In August of 1966, I made it all the way into the foyer of the Beatles’ penthouse suite at New York’s Warwick Hotel, about twenty feet from the bedroom where John and Paul were sleeping. It’s one of the great regrets of my life that I didn’t barge right in and wake them up.
Today, as Sir Paul McCartney turns 70, joining the illustrious crew of septuagenarians that includes Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and yours truly, I’m thinking back to my years as a Beatlemaniac and the long and winding road that brought me to their penthouse suite.
The journey began with the long, distorted twang of an electric guitar – the opening chord of “I Feel Fine” – followed by George Harrison’s catchy opening riff and John Lennon’s powerful vocal, issuing from a portable radio in the studio I shared with another painter high up in Columbia University’s Lowe Library.
“What is THAT?” I asked my studio mate, the radio’s owner.
She put down her brushes and gave me an incredulous stare. “That’s the Beatles,” she said in a tone implying I must have come from another planet.
It was the fall of 1964, and pop music hadn’t been even a blip on my radar screen. As an art history major at Barnard, I’d spent the last couple of years grinding away toward my goal of earning a Phi Beta Kappa key, then spending a semester at the Art Students League putting together a painting portfolio for admission to Columbia’s MFA program. In April I’d married my first husband, and we were modern jazz fanatics. We owned a state-of-the-art set of stereo components, but never listened to AM radio, and we refused to sink so low as to buy a television set.
Of a dozen MFA students, I was the only figurative painter. My themes had centered on jazz musicians and the Kennedy assassination, but that fall, as the Beatles’ music grew on me, I bought a few fan magazines and began to paint them – fairly abstractly, on huge canvases with big sweeping brushstrokes and barely recognizable features. Abstract expressionism still held sway at Columbia. Robert Motherwell was the big-name artist in residence that year, and the only specific advice I can recall his giving me was that it’s a good idea to have a drink or two before going to the studio.
No one knew what to make of my work, and I suspect they gave me the MFA largely to be rid of me. After that I was on my own, in an apartment on Riverside Drive West in Washington Heights. My husband’s job took him on the road a lot. More isolated than I’d ever been before, I continued to paint the Beatles, more and more realistically. I focused on John and Paul, never quite sure which of them I preferred. When HELP, their second movie, came out in glorious Technicolor, I saw it over two dozen times. After years of academic striving, I’d belatedly regressed to being a teenager.
Top 40 AM radio was my ever-present background music. My loyalties vacillated between WABC and WMCA, but somehow, in the summer of 1966, just before the Beatles’ second Shea Stadium concert, I connected with Gary Stevens, a DJ on WMCA who’d gotten an exclusive in with the Fab Four. He encouraged me to bring my paintings down to the Warwick Hotel where they were staying, saying he’d meet me and try to get me upstairs to meet them and show them my work.
I schlepped three canvases down from Washington Heights by subway (I’d scaled down the dimensions since graduating from Columbia). Somehow Gary shepherded me through the hundreds of screaming teenagers and into the elevator that rose nonstop to the penthouse. We exited directly into the antechamber to their suite, and I arranged my paintings against the wall, ready for the viewing. He told me to wait there while he checked whether they were available.
A couple of minutes later, he was back. “Sorry, John and Paul are in bed asleep,” he said.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I replied, as my racy dreams went up in smoke.
Why on earth didn’t I say, “Oh, that’s okay – I’ll just go wake them up?” Probably because of my residual Midwestern prudishness – the same reticence that overcame me three years later, when Jimi Hendrix took my phone number and said he’d like to come down to my loft to see my paintings. I waited in vain for days, afraid to leave my loft lest I miss his call. (This was before the days of answering machines.) Why didn’t I simply track down his number and call him instead? But then in 1969 I wasn’t yet a Radical Feminist.
Anyway, happy birthday, Sir Paul. Today, we’re probably both singing Paul Simon’s lyrics – “How terribly strange to be seventy.” But we’re both still rocking.