John Lennon as Only His Half-Sister, Julia Baird, Knew Him

As Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Lennon-Bairds were no exception.

The gates of Strawberry Field in Liverpool. Photo: Salvation Army International.
John Lennon. Photo: Salvation Army International.

Julia Baird has spent a great deal of her adult life defending and explaining her half-brother, John Lennon, a complex man capable of both great idealism and narcissism who left the world an unequalled canon of songs and a million stories. Some portray John as a wife-beater (something he admitted later in life), others paint him as Julian’s emotionally abusive father. This is not who his half-sister wants the world to remember. She writes in the foreword of Imagine This, published in 2007: “This book is my attempt to make sense of my own life and that of my half-brother, John.”

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Julia Baird. Photo: Julian Hamilton, Daily Mirror.

Earlier this year, I met Julia when we were both on a panel aboard The Joy, Norwegian’s newest cruise ship. The featured show was Footloose, so I was honored as the film’s original choreographer. Baird was there to open a replica of The Cavern Club where The Beatles were born. She was 14 at the time — too young to get in — but, through a stroke of poetic justice, she is the president of the organization today. Her intensity fascinated me.

Wearing an oversized tweed jacket and wire-rim spectacles, Baird spoke of Lennon with urgency, determined that the audience understand the best of the brother she knew. Her face lit up when she recalled hiding in the bushes at the local golf course, crawling out to grab balls gone astray that Lennon would bleach and resell; being in the kitchen where their mother, also Julia, drilled her on multiplication tables while Lennon challenged her with random figures; watching as their mother taught her brother to play banjo, leaning over his shoulder, her hands placed over his. When Lennon’s first band, The Quarrymen, played at the Vespa Scooter club, mother and daughter sat in the first row, applauding madly at the end of every song.

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John Lennon and his mother, Julia. Photo: Jeff and Mindy Hochberg Archive.

Yet, as Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Lennon was five when childless Aunt Mimi decided that her sister was unfit to raise him because she was “living in sin.” Alf Lennon had abandoned them and Julia couldn’t obtain a divorce, so when she fell in love with Baird’s father, she had no choice. Nevertheless, Aunt Mimi complained relentlessly about her sister to the authorities. Finally, Julia gave up her boy to Mimi. Lennon became a motherless child even as his own loving mother lived a short walk away. Mimi insisted that Julia and his other Baird half-sister, Jackie, were not members of the family, so happy times had to be kept secret.

Lennon’s mother Julia was killed by a car just steps from Mimi’s house when Lennon was 17. Lennon’s half-sisters were shipped off to distant relatives in Wales for eight terrifying weeks, denying them her funeral and their brother’s support. As Lennon told Playboy in 1980:

I lost her twice. Once as a five-year-old when I was moved in with my auntie. And once again at seventeen when she actually physically died…

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As the Beatles soared, Lennon always sent his latest recordings and loving messages home. But when he became John Ono Lennon, it became painfully difficult to contact him because Yoko Ono frowned on his Liverpool family. Lennon could not have known that he would be gunned down at 40, his chance to reconcile past and present lost forever. Baird was denied, again, the funeral of a loved one.

Shortly thereafter, she was notified that the Liverpool house Lennon bought for his sisters was to revert to his estate, since it was technically owned by Apple Records. She appealed and finally got Yoko on the phone who said, “You hardly knew John. You hardly even met him.”

Devastated, Baird threw herself and her passion into Strawberry Field, the old Salvation Army home in Liverpool. Lennon had often scaled its walls to play with the children living there. Aunt Mimi once told him that if he didn’t stop, they would hang him, which later inspired, “Nothing to get hung about, Strawberry Fields Forever.”

With Julia Baird as Honorary Director, the gates of Strawberry Field opened this year to house “Steps to Work,” a vocational training center and work placement hub for young people with learning disabilities. Baird, who has spent her life working with special needs youth, said that she has finally “made sense of her own life” and created a living legacy. The young people who will one day walk out of those famous red gates owe a great deal to the lady who “hardly knew John.”