|New York City, as seen from atop Rockefeller Center|
August 6, 2010 - not so great photo taken by me
It was, of course, impossible that I would not write today about John Lennon. With Yoko's much-welcomed focus on John's 70th birthday - as opposed to today's 30th anniversary of his murder - John has been in the news a great deal this fall, and that is good. I saw recently the incredibly well-done documentary by filmmaker Michael Epstein [no relation - despite the irony - to Beatles manager Brian Epstein]. Among the many fantastic things about LennoNYC is how Lennon's murder is handled. While acknowledged - and how could it not be - there is no mention of Mark David Chapman, nor any mention of the shooting with the exception of Yoko's incredibly poignant, "He was an artist. Why would you kill an artist?"
Still, the reality is that there is no way to consider John's life in its entirety without recounting that night 30 years ago. Unfortunately, for a good number of those who have ever lived - particularly the famous - their lives are largely seen through the prism of their deaths. Just off the top of my head I can think of Elvis Presley, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Michael Jackson, Liberace, Rock Hudson, John Belushi..... When you think of their lives, invariably it is through the lens of how their lives ended moreso than how those lives they were lived. That is just the way it is.
So, on this 30th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination [and, let's be clear, that's what it was. Many mistakenly believe that 'assassination' is only the murder of political leaders. The Webster's definition of 'assassination' is, "to kill suddenly or secretively; to murder premeditatedly and treacherously"], I'm compelled to write about December 8, 1980.
I've written before about the last day of John Lennon's life. The last hour of his life, however, is the focus of today's post.
The evening of December 8, 1980 was about to become a painful one for Alan Weiss. Weiss was working for WABC-TV in New York City and won two Emmys before his 30th birthday. After a long day at work, he jumped on his motorcycle and headed home.
The evening of December 8, 1980 was the end of a 30-hour shift for Dr. Stephan Lynn, head of the Roosevelt Hospital Emergency Room in New York City. He was exhausted and looking forward to sleep. He headed home for a quick hug of his wife and two young daughters and a nice warm bed.
The evening of December 8, 1980 was just beginning for New York City Police Officers Pete Cullen and Steve Spiro, who did the night shift on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Not necessarily a 'cush' job, but better than 99% of the other ones available to a New York City cop in 1980.
The night of December 8, 1980 was a typical one for Jay Hastings, working as a doorman at the Dakota. Earlier that night, a friend of one of his highest profile residents, John Lennon, had stopped by to drop something off for the former Beatle. Hastings had seen Bob Gruen with John Lennon just a few days ago, so he took the package and promised Gruen that he would give it to John when he returned that evening. Police would later open the package - as part of their investigation - to find it containing some tapes of the The Clash that John had asked Gruen to make for him [Gruen had told John that he would love The Clash and John "wanted to take a listen"], as well as some of the negatives from a photo session Gruen had done with John and Yoko two days earlier. All of that would be later, however. For now, though, all was quiet as Hastings watched Monday Night Football on a tiny black and white television propped up on the counter of the front desk.
The lives of these five men would converge unexpectedly and suddenly in a violent collision with the last night of John Lennon's life.
The night of December 8, 1980 was the completion of a task Mark David Chapman had set out to accomplish a month earlier. He'd come to New York in November 1980 to kill John Lennon but got cold feet and returned home to Hawaii. He was back now and determined to finish what he'd set out to do. It was an unusually warm evening for early December in New York City. Despite that, Chapman stood patiently in the dark outside the Dakota wearing a winter's coat - attire not suited for Hawaii but perfect for the conditions that he thought he'd find in December on the East Coast. Chapman carried a well-worn copy of The Catcher In the Rye, the J.D. Salinger tale of disaffected youth. In his pocket was a five-shot Charter Arms .38-caliber revolver - the ammunition provided by an unsuspecting old friend of Chapman's from Alabama, whom the 25-year old Chapman had suddenly visited in October 1980.
The evening of December 8, 1980 was a pleasant and accomplished one for John Lennon. The day had been hectic - a photo session with photographer Annie Leibovitz, a three-hour interview with R.K.O. Radio, and a five-hour session at the Hit Factory Record Studios to tweak a song by Yoko called "Walking on Thin Ice".
As John and Yoko's rented limousine stopped on 72nd Street at the ornate gate of the Dakota [John had told the driver to stop there rather than inside the courtyard - and past Chapman - which was more the standard route on a cold December evening....which this was not], Lennon grabbed the reel-to-reel tapes of the evening's sessions, placed them under his arm, and followed Yoko out of the car. It was 10:50 pm.
Yoko had wanted to stop for a bite to eat at The Stage Deli, but John wanted to go home. So, as they emerged from the limo, John strode ahead of Yoko as they entered the gate. He was eager to check in on his 5-year old son, Sean. While the boy would [hopefully] be asleep, John hadn't seen him for a few days, as Sean had spent the weekend with his nanny's family in Pennsylvania. After that, John would go into the kitchen to get a bite to eat - knowing that, as usual when the kitchen door opened, his three cats would come bounding forward to greet him.
There is some dispute as to whether Chapman really said, "Mr. Lennon?!" as he stepped out of the shadows about five strides after John had passed him unseen. For years that was the story; recently, though, Chapman has said he said nothing. It is possible, in fact, that he is right. John never stopped walking, nor did he turn around - headed instead in the direction of the door some 50 feet away. Had his name been called so loudly and unexpectedly in the dark of night, one would assume that the startled Lennon would have turned to face the sound.
What is indisputable is that Chapman now stood in a combat stance a few feet from Lennon and Ono with his handgun leveled at the back of John's midsection. Very quickly, Chapman fired four bullets, three of which which pierced John from the back through the lungs, the chamber around his heart, and his shoulder. The fourth missed John and hit the glass window by the the front door of the complex.
Although at first in shock, John immediately knew what had happened and screamed, "I'm shot!" Despite a massive loss of blood - even in just the few seconds that had passed - John started to jog forward toward the door. He stumbled up the steps and fell face first onto the marble lobby floor in the foyer, breaking his glasses. Somehow, the reel-to-reel tapes he'd been carrying had stayed lodged under his arm. They now crashed to the floor beside his glasses.
Startled by the broken glass - initially he'd assumed the firing of the gun to be a car backfiring - doorman Hastings ran from behind the desk just as Lennon came stumbling through the door. Despite the blood and his own shock, Hastings knew immediately that the grievously wounded man at his feet was John Lennon, as Yoko quickly came to the door at a gallop screaming. Hastings rang the alarm that connected the Dakota to the police. He then went back to John and instinctively removed his jacket and placed it over John's crumpled torso. Also instinctively, although he was unarmed, Hastings ran out the door to approach the shadowy figure 50 feet away who was still in a combat position. Although the gun was still in Chapman's hands, he'd lowered his arm to his side with gun pointed toward the ground. Incredulous, Hastings approached Chapman and screamed, "Do you know what you just did?!".
"I just shot John Lennon," Chapman replied softly.
Within minutes after Chapman opened fire, Officers Cullen and Spiro were the first to answer the report of shots fired at the Dakota. As he got out of the patrol car, Cullen was struck by the lack of movement: the doorman, a Dakota handyman who had run out of his basement apartment at the sound of Lennon's body hitting the floor above him, and the killer, all standing as if frozen.
"Somebody just shot John Lennon!" the doorman finally shouted, pointing at Chapman.
"Where's Lennon?" Cullen asked. Hastings pointed to the nearby vestibule in which John - with blood pouring from his chest - lay dying. Cullen ran to Lennon's side as Spiro threw Chapman against the stone wall and cuffed him.
Two other officers soon arrived to lift John up and take him to a waiting police car. As they did, one of the officers would recall his stomach sickening as he heard the unmistakable cracking of Lennon's shoulder blade as they lifted him up, the bones shattered by a bullet. As they were carrying him to the waiting police car, Lennon vomited up blood and fleshy tissue.
With Lennon placed gingerly on the backseat of the patrol car, one of the officers jumped into the back to hold his head while the other two officers jumped in the front seats and sped downtown to Roosevelt Hospital, located exactly one mile away. In the midst of the chaos, Cullen spotted Yoko Ono. "Can I go, too?" she asked as her husband disappeared. A ride was quickly arranged.
Cradling Lennon's head, the officer in the backseat of the speeding patrol car looked into John's glassy eyes. Breathing heavily, with the gurgling of blood audible to all in the car, Lennon was fading. The officer tried to keep Lennon conscious, screaming at him. "Do you know who you are?!?! Are you John Lennon?!" John - who, with the other Beatles had popularized the 'yeah, yeah, yeah' phrase 16 years earlier - uttered what would be his last word: "Yeah...." He then lost consciousness and his breathing stopped.
Meanwhile, back at the Dakota, Officers Spiro and Cullen were trying hard to remain professional. Avid Beatles fans, both had often seen John, Yoko and Sean walking the neighborhood. Although they'd never spoken to John, both felt as though this was a family member or friend that Chapman had just shot. Trying to control the urge to hit Chapman, Spiro thought of the only thing he could think of: "Do you have a statement?!" Chapman pointed with his cuffed hands down to the ground nearby where his copy of Catcher in the Rye lay. Spiro opened the book and saw the inscription, "This is my statement." Spiro fell into a brief shocked daze at the scrawl. He was startled back into reality when Chapman - answering a question that hadn't been asked - said, "I acted alone."
Cullen and Spiro then roughly loaded Chapman into their car for a trip to the 20th Precinct. "He was apologetic," Cullen recalled in a 2005 interview - but not for shooting Lennon. "I remember that he was apologizing for giving us a hard time."
Nearby, unnoticed and - for the next 12 hours, untouched - was the copy of Double Fantasy that Lennon had signed for Chapman 6 hours earlier. Chapman had placed it in a large potted plant at the side of the gate, where it would be inadvertently discovered by one of the scores of officers who would be called to the Dakota for crowd control as word of Lennon's shooting spread.
Thirty minutes earlier, Dr. Stephan Lynn's 30-hour shift had ended at 10:30 p.m. He had literally just walked through the door and sat down on the sofa when his phone rang. Picking it up, a nurse asked him if he could come back to the hospital to help out. A man with a gunshot to the chest was coming to Roosevelt.
Lynn walked back out the door and hailed a cab to the hospital.
Meanwhile, at Roosevelt Hospital at that moment, TV producer Weiss was lying on a gurney wondering how his night had turned so shitty so quickly. An hour earlier, Weiss' Honda motorcycle had collided head on with a taxi. Somehow, Weiss seemed to have escaped with what he suspected to be cracked ribs. It was as he was lying on the gurney in an emergency room hallway contemplating his ruined evening and awaiting x-rays that Weiss was about to get the news scoop of a lifetime.
BOOM! The doors of the hallway where Weiss lie burst open with a gunshot victim on a stretcher carried by a half dozen police officers, who passed Weiss as they brought the victim into a room nearby. As doctors and nurses flew into action, two of the police officers paused alongside Weiss' gurney. "Jesus, can you believe it?" one officer rhetorically asked the other. "John Lennon?!"
Weiss was incredulous. He immediately rose from the gurney and grabbed a nearby hospital worker. Realizing he couldn't walk, Weiss shoved $20 into the man's hands and told him to call the WABC-TV newsroom with a tip that John Lennon was shot. As it turned out, the money disappeared, and the call was never made.
Five minutes passed. Weiss was suddenly doubting the news instincts of the bribed hospital worker. As he was contemplating this, Weiss was started by what he later described as a strangled sound. "I twist around and there is Yoko Ono on the arm of a police officer, and she's sobbing," Weiss recalled in a 2005 interview.
With the sight of Yoko, Weiss decided he had to make the call to WABC-TV himself. He finally persuaded a police officer to help him up and walk him to a hospital phone, under the ruse that he had to call his wife to tell her he was in the hospital. Instead, out of earshot of the officer, Weiss reached the WABC-TV assignment editor with his tip around 11 p.m. Before hanging up the phone with Weiss, the editor on the other end of the phone was able to check and confirm a reported shooting at Lennon's address.
All the while, Lynn and two other doctors were working on the victim. The man lying on the table had no pulse, no blood pressure, and no breathing. Lynn did not know that the man on the table in front of him was John Lennon. "We took his wallet out of his pocket," Lynn recalled in 2005. "The nurse immediately chuckled and said, 'This can't be John Lennon'. Because it didn't look anything like John Lennon."
Whether or not it was Lennon, Lynn was not quite sure. What he did know, though, was that, "He was losing a tremendous amount of blood," Lynn remembered. "And he had three wounds in his chest. We knew we had to act quickly. We started an IV, we transfused blood. We actually did an operation in the emergency department to try to open his chest to look for the source of the bleeding. We did cardiac massage - I literally held his heart in my hand and pumped his heart - but there was complete destruction of all the vessels leaving his heart."
After 25 minutes, the three doctors gave up. The damage was too great. Lennon was dead. Lynn recalled that Chapman's marksmanship was extraordinary. "He was anamazingly good shot," Lynn recalled. "All three of those bullets in the chest were perfectly placed. They destroyed all of the major blood vessels that took the blood out of the heart to all of the rest of the body." As a result, "there was no way circulation of blood could take place in this man and there was no way that anyone could fix him."
Weiss continued watching in disbelief as the doctors frantically worked on Lennon. It took him a moment to realize the song that was playing on the hospital's Muzak system - the Beatles' "All My Loving."
Meanwhile, Dr. Lynn made the long walk to the end of the emergency room hallway where Yoko was waiting in a room with record mogul David Geffen, who had rushed to the hospital after receiving a call that John had been shot. It was now Lynn's job to deliver the word that John Lennon, Yoko's soulmate and spouse, was dead.
"She refused to accept or believe that," Lynn recalled. "For five minutes, she kept repeating, `It's not true. I don't believe you. You're lying."' Lynn listened quietly. "There was a time she was lying on the floor, literally pounding her head against the concrete, during which I was concerned I was going to have a second patient," Lynn remembered. "Many, many times she said, 'You're lying, I don't believe you, he's not dead,' " he added. "[Geffen] was helpful in getting her to calm down and accept what had happened. She never asked to see the body, and I never offered. She needed to get home [to tell Sean], and she did."
By the time Yoko left the hospital, Weiss' tip had been confirmed and given to Howard Cosell, who told the nation of Lennon's death during Monday Night Football.....which was still on the screen of the little black and white television on doorman Hastings' front desk counter.
This brought a throng of reporters to Roosevelt Hospital, leaving Lynn to inform them that Lennon was gone. "John Lennon...," Lynn began before pausing for a moment. He then went on, "....was brought to the emergency room of St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital...He was dead on arrival." With that, a collective groan emanated from the normally cynical assembled media.
After finishing with the media, Lynn returned to the emergency room. Thinking remarkably clearly - and with great foresight - Lynn arranged for the disposal of all medical supplies and equipment used on Lennon - a move to thwart ghoulish collectors. "I said, 'Not a piece of linen with Mr. Lennon's blood is to leave this department except in a special bag,' " Lynn recalled. "I had to tell the nursing staff that they could not sell their uniforms, which might have been stained with John Lennon's blood." He personally supervised the disposal of everything.
By the time Lynn was done, it was 3 am. He decided to walk home, heading up Columbia Avenue. "I was afraid that someone would run up to me and say, 'You're the doctor who didn't save John Lennon and allowed him to die,' " Lynn said.
On the 25th anniversary of the murder, Lynn stated that he believed that - despite medical advances in the previous quarter century - John's gunshot injuries would still be untreatable today. "There was no way of repairing that damage then and, to my knowledge, there's no way to repair that amount of damage today," Lynn said. "There was absolutely nothing we could do."
For days afterward, up in Apartment 72 of the Dakota, whenever the kitchen door opened, three cats came bounding forward to greet a man who was no longer there.....
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