The Beatles were fortunate to have a number of strong women in their lives, who helped shape them into the people they became as well as providing creative inspiration. Whether it was the foundation laid by their mothers (and also, in John’s case, his aunt) or the love and support of their wives, women have always played an important role in their story. I decided to take a look at this, in celebration of International Women’s Day.
Mothers (and Aunt)
John Lennon’s mother, Julia, was what people in the 1940s and 50s used to call a ‘free spirit’. Nowadays she would simply be referred to as a strong, independent woman who knew her own mind. After separating from John’s father (they never divorced), she had two children with another man, Bobby Dykins. In those days, ‘living in sin’ (as it was known) was frowned upon, but Julia clearly didn’t care what people thought — a trait she certainly passed on to her son.
Although she ultimately left his upbringing to her sister Mimi, Julia was an important influence on John, particularly musically. She bought him his first guitar, getting him started by teaching him banjo chords, and gave him constant encouragement. This was the one thing missing from John’s home life with Mimi. Julia’s untimely death devastated him, and she would remain a key figure in his life. His son Julian was named after her, and she was alluded to in the songs ‘Mother’ and, of course, ‘Julia’.
John’s aunt Mimi is one of the most fascinating characters in the Beatles story. She was a strict, no-nonsense woman who gave John no musical encouragement whatsoever, disapproved of his friends (especially George Harrison, who was far too common for her tastes) and just wished he would stop messing about and apply himself, at school and at art college. At the same time, she loved him deeply and devoted her life to raising him, feeling strongly that he needed stability after a chaotic start in life with his parents. She once remarked that although she had never wanted children of her own, she had “always wanted John”.
Despite his rebellious nature, John repaid Mimi in both love and loyalty. He bought her a house in Dorset in 1965, allowing her some peace and quiet from the Beatles fans who constantly surrounded her Liverpool home, and he phoned her every week after moving to New York.
Paul McCartney lost his mother, Mary, at a young age. He was just 14 when she died of an embolism resulting from breast cancer. But she had a lasting influence on his life, teaching him to speak properly and have good manners. She was also ahead of her time in many ways; she worked as a midwife and was the primary wage earner in the McCartney family.
Like John, Paul never really got over the loss of his mother. He wrote ‘Let It Be’ after having a dream about her, many years after her death, in which she told him everything would be all right. He also named his first-born daughter Mary after her.
Of all the Beatle parents and guardians, it was arguably George Harrison’s mother Louise who was the most openly supportive of her son’s musical ambitions. She was a keen music fan herself and enjoyed singing and dancing. As George struggled to learn his first guitar chords, she encouraged him to keep practising and not give up. According to George’s first wife, Pattie Boyd, “All she wanted for her children is that they should be happy, and she recognised that nothing made George quite as happy as making music.” She may even have been responsible for first awakening George’s interest in Indian music, as she often listened to Radio India broadcasts while pregnant.
Louise was equally supportive of The Beatles, and couldn’t have been prouder when they achieved success. She enthusiastically answered George’s fan mail, and even engaged in regular correspondence with some fans, often sending them old items of George’s as gifts. She was warm and welcoming to the young girls who turned up at the family home, inviting them in for tea.
Ringo grew up in a single-parent home. His father left when he was three years old and showed little to no interest in him as he grew up. His mother, Elsie, had to take on several jobs to support him. As it was just the two of them for a long time (until Elsie met and married Ringo’s stepfather, Harry), they were very close.
As with the other parents, Elsie was extremely proud of her son’s success. She even gave him the idea for his first solo album, Sentimental Journey, a collection of standards which reflected his mother’s taste in music and had influenced him during his childhood. She got to choose some of the tracks.
Love her or hate her, you can’t deny Yoko Ono’s incredible influence on John. From the moment they met, she introduced him to new ideas and ways of thinking that he hadn’t considered before. Perhaps the most positive examples of this are feminism and anti-war activism.
Before he met Yoko, John could hardly be described as a feminist. His treatment of the women in his life, particularly his first wife Cynthia, left a lot to be desired. It was Yoko who challenged his less than savoury attitudes and made him face up to them, just as the 1960s feminist movement was taking off. John’s political and social activism also emerged from his relationship with Yoko. Creatively and personally, she inspired him and pushed him to experiment.
Although her part in John’s story has been somewhat overshadowed over the years by that of Yoko, Cynthia was no less important. She was the first great love of John’s life, despite his later claims that he had never really known true love until he met Yoko. The letters he wrote to her from Hamburg prove this.
There can be no denying that Cynthia was not treated nearly as well as she should have been by John, and she was more or less left to raise their son Julian by herself after the divorce. However, in the early days of their relationship, John relied on her for the kind of stability that had been missing from many of his other family relationships. Even when she became pregnant, she never asked John to turn his attentions away from his career. As Tony Bramwell put it, “She was totally dedicated to his success. He was insecure and Cynthia was there to pump him up, to buttress, sort of, his weak side.”
Rock marriages typically don’t last very long, but Paul’s marriage to Linda Eastman was an exception (brought to an end only by her sad passing in 1998). Although he had previously been engaged to Jane Asher, he didn’t exactly believe in being faithful — but Linda changed all of that, and by the time she entered his life, he was ready to settle down and be a family man. They reportedly never spent a night apart in their 29-year marriage, apart from the ten days Paul spent in jail in Japan for possession of marijuana… but that’s another story!
Linda became a reluctant band member when she and Paul formed Wings, but her most important role was being, in Paul’s words, “a shoulder to lean on, a second opinion… she believes in me constantly.” Indeed, this belief proved vital when Paul was depressed following the break-up of The Beatles. It was Linda who encouraged him to pick himself up and start making music on his own. But far from simply being Mrs McCartney, Linda was talented and successful in her own right. Her photography was exhibited worldwide, and in 1968 she became the first woman to have one of her photographs make the front cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Her passion for vegetarianism also led her to launch her own range of foods, still going strong to this day.
Although seemingly very different on the surface of things, Linda and Yoko actually had much in common. Both had grown up in wealthy New York families, both were independent from a young age and pursued creative careers (Linda in photography, Yoko in art) and each was divorced with a child when they met their respective Beatle partners. They each came in for some quite nasty criticism from the press for being the women who “stole” John and Paul away from their female fans, and apparently from one another. But they handled it all with grace and dignity.
George’s first marriage to Pattie Boyd may be best remembered these days for how it ended (specifically with her leaving him for Eric Clapton), but for the first few years she was very much part of George’s spiritual journey, sharing his interest in meditation and Indian music. In fact, it was Pattie who introduced The Beatles to the Maharishi, having attended one of his lectures on Transcendental Meditation, which culminated in them all going to his seminar in Bangor.
As with the other women in The Beatles’ lives, Pattie inspired some of her husband’s most beautiful songs, most notably ‘Something’ (even though George later denied he was referring to her in the lyrics).
After his divorce from Pattie, George’s second wife Olivia entered his life. She worked for his Dark Horse record label in Los Angeles, and they immediately hit it off. Olivia and George were on the same wavelength spiritually, and this provided a strong foundation for their relationship, which lasted almost three decades (until his death in 2001).
Olivia quite literally saved George’s life, when an intruder broke into their home in 1999 and stabbed him several times. She managed to fight the attacker off and prevent him from doing any further damage. Since George’s passing, she has dedicated much of her time to preserving his legacy and is a director of his charity, the Material World Foundation. As well as this, she and the other Beatle wives (Yoko Ono, Linda McCartney and Barbara Bach) launched their own charity in 1990, the Romanian Angel Appeal.
Maureen Cox had the distinction of being the only original Beatles fan from Liverpool who actually got to marry a Beatle. She and Ringo tied the knot in 1965 and were very happy for the first few years, but things started to sour around the time of The Beatles’ break-up. Maureen was probably the most traditional of all the Beatle wives; she stayed at home and looked after the children, and always had a meal ready for Ringo when he returned from a day at the studio. Nonetheless, she seemed quite content to do so.
She was close to the other wives, Cynthia and Pattie, and they would frequently socialise together. Everyone seemed to like Maureen, in fact, and Paul McCartney thanks her at the end of the rooftop performance of ‘Get Back’, on which her enthusiastic cheers can clearly be heard. Despite their difficult divorce, Ringo remained close to Maureen and was deeply upset when she died of leukaemia in 1994. He and their children were present at the time, along with her second husband and daughter. Paul, too, was saddened by her passing and wrote the song ‘Little Willow’ in her memory.
Ringo met actress Barbara Bach on the set of the movie Caveman, and they married in 1981. At the time, some thought it an unlikely pairing — the Beatle and the Bond Girl — but their relationship endures to this day, despite some bumps in the road. They each had their struggles with alcoholism, but they got through it and are now arguably stronger than ever.
It seems there’s no great secret, with Barbara remarking in a 2015 interview with People, “I love the man, and that’s it.” Ringo added in the same interview, “I think I love Barbara as much today as I did when we met — and I’m beyond blessed that she loves me and we’re still together.”