This is a re-worked version of the story I wrote for MM, and few stories I ever did gave me more pleasure to write than this one.
Tuesday, July 27, 1975, John Lennon won his
five-year battle against the US immigration authorities, his application for an
American ‘green card’ finally being approved. Effectively, this allowed him to live permanently in the US and, more importantly, leave and re-enter the
country without any problems. John would also have been able to apply for full
American citizenship in 1981.
I attended the 90-minute hearing at the downtown New York offices of the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service, where Judge Ira Fieldsteel officially handed John the green card. Ironically, it was Fieldsteel who had handed down the decision ordering John to leave America on
March 23, 1973. When the verdict was announced,
John embraced Yoko and the packed courthouse burst into spontaneous applause.
The celebrities present who testified for John included the American news
reporter Geraldo Rivera, the actress Gloria Swanson, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi
and the writer Norman Mailer, who described John as “one of the great artists
of the Western world”. Close friends of the Lennons, Peter Boyle and John Cage
were also in the courthouse.
This momentous day in the life of John Lennon began with the judge reading a brief resume of the history of the case, which had begun on
1971 when John last entered America. He had remained in the country
ever since, refusing to leave in case he was not permitted to return.
John, wearing a white shirt, black suit and tie, cowboy boots and sporting a short-cropped haircut, was called to give evidence, answering questions from his attorney Leon Wildes, whom I had twice interviewed for stories about John's residency plight that I wrote for Melody Maker.
“Have you ever been convicted of any crime anywhere in the US?”
“Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party or any other organisation that may seek to overthrow the US Government by force?”
“Do you intend to make the US your home?”
John: “I do.”
“Will you continue your work here?”
John: “Yes. I wish to continue to live here with my family and continue making music.”
Wildes then asked John if there was anything he had to add in connection with his request to be granted permanent residency.
John: “I’d like to publicly thank Yoko, my wife, for looking after me and pulling me together for four years, and giving birth to our son at the same time. There are many times that I wanted to quit, but she stopped me. I’d also like to thank a cast of thousands, famous and unknown, who have been helping me publicly and privately for the last four years. And last, but not least, I’d like to thank you, my attorney, Leon Wildes, for doing a good job well, and I hope this is the end of it.”
Leon Wildes then called the first of several witnesses to speak on behalf of John. The first was Mr. Sam Trust, President of ATV Music Corporation, which owns the publishing rights to John’s compositions through its acquisition of Northern Songs, the Beatles’ song publishing company, and subsequent vehicles through which John’s post-Beatle compositions were administered. He said: “There are two very positive reasons why Mr. Lennon should be allowed to remain in the US. The music scene in the US is in the doldrums right now, and the current resurgence of interest in The Beatles and their material proves that they are the most powerful source of music in the last 30 years. I believe we can look forward to many new innovations in music if Lennon is allowed to remain in this country. The second point is that Lennon is a tremendous revenue generator. The US will be the scene for the reception of that revenue if he is allowed to remain.”
Next up was the celebrated writer Norman Mailer. Flamboyant as ever, he stated: “I think John Lennon is a great artist who has made an enormous contribution to popular culture. He is one of the great artists of the Western world. We lost T.S. Eliot to England and only got Auden back... it would be splendid to have Mr. Lennon as well!”
Next on the stand was the broadcaster, lawyer and close friend of the Lennons, Geraldo Rivera. He was involved with John and Yoko on the 1972 One To One Concert at Madison Square Garden, which raised $90,000 for the Willowbrook School, a home for mentally retarded children in New York. To help the cause, John and Yoko donated a further $50,000 from their own money. For his testimony on behalf of John, Geraldo continued on this matter: “This money liberated at least 60 retarded children from the pits of hell and set them up in small residences where they could be cared for on a ‘one-to-one’ basis. I believe that what was started by John and Yoko and other artists in 1972 was a turning point in the care of the mentally retarded, and if there ever was a person who deserved to stay in this country it is John Lennon.”
Leon Wildes then read a letter from the Bishop of New York, the Rt. Rev. Paul Moore, which emphasised Lennon’s contribution to the culture of New York and praised him as being a “gentleman of integrity”.
The final witness was Gloria Swanson who, despite her advancing years, took the stand in perfect mental and physical health. She said: “For many years I have been actively interested in the physical fitness of the youth of New York. My husband met John Lennon in a health food store in this city, and we found we had feelings in common on this subject. We feel that good food is essential to physical wellbeing and we are anti-junk food. I hope very much that he will help us in this sphere. We must educate the country and the Lennons will help to do something about it.”
After a short deliberation, the Judge returned to enquire whether or not John was likely to become a state charge (i.e. draw welfare benefit or its equivalent). Although this was probably a formality, the packed courthouse broke into a subdued round of sniggers. John’s attorney rose from his seat to answer this question: “On the contrary, your Honour. Mr. Lennon was a member of The Beatles, and has substantial earnings every year. It is therefore most unlikely. He is also the owner of several valuable copyrights, properties and such like.”
Mr. Wildes sat down and, almost immediately, the Judge spoke again to deliver this short sentence: “I find him (John) statutorily eligible for permanent residence.”
The spectators, me among them, broke out into a spontaneous round of applause. There was a tangible feeling of enormous goodwill towards John in that room that morning, a sense that justice had prevailed at last. I looked across at him and thought to myself that in the time I'd been privileged to know him, from October 1973 until this day, I don't think I'd ever seen him look so happy. His five-year fight against the Blue Meanies, led by disgraced former President Richard Nixon, was over.
Leon Wildes stood up and said: “Your honour, this is one decision that I won’t appeal against.”
Following the hearing, John, Yoko, their friends and an army of reporters and cameramen were ushered into another room where an immigration official handed John his “green card”. I was somewhere amongst the crush. The card had already been prepared, which suggested that the outcome of the issue had been decided prior to today’s hearing.
Outside the building, followed by the large crowd which now clustered around him, a happy and relieved looking John said: “It’s great to be legal again. I’ll tell my baby. I thank Yoko and the Immigration Service who have finally seen the light of day. It’s been a long and slow road, but I am not bitter. I can’t get into that. On the contrary, now I can go and see my relations in Japan and elsewhere. Again I thank Yoko, I’ve always thought there’s a great woman behind every idiot.”
As the Lennons continued to pose in the street for the many photographers and television crews, his precious “green card” in his hand and held aloft for all to see, I pushed through the crowd, shook John’s hand and pointed out to him to him that his green card was actually the colour blue. He laughed. “Thanks Chris.” I wasn’t to know it but these were the last words I would ever speak to him.
John, with Yoko and his lawyer Leon Wildes, following the hearing.
(Photo sourced from the internet.)