What was it like it to be John Lennon’s neighbor?

"Life at the Dakota" offers an of-the-period account of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s time in the Dakota Building.


New York City’s Dakota Building has enjoyed a rich and fascinating history over the past 130 years. Many famous and creative tenants have called the Dakota home, including Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Roberta Flack, Judy Garland, and Boris Karloff, to name just a few. But perhaps its most iconic residents were Yoko Ono and former Beatle John Lennon, whose murder took place outside the building’s entrance in 1980.

Written a year before Lennon’s death, Stephen Birmingham’s Life at the Dakota provides almost eerily contemporary insight into what it might have been like to live among legends.

Read on for an excerpt, then download the book.




Life at the Dakota

By Stephen Birmingham

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 unusual costumes (Lennon in blue jeans, a long black cape, a Mexican sombrero, often sucking a baby’s pacifier; his stocky little wife, also in jeans, in one of a variety of fright-wig hairdos) and step into their His and Hers chauffeur-driven silver 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 simulate 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 Lennons’ 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—alerted by José, 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 Lennon ordered that all such gifts be placed immediately in the garbage can.

At times, too, Lennon fans have succeeded in slipping past the 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.

Learn the rest of the story by downloading Life at the Dakota.

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Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.