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John Lennon’s Publicist Elliot Mintz on Managing the Press After Beatle’s Death: ‘Nothing Could’ve Prepared Me for Dec. 8’

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, August
STEVE SANDS

Elliot Mintz is a veteran journalist, radio host and media consultant who became close friends with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the 1970s. In the days after Lennon’s murder, 40 years ago on Dec. 8, he also unexpectedly found himself as the family’s media representative. While Mintz has interviewed everyone from Groucho Marx to Salvador Dalí and represented public figures from Bob Dylan to Paris Hilton, he is perhaps best known as an intimate and authority on John and Yoko, and has maintained his friendship with the family to this day. Mintz spent an hour last month with Variety looking back on that fateful day and the weeks that followed — thoroughly and thoughtfully if rather reluctantly. Hours of the interviews and recordings he references below are available on his website and YouTube channel. — As told to Jem Aswad

I was working as a radio talk show host in Los Angeles, and one evening in 1970 I did a wonderful phone interview with Yoko. We talked about the record she had just put out [“Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band”], her art, her politics — it was unlike any interview I’d ever done before, just so original, out there, different and provocative. To my surprise, the next day she called me at home just to let me know that she enjoyed talking with me, because most people only wanted to ask a lot of questions about her husband, the Beatle. It was a very sweet call and the only time that a guest had ever called to thank me, and it really touched me. I called her back a day or two later and told her that, and so began a telephone friendship that continued over the next few months, at all hours — I’m an insomniac and she’s an early riser.

John was kind of curious about this person that his wife kept talking with on the phone at various times during the day and night, so I interviewed John for about 40 minutes over the telephone, live on air — this was around the time of “Imagine.” I tried to make it a conversation about subjects I hadn’t heard him being asked about, and he was very open. Not long after, I called him back to thank him, and the three of us began to have long talks. One day they called and said, “We just drove from New York to Ojai [California], we’d like to meet you.” So I drove up and we spent the afternoon talking, and before I left John said, “We just made a new album called ‘Some Time in New York City,’ I have an acetate, you can play it [on the air] first.”

So I went straight back to the station — there was no time to listen to it before I aired it — and handed it to the engineer. I told [the radio audience] that I’d just had my first actual visit with John and Yoko, and “We’re about to hear their new album, straight through.” Now, if you know that album, it’s very political, the songs are very controversial [the single was called “Woman Is the N—er of the World”], and I just sat there and watched the engineer, who holds the station’s FCC license, as his face turned red. However the audience felt, I knew that management would definitely hear about it, and the next day I was invited to the front room of the station and was told they were rethinking the format of the radio station and contemplating some changes. I understood where the conversation was going.

I called John that day and said, “Well, I’ve got some good news and bad news.” He said, “What’s the good news?” I replied, “I played the entire album on the air.” He yelled, “He played the entire record!,” and I could hear them both whooping.

Then he said, “So what’s the bad news?” I said, “I think I’m going to be looking for a new job,” which he thought was enormously funny and yelled, “And they fired him!” He asked what I was going to do and I said, “This is the nature of the game, I’ll find another job.” He said, “Don’t do that right away, we’re gonna drive up to San Francisco, let’s hang out.” And so began the magical mystery tour.

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1971 GEORGE KONIG/REX

In the early stages, we talked about almost everything except music; I don’t know much about it, and was a little too old for the Beatles experience. We talked about religion, philosophy, history, books he’d read that they wanted me to read, the news, poetry, in frivolous moments a little Hollywood gossip, although Yoko wasn’t interested in that. He was a man of tremendous, diversified curiosities and interests, and he was a very intent observer. And the friendship went on — I flew back to New York maybe 20 or 30 times over the years, and would spend four or five days primarily with them, sitting in the kitchen, talking into the night. We seldom went out — the vibe changed when they were dealing with the general public — although I traveled with them sometimes. Once a messenger turned up at my door with a plane ticket: “We’re in Japan, we miss you.”

I last saw him in November of 1980. I went to one of the ‘Double Fantasy’ recording sessions and then afterward the three of us went back to the Dakota and hung out until two or three in the morning, although we talked on the phone several times after that.

On Dec. 8, my mother called me and said she had heard something on the radio about a shooting in front of the Dakota. I heard a tinge in her voice, and I sensed she was holding something back. Nobody answered at John and Yoko’s number, so I called the front desk. The guy there knew me, but when I asked if everything was OK, he hung up. That’s when I sensed I should be in New York. So I packed a bag, got in my car — the radio didn’t work — and just caught the last flight out of Los Angeles. About 10 minutes into the flight, the attendant came out in tears. I asked if she was OK, and she said John Lennon had just been killed; that’s how I learned of it. I promised myself that my grieving would be done alone, and when I got to New York my only desire was to be present for Yoko and Sean.

I wouldn’t say I managed the press, but I interacted with it. At the time of John’s death he had no manager, no agent, no publicist, no spokesperson, just a very few people on staff — and there were 500 phone calls flying into the downstairs office. Every time you hung up the phone, another light would light up. It was everyone from Barbara Walters wanting to come over to do an interview to every news agency wanting a comment and wanting to know how Yoko and Sean were, and it just fell on me to say something. I talked to hundreds of media people.

Bear in mind, I had never worked for them — I was just their friend. And although I’ve worked as a media consultant and a crisis manager and had even dealt with a murder before — I was friends with the actor Sal Mineo, who was stabbed to death in a routine street robbery — nothing could have prepared me for Dec. 8.

Yoko’s instructions were always simply to be truthful, not to try to turn John into some kind of saint or martyr, and I tried to give people what they needed in terms of coverage. You have to keep in mind, from a journalist’s point of view, there had never been a public figure in America who had been assassinated for their art. At the time, I felt the press handled it as best they could, and they certainly treated John respectfully in the first wave.

But one thing we’ve learned is that the first wave usually tends to be respectful. Give it a month or two — or these days, a day or an hour or two — until someone decides they’re going to write a book. And then it goes from people being mournful or appreciative to “He wasn’t perfect,” and from there it jumps off into all the imperfections.

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Elliot Mintz Elliot Mintz photo collection

However, one thing that did change dramatically was respect for Yoko, regardless of the things people had said over the years before. The understated and respectful way she elected to have his memory preserved — the creation of Strawberry Field, the unreleased work that was made more accessible to the public, and “The Lost Lennon Tapes,” a radio series I hosted. And of course, she’s devoted a tremendous amount of time and tens of millions of dollars to philanthropic causes around the world. She doesn’t make a big to-do about it, but she signs the checks.

I last saw her about seven months ago, on her birthday. Sean put on a party for her that I attended, and it was wonderful. They’re still part of my family.

There’s never been a time in 40 years that on Oct. 9, his birthday, or Dec. 8, his last day, I don’t receive phone calls from people asking these kinds of questions. In the future, I’m going to do my best, for those who still care to talk to me, to talk about him around the day of his birth. For me, the best time for a celebration is not a funeral but a birthday.