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May Pang on her 18-month love affair with John Lennon: ‘Yoko has erased me’

Five years before his murder, John Lennon described his romance with his personal assistant as a ‘lost weekend’ – despite the pair being together for more than a year, and remaining close until his death. As May Pang shares her side of the story in a new documentary, she speaks to Charlotte O’Sullivan about the Beatles legend, her continued dislike of Yoko Ono, and her visits from Lennon’s ghost

Sunday 17 December 2023 09:13 GMT
May Pang and John Lennon: ‘John was so conflicted about his own personal life. It’s what he and Yoko had in common’
May Pang and John Lennon: ‘John was so conflicted about his own personal life. It’s what he and Yoko had in common’ (Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment)

The last time John Lennon’s one-time lover May Pang was visited by his ghost, it was while she was watching an episode of Law & Order. “But when you talk about stuff like this, people think you’re imagining it or are a little crazy,” the 73-year-old says. “So I don’t ever talk about it.”

For someone so savvy, Pang is astonishingly innocent. Or maybe it’s the other way round. She grew up loving The Beatles and met Lennon in 1970, when she was 22 (he was 10 years older). A receptionist for Allen Klein, she was – a year later – working as a personal assistant for both Lennon and his avant-garde artist wife Yoko Ono while they lived at New York’s Dakota Building. Lennon and Ono were having problems in their marriage; it’s a matter of record that Ono decided Pang would be a useful distraction. Having encouraged Lennon to make a move on Pang, she ordered Pang to comply. Pang had her doubts, but was too junior (and, once Lennon kissed her, dazzled) to demur.

A new documentary on the pair’s relationship – titled The Lost Weekend: A Love Story – explores what happened next. Pang and Lennon lived together in LA and New York. They spent time with Lennon’s young son, Julian, who he had with his first wife, Cynthia Powell, and who’d been kept at arm’s length by Ono. They also hung out with Paul, George and Ringo and did ordinary boyfriend and girlfriend stuff (if being taught to play guitar by a musical legend counts as ordinary).

Over Zoom from her home in New York, Pang has the air of someone determined to age disgracefully: she’s wearing purple lipstick, has purple streaks in her grey hair and is given to naughty chuckles. She holds up her hands. “I don’t have the fingers for it, but John’s teaching me how to play ‘Ain’t that a shame’,” she says. “He said, ‘This is what my mum taught me, on the banjo.’ And I’m like, ‘Is this good? Cos it doesn’t sound good!’”

For both she and Lennon it was a genuinely creative period. He wrote a song about Pang, called “Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)” on the album Walls and Bridges (which contains Lennon’s only solo No 1 US single, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night”). Pang helped produce the album and also provided backing vocals on the track “#9 Dream”. While they were in LA, Lennon drank like a fish, was frequently moody and could be violent. But, according to Pang, they had a blast on the whole.

Then, in January 1975 – just before a planned trip to see Paul and Linda McCartney in New Orleans, and days after making an offer on a Long Island, New York house – Lennon returned to the Dakota. And Yoko. He gave interviews in which he described the 18 months he’d spent with Pang as a “lost weekend”. He said of Pang, “she always knew the score”. Pang was horrified, though didn’t (and still doesn’t) blame Lennon. “I understand why he did it,” she tells me. “I’d worked at the Dakota, remember? He wasn’t happy about saying it. He was just appeasing Yoko.”

I was asking [his spirit], ‘Will things work out with the film?’ I wanted him to give me a sign

One of the biggest revelations in the new documentary is that Lennon and Pang remained close in the five years that followed. They were sexually intimate. But, undeniably, Pang’s role had changed. “She [Ono] said to him that he needed to live at the Dakota because of his immigration status,” she says. “That was his weak spot: he wanted to live in America. He said, ‘We don’t want the government to say, ‘You’re running all over the place’. So I said to him, ‘What happens to us?’ He goes, ‘Nothing, I can still see you!” And I said, ‘That doesn’t make sense to me.’ I didn’t accept it, but I had to accept it, if you know what I mean.”

After Yoko learnt she was pregnant, Lennon went to Pang’s flat and told her that it would be a Scorpio baby and that he knew “how to handle that”. Pang smiles. “That was an in-joke, because I’m a Scorpio. Then he said, ‘Don’t you wish it was yours? I mean, ours? I wish it was!’ And I just had to mentally walk away from that statement. Here’s Yoko pregnant and he’s saying he wishes it was me. And I’m saying, ‘Well, it isn’t!’ That’s all I said”.

Tender moments: Lennon and Pang at a party together during their romance (Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment)

She resists the idea that Lennon was just stringing her along throughout their relationship. But even when they were officially an item, Lennon never met Pang’s mother. Surely that was a red flag? Pang shakes her head and says it was Lennon’s insecurity that made him hide whenever her mother came round. One night, Pang called up her mother. She adopts a teenagery voice. “I said, ‘I’m hungry. Mom, can you make fried rice?’” Pang grins. “She made the best fried rice and she says, ‘fine’, cos she lived close by. So then my mom comes to the door and she says, ‘Everything OK?’ John’s still saying he’s ‘not ready’ to meet her, so he’s in the other room. Mom just says, ‘Here [the rice] is’ and walks away. Later, when we were not quote ‘together’, me and John were in the apartment, eating Chinese food, and John says, ‘I really wish now that I’d met your mom!’”

Pang sighs. “I was glad he mentioned it to me. That he thought about it. My mom offered unconditional love, which is something John didn’t get from his family. He lost his mom. His dad was not around for years, then all of a sudden was saying in the newspapers, ‘My son doesn’t care for me!’ John was so conflicted about his own personal life.” She shrugs. “It’s what he and Yoko had in common.”

Happiest place on Earth: Lennon and Pang visit Disneyland in 1974 (Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment)

It drives Pang mad when she and Ono are conflated. Lennon has often been described as someone who “liked Asian women”. When I bring this up, Pang pulls an I’m-about-to-barf face. Nor is she impressed by journalists who put the hostility between she and Ono down to “in-fighting”. “They think we didn’t get on because she was Japanese and I’m Chinese. These people don’t do their homework!” For Pang, class is more important than race: “We come from two different backgrounds.” She growls: “I don’t come from a privileged background”.

She’s willing to acknowledge that Ono, viewed by some fans and much of the press as the woman who broke up The Beatles, has been the victim of a hideous amount of racism and misogyny. Honestly, though, it’s not a line of thought Pang is interested in pursuing. In case you can’t tell, she thinks Ono wielded immense power and rarely used it well.

Pang shudders when I mention the famous Annie Leibovitz photograph of Lennon, taken on the day he was murdered, in 1980. It shows Lennon naked and curled up like a baby, next to a fully-dressed Ono. “I hated that photo!” exclaims Pang. “She was supposed to get naked but at the last minute said no. I just thought he didn’t have to show that side of him. He didn’t have to look that vulnerable. I thought it was horrible.”

After Lennon’s death, Pang moved on with her life (she has two children from her marriage to cult music producer, Tony Visconti, who she divorced in 2000). But whenever she ran into Ono, things were fraught. In 2010, Pang attended an exhibition of Julian’s photos. Ono and her son with Lennon, Sean, were there, too. “I was not allowed to be photographed anywhere near them,” she says. “The other person who wasn’t allowed to be photographed was Pattie Boyd [George Harrison’s ex and a former crush of Lennon’s]. We were just ignored.”

Though most critics have given The Lost Weekend: A Love Story a thumbs up, practically every reviewer has commented on its bias against Ono. “Let me put it this way,” says Pang, “everybody says it’s unfair to her… but it works both ways. If you go back in the past, she’s erased me, like I didn’t exist.” Pang clutches her pendant necklace and looks flushed. “It’s not her movie. I put in things that happened to me. And if it isn’t flattering to her, what am I supposed to do?”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in March 1975, shortly after Lennon publicly renounced his relationship with May Pang (Shutterstock)

Ono will be 91 in February. Isn’t it time to give peace a chance? Pang shakes her head, wearily. “No. Everything that needed to be said has already been said.” She feels differently when it comes to Sean. “If Sean wanted to have a conversation with me, if he wanted to reach out, I would be here, absolutely. I’m not opposed to him. When it comes to the situation between his mother and myself, he’s an innocent party.”

Pang’s proud of the fact that her film is an “indie” project, adding that she stayed away from big studios because of how Warner Bros treated her when she wrote her 1983 memoir, Loving John. “They wanted it to be as salacious as that book about The Doors [Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman’s biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive.] They kept adding words. It was really more their book than mine.” Even so, she questioned whether The Lost Weekend was a wise investment of her time. Enter Lennon’s ghost.

A few months ago, Pang was watching Law & Order and, at the same time, talking to John in her head. “I was asking him, ‘Will things work out with the film?’ I wanted him to give me a sign. I look up and a character says, ‘You know, it’s whatever gets you through the night!’” Pang bounces in her chair. “And I’m like, ‘OK! Got it!’”

May Pang in 2021: ‘Everything that needed to be said has already been said’ (Shutterstock)

She says she felt Lennon’s presence from the second he was shot dead outside the Dakota, but, initially, brushed it off. “Then my friend calls and she says ‘John’s been trying to reach you!’ I’m like ‘I know!’ She’s like, ‘Well, try and answer him!’” Nowadays, Pang loves the “little messages” from Lennon. “It’s not necessarily every day that he comes to me. But it’s like Julian says, he knows his father’s thinking of him when he sees a white feather. We all have our little moments.”

Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary – released to raves in 2021 – put fire in the belly of Beatlemania. Last month, the AI-enhanced “Now and Then”, hyped as The Beatles’ “final” song, made history when it became a UK No 1. Pang views it as “good closure for Paul and Ringo” and seems to have made peace with the fact that closure, for herself, is out of reach. Instead she’s embraced a ghost who will never leave her. In her mind, at least, she’s still living the dream.

‘The Lost Weekend: A Love Story’ is available to watch on the Icon Film Channel and, from 18 December, on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms

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