NEW YORK STORIES: How this hastily shot image of John Lennon became an enduring symbol of freedom

NY Daily News June 11, 2016

Who knows what Strom Thurmond had against the Beatles, but the senator from South Carolina certainly knew how to make John Lennon’s life miserable. On Feb. 4, 1972, the 69-year-old, anti–Civil Rights agitator wrote a few lines to Attorney General John Mitchell and President Richard Nixon’s aide, William Timmons, which would end up threatening Lennon with deportation and entangling him in legal limbo for almost four years.

“This appears to me to be an important matter, and I think it would be well for it to be considered at the highest level,” Thurmond wrote. “As I can see, many headaches might be avoided if appropriate action can be taken in time.”

Thurmond attached a one-page Senate Internal Security Subcommittee report explaining that Lennon appeared to be a threat to Republican interests, particularly their desire to re-nominate Nixon at the San Diego convention that coming summer. Citing a New York Times article and an unidentified informant, the report explained that Lennon was friendly with various left-leaning political activists, including Yippie leader Jerry Rubin. The leftists had gathered in New York and discussed the possibility of Lennon appearing at concerts on college campuses to promote voter registration, marijuana legalization and bus trips to the Republican convention for throngs of willing protesters.

In reality, while Lennon, then 31, spoke his mind about many political issues, he always felt that, as a British citizen, he shouldn’t endorse or attack individual U.S. candidates, says his friend, photographer Bob Gruen. Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono strove never to be negative. “They weren’t anti-war. They were pro-peace,” Gruen says. “They weren’t against a politician, they were for voting.”

NOWHERE MAN Lennon, who had recently turned 34, had much on his mind when he boarded the ferry to Liberty Island. He was estranged from wife Yoko Ono, and embroiled in costly legal disputes with his former Beatles bandmates.
NOWHERE MAN Lennon, who had recently turned 34, had much on his mind when he boarded the ferry to Liberty Island. He was estranged from wife Yoko Ono, and embroiled in costly legal disputes with his former Beatles bandmates. (© BOB GRUEN / WWW.BOBGRUEN.COM)
Gruen recalls that Lennon recounted listening to Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden hashing out radical plots while Allen Ginsberg sat in the corner, cross-legged, ringing little Indian bells and chanting ommm . “John told me, ‘Ginsberg was the only one who made sense,’ ” Gruen says, laughing.

Thurmond’s note, however, had its desired effect. It climbed a few links up the chain of command, and by the end of February, an Immigration and Naturalization Service letter appeared under the door of Lennon and Yoko’s apartment telling them they had until March 15 to leave the country.

According to the INS, Lennon was an “excludable alien.” In 1968, a police drug squad had conducted a warrantless search of his London flat and found a half ounce of hashish. Lennon claimed he hadn’t known the hash was there and, in fact, had swept the apartment three weeks earlier on a tipoff that the squad would be coming. (Since Jimi Hendrix had been a previous tenant he left nothing to chance.) He and Ono had even gotten a friend in the police force to pre-search the place to make sure they were clear. But the raiding officers discovered the stash in a pair of binoculars, found in an untouched box of possessions that had been moved from his previous residence. Lennon pleaded guilty and paid a 150-pound fine. The charge, he thought, was behind him.

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Now it made him excludable under a provision against individuals convicted of marijuana possession. He would go on to spend large amounts of money, time and words in his battle to remain in New York, and on Oct. 30, 1974, he and Gruen created an image that would make his case succinctly.

Speaking of his adopted country as a guest on Tom Snyder’s talk show in April 1975, Lennon said, “I love the place. I like to be here. I’ve got a lot of friends here, and it’s where I want to be, Statue of Liberty…welcome.”

***

Bob Gruen has lived at the Westbeth Artists Community, the subsidized-housing complex in Manhattan’s West Village, since 1970. Visiting him there requires a wormhole-like journey to the past that takes you down surreally long hallways, up an elevator and down a flight of stairs. His apartment is packed with so much reminiscence, it could serve as a toddler’s alphabet teaching tool: Bugle, beads, Bowie, boas, buttons, Blondie. Cartoon, Clash, couch, CDs.…

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Concert posters mosaic the walls. Rows of filing cabinets are marked with labels such as LED ZEPPELIN and PUNK SELECTIONS. To the left is a kitchen disguised as a storage space and, near it, the door to the bathroom, where Gruen used to develop prints. The place would seem large if left empty, but nearly five decades of professional success strain the seams with contact sheets of outtakes, negatives, color prints, black and whites, contrast variations: all to secure a career’s worth of perfect photographic moments, in this case, the one-sixtieth of a second that John Lennon posed beneath the Statue of Liberty and flashed the peace sign.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant mother who, ironically, was also an immigration lawyer, Gruen, 71, has the worn, happy look of a man who has enjoyed a lot of encores. His coronet of white-gray hair frames lucid blue eyes. He has a comedian’s delivery and a core confidence, which is probably why music gods such as Ike and Tina Turner, David Johansen, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry liked to hang out here. Lennon used to kick back in the same place where the newer couch lives now.

As an official photographer to Lennon and Ono (who at the time of the Liberty photo was estranged from her husband), he was allowed near total access to the duo, in exchange for unique images that might be used when record companies or media outlets called. He would take the pictures for free and get paid when the image landed on a record cover or in a promotional campaign.

Gruen first met Lennon and Ono backstage at the Apollo Theater in December 1971, at a benefit concert for families of prisoners injured at Attica. Gruen started taking snapshots in a scrum of four or five other fans. While watching the cube flashes popping, Lennon said, “Everyone is always taking pictures. Why do we never see these photos? What happens to them?”

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Gruen volunteered that he lived around the corner from Lennon’s Bank Street apartment and would deliver his once they were developed.

“You live around the corner?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, slip them under my door.”

When Gruen dropped by with the prints, Jerry Rubin answered, which shocked Gruen, since he had only seen the radical in the midst of riots. He asked Rubin to pass the pictures to Lennon, rather than delivering them personally. This lack of pushiness impressed Lennon and Ono, who later asked him to be their photographer, sealing the deal by saying they wanted to “know him.” Before long, a deep bond was forged between the photographer and his subjects/employers.

Scrolling back to that day in 1974, Gruen recalls proposing the idea of the Statue of Liberty portrait during a recording session for “Rock n’ Roll,” Lennon’s album of oldies covers. Gruen’s intention for this photo was not commercial; he intended the shot to spark deeper support for Lennon. “To me, the case was urgently important,” Gruen says.

Lennon liked the idea immediately. Returning from the studio on Oct. 29, Gruen dropped Lennon off at his apartment. Lennon told him, “See you tomorrow. Bring your eyes.”

***

This was one of the last months of the infamous period known as Lennon’s “lost weekend,” when Ono sent her husband packing with their 22-year-old assistant, May Pang, and encouraged them to become romantic. Lennon had burned up L.A. on back-and-forth trips for six months, over-imbibing and over-indulging with Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and their Hollywood pals, and had come back to New York with Pang in the spring for a return to tranquility.

Pang recalls that Lennon was constantly worried about the deportation battle. “He did not want to leave. He loved this country so much,” she says. “The fact that they let in musicians who had done worse things than him really hurt him. He thought, ‘I’m being singled out.’ And he was.” He couldn’t risk immediate deportation by traveling overseas, so he sacrificed visits to friends and family and resolved to stay and fight.

When Gruen arrived at Lennon and Pang’s apartment on E. 52nd Street for their Liberty excursion, Lennon was wearing his favorite black coat, black scarf and black sweater. Gruen appreciated the formality and seriousness of the fashion choice and, as an added benefit, the clothes wouldn’t distract from the image’s simplicity.

Lennon also wore a pin with the words LISTEN TO THIS BUTTON framing a cropped picture Gruen had taken of Lennon’s eyes. The pin was the detritus from a commercial campaign for Lennon’s most recent album “Walls & Bridges,” which was meant to include a billboard in Los Angeles that would “play” the whole album. Unfortunately, L.A. said no to singing billboards.

Pang had grown up in Harlem and Spanish Harlem, but she had never been to visit the statue. Now she and Lennon hoped to get a chance to go into the crown.

They drove down through Manhattan in Gruen’s car. New York was a hair’s breadth from bankruptcy at the time, which happened to echo Gruen’s own financial status. A bottle of Paisano wine went for $1 and a slice of pizza for a quarter, and you could live on that most of the day. Lennon roamed the city relatively undisturbed. He would call Gruen to meet him at a bar and when, after a few hours, the place started filling with fans summoned by other fans spreading the word by pay phone, they would simply move to another club and buy hours of peace again.

Polaroid of Bob Gruen and John Lennon in front of Statue of Liberty, NYC. October 30, 1974. © Bob Gruen / www.bobgruen.com
(© BOB GRUEN / WWW.BOBGRUEN.COM)
Not Released (NR)
(LARRY BUSACCA/GETTY IMAGES)
INSTANT KARMA Bob Gruen and John Lennon pose for a Polaroid snap in front of Statue of Liberty on Oct. 30, 1974, the day they made the now-famous images. Gruen (at right) in recent times.
As they got out of the car at Battery Park, Lennon pointed up to the Financial District skyscrapers. “I bet I’m paying rent in all these places,” he told Gruen.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I have so many lawyers…” Lennon joked. He was fighting with his American manager Allen Klein at the time. He was more than three years into his legal struggle to break up the Beatles. And overriding all this was the time spent wrangling deportation, which had now exceeded two years. “The funny thing about lawyers,” Lennon continued, “is we go to meet them and they have a modest, regular office and we go back six months later for another meeting and they have a big impressive office and my picture’s on the wall.”

The reality was that Lennon’s sizeable personal wealth was stuck an ocean away while he waited for his U.S. residency, and his business income sat in receivership, awaiting resolution of his battle with Klein and the dissolution of the Beatles. Gruen recalls walking a late-night street with Lennon when a fan spotted him and did a triple take.

“You know, you look just like John Lennon?” the man said.

“I wish I had his money,” Lennon quipped, his standard deflection, which at that particular moment, had the virtue of being absolutely true.

***

This wasn’t Lennon’s first brush with Liberty. He had included a Liberty postcard in the 1972 album art for Lennon’s and the Plastic Ono Band’s “Some Time in New York City,” with a raised power fist replacing the hand holding the torch. Six years earlier, Paul McCartney and Lennon had circled Liberty Island for their first Apple Records board meeting.

BUTTON UP Lennon wore his favorite black coat and a pin from the promotional campaign for his most recent album.
BUTTON UP Lennon wore his favorite black coat and a pin from the promotional campaign for his most recent album. (© BOB GRUEN / WWW.BOBGRUEN.COM)
As Gruen bought their ferry tickets, a returning boat pulled in, which, oddly enough, happened to be packed with teenage girls. When they spotted Lennon, they immediately began shrieking. Lennon hushed them, promising, “If you stop yelling, I will sign for everybody.” He dashed off the signatures fast enough that the trio was able to catch that next boat.

Arriving on the island, they encountered an off-duty park ranger named Angel who joined them on their mission to snap the image that scores of tourists had taken countless times before — though in this case it was a world-famous British tourist who needed to be back in the studio by 4 p.m.

Nowadays, no one would take a celebrity to a photo-shoot site without visiting days ahead with a stand-in, for the lighting, the correct angle. On that October day, armed with two Nikon F cameras, one loaded with black-and-white and the other with Ektachrome daylight film, Gruen was surprised by the challenge of trying to include both the 5-foot-11 Lennon and 305-foot Liberty in the same frame. “You can only back up so far because it’s an island,” he points out, and he didn’t want the distortion of a wide angle. Given the cloud cover, Gruen used a flash, and since film costs money and developing costs time, he took only 28 black-and-white frames and two rolls — about 70 images — in color.

In one pose, John Lennon held up a Bic lighter, imitating the Statue. Hand on hip, hand down. Gruen liked when Lennon flashed the peace sign, because to him it looked like Lennon promising the government he would be good.As Gruen took pictures, Pang noticed security guards with earpieces starting to watch them. “I think we better go,” she warned. They regretfully hurried off the island, having failed to experience that thrill of going to the crown. “To see New York at its finest, for what this Liberty stood for…,” she says of those days in the’70s. “If you could stand up there and look out and say, ‘So this is my city.’ Nothing could beat that. What a magnificent view that would be. The closest we ever got was to be on that island.”

Later, in the darkroom, Gruen considered removing a KEEP OFF GRASS sign that wound up in the lower-right side of the frame. Gruen usually tried to avoid excess words in his images, but the sign’s accidental admonition proved to be too perfect. After all, it was ostensibly the disputed six-year-old cannabis-possession charge that the government was using to try to boot Lennon out of the country.

***

Chillingly, years later, Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, remembered the Statue of Liberty photo as being on the cover of a paperback about Lennon he’d found at a library in Hawaii, the book that sparked his psychotic rage. When Chapman first visited New York to plot his crime, he thought he might jump from the crown to end his life, since no one had ever attempted such a spectacular suicide, and the notoriety, which he so desperately sought, would be about equal, he thought, to that gained by murdering Lennon.

Thirty-six years after that fateful night, Chapman’s vicious act still leaves Gruen in tears. “It’s the stupidest thing that ever could be,” he says of the uselessness of his friend being killed.

That December of 1980, Gruen had been photographing Lennon and Ono’s recording sessions for “Milk and Honey,” their companion album to “Double Fantasy.” Usually, Gruen drove them home since they preferred the normalcy to the limousine. That unforgettable Monday, Gruen was printing the photos from their session two days before.

FOR THE RECORD Gruen was granted near total access to Lennon and Ono; the images he provided made for an enduring glimpse of the rocker, in what would be the final decade of his life. (LEO LA VALLE/EPA)
When he had spoken with Lennon in the studio, his friend was elated. The new album was near completion. Then they would start making videos, rehearse and, by April, would embark on a world tour, with Gruen along for the adventure. They would eat at their favorite Tokyo restaurants. They would meet world leaders. Gruen hurried through the developing so he could get to Lennon and Ono in the studio by 1 a.m., when they usually departed. But the recording machinery at the studio glitched that night, and Lennon and Ono had no choice but to conclude early.

Gruen recalls his doorman buzzing him around 11 p.m., telling him to turn on the radio. “Lennon’s been shot,” the doorman said.

Gruen first assumed his friend had fallen victim to the crack epidemic then ruling the city. Lennon never carried money, so maybe he had gotten mugged and the addict had shot him in the leg, or arm. “Shot isn’t dead,” Gruen recalls thinking, clinging to that slim hope.

Then, a former colleague phoned. He reported that he had seen blood everywhere on the TV. “Lennon’s dead,” he confirmed.

“I kind of sank to the ground,” Gruen says. As he lay on the floor, all the plans he and his friend had delighted in, ended in an instant. He started obsessing over hypothetical events that would haunt him for years: If he had gotten to the studio earlier, he would have convinced Ono and Lennon to go out to eat, like they always did, maybe at the Russian Tea Room. Waiting for Lennon to return home, the assassin would ultimately have succumbed to the December cold and given up. Or Gruen would have driven his injured friend to the hospital faster than medical care could reach him.

The phone rang as Gruen lay motionless. It kept ringing, then stopped, and would ring again. He lay there. And then another call. It occurred to him what the ringing meant: The whole world was watching. He was the photographer. It was his job to make Lennon look good. He crawled to his filing cabinets, in the very space where he works today, and began pulling pictures.

Pang recalls hearing the news on the radio at a friend’s and rushing back to her home. She telephoned David Bowie, who had been a good friend to Pang and Lennon. The singer was out on a date, but his assistant told Pang to come to his apartment immediately. She recalled being there when Bowie careered out of the elevator, unhinged by grief, crying and screaming in disbelief. They huddled by the television through the night, trying to make sense: “Who was this person?”

Returning home, she found the city in mourning. “It was the first time I ever heard New York be so quiet. On every level,” Pang remembers. “On the bus. No one was talking. And you saw the headlines.”

Gruen says that Ono later talked about the importance of the flag carrier in a crusade. When the one holding the flag gets shot, somebody has to pick up the flag and keep going. “He was holding a pretty big flag,” Gruen says, “but fortunately a lot of people have come behind him and we keep going. Yoko’s doing the lion’s share.”

John Lennon on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, NYC. October 30, 1974. © Bob Gruen/www.bobgruen.com
(© BOB GRUEN / WWW.BOBGRUEN.COM)
John Lennon posing at the Statue of Liberty, NYC. October 30, 1974. © Bob Gruen/www.bobgruen.com
(© BOB GRUEN / WWW.BOBGRUEN.COM)
PITCH-PERFECT Gruen snapped about 28 black-and-white frames and 70 in color. He considered removing the sign at Lennon’s feet, but couldn’t resist the accidental irony of its admonition.
Liberty carried the torch across the Atlantic, to shine on what was then the world’s only healthy democracy. Like Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who created the Statue of Liberty from his own inspiration and industry, Gruen invented those images of Lennon and the Statue of Liberty and holds the copyright. Like Bartholdi, Gruen has to some extent lost control of those rights. Bartholdi gave up his battle against the advertisers, postcard makers, and figurine forgers who stole the image immediately. Gruen says he tries to track its usage, yet he can’t help but be thrilled that people like it. He visited the Statue a few years ago and watched the multitudes of visitors striking the Lennon pose. “It’s the price of making something world-famous,” Gruen says. “It’s now part of the world.”

When the 29-year-old photographer took the photo in 1974, the image was meant to reflect the deportation struggle, but since Lennon’s death, it has taken on new meaning. “Now it’s a picture of two symbols of freedom. To me, Lennon represents personal freedom,” he says. Gruen considers it his unique accomplishment that he got those icons of personal freedom in the same place. For one-sixtieth of a second.

Pang remembers Lennon’s reaction when he realized that Thurmond and the government had been campaigning against him and had caused his years of suffering. “I remember John saying, ‘Can you believe they are afraid of me?’ That amazed him.”

Two days before John Lennon’s 35th birthday in 1975, federal Judge Irving Kaufman rejected the government’s deportation appeal. The judge threw out the case because deportation was not meant to be a punitive act; “moral culpability” mattered in the marijuana-possession charge, and Lennon did not appear to know he had marijuana on the premises. But Kaufman added remarks about the deeper meaning of the deportation attempt: “If in our 200 years of independence, we have in some measure realized our ideals, it is in large part because we have always found a place for those committed to the spirit of liberty and willing to help implement it,” Kaufman wrote in his decision. “Lennon’s four-year battle to remain in our country is testimony to his faith in this American dream.”

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