May Pang was clearly up to a challenge. Fresh out of school at 19, she had talked her way into a coveted job at the New York offices of The Beatles’ music company Apple Records.
She was outgoing and rebellious but also amenable, and John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono liked her so much they soon asked her to become their personal assistant.
The rock ‘n’ roll-mad daughter of Chinese immigrants from Spanish Harlem enjoyed every minute of her time with the couple — the union many believed broke up the Fab Four.
Pang was soon helping them in the recording studio, accompanying them to the UK and their country mansion at Tittenhurst Park, Ascot, and proving so engaging and photogenic that David Bailey shot her as part of a Lennon-Ono album cover.
Pang bought John and Yoko’s groceries and answered the phone — and she also supplied backing vocals on some of their songs including the 1971 hit single Happy Christmas (War Is Over). Then, one morning in 1973, when she turned up for work at their home in Manhattan’s Dakota building, it suddenly became a little more complicated.
‘Yoko walked into my office and said: ‘John and I are not getting along and I know he’s going to start seeing other people. And I want you to go out with him as I think he needs someone nice like you’,’ says Pang in a new documentary film. Of course, it was the bed-hopping 1970s but Pang rapidly realised she was in way over her head.
John Lennon pictured with May Pang, who he had an affair with towards the end of the 70s. In the Lost Weekend: A Love Story documentary, Pang insists that she and Lennon fell in love and Ono had to fight hard to win him back
Still only 22 — Lennon was 10 years older and Ono seven years older than him — she was, she says, ‘a naive kid . . . very, very young’.
She knew Ono ‘had some very weird ideas’ but she was still stunned — and refused.
But Lennon had told his wife he found their pretty, leggy assistant sexually attractive, and Ono waved away the girl’s objections.
‘She said: ‘It’s OK. You should do it.’ She thought it was the best thing since I didn’t have a boyfriend,’ recalls Pang.
The strong-willed Ono was confident she could control the much younger woman. And so began one of the most bizarre episodes in rock music history, in which Lennon embarked on an 18-month affair with Pang and a riotous move to Los Angeles, reunited musically with Paul McCartney and fell in with a gang of hard-drinking and drug-taking celebrity hell-raisers known as the Hollywood Vampires.
Lennon would later disparagingly refer to this part of his life as his ‘Lost Weekend’ (a reference to the 1945 film in which Ray Milland plays a writer struggling with alcoholism). But by then he was back with Ono, so he had to be diplomatic.
Lennon and Pang. Pang is intent on dispelling the ‘myth’ that Ono had their affair entirely under control and that it was the older woman who decided John and his lover should move to LA in September 1973 without her
And Ono, as keeper of the eternal Lennon flame, has done her best to keep herself near the centre. She hasn’t denied John’s affair with Pang was her idea, saying she realised she and her husband needed ‘a rest’ and that Pang was a ‘very intelligent, attractive woman and extremely efficient’.
However, The Lost Weekend: A Love Story — which just had its premier at this year’s Tribeca Festival — gives Pang’s version of events. She insists that she and Lennon fell in love and that Ono, discovering she’d made a serious misjudgment, had to fight hard to win him back.
The documentary, which Pang narrates, features contributions from others close to Lennon including his son Julian, who say the Beatle never seemed more happy than in the months he spent with Pang.
While Julian credits the sweet-natured Pang with reuniting him and his mother Cynthia with Lennon, Ono emerges badly from the film.
Pang, now 71, claims that, even before the eccentric Japanese artist mooted the idea of her PA having an affair with her husband, she made her deceive Lennon about his son.
Julian, then only a little boy, would occasionally ring to speak to his father. Pang says Ono insisted the calls had to go through her and repeatedly told her to say Lennon couldn’t come to the phone.
‘I was taken aback,’ she says. On the third occasion Julian called, she claims Ono relented but — according to Pang — told her that if Lennon ever asked if Julian had phoned previously, she was to deny it. ‘I lied to John and to Julian and it hurt,’ she says. ‘Yoko was using me, simple as that, and not for the last time.’
John Lennon with his wife, Yoko Ono, speaking at a news conference in New York City in the 70s. Ono is believed to have encouraged the affair with Pang, saying she and her husband ‘needed a rest’
Sometimes dismissed as a starry-eyed groupie who exploited the cracks in the Lennon-Ono marriage, Pang insists it was her employers who made the affair happen.
She says she initially had no romantic feelings towards Lennon but he pursued her, one day grabbing her and kissing her in a lift. She claims she recoiled — although he won her round. ‘Before I knew it John Lennon charmed the pants off me,’ she recalls. After they’d made love for the first time, she started to cry and asked him what it meant for their relationship.
He said he didn’t know but the following day he got out his guitar and played her a song — Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox) — he’d written about a girl who ‘gets me through this goddawful loneliness’. It did the trick. ‘I knew how much John meant to me but until that moment I didn’t know how much I meant to John,’ she says.
But their affair wasn’t easy. ‘John and I spent nights together and every morning I would go to the Dakota and see Yoko. It was not a comfortable situation,’ she says.
Pang is intent on dispelling the ‘myth’ that Ono had their affair entirely under control and that it was the older woman who decided John and his lover should move to LA in September 1973 without her.
That was Lennon’s brainwave, says Pang, and Ono had cut off her salary by the time their plane touched down. They ran around the city like ‘little teenagers’ with next to no money as he was in litigation with the other Beatles, she says. But being Lennon, they were lent a Bel-Air mansion by a record producer.
When he wasn’t pushing her into bed (the libidinous Lennon would dangle a toy snake out of his flies to indicate he was in the mood) he was determined to get out and do the sort of tourist things — from visiting a California ghost town to staying at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas — he hadn’t been able to do with The Beatles or Ono.
By December, he and Pang were sending joint Christmas cards although they kept their affair secret from all but close friends.
Lennon’s addiction to heroin in the late 1960s was reportedly a major factor in The Beatles breaking up and these demons resurfaced when John returned to LA.
He became an honorary member of the Hollywood Vampires, a drinking club that gathered upstairs at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Boulevard and whose musician members included singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper, Keith Moon of The Who, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees and Ringo Starr.
‘The last thing John needed was a membership to a drinking club, vampires or not,’ observes Pang, who never drank or took drugs.
It got worse when he decided to record an album of classic rock ‘n’ roll songs with producer Phil Spector whose drink and drug-fuelled behaviour was becoming increasingly deranged.
Everyone wanted to record with Lennon and the crowded recording sessions, with up to 28 musicians, became anarchic as they drank and smoked themselves into a stupor.
May Pang and John Lennon at the Beacon Theater in New York City. Lennon eventually went back home to Ono, but continued to see Pang over the next five years until he was shot dead by deranged fan Mark Chapman
One night, Spector fired a gun, deafening Lennon who later went home and, screaming his head off, smashed everything up.
A terrified Pang summoned his old friend and minder, Apple PR man Tony King, who was able to calm Lennon down. ‘He just broke down and wept,’ King recalls.
Lennon also sometimes directed his violence at Pang, throwing her against walls. (Lennon admitted he was a ‘violent man’ who fought hard to control himself.)
When he once drunkenly pushed her hard and, instead of apologising, turned away and said: ‘I simply don’t think it’s going to work,’ Pang returned, heartbroken, to New York.
Ono insisted she go back immediately because Cynthia and Julian were coming out to LA and John couldn’t handle them alone.
Convinced Yoko was merely passing on Lennon’s wishes, she complied. Julian hadn’t seen his father for three years, but it went well.
Pang played with him for hours. ‘Even Dad seemed a lot lighter and happier in himself,’ says Julian. Pang even effected a reunion with Cynthia who John hadn’t seen since he left her for Yoko Ono in 1968.
‘I was hoping they could get some kind of closure for Julian’s sake,’ says Pang. Ono wasn’t entirely out of the picture. She rang up to 15 times a day, at all hours, demanding a ‘full report’ from Pang on how they were getting on.
According to Pang, Ono thought she and her husband would only stay together for a few weeks.
And Ono miscalculated again, she says, when she suggested they divorce, not anticipating Lennon would agree. Yoko extricated herself from the mess by saying, as she often did, that ‘the stars weren’t right’. Ono blamed Pang for making their affair public but she insists that was Lennon’s decision, kissing her passionately in a bar where the crowd included Paul Newman after a heavy night drinking Brandy Alexander cocktails. It was quickly all over the papers.
Soon they were being stalked by paparazzi which, for Pang, had an upside: ‘John gave me the confidence to express myself.
‘I wasn’t just walking behind him any more. We were the centre of attention wherever we went.’
When Lennon decided to record another album with his LA rock ‘n’ roll friends, he based himself in a beachside house once used by Marilyn Monroe for her affairs with the Kennedys.
‘John liked the idea of making love in the same bed as JFK and Marilyn Monroe,’ Pang recalls. Paul and Linda McCartney came to visit and even joined in a jam (with Stevie Wonder on keyboards and Pang on tambourine).
‘And in that moment, five years of animosity and anger simply disappeared,’ says Pang of what would be the last time the two Beatles played together. ‘Little did I know that Paul was here to deliver a message from Yoko.’ McCartney had recently visited Ono in New York and had agreed to pass on an ultimatum to Lennon: if he still loved her, he had to come back to New York and ‘court’ her with flowers and romance.
Pang insists Lennon didn’t like being told what to do and rejected her terms, saying: ‘I’m with May’. (Ono told a different story in 2010 when she thanked McCartney for ‘saving’ her marriage.)
After the album, they did return to New York in 1974 and moved in to a small penthouse with two cats. Lennon was now sober and Julian would come to stay. John resumed his career too, embarking on collaborations with Elton John, David Bowie and Mick Jagger.
PR man King recalls many of them saying they ‘all had their best times with John when he was with May’. Jagger, he said, acknowledged it was the only time he really got to see his friend.
Pang says Lennon snubbed Ono at the premiere of a musical based on The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album, insisting May sat next to him, with Yoko at the back. ‘Sitting in the back of the theatre didn’t sit well with Yoko Ono,’ says Pang. She says Ono rang her to say it was time she retrieved her husband.
That November, husband and wife reconnected backstage at Madison Square Garden after an Elton John gig. Pang saw Lennon and Ono talking closely together. The following February, Lennon and Pang visited a house he wanted to buy near Jagger’s compound on Long Island when Yoko phoned.
Lennon was plagued by smoking-related breathing problems and Ono said she knew of a therapist who could break his nicotine habit through hypnosis. She suggested he return to their Dakota building home for treatment.
Pang was uneasy but Lennon insisted he’d soon be back. But he wasn’t and she only met him again by chance a few days later.
Still tearful as she recalls the details, Pang — who went on to have an 11-year marriage to record producer Tony Visconti — says Lennon told her: ‘Listen, Yoko’s allowed me to come home.’
It was a very odd remark for a man who’d convinced her he genuinely loved her. They actually continued to see other, ‘often intimately’, over the next five years until he was shot dead by deranged fan Mark Chapman.
Lennon confided to Beatles biographer Larry Kane that he’d loved Pang and ‘may have been the happiest I’ve ever been’ in his time with her, but added: ‘I love Yoko, too. Finding where you belong can be most difficult.’
Having found out the hard way where Lennon felt he belonged, May Pang certainly knows what he means.