WE WERE ALL THERE ON THE AWFUL NIGHT LENNON WAS SHOT
It was a warmer than usual December day in New York, up in the 50s on Dec. 8, 1980. But the city was buzzing, as usual – “Stir Crazy” stars Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder would hold court at Tavern on the Green. Neil Diamond would host a gala for his film “The Jazz Singer.” Paul McCartney’s “Rockshow,” a Wings tour documentary, was held over for another week at the Ziegfeld.
John Lennon woke up and went to the barber before returning to his home at the Dakota, 72nd and Central Park West, to pose with Yoko Ono in their “morning room” for Rolling Stone photographer Annie Leibovitz. That day they would learn that the album he had released three weeks earlier, “Double Fantasy,” had gone gold.
Meanwhile, a misfit from Hawaii, Mark David Chapman, 25, had flown into town a week earlier, camped out in front of Lennon’s building and was looking for trouble.
Shortly before 11 p.m. – just a few hours after getting Lennon to autograph a “Double Fantasy” album – Chapman shot John Lennon four times with a .38 caliber pistol, killing him at age 40. Afterward, he said he murdered Lennon because he hated phonies, a hatred he said he absorbed from reading J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” He had a copy of the book on him when he committed the murder.
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of Lennon’s death, the people who were eyewitnesses to his final moments, who tried to save his life, and who were charged with telling the world of his death, recall that day in never-before-revealed detail.
These are John Lennon’s final hours:
KARIN SILVERSTEIN, Rolling Stone magazine’s picture editor: [Annie Leibovitz’s] photo shoot [with Lennon] was the day he died. That morning. It was at the Dakota.
She usually had one assistant and somebody that helped her with lighting. I think they were there for at least a couple of hours.
Annie Leibovitz has recalled arriving at John and Yoko’s apartment.
John told her, “Listen, I know they want to run me by myself on the cover, but I really want Yoko to be on the cover with me. It’s really important.”
He posed lying naked in a full-body embrace of Yoko, who was dressed in black.
DAVE SHOLIN, reporter for RK radio, who interviewed Lennon that afternoon: We spent probably from 1 p.m. to around 4:15 or so together in their apartment at the Dakota. Yoko was on one chair, and John was on a separate chair. He was wearing jeans and a dark sweater.
You walk in [to the apartment] and take your shoes off. There were clouds painted on the ceiling. And I was in this incredible space with, you know, these two amazing people who had a lot to say and wanted to talk that day.
This was the only interview they were giving to radio, and I was producing the special.
He really wanted to talk about the last years, his views on life, love, politics, the world at large – what happened in those years between, and his relationship with Sean.
He was just bubbling over with enthusiasm with everything in his life. He felt like that was it; he had turned the page and was starting another chapter.
He said, “I’m ready to start all over again and get this thing going. Who knows what’s going to happen next?”
John was outside when we walked out to load the equipment, the audio stuff. We were standing on the lower steps in front of the Dakota entrance. Our car was around the corner, and then it showed up.
John was out there waiting for a good 10 minutes. I don’t know if nobody had called for his car. John asked me, “Where are you heading?”
I said I was going to JFK, and he said, “Can you give us a lift?” Yoko was either there or there within seconds. It was certainly quick.
There were just a couple of people across the street waiting to see John. Then a man came up for an autograph. It had to be Mark David Chapman.
On the way to the studio, John talked about his relationship with all the Beatles and his musical taste. I had a 6 p.m. flight home to San Francisco, which I barely made.
STEVE MARCANTONIO, 46, recording engineer assistant at the Record Plant, who was wrapping up a week of working with John and Yoko on a new single, “Walking on Thin Ice”: He and Yoko came in sometime in the early evening to listen to the final mix.
SAM GINSBERG, 50, engineer at the Record Plant: I remember [John and Yoko’s producer] David Geffen came over and said, “[Double Fantasy] has gone gold.”
[“Walking on Thin Ice”] was going to be the next single. And John was happy that it was going to be Yoko’s single instead of his single.
We just finished mixing that song, and they left. The one thing that stuck in my mind was John saying, “I’m hungry. Should we stop at Wolf’s deli?”
He said – its kind of an English thing – “If I ate, it would go right to my knee,” meaning he was starving.
He didn’t go to Wolf’s.
JIM MORAN, 70, NYPD officer on a 4-to-midnight shift on the Upper West Side that night: When John and Yoko arrived back [at the Dakota], they came with the limousine. But there was a car parked there, so they couldn’t pull into the driveway. They pulled up on the street and they got out of the car, double-parked. They went in that way.
STEVE SPIRO, 59, the first NYPD officer on the scene of the shooting: When we got the call, about 5 minutes to 11, something like that, it said, “Shots fired, 1 West 72nd Street.” We were on Broadway and 72nd.
The first thing that came to my mind is, oh, they’re shooting fireworks off over in Central Park.
When we got to the scene, we pulled up and this guy’s standing in the middle of the street, pointing into the archway, saying, “That’s the guy doing the shooting.”
MORAN: I drove to the Dakota and there were several cars, and a crowd. There was always like five, six, 10 people because they knew they could get signatures from John and Yoko. But they never had any problems; it was a quiet crowd.
SPIRO: We got out of the car and went up against the building and looked into the archway. Here’s this guy – I’m sticking my head into the archway – and he’s got his hands up. He had dropped the gun; the gun had been kicked away by the doorman and he had his hands up. He had taken off all his outer garments.
I figured there was a robbery going down. I didn’t know how many guys were there. I wheeled him around. I saw the holes in the glass vestibule, and then off to my right, Jose, the doorman, who I know for years working there, says, “No, he’s the only one.”
So I said great, OK. Now I throw him up against the wall. Then Jose yells out, “He shot John Lennon.” And I just went, “You what?”
MORAN: There were other radio cars there, and my partner Bill [Gamble] and I went through the archway and up the steps going up, and they said a man was shot. We said we’ll take him to the hospital.
I went back to get the car to pull right up. They carried him out, the police officers. There was a crowd there and they were saying it was John Lennon, and I didn’t know – I’ll be honest with you, you couldn’t tell.
SPIRO: I grabbed the guy, Mark David Chapman. I wheeled him around. I’m cuffing him. I had his nose up against the wall so he couldn’t see anything.
I turn to my right, and I see John Lennon being carried out of the building. They carried him face-up, shoulder-high. I saw the blood gurgling out of his mouth. I’m just saying, “Oh my God, this guy’s drowning in his own blood, he’s hit in the lungs.”
MORAN: I said, “Are you John Lennon?”
And I think he said, I heard a moan, and he nodded and he said yes, and they laid him across the back seat [of the patrol car].
SPIRO: I wasn’t looking for an answer, but Chapman says, “I acted alone.”
MORAN: There’s like two, three steps to go in the vestibule outside the lobby of the Dakota. Chapman would have got him there, he would have seen his back, that’s how he got him, when he went up the stairs. Chapman was on the sidewalk.
They were trying to get Yoko to go in on the other side of my patrol car next to Lennon, but it was too crowded.
They decided to put her in another car, and then we just went off down to Columbus Avenue.
DAVID GEFFEN, writing in the Jan. 22 issue of Rolling Stone about that night: I went home and turned the phone off. I was sort of hanging around the apartment and I noticed the light on the phone flashing. So I picked it up and this woman said, “I’m a friend of Yoko’s. John’s just been shot. They’re at Roosevelt Hospital. Run right over.”
I said, “Sure,” and hung up the phone, and thought, gee, what a crank phone call. When I tell Yoko, she’ll be real upset.
But then I thought, “Is it possible?” So I called the Record Plant, and they said, no, it’s impossible, he just left here ten minutes ago.
DR. STEPHAN LYNN, 58, director of Roosevelt Hospital emergency room, at 58th Street and Ninth Avenue, who was called back to the hospital that night: I had left the hospital at 10:30, and I was watching the commercial before the 11 o’clock news, so it was probably 10:57.
I got a call from the emergency department. The nurses got a call from the police that they were bringing in an individual with a gunshot wound to the chest. I ran out, got a cab, and actually got to the hospital before he did.
And, in fact, one of our cardiovascular surgeons, Richard Marks, he lived near the Dakota and he was parking his car. He saw what was going on across the street, and he simply decided to turn around and come back.
We didn’t know who it was. The police were not 100 percent certain who it was. When the victim came in, he had three gunshot wounds in his left upper chest and one through his left arm. He also had no blood pressure, no pulse, no respirations and he was unresponsive.
ALAN WEISS, 54, a producer of ABC’s 6 o’clock news with Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel, who had had a motorcycle accident in Central Park and was in the E.R. when Lennon arrived: The door slammed open and six cops – I think it was four or six – come trotting in with a stretcher between them. And they go into the bay that I am literally lying outside of.
Two of the cops come out and they’re standing over my gurney, and one says to the other, “Jesus, can you believe it, John Lennon?”
LYNN: An emergency department clerk took his wallet out of his pocket. There was a John Lennon ID card. And he had a very large amount of cash in his wallet. When Yoko Ono came in, I was 100 percent certain who we had. She was taken down to the other end of the emergency department. She was never brought into the room where he was treated.
WEISS: I hear crying. And I crane my head around, and there’s Yoko in a full-length mink coat on the arms of a leather-jacketed police officer, hysterical.
LYNN: To provide any chance for him to survive, we needed to do an emergency thoracotomy. So we made an incision in the left chest and separated the ribs and found a very large amount of blood. We looked for an injury to the heart or to the blood vessels. But what we discovered was that all of the major blood vessels leaving the heart were simply destroyed.
There was no way that we could repair them.
MORAN: Yoko came in. They were going to leave her out in the waiting room, and we decided to put her into one of the rooms that were vacant in the back, and I stayed with her for five, 10 minutes.
I said, “You have the best doctors.”
WEISS: There’s this guy sweeping the floor. I call him over and say, “Look, do me a favor. Here’s my press card, here’s 20 bucks. Call this number, ask for Neil, tell him Alan’s in the hospital and I believe John Lennon’s been shot.”
He said sure. Five minutes go by and a voice says, “Mr. Weiss, No personal phone calls are allowed to be made by the staff.”
I said, “Sir.” He said, “Mr. Weiss, would you just be quiet please. We have a situation here, and you can’t ask the staff to do anything.”
So I get up and I can’t walk, but I sort of hop my way down. There’s a pay phone outside the door. I’m opening the door when a vice grip grabs me on my biceps. A security guy asks me, “Where you going?”
I said, “Just to make a phone call.”
He said, “You can’t.”
One of the cops who brought me in miraculously arrives. I ask him, “Do me a favor. Can I just make a phone call?”
He takes the phone off the nursing stand, gives it to me. I get [assignment editor] Neil Goldstein on the phone.
“Neil, I think John Lennon’s been shot.”
Neil calls ABC Network. ABC News called Howard Cosell [who was on the air doing “Monday Night Football”].
FRANK GIFFORD, 75, co-announcer of the Patriots-Dolphins “Monday Night Football” game that night: We were in Miami. I was doing the play-by-play at the time. I could hear Cosell talking to the producer in the truck.
I knew something big was going on. I could tell by Howard’s intensity, and he wasn’t paying any attention to the game all of a sudden.
Then we go to a commercial. I said, “Howard, what the hell’s going on?”
Then he said, “They just shot John Lennon.”
He said, “I’ll take it from here, Gifford,” and, “We’re going to announce this,” or something to that effect.
I said, “Bulls–t, we’re not, either.”
I said, “We’re going to get confirmation from New York.”
Cosell was really pissed off – and he was right, it had just happened.
BOB GOODRICH, 60, ABC “Monday Night Football” producer, who told Howard Cosell about Lennon: I said, “Howard, it’s been confirmed. It’s unfortunate, but you need to report it to the country.”
VIN SCELSA, 57, WNEW-FM DJ, who was on the air when Lennon was shot: “The bank of telephone lines started lighting up. First one and then 20. I picked one up, and the voice said: “Howard Cosell said John Lennon’s been shot.”
[Bruce Springsteen’s] “Jungleland” was on the turntable. So I faded it out, I read this news bulletin and brought the record back up again.
In “The Operator,” late author Tom King revealed that Yoko had a friend waken Geffen and he rushed to her side at the hospital, fighting his way through the throng of camera crews, photographers and reporters that had gathered at Roosevelt’s entrance.
WEISS: I’m back on the gurney, and I’m watching in the room, John Lennon stark naked, he’s laying on his back, his feet are facing me and there’s like 10 people in the room. There’s blood on his chest.
The door opens and every security guard comes flying in, “Are you Weiss? Lay down.”
They wheel me out of the emergency room, right outside the doors.
LYNN: I literally held his heart in my hand and I pumped. But every time I pumped, most of what I pumped simply came out of all the holes. It was totally ineffective, and after about 20 minutes, he was declared dead.
WEISS: At about 11:05, 11:10, the Muzak that’s playing in the hospital plays the Beatles’ “All My Loving.” It was a very freaky coincidence.
About a minute or two after that, there’s a scream: “No, no. Oh, no, no.” A woman’s voice.
LYNN: I walked in, and I told Yoko what had happened. And she completely refused to accept what I said.
She said, “No, it’s not true. You’re lying. It can’t be true. You’re not telling me the truth. He can’t be dead, he was just alive. You’re lying. No.”
After about five minutes, a long time, she finally understood what had happened.
And the first thing that she said was, “Don’t make the announcement immediately. Delay the announcement for about 20 minutes, because I want to go home and make certain that my son Sean is not sitting in front of a TV set.”
HOWARD COSELL, speaking live on ABC at 11:30 p.m.: “Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy that came to us from ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital.
“Dead on arrival.”
SCELSA: The news clerk came back in the room, white as a ghost. I said, “What?”
He said, “He’s dead, it’s him. He’s dead.”
And I said, “I’m not saying that on the air. Get verification.”
I played “Let It Be.” I had that cued up.
GEFFEN, in Rolling Stone: Eddie Rosenblatt, my partner and the president of the company, called me up and said, “John was just shot. They just interrupted [Monday Night Football].”
I said, “Meet me downstairs,” and we ran out and got in a cab, and rushed to the hospital. It was such a scene. There were cops everywhere, big cops, you know. You feel so intimidated, and all I could think was that I had to get to Yoko.
I kept saying, “I’m David Geffen. I’m expected. Yoko’s expecting me.” But they wouldn’t let me in. I was banging on the door and I just felt so helpless. I kept shouting, “You’ve got to let me in. You’ve got to let me in.”
Finally, someone opened the door and I ran in.
Yoko was in this little room, hysterical, and I just picked her up in my arms.
LYNN: We made arrangements to allow Yoko to leave the emergency departmen, but when [her car] pulled up to that entrance, all the press and everybody on the scene ran around the corner, and we literally could not push the door open.
MORAN: When Lennon was shot, [he and Yoko had] just came back from the studio, so he had miscellaneous papers. I think he had glasses, a wallet, and then papers, which I had to just voucher.
JOE DEMARIA, New York Post photographer who caught Yoko and Geffen leaving Roosevelt: We were hanging around outside the emergency room. There was rustling going on. There were a lot of police.
I got a tip that Yoko would be coming out a side door. I sort of backed off and slid around to 58th Street. I stopped at the first door. I was about 10, 15 feet away. There was a car sitting there.
I wasn’t there 15 minutes; two people came out before her. Then she came out, looking very solemn, didn’t say a word. [Geffen] was holding on to her.
GERALDO RIVERA, 62, then investigative reporter for ABC news and friend and neighbor of Lennon: I definitely heard the shots that night at 72nd Street [from my apartment at 64th and Central Park West]. I didn’t know what it was, but gunshots weren’t that uncommon in those days. Or I thought it was a car backfiring.
But it wasn’t more than five minutes later that I got a call from the ABC network news desk. They said, Can you come on and do “Nightline?”
I said, “Why?” And they said, “John Lennon’s just been shot.”
The newsroom is only two blocks away, so I rushed over there and found out he had died.
It was a crushing, crushing moment, and I remember saying at one point to Ted Koppel, “I’m just trying to keep my thoughts organized and coherent and not break down.”
We stayed on live for three hours, basically redoing the show for every time zone.
BOB GRUEN, 60, author of “John Lennon: the New York Years” published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, who was Lennon’s personal photographer and one of his closest friends in the city: I was here in my darkroom. I had taken some pictures [at the Record Factory] the last weekend he was alive. I was printing those pictures when the doorman called up and said, “Do you have a radio on? I just heard on the radio that John Lennon was shot.”
My first thought was that maybe he’d been mugged, because that’s what happened once in a while if you had bad luck. It didn’t occur to me that someone would travel across the world to shoot him on purpose. It just didn’t. It still doesn’t make sense. It will never make sense.
LYNN: We then made arrangements to take John Lennon’s body out of the hospital, because this was the type of case that would go to the New York City Medical Examiner.
There was a receiving dock farther down 58th Street, toward the back of the hospital, that had a double entrance where you could close the outer door or the inner door, or both.
They [pulled the car in, closed the outer doors] and then opened the inner door and we put his body in the morgue ambulance. There was actually another body in there at the time. I have no idea [who that was].
Then we closed the inner door and opened the outer door. The police had completely cordoned off 58th Street, and there was no traffic and no people on the street. And the medical examiner’s vehicle left.
I made the announcement in what was then the lobby to the hospital. There was a small staircase of about three or four steps that led up to the admissions office.
I stood at the top of the steps, and the first thing that I saw was about 200 or 300 press people with microphones, mostly radio, and some TV cameras, all pointing in my direction.
I put my head down and sort of put my hands out to the side to motion that I had something to say and for them to be quiet.
Annie Leibovitz took a picture of me.
DENNIS ORTIZ-LOPEZ, 56, Rolling Stone magazine typographer: Annie Leibovitz came in the office the next morning the same time I did. I took the elevator up to the 23rd floor with her. I could see she was really messed up over it, so we didn’t discuss it.
We had all been called up and told he had died. They said to come in quick because we had an editorial nightmare coming up. We had finished the magazine completely. The cover was going to be Warren Zevon.
Jann wanted that picture [that Liebovitz had taken the morning before he was killed of John naked with Yoko] to run on the cover. We had to completely do the issue over in two days.
We all knew what we had to do.
ANNIE LIEBOVITZ, writing in the Jan. 22 issue of Rolling Stone about the cover shot: I promised John that this would be the cover. It was taken a few hours before he died. I shot some test Polaroids first, and, when I showed them to John and Yoko, John said, “You’ve captured our relationship exactly.”
I looked him in the eye and we shook on it. The next day, Yoko asked to see the prints and she made the final selection.
SHOLIN: When [my plane] landed in San Francisco, I turned on the radio. I don’t remember what song, but it was an older Beatles ballad, like “Yesterday.”
It was really odd. He played two songs back to back. And then he made the announcement.
I just stopped the car and realized it wasn’t a nightmare or bad dream.
WE WERE ALL THERE ON THE AWFUL NIGHT LENNON WAS SHOT