As a member of the Beatles, John Lennon is undeniably a British icon. For the second part of his life as a solo artist, he was also very much a New Yorker. However, Lennon’s life as a father, husband, and activist in New York City in the 1970s almost didn’t happen because of his status as an immigrant.
Lennon was already a music legend when he came to the U.S. with wife Yoko Ono in 1971. But he’d run afoul of then-president Richard Nixon, of all people, leading to a five-year immigration battle to allow him to stay in the United States as a permanent resident. Lucky for him, Lennon had the clout and the resources to persist with the case, which became a true legal odyssey, leading to celebrity testimonials, the brief establishment of a fake country, and an influential decision that would have huge effects on immigration law to this day.
Here are photos that capture Lennon’s unexpected fight to stay in the Big Apple.
Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty ImagesBEATLEMANIAIt's hard to oversell the influence the Beatles have had on music, fashion, popular culture, and the very idea of being a music-obsessed adolescent. It was Lennon himself, in a 1966 interview, who declared, "We're more popular than Jesus now." Above: Hysterical Beatles fans being restrained by police outside Buckingham Palace in 1965.
Wesley/Getty ImagesOVER AND OUTBy 1969, Lennon decided to leave the Beatles, although this wasn't made official until Paul McCartney filed a lawsuit against his fellow band members in December of 1970. That same month, Lennon released "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band" with Yoko Ono. Above: McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison with a cardboard cutout of Lennon as illustrated for the film "Yellow Submarine" in 1968.Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty ImagesWE ARE FAMILYInitially, Lennon and Ono came to the U.S. to contest the custody of Ono’s daughter Kyoko with her American ex-husband. However, when they applied for six-month visa extensions, they were surprised to have them denied. Above: Ono and Lennon with Kyoko in 1969.New York Post Archives/The New York Post via Getty ImagesFLOWER POWEROno and Lennon hired immigration attorney Leon Wildes in 1972 for the extension application, which they expected to be straightforward. Astonishingly, Wildes didn't know much about them before taking them on as clients. He told Billboard, "I had never heard of John Lennon, much less Yoko Ono... While I was vaguely aware of the Beatles, I certainly couldn't name any band members." Above: Wildes in court in 1973.
Mirrorpix/Getty ImagesBUSTEDWhen their six-month extensions on their tourist visas were denied, Lennon and Ono both applied for visas based on their extraordinary abilities as artists. However, Lennon's application was challenged due to a 1969 conviction in the U.K. for possession of hash. Above: Lennon during his arrest for possession in 1968.The Estate of David Gahr/Getty ImagesNEW YORK STATE OF MINDLennon grew to love New York, where Ono had previously lived on and off for much of her life, and where they lived for most of the legal proceedings. Lennon biographer James Henke says that Lennon once mused, "If I’d lived in Roman times, I’d have lived in Rome...today, America is the Roman Empire, and New York is Rome itself.” He and Ono even wrote a song in 1972 titled "New York City" with lyrics like, "Well nobody came to bug us/Hustle us or shove us/So we decided to make it our home/If the Man wants to shove us out/We gonna jump and shout/The Statue of Liberty said, 'Come!'" Above: Lennon on a New York street in 1974.Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty ImagesGIVE PEACE A CHANCEThere were powerful forces, however, that did not want Lennon in the U.S. The Nixon administration saw Lennon’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his political influence over the younger generation of potential U.S. voters as a threat to his 1972 reelection campaign. Above: Lennon and Ono stage one of their famous "bed-ins" to protest the Vietnam War in 1969.
George Tames/Getty ImagesPUMPING IRONIn 1972, conservative South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond (above) sent a memo to Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell suggesting that Lennon be deported. Thurmond cited a source who claimed that "radical left leaders" planned to use Lennon as "a drawing card to promote the success of the rock festivals and rallies...this will pour tremendous amounts of money into the coffers of the new left..." He concluded "the source felt that if Lennon's visa is terminated it would be a strategy counter-measure."Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveALL THE PRESIDENT'S MENPresident Richard Nixon, seated, with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, standing behind him at left, and Attorney General Mitchell at right in 1970. In order to bolster their case against Lennon and Ono, the FBI surveilled the couple throughout 1972, amassing 300 pages of documents on them.Underwood Archives/Getty ImagesTHE CIRCUSFrom the beginning, Wildes knew this case would not be business as usual. He told PBS in 2012, "I had never seen anything like it in 50 years of practice before or after." Above: Lennon and Ono draw a crowd as they leave the Immigration office in 1972.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveNUTOPIAUnsurprisingly, the proceedings inspired Lennon and Ono to get creative. At a press conference in 1973 (above), they declared the founding of an independent nation called Nutopia, stating "citizenship of the country can be obtained by declaration of your awareness of Nutopia.... As two ambassadors of Nutopia, we ask for diplomatic immunity and recognition in the United Nations for our country and our people." Needless to say, immigration officials were unmoved.New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty ImagesLET'S STAY TOGETHERIn an account of the trial in the New Yorker in 1972, their business manager Alan Klein commented on the possibility that Ono's visa might be granted while Lennon's was denied: "To separate this couple, I think, is not really human...That woman who stands there in the harbor with her torch would not want to separate this type of people." Above: Lennon and Ono (with Wildes behind) in 1972.ABC Photo Archives/ABC Photo Archives/Getty ImagesLIVE FROM NEW YORKNumerous artists (Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns), writers (Allen Ginsburg, John Updike), actors (Fred Astaire, Jack Lemmon), musicians (Nina Simone, Bob Dylan), as well as Mayor John Lindsay and the president of the United Auto Workers signed petitions and wrote letters in support of Ono and Lennon. TV host Geraldo Rivera (above) testified as a character witness to discuss Lennon's support of a charity concert they both worked on in 1972 to raise money for a home for children with special needs. Rivera said on the stand, "If there ever was a person who deserved to stay in this country, it is John Lennon."
Michael Ochs ArchivesTHE LOST WEEKENDAmid the legal proceedings, Lennon and Ono actually split for 18 months, during which time Lennon dated and moved to L.A. with their assistant May Pang, reportedly with the blessing of Ono, who needed a break from Lennon's intensity. Above: Lennon with Pang in Los Angeles in 1974.Ron Galella/WireImageREUNITEDHowever, by 1975 they were back together. Shortly afterward, Ono became pregnant with their son Sean. Above: Oko and Lennon at the 1975 Grammy Awards.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveLAND OF OPPORTUNITYDuring the course of the case, it became clear that Lennon was singled out for denial based on his political stands. Wildes was able to show that the Immigration and Naturalization Service routinely overlooked or pursued deportation orders at their own discretion and did not apply the law uniformly. A 1975 article by the New York Times quoted Judge Irving Kaufman, in overturning Lennon’s deportation order, as saying, "The courts will not condone selective deportation based upon secret political grounds.... Lennon’s four-year battle to remain in our country is testimony to his faith in this American dream." Above: Lennon flashes a peace sign during a trip to the Immigration offices in 1972.
AFP/AFP/Getty ImagesLANDMARKSIn a 2012 interview with PBS News Hour, Wildes said that after winning his case, "[John] asked me personally, 'Not everybody can afford lawyers like you. Can we publicize this so everybody eligible can try to get it?'" Using the Freedom of Information Act, Wildes was able to prove that immigration authorities had a secret program that allowed them to defer deportation of people who were in the U.S. illegally, but were considered low-risk. This information set the precedent for President Barack Obama's 2012 program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows children who came to the U.S. illegally to be granted short-term visas. In 2017, President Donald Trump declared he was ending the program, leaving its status in limbo.The Estate of David Gahr/Getty ImagesSHE PERSISTEDWildes gave a lot of credit to Ono for the success of Lennon's case. In a 2016 Billboard interview, he said, "She seemed to always ask the right questions. And she seemed to have a kind of sixth sense as to what was going on behind the motions." On winning his permanent residency card in 1976, the New York Times reported Lennon's reaction: "'It's great to be legal again!' Mr. Lennon declared, kissing his wife, whom he credited with holding him together at times when he was ready to 'cave in' and give up the fight. 'As usual, there's a great woman behind every idiot.'" Above: Ono in 1974.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesFATHER AND SONAfter winning the case, Lennon took a hiatus of several years to be a stay-at-home dad to his son Sean, although he continued to write music. His final album, "Double Fantasy" (recorded with Ono) was released a month before he was murdered outside their apartment building, the Dakota, by Mark David Chapman on Dec. 9, 1980. Above: Lennon with Ono and Sean in 1977.
Brian Hamill/Getty ImagesAT HOMEFor the rest of his tragically short life, Lennon, pictured here on the rooftop of the Dakota in 1975, embraced living stateside. In 1975, he gave what would be his last TV interview with Tom Snyder on The Tomorrow Show . During it, Lennon said, "I like to be here because this is where the music came from. This is what influenced my whole life and got me where I am today."