The whole world associates the famed Dakota building with both John Lennon’s life and death. After seven years of residency in the famed landmark building, he was tragically murdered outside this residence on December 8, 1980.
Built between 1880 and 1884 by Henry J. Hardenbergh, the creation of the Dakota was the brainchild of Edward Clark, the owner of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Located at the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, it earned the moniker “The Dakota” because at that time the Upper West Side of Manhattan was as sparsely populated as the Dakota region of the U.S.
The history of the Dakota is too long to cover in this blog post, but the Wikipedia entry on the famed building does an adequate job. Also, the selection of Google images of the building are fascinating.
In addition, there are some great articles that will give both the history of the Dakota and insight into its legacy, such “15 Crazy Facts about New York’s Dakota Building” from Business Insider, “The Dakota: Inside New York York’s Most Extravagant Apartment Building” on Bloomberg.com, as well as “The Dakota: New York’s Most Exclusive Building” from the CNBC website.
A December 7, 2010 article in the New York Times, “Sharing the Dakota with John Lennon” by Christine Haughney, gives a brilliant look at the ex-Beatle’s years in the Dakota and his interactions with the building’s other residents. The article also cites how John and Yoko purchased an additional five apartments in the building; two were used for storage, one as a studio, and two as guest apartments.
Over the years, many famous people have resided in the Dakota. A partial listing includes Jason Robards, Robert Ryan, Lauren Bacall, Bob Crewe, Leonard Bernstein, Connie Chung, Rex Reed, Rosemary Clooney, Roberta Flack, Judy Garland, Jack Palance, Lillian Gish, Boris Karloff, John Madden and Joe Namath.
Also, some high-profile celebrities have wanted to buy apartments in the Dakota only to have their applications shot down by the board. This list includes Billy Joel, Gene Simmons, Carly Simon, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas.
In 1979, the year before John’s tragic death, author Stephen Birmingham published the book Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address, which of course addresses the seven years that the ex-Beatle lived there with his wife, and later their newborn son. However, the residence of John and Yoko in the famed building is by no means the focal point of the book about the building which at the time of publication was one year shy of the 100th anniversary of the building’s construction.
Stephen Birmingham, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, wrote many best-selling books about wealthy people and “high society”, such as Real Lace: America’s Irish Rich, Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families in New York, The Rest of Us: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews, and The Right People: A Portrait of the American Social Establishment.
This is a passage from Birmingham’s book on the Dakota:
A persistent rumor in the Dakota has it that one of the first tenants buried $30,000 in cash in the floor of his seventh-floor apartment. If true, the money reposes beneath the parquet of what is now John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s bedroom. It would cost at least $30,000 to dig up the bedroom floor, and besides, the Lennons don’t really need the money.
Another chapter features the following passage:
And yet if the building today is a “melting pot” it is one in which the contents have not quite melted. The Dakota pot seethes and boils with ingredients that have not quite come together, and feuds and rivalries and jealousies and factions abound. Some people, for example, feel that, among other things, the Dakota itself has been divided along an East Side-West Side axis. “The people who live on the sunny side [east] are entirely different from those who live on the shady side [the west, which is now permanently in the shadow of the Mayfair Tower Apartments],” says Sheila Herbert, a young advertising woman who grew up in the Dakota and, like a number of “Dakota Babies”, ended up with her own apartment there. Sunny-siders, Miss Herbert feels, are more sunny-dispositioned, more outgoing and gregarious, give more and better parties, have done splashier things in terms of decorating their apartments. The John Lennons, Roberta Flack and the flamboyant restraunteur-entrepreneur, Warren LeRoy, are all examples of sunny-siders. Shady-siders are more quiet and reserved, and more conservative and staid, less given to party-going and party-tossing, and socializing with their neighbors. Mrs. West is a shady-sider.
Miss Herbert may have a point. But there is more to it than that.
One of the most bizarre supernatural experiences at the Dakota involves the John Lennons. The Lennons have become the Dakota’s Mystery couple, though when they first expressed an interest in the building, there was no small amount of resistance to them. They were assumed to have an unconventional lifestyle. It was feared that they would have large, noisy parties with music and amplifiers. As a result of some drug-related charges in England, there had been a period when the United States State Department had wanted John Lennon out of the country, and there were those at the Dakota who felt the same way about him. But after moving into the Dakota the Lennons kept to themselves, gave few if any entertainments and expressed a wish for absolute privacy. At the same time, when they emerge from the building in their usual costumes (Lennon in blue jeans, a long black cape, a Mexican sombrero, often sucking a baby’s pacifier; his stocky little wife, also in blue jeans, in one of a variety of fright-wig hairdos) and step into His and Her chauffeur-driven limousines, they are a bit conspicuous. In their disguises, however, the Lennons are seldom recognized on the street and are usually dismissed as run-of-the-mill New York eccentrics.
Still, the Lennons continue to amaze. In the elevators, in front of other tenants, John and Yoko Lennon openly discuss their finances, reportedly saying such things as, “Well, we fooled them, didn’t we? It wasn’t thirteen million dollars they were offering – it was only three.”
The Lennons’ immediate neighbors on the seventh floor were not too pleased when John Lennon crisscrossed the staircase balustrade in the elevator entrance with twine, ostensibly to keep the Lennons’ young son Sean from falling through the railing. Lennon also keeps a studio on the ground floor, where he plays his guitar, and neighbors were put off to see that he had scrawled HELTER-SKELTER in large letters across one wall (forgetting that “Helter Skelter” had been the title of a Beatles record long before it became associated with the Charles Manson family). Later, HELTER-SKELTER was removed, and the walls were painted to simulated blue sky and clouds. John Lennon, when he encounters his neighbors, is usually pleasant and friendly; his wife seems less so. As a result of the Lennon’s presence in the building, the Dakota switchboard has had to handle as many as thirty calls a day from fans trying to be put through to one or the other of the Lennons. At times, small groups of fans gather outside the building, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Lennons as they come or go. The fans may not always recognize the Lennons, but they know their cars, and each time a silver limousine appears, there is a small, collective gasp. Occasionally, photographers lurk as well, in which case –altered by Jose, the doorman – the Lennons trick them by using the basement service door. Unsolicited gift packages are always arriving for the Lennons, either through the mail or delivered by hand, and when one of these was found to contain a chalky substance that did not quite look like talcum powder, John ordered that all such gifts immediately be place in the garbage can.
At times, too, Lennon fans have succeeded in slipping past security guards and gates, and getting into the building. There they become nuisances, ringing doorbells trying to find the Lennons. A number of people in the Dakota were rather amused when, at the inaugural reception for President Carter, John Lennon stepped forward and introduced himself to the President. The president looked blank. “I used to be a Beatle,” Lennon explained, a trifle lamely. The president continued to look blank.
Another passage in Birmingham’s book on the famed building is colorful to say the least………
When Lennon moved to the Dakota, they took the apartment that formerly belonged to the actor Robert Ryan. Robert Ryan’s wife Jessie, to whom he was devoted, died of cancer at the Dakota, and because of the unhappy memories and associations the apartment held for him, Ryan moved out soon afterward – to 88 Central Park South, which has become sort of a haven for ex-Dakotans who, by reason of divorce, widowhood or other change of circumstance, have felt it necessary to depart from their beloved building. There, Ryan himself later died.
Before settling in the Ryans’ old apartment, the Lennons decided it would be wise to hold a séance to see what spirits might be inhabiting their new home. A medium was summoned, and she very quickly made contact with Jessie Ryan. Mrs. Ryan informed the Lennons that she considered their apartment her home too, and that she intended to stay there. She would not, however, disturb them in any way. They could lead their lives as they wished. Jessie Ryan was apparently as gracious and charming from the Beyond as she had been in life.
Yoko Ono then telephoned the Ryans’ daughter Lisa to tell her that her late mother was still happily at home in the Dakota. Lisa Ryan was not particularly pleased or amused at the news. “If my mother’s ghost belongs anywhere, it’s here with me and – and not with them,” she said.
The John Lennons are not chic. It is chic to go around town on a motorcycle, the way Paul Segal does, and it is not chic to travel, old money-style in chauffeur-driven limousines, the way the Lennons do. The Lennons may think it is chic, or funny, to enter and alight from their limousines in blue jeans, but they can’t have it both ways. They merely seem odd. Besides, the Lennons have not done much of anything in recent years, and the man who helped revolutionize twentieth century music now seems to have settled into the ways of the haute bourgeoisie.
The famous 2008 biography John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman provides some interesting reading on Lennon’s 1973-1980 residence in the famed building:
With so much else currently absorbing both their energies, the matter rested there for the present. Early in 1973, they came uptown to have lunch with Peter Brown, the former Beatles fixer-in-chief who was now running Robert Stigwood’s New York operation and living in an elegant apartment building named the Langham, on Central Park West. John took an instant fancy to Brown’s spacious pad with its sweeping views over the park and decided on the spot that he wanted to give up the gypsy life in the West Village and move in here. When the Langham proved to have no space available, he simply tried the building next door.
It was called the Dakota, but the place it suggested, even more powerfully than those cobbled SoHo alleys, was Liverpool. Some similar quasi-Gothic sandstone pile might have housed a bank or insurance company in North John, Tithebarn, or Water Street: the wealth and confidence of Mersey shipbuilders might equally have conceived its seven-story façade, embellished with balconies and terra-cotta moldings, its Germanic gables and steep copper roof, weathered to pale green, its street frontage of black iron lamps, flower urns, and decorative sea serpents. The very name suggested a touch of Liverpudlian sarcasm. When it was built, in the 1800s, this part of the Upper West Side was still so sparsely populated that fashionable people thought it as remote as North or South Dakota.
Though once the acme of luxury, the Dakota was no longer in Manhattan’s premier real-estate league and had become the haunt of middle-aged actors, film directors, and similar bohemian types. It had a slightly spooky ambiance, the more so being used as a location for Roman Polanski’s satanic horror film Rosemary’s Baby. Apartments were held on long, relatively inexpensive leases, and fell vacant only rarely. But it chanced that when John and Yoko’s assistant, John Hendricks, made inquiries, the actor Robert Ryan was about to vacate number 72 on the seventh floor, owing to the recent death of his wife.
A single look at the Ryan apartment was enough to sell John on it. Running half the length of a block, it had four bedrooms, stunning views of Central Park’s treetops and – the clincher for him – a distant view of the Lake. He loved the feel of the whole building, so like Victorian Liverpool with its heavy brass light switches, sitdown elevators, and mahogany, oak, and cherrywood paneling. In that crime-and violence-ridden metropolis, it seemed exceptionally well guarded: the entrance arch from West Seventy-second Street had an immense black iron gate and was watched around the clock by a security man in a copper sentry box.
For all the Dakota’s bohemian ambiance, taking up residence there was not easy. The board of residents who ran the building maintained a blanket ban against diplomats (for their fly-by-night tendency) and rock stars. In parallel with the “Save John and Yoko” petitions he was compiling for their immigration case, Hendricks had to organize a campaign to persuade the Dakota’s co-op board that they would not disrupt the place with wild parties or deafening music. Letters were submitted from character witnesses, including the head of the American Episcopal Church, Bishop Paul Moore, and they appeared before the board as neatly dressed and circumspect as in the immigration court. Eventually, they were accepted. The real-estate agent later admitted to Hendricks that he thought they hadn’t stood a chance.
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