Half a century ago I was the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young West Coast correspondent working for the 4-million-reader newspaper the London Daily Express in an era when people actually read newspapers. I’d grown up in a Conservative Jewish home in the East End of London at a time when young Jews in Britain’s mostly Anglo-Saxon community, post-World War II, still didn’t feel that comfortable.
Fast forward to the summer of l964, when by pure happenstance, I was suddenly thrust into the lives of a new rock group from Liverpool who were about to embark on their first American tour. Part of my job was to ghost write a column for George Harrison. Being embedded with the Beatles, I became a fly on the wall, witnessing the shenanigans surrounding the remarkable era in rock ’n’ roll history. And along the way, I got an inside look at an odd juxtaposition: the Jewish links surrounding the most famous group in rock ’n’ roll history.
Here are a few of my snapshots.
Yom Kippur With Brian
On Sept. 15, 1964, two thirds of the way through their first American tour, Derek Taylor, the Beatles erudite PR man, came to my Sheraton Hotel room in Cleveland and said the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was anxious to talk to me.
I thought this was a little unusual: While Brian was ever-present on the tour he was fairly aloof (surprisingly shy, I later discovered)—and seldom made conversation with the traveling press corps. Frankly, during the entire trip my conversation with Epstein had been polite but very cursory.
In his suite Epstein offered me a gin and tonic and got straight to the point. We were headed for New Orleans the next day, and Epstein said he knew I was Jewish: In that somewhat stilted upper-crust, mouth-full-of-marbles voice of his, that showed absolutely no trace of his Liverpudlian roots, he asked me if I might do him a favor and get him a ticket for the next day’s Yom Kippur service at a local synagogue.
Epstein told me he was born on Yom Kippur (Sept. 19, 1934) and although he wasn’t very religious, he knew going to shul on the Day of Atonement would please and honor his parents back in Liverpool. (Yom Kippur actually fell on Sept. 16 that year.)
I said I would be happy to do that—and in fact, I would also like to go with him. I called the local Conservative synagogue, said I was visiting from London, and they agreed to leave two tickets at the door in my name. I didn’t mention the second ticket was for the Beatles’ famous manager.
On Yom Kippur morning I called Epstein’s suite, as we were going to share a taxi. There was no answer. And no sign of Epstein. We never went to synagogue. Taylor later apologized, “Brian had to fly to New York on business.”
But although Epstein and I never bonded in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, that brief chat with him gave me a fascinating insight into the troubled and oft-tormented life of the man who was the visionary force majeure of the Beatles: the man who helped turn them from scruffy, greasy-haired, leather-clad musicians playing 12 hours straight in Hamburg’s seedy red-light district into the legends they became.
In our conversation in Cleveland, Epstein had opened up a bit and told me he served—as I did—in the British army as part of the country’s mandatory national service. We both agreed it was a bloody waste of time—and he said he hated it because the military training was grueling and utterly boring. I later discovered that after a year in the army he had been granted an early medical/psychiatric release because of his admitted homosexuality. (National Service lasted two years.)
Since Epstein’s premature death in August 1967, just a month before his 33rd birthday, from what was ruled a drug overdose, his career and influence have been re-examined and his achievements finally fully recognized.
In April 2014 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Fifth Beatle, the best-selling graphic novel by Vivek Tiwary, centered on Brian, is being turned into a full-length feature film by producer Simon Cowell in 2016. And a new documentary about Epstein and the Beatles in the ’60s is just being completed by director Ron Howard for release in early 2016.
‘Kill the Jew Ringo’
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I can tell you with statistically significant certainty that, sadly, none of the Beatles were Jewish.
But they sometimes got mistaken for being members of the tribe.
While I was with the Beatles in Montreal in l964, an anonymous caller—purportedly a member of the oft militant Separatist movement—telephoned the Queen Elizabeth Hotel (where they were supposed to stay, but didn’t because of the call) and threatened to, “kill the Jew Ringo.” Ringo wasn’t Jewish despite the fact that his real last name was “Starkey,” which he had changed to Starr. Of course, 17 years later he married Barbara Bach, his second and current wife, who grew up with a Jewish father, Howard Goldbach, from Queens, New York.
The Jewish issue refused to go away. At a press conference in Toronto on Aug 17, 1965 a reporter asked Ringo, “Are you Jewish?”
John Lennon quickly jumped in: “He’s having a bar mitzvah tomorrow,” he declared with a straight face.
I must admit that Lennon—the closest Beatle to Brian—often got his kicks from needling Epstein, because Brian was both gay and Jewish.
Derek Taylor told me about one particular evening while Lennon and the other Beatles were drinking. Epstein revealed he had just finished writing his autobiography, which Taylor actually ghosted.
“What’s it called?” Lennon asked.
“A Cellarful of Noise,” said Brian.
“How about ‘Cellarful of Boys’?” Lennon wickedly countered.
“Cellarful of Goys,” replied Epstein getting into the joshing spirit of things, and not sure whether the “Goy” reference would be understood by the other Beatles.
“No, No,” said John, “I’ve got the perfect title—Queer Jew.”
Lennon, sometime later, much to the chagrin of music producer George Martin, was recording “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and insisted on—from time to time—singing “Baby you’re a rich Jew.”
At a New York press conference shortly afterward they were asked if they thought Jews played too influential a role in show business. It was a dodgy question. “No comment,” Lennon uncharacteristically responded.
Good With Money
Of course, Epstein made himself an easier target because he was very uncomfortable with his Jewishness and went out of his way to downplay the fact that he—unlike the Beatles—grew up in a well-to-do home in Liverpool’s most affluent neighborhood where his family was “in business.”
After WWII, many British Jews, offspring of European immigrants like Epstein’s grandparents, still suffered from an inferiority complex as they strove to make a name and a living for themselves in a predominantly Christian society.
The atrocities of the Holocaust were still not commonly discussed. Young Jews in Britain felt that if they wore “Jew” on their sleeve in Britain it would be more of a handicap. If you were Jewish you kept it to yourself. As in other parts of the world, “Don’t let him Jew you down,” was a phrase in common usage in Britain. There was an attitude in Britain at the time, as Paul McCartney recalled, “Everyone knew Jewish people were good with money.” And that, admitted McCartney, was one main reason why the Beatles chose Epstein as their manager.
Brian’s sensitivity to his Jewishness was ever present in his personal relationships, where it could be a positive thing. His close pals—and there weren’t many—included his personal London lawyer David Jacobs and other showbiz Jews: British composer Lionel Bart, né Lionel Begleiter, who wrote the music for Oliver and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, and who was also gay. There was effervescent pop singer Alma Cogan, née Alma Cohen. He was comfortable in their company and often visited Cogan and her mother in London and even fantasized that she might be a marriage partner, according to Epstein’s Liverpool friend and business partner Peter Brown. Bart and Cogan were always the first guests invited to the lavish celebrity dinner parties he threw in his London flat in Belgravia for show-business heavyweights that once included a very drunk Judy Garland. Helen Shapiro, another Jewish singer who grew up in the East End of London, was also part of Epstein’s showbiz world. And he was also relaxed in the company of the New York Jewish crowd: Norman Weiss, from General Artists Corporation in New York who planned the l964 tour, Manhattan concert promoter Sid Bernstein, and Nat Weiss, a New York lawyer who had become one of Epstein’s closest friends.
And of course, McCartney fell under the spell of Shayna maidels. His late first wife Linda Eastman, from Scarsdale, New York, was Jewish, as is his current (third) wife Nancy Shevell, also from New York. Shortly after McCartney married Shevell in 2011 (a day after Yom Kippur) he bowed to her religious beliefs by showing up at a Friday night service at the Reform synagogue in St. John’s Wood in London where McCartney has owned a house for almost half a century. The rabbi called them up to the bima—and blessed their marriage.
After I had toured with the Beatles in l964 and l965 people asked me whether I thought Lennon was anti-Semitic. I think not, although I did see him striding around his hotel suite, his finger to his lip, mustache style, pretending he was Adolf Hitler. And from time to time Lennon would offer a Nazi salute to the crowd. He did it in front of thousands on the balcony of the Liverpool Town Hall before the premiere of A Hard Day’s Night, when the city put on a massive Beatles tribute. It may have been his off-kilter way of relieving the crazy pressure of the tour and poking fun at the public’s endless adoration of the Beatles. Epstein, of course, castigated Lennon for his “Heil Hitler” act.
And in l964 as we were flying to Seattle, Miami radio reporter Larry Kane, who is Jewish, described a disturbing incident in his memoir Ticket To Ride. Sitting a couple of seats behind the Beatles on the chartered jet he said he distinctly heard a voice use the term “kike.” It definitely came from the Beatles seats. Upset by this, he confronted Derek Taylor, appalled, he said, to hear a Beatle use that word. Taylor tried to pacify Kane, “Nobody’s trying to insult you.” But Kane said Taylor pointedly refused to reveal who among the quartet had used the offensive term and in what context. Kane says he was pretty sure it was Lennon and knowing John’s shoot-from-the-hip and damn-the-consequences attitude, it most likely was.
Another time on tour, Curt Gunther, a Jewish freelance photographer from Southern California who traveled extensively with the Beatles, told us of the night Epstein rejoined the group in Cleveland after spending some time in New York. The manager was furious, and in the limo driving to the Sheraton hotel in Cleveland, he angrily turned to Derek Taylor: “I hear you have been making anti-Semitic statements and laughing with John about my homosexuality.” Taylor, who was very close to Epstein, was aware of all of Brian’s secrets and often incurred the wrath of Epstein, shot back:
“Absolute rubbish. I refuse to argue it with you. Some of my best friends are Jewish and homosexual—and some are both. Ask the boys if you don’t believe me.”
Shortly after that incident Taylor resigned as Epstein’s personal assistant, but it had nothing to do with that last encounter. The two stayed close friends, and a few years later Taylor rejoined the Beatles organization.
At the end of their first American tour, the Beatles were interviewed by Playboy Magazine and asked, “Is there any celebrity you would like to meet.”
“I wouldn’t mind meeting Adolf Hitler,” said McCartney.
Cracked back George Harrison: “You could have every room in your house papered.”
And while Epstein had insisted to me he was never a practicing Jew, I learned much later an intriguing fact: In a will he had signed in l956, he decreed, “that all my clothes be sent directly and immediately to the State of Israel.”
However, he said, upon his death he didn’t want anyone to say Kaddish for him and that the Shiva should not last for more than a week.
He was buried in Kirkdale Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool, with a rabbi, who never knew him, stunning the family by declaring that Epstein’s death was symptomatic of the worst aspects of the ’60s youth revolution. None of the Beatles came to that service, although they all finally showed up at shul together at his memorial service as Kaddish was recited at the New London Synagogue in October 1967.
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Ivor Davis, a former foreign correspondent for the London Daily Express and Times of London, is the author ofThe Beatles and Me on Tour.