was never the deal. There was nothing normal or natural about it"

`Lennon and McKenzie' is at the KDK Gallery, Portobello Road, London W10, (0181-960 4355) from 3 June to 30 July