Recently the John Lennon Examiner posted a book review on “The Guitar’s All Right as a Hobby, John” by Kathy Burns, where Kathy tells her story of friendship with John’s Aunt Mimi Smith. (See link in suggested reading below.) Aunt Mimi is known to Beatles fans as the woman who raised John from the age of five. There was enough secretiveness about the whole arrangement that John would be traumatized as a teen when finding that his mother lived not far from him and that she had “remarried” and had two more children. He never was told why this all happened. As a result, fans, friends, and family alike have argued whether Mimi was on the side of good or evil at many junctures.
We have interviewed Kathy about her initial apprehensions about publishing this book, how she started her friendship with Mimi, and about some of the controversies that have cropped up over the years, including why Mimi ended up raising John and not his mother. As readers will see, some things jive with books that have been published, and others don’t.
Examiner: What inspired you to write your first letter to Aunt Mimi in 1966?
Kathy Burns: Thinking back, I don’t think I ever considered seriously writing to Mimi until my friend, Judy, said she had. I hadn’t heard of anyone writing to her and receiving a reply until then, so I hadn’t bothered. But once Judy said she had, I decided it was worth a try and used the excuse of wanting her to be an honorary member in the club.
Examiner: Was John your “favorite Beatle”? And why?
KB: Oh yes! John was always my favorite Beatle and still is. It’s a little tough to say why. That’s like asking me why I like the color blue. I just do! The first thing I really noticed about him was his sexiness when singing Twist & Shout. And then how witty he was. And clever. You could tell he was well-read and I do like that in a person. There wasn’t a subject he couldn’t expound upon and though I might not agree with everything he said, I was always interested in hearing it. He was always the kind of person I would have liked to have known. Not marry. Just know.
Examiner: When was the first time you actually saw Mimi in person and what was that like?
KB: That was during my first trip to England in October 1973. I had talked about coming down to Poole to visit for a day and I was extremely nervous. This was John Lennon’s aunt, after all. But I shouldn’t have been. She was very warm and welcoming and simply an easy person to be around. I could see where John got his sense of humor and his interest in current events. We talked about the Watergate hearings that were going on at the time and she was just as well-versed in that subject as she was The Beatles. It was simply a very enjoyable visit.
Examiner: There are no photos in your book but many on your Facebook page. Is that due to cost or copyright?
KB: I don’t know if there would have been any additional cost or not, so it was mainly a copyright issue. And a time issue. I was in a hurry to finally get the book published and didn’t want to take the time to try and run down each photo to see if it was copyrighted or not. Some of them were very old. In hindsight I wish I had included some pictures. Maybe next time.
Examiner: You were very honest and direct in this book — Mimi’s opinions about the people in John’s life were harsh in regards to Cyn, Julian, and others, including the other Beatles. Were you shocked at the time you read her letters and sat with her in her home, to hear what her true feelings were?
KB: I don’t think I was ever shocked by anything Mimi said or of her opinions. She had plenty of harsh things to say about Cyn, Julian and Yoko, but I don’t think the other Beatles were included. They were the people in her life and anything she had to say about them was a result of that. She might have been critical of George’s accent and the way he dressed as a boy but she did genuinely like all of The Beatles. Especially Paul. She might have disliked how big-headed he could be and she certainly didn’t like when there was an argument between he and John. You always knew whose side she was on in those instances. But she continued to love Paul through the years and he was usually the one she sought out when she was really worried about John.
As far as Cynthia goes, she didn’t like her or her mother from the very beginning. And according to Cyn’s latest book, the feeling was mutual. But they were all family as far as she was concerned. Some days they fared better than others.
Examiner: Were you worried about publishing this book?
KB: A little. My original intention was to publish all her letters in their entirety in a way that made sense, but I was quickly informed that my letters belonged to her estate and I had to get permission to publish them. I had no idea who the executor of her estate was, but if it was Yoko I didn’t think I had a chance. But if it wasn’t Yoko in charge, then who? I didn’t know. Then a lawyer son of a friend of mine suggested that I would probably be able to print parts of her letters; just not the entire letter. That sounded OK, so I went with it. I decided to self-publish and try to fly below the radar as much as I could. So far so good.
Examiner: There has been so much debate over the years about the circumstances surrounding John being raised by Mimi (vs his mother Julia). What did Mimi say about it?
KB: She told me she “had him from the beginning” and raised him as her own. She never mentioned that he was 5 years old or that she called family services or whatever the stories are. She said she had him from the beginning and her story never wavered.
Examiner: How did she feel about her sister Julia? Given how close you became to Mimi over the years, which published version of the story do you agree with? (Did Mimi force Julia to give John up, or did Julia give him away willingly?)
KB: She talked quite a bit about Julia. She said Julia was her favorite sister and that she was so charming and witty and fun that you couldn’t help but love her. Her only criticism was that Julia wasn’t “mother material.” I never got the impression that she forced Julia to give John up. Like I said before, her story was that she took John from birth with no indication that she forced Julia into anything. Nor did I ever get the impression that Julia wasn’t allowed to see John at any time. That story seems to pop up every so often, too.
Examiner: There is an interesting contradiction in your book to what’s become known as legend. Legend says that Mimi sobbed while doing her will when she discovered her house was actually owned by Yoko Ono now that John was dead. The implication was that she assumed the house was hers. But you said her tears were just over the fact that she realized she needed to change her beneficiary as she had willed everything to John. And now she didn’t know what to do with it all.
KB: Mimi always knew the house was in John’s name. We talked about that long before she received that letter from her attorney. She never seemed upset to me that the house belonged to him. She said he bought it for the whole family to use. She was, however, in tears the last morning I was there in 1981. When I asked her what was wrong she said her attorney had just written to tell her, unless she wanted everything to go to Yoko, she would have to change the beneficiary, because as John’s widow, she was entitled to it all.
I didn’t think she was crying because she didn’t know what to do, but more so because it was just another reminder of John’s death. I don’t think it bothered her who to leave everything to, except for the gold records and awards. She said she’d rather throw them in the ocean than for Yoko to have them. To this day I don’t know what she did with them. I didn’t get them. And Julian’s assistant said he didn’t get them. It’s anybody’s guess.
Examiner: Julia Baird’s book, “Imagine This”, paints Mimi as a rather hurtful person with many examples. Do you think your book contradicts Julia’s book in any way, or supports it? Or both?
KB: I hope my book is seen as contradicting hers. One of the reasons I wrote the book was because there was so many misconceptions about Mimi out there; whether it be Julia’s book, or Cyn’s, or some of John’s lesser connections. I never ever thought of Mimi as a hurtful person. At least not toward me nor any of the other fans I personally know who visited her. She would go overboard apologizing if she thought she offended you in some way. And this is also the woman who offered to pay my way over in 1981. That’s not hurtful to me. But that’s me.
As I said in the book, Mimi never mentioned John’s sisters (Julia and Jackie) to me so I really have no idea of what their history was. She also never mentioned Stanley Parkes to me. I didn’t know he existed until I was shown a picture of him by Mimi in 1981. It could mean something or it could mean nothing at all. Mimi’s no longer around to ask. But I honestly thought it a little suspect that most of the venom came out after her death.
Examiner: If Mimi was alive today, what would she think of the “John Lennon legacy” that has now become so iconic and huge? Would she be surprised? Or just “proud of her boy?”
KB: That’s a great question. I think she would be both surprised *and* proud. I told her that she had no concept of how really big it was when he died. And how much he was really loved. She knew The Beatles were big, she couldn’t comprehend how big. I think she shielded herself from a lot of it after 1980. She didn’t like to listen to the radio for fear they’d say something about him or play a song. She couldn’t bear it at the time.
But as far as the “Lennon legacy”, there certainly would have been ways she would have heard all about that; the statues, the airport, etc. He was just John to her, not Beatle John, so I think she would have been completely amazed by it all at first. Maybe a little disbelieving. But she would have basically been very proud. She was proud of everything John did (well, within reason) and felt he had finally gotten himself straightened out and was going forward in the right direction. That the rest of the world loved and admired him so much too, would have been very comforting to her I would think.
Author’s note: Many thanks to Kathy Burns for the interview and photo. For more discussions on the controversy surrounding John Lennon’s childhood, see below suggested reading, and also read Julia Baird’s book “Imagine This”, Larry Kane’s “When They Were Boys,” and Mark Lewisohn’s “Tune-In.”