Did John Lennon Have a Secret Affair With Brian Epstein?

Slate's Culture Blog
April 29 2013 6:18 PM

Did John Lennon Have an Affair With Brian Epstein?

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Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. 50 years ago this week, John Lennon went on a holiday to Spain with manager Brian Epstein. Speculation has surrounded the trip ever since.

It was at Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday party that John Lennon finally snapped. Rumors had been flying around for months, ever since Lennon’s vacation with Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was gay. The rest of the band had gone to the Canary Islands, but Lennon, who had met his newborn son only two weeks before, flew with Epstein to Barcelona. “Come on, John, tell me about you and Brian,” Bob Wooler said, as Lennon recalled years later, “We all know.”

Before he knew it, Lennon was “beating the shit out of him, hitting him with a big stick,” as Lennon himself later said. Wooler suffered a black eye and bruised ribs, and it could have been worse. “I can kill this guy,” Lennon remembered thinking. Within a few days, the story was among the Beatles’ first national press, in the pages of the British tabloid the Daily Mirror. “I don’t know why he did it. I was booted in the face. I begged him to stop,” Wooler reportedly told the Mirror.

Why did Lennon do it? He was known for his fiery temper, and had hit others before, including his wife Cynthia. And he was drunk—the kind of drunk “where you want to drink out of all the empty glasses,” as he put it. But he wasn’t usually this violent. “I must have been frightened of the fag in me to get so angry,” he later explained.

What really happened in Spain? The truth is murky, and with Lennon and Epstein both dead, we will probably never know. But it’s not as if no one has spoken about it. Lennon remembers watching Epstein, who was gay, “picking up boys”:

It was my first experience with a homosexual that I was conscious was a homosexual. We used to sit in a café in Torremolinos looking at all the boys and I’d say, “Do you like that one? Do you like that one?” I was rather enjoying the experience, thinking like a writer all the time: “I am experiencing this.”
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“It was almost a love affair, but not quite,” he went on to explain. “It was not consummated. But it was a pretty intense relationship.” Lennon also stood by this story in a 1971 interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone: He liked “playing a bit faggy,” Lennon said, “We didn’t have an affair, though.” McCartney also remembers Lennon denying it: Asked whether he had ever had a homosexual experience, Lennon reportedly said, “No, I haven’t met a fellow I fancy enough.”

Though he denied it in interviews, others claim Lennon gave different answers off the record. In his 2006 memoir The Beatles, Football And Me, official Beatles biographer Hunter Davies wrote that Lennon told him that he did have a “one-night stand” with Epstein while in Spain. “John wasn’t a homosexual, but he was daft enough to try anything once,” Davies explains. On the other hand, Davies notes, Lennon had a tendency to exaggerate, so he doesn’t take this as proof that the affair actually happened. The steamiest account comes from Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton. According to Shotton, Lennon told him that he was eventually worn down by Epstein’s advances, and so he let Epstein “toss [him] off.” But Shotton says that neither he nor Lennon thought much of this gesture.

Why did Lennon run off with Epstein in the first place, if it wasn’t for anything romantic? McCartney has offered his own theory:

John was a smart cookie. Brian was gay, and John saw his opportunity to impress upon Mr. Epstein who was the boss of the group. I think that's why he went on holiday with Brian. … He was that kind of guy; he wanted Brian to know whom he should listen to. That was the relationship. John was very much the leader in that way, although it was never actually said.

That trip to Spain would continue to attract interest—The Hours and Times, a fictionalized movie about the holiday, was released in 1992—but there weren’t many other whispers about Lennon’s sexuality after the Wooler incident. Lennon himself seemed to become less macho, more comfortable with his sexuality. Yoko Ono later recalled how Lennon would tell her, “Do you know why I like you? Because you look like a bloke in drag. You’re like a mate.” Because of this, she says she would call him a “closet fag,” and she doesn’t mention him having any problem with this. Looking back, he later said, “if somebody said it now, I wouldn’t give a shit.”

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. Email him at Forrest.Wickman@slate.com.