Yoko Ono noiselessly taps at her MacBook. Everything about her is quiet and compact – even the keyboard on her computer hardly makes a sound. She is wearing a black fitted jacket and trousers. It is low cut and reveals a tiny womanly figure. Her hair is in soft spikes and she is wearing her trademark round glasses. Her skin is finely lined, with no hint of sagging. It’s hard to believe Ono is nearly 80. She is weirdly ageless – her face constant and iconic through all these years.
We meet in a Knightsbridge hotel, and afterwards she will go to open The Museum of Liverpool and meet the Queen. If she’s excited, she hides it well. But then, she’s long been good at hiding her emotions.
She’s in London for talks with The Serpentine Gallery about an exhibition she’ll have there in June. It will feature a series of photographs called Smile, conceived as a way of connecting people across the world without language, just an image of their smiles. It’s been a long time in the making. “The smile is such an important thing and I actually wrote that we had to do this in 1960-something,” she says. “It’s taken 50 years. In the last page of my Grapefruit book I asked for people to send in pictures of their smiles. It was a big picture. I thought it might take a while. I visualised it. Sometimes you have to wait,” she laughs. “Even 50 years.” John Lennon once described his wife as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everyone knows her name but no one knows what she actually does.” This is possibly because he eclipsed her. Or at least John and Yoko the couple eclipsed them both as individuals.
Before they met, Yoko Ono was an established avant-garde artist. They met at one of her shows. “In a way both John and I ruined our careers by getting together,” she says. “Although we weren’t aware of it at the time.” She led him away from the mainstream, away from the Beatles, into more experimental layered music, and he led her further into him. Ono has never been a multitasker; she enjoys and demands complete focus.
I first met her a few years ago in her home in the Dakota Building. John Lennon’s famous white piano sat in the window, a Magritte painting on the wall, along with dozens of framed photographs of John and Yoko – their inescapable past still omnipresent.
Ono is a very unusual woman. Her perceptions always have an edge and she’s never afraid to say what she thinks. Here is her version of a compliment: “I love the way you’ve got one tooth sticking out. Really you wouldn’t be attractive at all without it.” For some reason I found that amusing and sweet.
After all the years of being half of a famous couple, and somehow reviled for that, she’s finally made it back to being an artist. Before the Smile photographs there was an exhibition in India of women’s bodies, human sculptures. And before that another in Sydney. It seems unusual to be starting again so late in life, but not to her.
“I want to tell you this story,” she begins. “When I was in elementary school in Japan they had a textbook with a picture of a Japanese warrior who asked to be given seven sufferings and eight disasters, because he wanted to take over everybody’s suffering and disasters.
“It’s a courageous thing to do, and I was only a little girl and I thought that sounds good and I wanted to be like him. Do good for the world in the sense of taking everyone’s pain away. I asked for the seven sufferings and my life became terribly difficult. All sorts of misery. And when it got to around 1979 I thought, ‘what did I do wrong?’ So I said I’m going to change it. Give me seven lots of luck and eight treasures. My disaster became my treasure. I reversed it.”
Does she mean she did this in 1980, when John died? “No. My karma didn’t affect him. John’s death was the worst of everything. I had to work hard to un-curse myself,” she says, matter-of-factly.
We come back to the Smile exhibition: “Don’t you think it’s better to smile than to scowl?” Does she never get angry? “Yes, I’m angry every day but I don’t hold on to it because it will make you physically sick. You don’t keep it inside. You don’t blame anybody.” She says she didn’t blame Lennon for eclipsing her career. Does she think she had to choose – art or love? “Definitely. I was a proud person thinking my work was any good anyway. When I got pregnant I had to concentrate on being pregnant for a whole nine months, even though I knew it was ruining my career at the time.” When she was pregnant with Sean she had bed rest for most of the pregnancy because she didn’t want to have another miscarriage. She was already 42 and had lost several babies. Since her art has always been a way to cauterise her emotions, it was a frustrating time. But it, none the less, brought she and John closer together. “John got a wheelchair and he would push me around into the kitchen where there would be lunch,” she says. “Isn’t that sweet?”
She has a strong relationship with her son, Sean, and seems very enthusiastic about his music and his girlfriend, the model Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Ono became pregnant with Sean just after she and Lennon had got back together after his affair with their assistant May Pang.
“I was very aware that we were ruining each other’s careers and I was hated and John was hated because of me. We did everything together and we did everything publicly together. The Bed-In was our work for peace but we weren’t liked for it. How come they are even working together?
“Many girls were upset with this. They were jealous. It was a very difficult time. How I survived at all was a miracle. I survived by thinking about my work. That was the most exciting thing.” It seems ironic that they campaigned for world peace when the world was at war with the idea of John and Yoko. “Yeah. It is. And that was upsetting.” Lennon’s affair with Pang – his “lost weekend”, as he would eventually call it – began in 1973 and ended 18 months later. Pang, who set up home with Lennon in Los Angeles, has always maintained that the relationship happened with Ono’s permission, leading to the assumption that it was all her idea. She certainly felt the need to escape. “The affair was something that was not hurtful to me,” she says. “I needed a rest. I needed space. Can you imagine every day of getting this vibration from people of hate? You want to get out of that. Also, we were so close John didn’t even want me to go to the bathroom by myself. ‘I will come with you’ he would say. And this would be in public places like the EMI recording studios.
“I started to notice that he became a little restless on top of that, so I thought it’s better to give him a rest and me a rest. May Pang was a very intelligent, attractive woman and extremely efficient. I thought they’d be OK.” Didn’t she miss him when she was in New York and he was on the other side of the country? “We missed each other. We were calling each other every day. Some days he would call me three or four times. He lived in LA, but that was fine. I was prepared to lose him, but it was better he came back. I didn’t think I would lose him.” Does she believe that monogamy is possible in a love relationship? “I don’t think so.” She pauses, always wanting to answer honestly. It’s a long time since she’s been involved with anyone at all.
“I’m enjoying my freedom now,” she says. “Men’s attitudes are very different. When I met John it seemed old-fashioned. I’m not the kind of person who’d ever pursue a guy because I was pursuing my work.” She scrunches her nose up as she talks about men and their predatory natures. Around a decade ago she was said to be dating Sam Havadtoy, an antiques dealer. Does she ever get lonely? “You can be lonely when you have a guy living with you. I cherish moments of not having a guy around, but my work involves being with people, usually guys. I think I’m very lucky. I’ve got so many things going on all the time.”
Ono has always been a rebel and fiercely independent, so it seems strange that she became so inextricably linked with Lennon. She grew up in a conservative aristocratic family in Tokyo. Her mother’s family were founders of a merchant bank and her father, who wanted to be a concert pianist, was forced to give up his musical ambitions to also enter the banking world. He very much wanted his daughter to live out his dream. She was sent to a school for musically gifted toddlers and learnt to play to concert performance level. She was the first female student to be accepted on the philosophy course at Gakushuin University, in Tokyo. Her mother told her to never marry and, if she did, to never have children. So as a form of rebellion she married the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi.
When the relationship ended she met the American art promoter Tony Cox. They married in 1962 and had a daughter, Kyoko. John and Yoko may have been bad for each other’s careers, but their meeting four years later caused havoc for the people they were married to.
Cox, then a member of a Christian cult called The Walk, fled with his daughter to Los Angeles in 1971, enrolling her in school under an assumed name. He feared Lennon and Ono would fight him for custody, and win. Kyoko was seven at the time; Ono didn’t see her again until she was 31. “It was very hard. I remembered her as a little girl and I kept buying her small beautiful cashmere sweaters. They piled up in my dressing room until someone said to me, ‘Do you realise she’s now 26, she’s probably larger than you, why are you keeping those little things?’ It was terrible. I didn’t know where she was. It was a kidnapping and a very difficult situation. She had so much love for her father who took care of her all that time, and he had said very clearly that if she searched me out she would never see him again.
“She got married and before they were going to have a child the husband said — he’s a very intelligent guy — you have to say hello to your mother before you have the baby because the baby is going to wonder where the grandmother is. So she came.” Now Ono has two grandchildren. Is she close to them? “In a way,” she says.
She looks slightly pained, perhaps because her own upbringing was so lacking in love. “I adored my mother but it wasn’t reciprocated. She was too busy with her own life. She was a painter. She was searching for something. Her style was very precise. Incredible. She fell in love with my father and it’s the same old story: she resented the children.” Did your mother get on with your husbands? “No. Of course she didn’t like the child kidnapper, although she approved of the first husband.
“I don’t think she cared about what I did but her pride was hurt when she heard that I had gone off with a working-class guy from Liverpool. The family put out a press release in Japan saying, ‘We are not proud of Yoko Ono’.” She gasps and the gasp turns into a laugh. “Isn’t that amazing?
“I would be scared if I was involved with a guy these days. Women have become stronger and there’s a backlash. Men have become terribly possessive. I find it much easier to get on with women. Whatever we fall out over I can always forgive women.” Ono says this with some incredulity. She hasn’t always found it easy to bond with people. Her childhood was privileged but isolated. She didn’t have friends. “It didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to play with people,” she explains.
She tells me that being pregnant felt very alien to her. When pregnant with Kyoko, she says, “It was really difficult for me to adjust to that. I didn’t think it was going to be the last of my career. I didn’t think of it as a sacrifice. I just kept thinking that I had a tumour inside of me.” We both laugh. “I’m just being honest,” she says now, embarrassed. “Now I’m going to be getting flak from people saying I’m destroying motherhood. I’m told some women love being pregnant but I haven’t met any of them.
“I had miscarriages before my daughter and after. I’ve never had an abortion. I think it was written that I had. My daughter was such a beautiful baby, I fell in love with her the minute she was here. Emotionally we are close, at least now we are.” How did it affect their relationship to have her taken away for so many years? “I told myself that at least he loves her. Maybe she was OK with him. I was going through so much prejudice I questioned everything.” Suddenly she becomes tense and doesn’t want to talk about it any more. “DNA is a strange thing,” she says, changing the subject.
“Kyoko and Sean’s handwriting is so similar it’s impossible to tell the difference. People say Kyoko looks like me and Sean looks like John.” You can see a thousand thoughts flicking through her brain at once.
She processes ideas quickly. She doesn’t eat much – “Just vegetables that are light on your body, carbohydrates that are easy to digest” – as if she doesn’t want to be weighed down by anything while she’s thinking.
Does she drink? “After I had my daughter I just never felt like wanting liquor so I never drank again. I was smoking until 10 years ago. But society is so down on smoking, everywhere you looked ‘you will get cancer’. I thought I would get cancer just by reading that, so I thought I had better stop. I am one of those very addictive types, so I don’t want to start it again.”
It’s hard to imagine Ono as vulnerable or weak in any way – she appears so wise and controlled. Is that true? She says nothing, just smiles at the idea.
Pretty interesting article. She talks about her chilhood, daughter and many other topics.