‘John wanted The Beatles over with – so he used Yoko to do it’: Lennon’s former assistant tells all
“I do think John used Yoko to help him break up The Beatles,” says 83-year-old actor and mime artist Dan Richter, who lived and worked with John Lennon and Yoko Ono as their personal assistant from 1969 to 1973. He was present at the recording of the band’s final album, Abbey Road, where Lennon insisted his second wife should be a central – and antagonising – presence.
At the time Ono was recovering from injuries sustained in a recent car crash and Richter describes her being placed “in this gigantic brass bed, all covered in white in a white night dress, right in the middle of the studio…So sitting at the [mixing] board all you’re looking at is Yoko in a bed. The rest of the band were just appalled.”
Richter, who starred in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, still finds much to admire about his old friend Lennon, who died 42 years ago this month. Richter has just recorded an episode of the podcast British Scandal – The Ballad of Yoko and John – all about how they first met.
But, talking to me via video link from his home in the Sierra Nevada, he says that “at that point John wanted The Beatles over with…It was a big problem for him: how do you break up The Beatles? They were worth millions of dollars. Apple was a major business. Paul was going to go on forever. And John had decided he wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything without Yoko. So there she was, in bed in the studio…”
Richter first met Ono in Tokyo, 1964. Emancipated from her wealthy parents, she was working as a waitress and married to her second husband, the film producer and art promoter Anthony Cox. They shared a loft space with Richter and his first wife Jill. “We would have these endless conversations…,” says Richter. “Her mind was quite extraordinary.”
Richter and Jill maintained their friendship with Ono, and ended up living with her and Lennon after they bought Tittenhurst Park, Ascot, in the summer of 1969. At that time, Richter was seeking to kick a heroin habit and so were Lennon and Ono, who had begun using it after Ono’s miscarriage in November 1968 and continued to rely on it after their car accident in 1969.
Richter famously supplied the pair with heroin during the Abbey Road recording sessions. “I didn’t want them to be using,” he tells me. “But I really didn’t want them to be using street heroin, killing themselves.” He sighs. “There was a myth that drugs were a key to creativity. Which they might and might not be. People thought Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker were better artists because of drugs? Now I don’t think so.”
He tips his hat to the speed with which Lennon and Ono kicked their habit (inspiring Lennon’s song Cold Turkey), along with him. “Although they were still smoking grass. John was trying not to drink. He was a violent drunk, the worst side of him came out when he was drinking, so we would sip Coca Cola together.”
Richter, who had been helping the couple out with various administrative tasks, started working for them officially in 1971, after accompanying them on a disastrous trip to Mallorca, where Ono was visiting her seven-year-old daughter, Kyoko. While Richter was out buying shoes for Kyoko, Lennon was arrested when local police believed he and Ono had kidnapped the child. The next morning Richter did a press conference on their behalf, and the couple convinced him to become staff.
Richter says that Lennon and Ono were easy-going employers. On an average day he would help check their post and take the more important letters up to them in bed with their breakfast. He also says it’s no surprise that both Lennon and McCartney ended up marrying women who’d been born into wealth.
“Both of them ended up with women who knew how to deal with money, property, companies, staff … One of the things that surprised me about John when I first met him was how little he knew of those kinds of things. He called himself working class, but he was really lower-middle class.”
Lennon was also determined to keep up with the other Beatles. Richter recalls him returning from Friar Park (George Harrison’s neo-gothic mansion near Henley) saying: “I could see water from George’s window. Do you think we could put in a lake here?” But the biggest rivalry remained with McCartney. “It bugged him that Paul could write those sweet melodies like Yesterday and Hey Jude. He couldn’t do that. He was just too acerbic, or too intelligent…”
Richter recalls the acrimony spilled into life at Tittenhurst when “John got somebody to make a list of all the Beatles’ songs and then we had to say which were his and which were Paul’s.” He shakes his head. Then laughs at the memory of a trip out to a “fancy restaurant that had a band. When they saw John come in they started playing Yesterday. John was so p----d off!”
When it came to security around Lennon, Richter was always intensely aware that “John was a target and he knew it. There were letters from obsessive fans all the time. People at the gates of Tittenhurst.” He remembers being convinced Lennon was about to be murdered on a visit to meet Bob Dylan at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Richter got out of the car first to check things were safe and was terrified by a man rapidly approaching them while reaching into his pocket. “I thought I was going to die,” he says. “Turned out he was hotel security coming to see if we needed help! Then I realised Bob was standing there all the time, totally unnoticed, in camouflage fatigues, laughing.”
He says that if he’d still been working with Lennon he would “never” have condoned the star using the front door of The Dakota building, outside of which he was shot by Mark Chapman in 1980. “That door was a danger point. You can identify and avoid that. And there was a side door he could have used.” Since so much hatred was aimed at Ono, did he ever think she might also be a target? “No,” he says. “Now you mention it, I should have done. People really did hate her.”
Richter always felt Ono was a victim of misogyny. “She wasn’t given full credit for the work she did in New York and Tony Cox got more than his fair share of the credit for a lot of the work they did in Japan just because he was a guy.” And when it came to Lennon, Richter says “she didn’t need anyone… He was a Dante and Yoko was his Virgil, his guide through the art world.”
Does he feel Ono made a feminist of Lennon? When he was with his first wife Cynthia he wrote the sexist song Run for Your Life, but while he was with Ono he wrote Woman is the N***** of the World, which lambasts how society treats women. “Oh, I think so. In the end,” says Richter. “Sure, he could be a bully. I don’t think either of them treated May Pang [the PA with whom Lennon had an affair in 1973] very well.”
Richter is no longer in touch with Starr or McCartney, whom he last talked to in 1973. “John and Yoko were at their Bank Street place [in New York] and I was trying to get John and Paul to talk to each other. Paul was at a hotel in Berlin and I called his people. I said: ‘If I got John on the phone would Paul talk to him?’ They said yes, and so they talked. I felt really good about that because they really loved each other.”
Richter last saw Ono three years ago in Los Angeles at a tribute concert for her work. “We met backstage, she came out in a wheelchair. We just held each other’s hands and we both started crying. I could see how frail she was. I said, ‘My God, Yoko I remember when everyone was treating you so badly and here you are getting a standing ovation!’ It was very moving.”
Listen to Daniel Richter’s episode of the Wondery podcast British Scandal – The Ballad of Yoko and John – out now on all podcast platforms