Death at the Dakota
Late one afternoon, a fan stepped up to ask John Lennon if the former Beatle would sign his copy of the Lennon/Yoko Ono album “Double Fantasy.” Lennon stopped momentarily, taking the man’s pen in hand, and marked the record cover with the words “John Lennon, 1980.” The fan was happily overwhelmed, stepping back, seemingly mesmerized as John walked on to his limousine parked at the curb. The fan turned to another Lennon admirer and said, “They’re never going to believe this back in Hawaii.” He had a big grin on his face.
The fan was Mark David Chapman. The day was Monday, December 8, 1980. The time was just after 5:00 pm. In less than six hours, Chapman would step forward from the shadows of history and ruthlessly extinguish John Lennon’s life.
This December day would be a prominent, albeit sad, cornerstone in many peoples’ lives. Practically everyone who was born before 1980 and has retainable memories of this period can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the dreadful news of Lennon’s death. As their parents can recollect the place and circumstance they learned of John F. Kennedy’s shocking assassination, a moment which “clicks” in everyone’s memory banks of that era, John Lennon’s demise is unfortunately the cohesive shared experience commonly accessible in every baby boomer’s lifetime. Those fateful shots fired in Manhattan that night caused people around the globe to reflect on the senseless brutality the late 20th century seemed to foster in droves through troubled souls who inflicted their torment on the most pacifist of individuals.
John Lennon was, by all accounts, a peaceful man. After a decade of unparalleled hysteria in the phenomena known as the Beatles, he sought a simpler, more private lifestyle. He chose New York City to be his sanctuary away from the madness in August 1971. He and Yoko Ono stayed at the St. Regis Hotel for a few weeks when he got his initial six-month visa, and then, they moved into a brownstone apartment on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. Jumping into radical causes for such concerns as the American Indian, the White Panthers, and the Black Panthers, John enthusiastically gave of his time and talent, but, as a result, he was irritating politicians in Washington. His visa was cancelled after the first six months, and John and Yoko spent some time travelling the country, battling their immigration foes, distancing themselves from suspected government surveillance, and wrestling over lawsuits with their Beatle manager Allen Klein. By early 1973, they were settled back in New York and decided to purchase an apartment at the Dakota, a gothic, ominous, stone structure on the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street. It was the apartment building that was used to haunting effect in the 1968 chiller “Rosemary’s Baby.” Celebrities like neighbors Leonard Bernstein, Lauren Bacall, and Gilda Radner would often pass the Lennons in the hallway. The huge windows surrounding the spacious interior of their 7th floor apartment afforded John and Yoko a marvelous view of the Park and beyond.
As 1974 approached, Lennon and Ono had a bit of a falling out, and, as Lennon so dryly summed up his sudden move to Los Angeles, “I went out for coffee and some papers, and I didn’t come back.” But return he did in 1975, after a rowdy year of drinking and L.A. partying, and shortly thereafter, Yoko became pregnant with their son Sean. On October 7, 1975, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned Lennon’s deportation ruling, and he was free to live in the United States shortly thereafter. Two days later on October 9th, John’s 35th birthday, Sean was born. John had mellowed to the point that all he wanted to do was stay home and raise his new son. He effectively became a househusband.
Except for attending Jimmy Carter’s presidential inaugural celebration in 1977, John kept pretty much to New York and doted on Sean for the next four years, baking bread and cleaning out the cat litterbox at the Dakota. The couple eventually purchased five apartments in the building. Yoko attended to business matters concerning John’s former record label and music publisher. As a getaway from the Big Apple, they purchased 1,000 acres of land in the quiet wooded environs of upstate New York. And for warmer weather, they bought a seaside mansion in Palm Beach, Florida.
By July 1980, John began tinkering with a few new songs while vacationing on his 63-foot yacht, “Isis,” with a five-man crew, in Bermuda. He first concocted the song “Woman.” Yoko also began writing some tunes, and by the time the family regrouped in Manhattan two weeks later, John and Yoko had about 20 songs written. On August 4th they began recording their album “Double Fantasy,” named after a flower John had spotted in Bermuda, at the Hit Factory studios on West 54th Street. In September, record impresario David Geffen offered to release their album without even hearing a cut from it. John was “back,” and he willingly gave interviews to Newsweek, Esquire, Playboy, and Rolling Stone magazines. Hitting stores on November 17th, the album was eagerly snapped up by fans of Lennon who had waited five long years for new material. John was elated at its success and was eager to work on another album. He and Yoko were in sync, recording more songs, and spending more time in the studio. New horizons in his career seemed imminent, and as the first single released from the album optimistically trumpeted, it was “(Just Like) Starting Over.” The album “Double Fantasy” had climbed to number 25 and the ‘Starting Over’ single settled at number 6 on the Billboard chart by Saturday, December 6th. That morning, Mark David Chapman was waking up at the 63rd Street YMCA, just nine blocks south of Lennon’s residence at the Dakota.
Chapman had arrived the night before. This 25 year-old from Honolulu, Hawaii had brought very few personal effects with him. He had come to Manhattan for only one purpose.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas but raised mostly in Decatur, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, Chapman had admired the Beatles when he was a young teenager in middle school. He played in a band himself. Friends saw him as conscientious during the period he worked as a YMCA counselor. But around 1969, 14 year-old Chapman started experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs and went on a wild bender for several months. As quickly as his spiral into narcotics commenced, he suddenly quit, cold turkey, and became a devout Christian. He’d spend hours proselytizing to other students at his high school. After graduation, he did a short stint for the YMCA in Beirut, Lebanon, and then had a brief, yet intense, relationship with a young girl in the States. By 1977, Chapman had no definitive career path, aimless in his goals. He moved to Hawaii, took odd jobs, and tried to kill himself. After spending almost a year traveling the world on money his parents had given him, Chapman settled back in Honolulu and married a Japanese woman named Gloria Abe in June 1979. He took a low-paying job as a security guard for a high-rise condominium. He became irritable and unapproachable during this period. He also still had a fascination with the Beatles. With John Lennon, in particular.
On October 23, 1980, Chapman quit his security job, signing out his name as “John Lennon.” Four days later, he purchased a Charter Arms .38 revolver. He simply left Gloria in November and traveled to New York. He stayed at the Olcott Hotel on West 72nd Street, merely a few hundred yards from the Dakota. His resolve to go through with some sort of action against Lennon dissolved, and he returned to Honolulu a few days later. By that Saturday morning, December 6th, when he stirred from his cot at the YMCA in Manhattan, Chapman’s resolve was renewed and committed.
John and Yoko sat with Andy Peebles of BBC radio, giving a lengthy interview that took up a few hours that day. John went to a nearby favorite café in the afternoon to have his usual cappuccino and read newspapers. Later, he phoned his Aunt Mimi in Dorset, England, the woman who had raised him as a small child, to tell her of the success “Double Fantasy” was garnering on both sides of the Atlantic, and news that he and Yoko were considering a concert tour to support the album. Meanwhile, Mark Chapman checked into the Sheraton Centre Hotel on 52nd Street and 7th Avenue for the night.
Sunday, December 7th, was rather uneventful. Mark Chapman paced in front of the Dakota apartment building, waiting, wondering.
On the morning of Monday, December 8, 1980, John Lennon got his hair cut. The winter day was almost spring-like, with a temperature in the low ‘60s. He gave an interview with the RKO radio network and for the majority of the afternoon, spent time in front of the lens of famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, who had been snapping shots of Lennon and Ono for a few days at the Dakota. One of the photographs she took that afternoon was of a naked Lennon curled about Yoko, gently kissing her on the cheek. This photograph would ultimately grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine four weeks later.
Mark Chapman was outside the Dakota most of that afternoon, mingling with some other fans, the .38 tucked away under his jacket. As he read a paperback copy of J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” a street person ambled up to him, asking for money. Chapman handed him a ten-dollar bill, and the disheveled begger kissed Mark.
Around 4:30 that afternoon, Leibovitz was snapping her last photo of Lennon on a windowsill with a view of Central Park behind him. He and Yoko left the apartment shortly thereafter and walked down to the front lobby. The driver of the silver stretch limousine, which had been meeting them regularly out front at this time, parked outside the security gates of the Dakota that afternoon, by the street curb, several yards from the entryway of the building. As Lennon strolled to the car, Mark Chapman stepped forward and handed him the “Double Fantasy” album to sign. It was over in a matter of seconds, and Lennon and Ono were in the back of the limo, on their way to the recording studio. Chapman’s elated mood over acquiring a personalized collectible from this icon would soon darken again.
The bulk of their work at the studio that night consisted of putting the finishing touches on one of Yoko’s songs, “Walking On Thin Ice.” She had recorded the song in August, but the couple felt it would work better on a follow-up album, “Milk and Honey,” and had decided to leave it off the “Double Fantasy” release. Producer Jack Douglas had mixed the track with them a few days before on Friday night and was just readying it for the mastering session scheduled on Tuesday morning. David Geffen dropped by later in the evening, and John played ‘Thin Ice’ for him. Everyone agreed it was a wonderful cut, and Geffen told Lennon that “Double Fantasy” was about to be number one in England. It was a very celebratory mood in the studio that night.
Around 10:30, John and Yoko started to head out the door, their work done for the evening. John asked Douglas if he wanted to go with them to a nearby deli to grab some sandwiches, but Douglas needed to stay behind to complete some other work. The couple climbed into their limo, and with John feeling a bit tired, they decided not to go to the deli. The driver took them back to the Dakota.
At approximately 10:50pm, the limousine pulled to the curb out front, once again, instead of inside the security gates. The Dakota’s doorman, Jose, opened the limo for John, who climbed out first, carrying cassettes of the “Walking On Thin Ice” single. He ambled towards the huge stone archway that covered the entrance to the building. As Lennon passed under the archway, Chapman stepped from its recessed shadows and calmly said, “Mr. Lennon?” John stopped and turned. Chapman was bent over in a combat crouch position, arms fully extended, about five feet away, pointing the gun directly at Lennon. In a split second, John tried to react, by facing front again, making a move for the building, but multiple shots rang out, five in all, and John was struck in his back and arm.
Lennon stumbled through the lobby door, as the front desk clerk, a burly man by the name of Jay Hastings, came out of his office to see what had caused the disturbance. “I’m shot. I’m shot,” Lennon moaned, as he fell to the grey stone floor, the tapes scattering away from his hand. Yoko barreled through the door, screaming for an ambulance. Hastings bent down to Lennon and removed the singer’s glasses. He took off his blue uniform jacket and covered John. Then he pressed an alarm button that was connected directly to a nearby police precinct. Yoko cradled John’s head, crying hysterically.
Hastings left Yoko and John and rushed outside to look for the shooter. Chapman was out front, having dropped his gun on the ground, just standing there reading “Catcher in the Rye.” When Hastings incredulously asked Chapman what he had done, Mark looked up with a blank stare and said, “I’ve just shot John Lennon.”
Two police cars arrived within two minutes. Hastings pointed out Chapman to them, and two officers roughly handcuffed the perpetrator. Patrolman Anthony Palma entered the lobby, saw John on the floor, and rolled him over to examine the wounds. He called out to Officer James Moran that they couldn’t wait for an ambulance. Moran and his partner Bill Gamble, along with Hastings’ help, carried John to a patrol car, and with sirens blaring, they raced for nearby Roosevelt Hospital. Yoko climbed into the other police car and followed close behind. Holding John carefully in the car, Officer Moran asked Lennon if he knew his own name, trying to keep the wounded man conscious. John feebly nodded his head. And then, he lay very still.
Skidding to a halt at Roosevelt’s emergency room, Lennon was placed on a gurney and wheeled into the trauma ward. Doctors tried to massage his heart, but with over 80% of his blood supply gone, John had already passed away. At 11:07pm, John Ono Lennon was officially pronounced dead.
Dr. Stephen Lynn, Roosevelt’s director of emergency, had to give Yoko the horrible news. Word leaked out quickly. Two of the three network affiliates were heading into their 11:00 news broadcasts when the shooting occurred. The ABC network was still broadcasting its Monday Night Football game coverage, which was currently at a tied score. The booth broadcaster, Howard Cosell, was told by his producer that Lennon had been shot. Moments later, Cosell was informed of John’s death. He broke in on the events transpiring on the field and told the entire nation what had just happened. His voice quivered, and Cosell ended his announcement solemnly by saying, “Our game is in overtime, but it hardly seems to matter anymore.”
David Geffen got to the hospital shortly before midnight and took Yoko home. Once back at the Dakota, Ono phoned John’s son Julian, his Aunt Mimi, and Paul McCartney. Fans learning of the tragedy that night, began to assemble outside the Dakota fence early in the morning hours of December 9th. Hundreds of mourners sang John’s lyrics, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” By 2:00am, over a thousand mourners stood outside the building and more cops were sent in to keep control. By 4:30, a friend of Yoko’s stepped outside to ask everyone to settle down so she could sleep.
Early the next day, Tuesday, December 9th, Yoko broke the news to Sean. The boy was inconsolable for most of the day. Ringo Starr and his fiancee Barbara Bach had been vacationing in the Bahamas, but immediately flew to New York to be with Yoko and Sean on Tuesday. As Ringo left the Dakota, Julian Lennon arrived to spend time with his estranged father’s wife and son. Although John had been much of a distant father to Julian over many of his years, the two of them had begun patching up their relationship, and John would oftentimes eagerly help Julian when the boy had questions concerning songwriting and playing instruments. In Scotland, a stunned Paul McCartney stepped out of his house briefly to say to the gathered press, “I can’t take it in at the moment. John was a great man who’ll be remembered for his unique contribution to art, music, and world peace.” George Harrison was so dismayed, he broke off plans to record an album that week and sequestered himself away inside his English mansion for a long time, without a word to anyone. Producer Jack Douglas had been up the entire night of the murder, walking the streets of New York in a dazed state. He appeared on Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” show the next night, bedraggled and shell-shocked, barely mumbling his recollections of the man he had come to admire and consider as a true friend.
On December 10th, with a constant presence of fans still congregating around the Dakota, Yoko Ono issued the following statement to the press:
I told Sean what happened. I showed him the picture of his father on the cover of the paper and explained the situation. I took Sean to the spot where John lay after he was shot. Sean wanted to know why the person shot John if he liked John. I explained that he was probably a confused person. Sean said we should find out if he was confused or if he really had meant to kill John. I said that was up to the court. He asked what court – a tennis court or a basketball court? That’s how Sean used to talk with his father. They were buddies. John would have been proud of Sean if he had heard this. Sean cried later. He also said “Now Daddy is part of God. I guess when you die, you become much more bigger because you’re part of everything.” I don’t have much more to add to Sean’s statement. The silent vigil will take place December 14th at 2:00pm for ten minutes. Our thoughts will be with you. Love, Yoko and Sean.
A crowd of over 100,000 people stood silent that Sunday, December 14th, for a memorial vigil in Central Park. Yoko remained in the apartment that afternoon and continued to stay sequestered for several months following the tragedy, trying to make sense of a senseless act. For her, the spirit of John Lennon and the passion he brought to his art are the qualities of their relationship she continues to try to share with established fans and young children who may not be aware of Lennon’s legacy to this day.
As for Chapman, he was arraigned shortly after his arrest and charged with murder. Since he had previously tried to commit suicide, he was placed under observation at Bellevue Hospital. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to between 20 years and life imprisonment. At Attica State Prison, he has given a handful of interviews to the media in an effort to explain why he took the life of one of the 20th Century’s most endearing and gifted talents. His reasons have been numerous and not very consistent. The fan had met his idol. The idol had signed a memento for the fan. The fan then shot his idol. Who knows what complex reasons led to Chapman’s fateful journey that warm December evening, one that brought him squarely into the path of the man he once adored? The reasons could be deeply rooted in psychosis, or a multi-faceted result of his formative environment, or simply the excuse he gave around the time of his arraignment. When asked why he did it, Chapman quietly said he didn’t like the way John Lennon had scribbled his autograph on the album that night.
© 2000 Ned Truslow