On the last day of his life John Lennon did a photo shoot for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. When photographer Annie Leibovitz visited Lennon in his apartment at the Dakota mid afternoon on December 8, 1980, however, Lennon insisted on having his wife, Yoko Ono, in the picture. Adhering to the “never argue with a superstar” handbook for photojournalists, Leibovitz shot the Lennon’s together. The results were remarkable.
The next cover of Rolling Stone featured Yoko laying flat on her back. She wore all black and her long black hair fanned out from her black clothes onto the floor. Lennon was completely naked. His left arm wrapped around Yoko’s head, his lips kissed her cheek, and his torso and legs were wrapped up in an extreme fetal position. John Lennon never saw the picture.
After the photo shoot Lennon did a radio interview discussing his newly released (November 1980) album Double Fantasy, and the Number One single from the album, “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Lennon had been out of music the last five years, fighting the US government's deportation efforts, trying to kick drugs, and raising he and Yoko’s son, Sean.
Now he was back in the spotlight again. There was even talk of a world tour. It was a coming out party of sorts for John Lennon – and of course his wife, Yoko Ono, the avant garde Japanese artist who captivated Lennon and won his heart, for better and worse.
Lennon was not an easy man to live with. He was fiercely independent, fiercely intelligent, physically violent, and drug addicted. The man who sang of peace, challenging everyone to imagine a world with no attachments and aversions, had precious little peace in his private life. He was a heroin addict for years, and showered everyone with his acerbic wit and negative instant karma. In return his post-Beatles career was savaged by critics, and others with spots still tender from Lennon’s barbs (like the US government).
But during late afternoon, December 8, 1980, Lennon took time to chat with fans and sign autographs outside his residence. He had lived at the Dakota for years, and was used to fans hanging out at the entrance. For all his vices and defects, Lennon could also be easy going, down to earth, and kind. Although he and Yoko were running late for a recording session, Lennon took extra time to chat with as many fans as possible.
An overweight young man with glasses handed the superstar a copy of Double Fantasy. Lennon autographed the album cover, handed it back to the young man, and asked: “Is this all you want?” The man smiled and nodded his head. His name was Mark David Chapman. He had been waiting outside the entrance to the Dakota since morning.
A photographer named Paul Goresh took a picture of Lennon autographing Chapman’s album. As the Lennon’s entered their limousine Goresh prepared to leave. Chapman turned to Goresh and said, "I'd wait. You never know if you'll see him again." Paul Goresh never saw John Lennon again. Mark Chapman did.
At this point in his life Mark David Chapman was a hot mess; but he had always been a bit off. Growing up in Decatur, Georgia, he developed an inner life that featured imaginary "little people" who lived in the walls of his bedroom. He read and reread J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, a novel about a teenage boy with a rich, tortured inner life, and no social skills.
In high school he excelled working for the YMCA as a camp counselor. The kids affectionately nicknamed Mark “Nemo.” The other activity Chapman excelled in was dropping LSD as often as he could. A friend said Chapman did LSD hundreds of times, along with heroin, mescaline, and barbiturates.
Taking LSD was a religious experience for Chapman. He loved listening to the Beatles – especially John Lennon - while he was high. They were Mark’s favorite group until his junior year in high school when he quit drugs and became a born again Christian. He witnessed publicly about his faith and alienated some friends. Chapman turned hardest against the Beatles – John Lennon in particular.
Lennon was famous for his quote that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Many, if not most, misunderstood his point. In the south, where Chapman grew up, there were groups that burned Beatles records, and radio stations that refused to play Beatles music. When the lads from Liverpool toured America’s southland in 1966, the booing of crowds was punctuated by the throwing of garbage and firecrackers at the stage. The Beatles never toured the south again.
It is one thing to take issue with John Lennon’s statement about God and the Beatles. It is quite another to kill him for it. But before Chapman began stalking Lennon he tried to kill himself – more than once. Mark’s life wasn’t turning out the way he wanted it to. The girl he loved ended their relationship because Mark wasn’t Christian enough for her. He became depressed and felt like a failure. He moved to Hawaii and tried to kill himself twice. Both attempts failed.
Chapman seemed to recover. He married in 1979, got a job as a security guard, and was trained to shoot a pistol. Chapman became an excellent marksman. Then he relapsed into depression again and quit his job in October 1980. He sold some artwork to buy a .38-caliber revolver (but no bullets). He also began drinking, doing cocaine, and talking to the imaginary “little people” again.
Chapman’s long time obsession with the book Catcher in the Rye, by J D. Salinger, moved to the front burner. Chapman had an absolute identification with protagonist Holden Caulfield. He called himself Holden Caulfield and signed notes and letters with Caulfield’s name. Like Caulfield, Mark David Chapman became obsessed with phoniness. He decided the biggest phony in the world was John Lennon: a man who preached non-materialism, peace, and love, yet lived in luxury. For this, Chapman decided, John Lennon must die.
Chapman flew to New York City in October 1980 to find Lennon. What he found instead was a law in New York prohibiting him from buying bullets. Chapman flew down to Atlanta to get bullets from an unwitting friend. The bullets were hollow point: the hollowed out tip causes the bullet to expand on impact, maximizing tissue and organ damage. Chapman flew back to New York and got muddled again: he couldn’t decide whether to kill himself by jumping off the Statue of Liberty or to kill John Lennon instead. He split the difference and flew back to Hawaii.
Back home, Chapman changed his mind again and told his wife he was going to kill John Lennon. He showed her his gun and the bullets. She didn’t call the police. Why? Perhaps she sought to protect her husband, or perhaps she was in sheer disbelief that Mark David Chapman could do anything on that large of a scale. The couple made an appointment for Mark to see a psychologist but he flew back to New York before the appointment.
Arriving in New York on December 6, 1980, Chapman got a room at the YMCA. Two days later he was outside the Dakota, a nineteenth century luxury residence inhabited by millionaires and celebrities. Chapman saw Gilda Radner, Lauren Bacall, Paul Simon, and Mia Farrow enter and leave the building. Apartments at the Dakota go for 4 to 20 million dollars. Chapman was appalled that the man who wrote “Imagine no possessions” lived so expensively.
But when he came face to face with Lennon outside the Dakota, he was speechless. Lennon seemed like a normal, even a nice man – not the monster of phoniness Chapman imagined him to be. Chapman had a copy of Double Fantasy with him to look like a fan. Lennon stopped and signed it. Then, according to Chapman, Lennon:
“looked at me very earnestly and very sincerely in my eyes and started to hand me back the album—He said, "Is that what you wanted? Is that all you want?" And I said, "Yeah, thanks. Thanks a lot." I was just overwhelmed by his sincerity. I had expected a brush-off, but it was just the opposite.... I was on cloud nine. And there was a little bit of me going, "Why didn't you shoot him?" And I said, ‘I can't shoot him like this....’ I wanted to get the autograph.”
Lennon left Chapman with his autographed record and entered a limousine with Yoko. It was 5:45 pm. They were driven to the Record Plant Studio to record a song Yoko wrote called “Walking On Thin Ice”. Later Chapman said he prayed for the strength to not kill Lennon. When it came right down to it, however, Chapman said, “It was almost as if I was on some kind of special mission that I could not avoid.” At 10:50 pm he was back outside the Dakota, waiting.
Lennon’s limousine pulled up in front of the building. It happened that Yoko wanted to go to a restaurant after recording, but John wanted to be home in time to say goodnight to his son before going out to eat. John and Yoko walked towards the entrance. Lennon was holding a cassette tape of Ono's "Walking on Thin Ice."
Mark David Chapman stood in the shadows near the archway. Lennon looked at him as he passed by. Later Chapman recalled:
“He walked past me, and then I heard [a voice] in my head say ‘Do it do it do it’ over and over again, just like that. ‘Do it do it do it do it do it....’ He walked a few feet. I turned, pulled the gun out of my pocket.... I don't remember aiming. I must have, but I don't remember drawing a bead.... I just pulled the trigger steady five times…
“I remember thinking, ‘The bullets are working.’ I thought the humidity in the plane might have gotten to them. I think I felt a little regret that they were working, but I'm not sure. I just remember thinking, ‘The bullets are working.’"
Chapman had assumed a shooting position and fired five shots in quick succession. The first went through a window. The other four bullets went into John Lennon’s body. Lennon staggered and fell. Blood covered the sidewalk. Yoko screamed and held him.
The doorman disarmed Chapman and shouted at him: “Do you know what you’ve just done?” “Yes,” Chapman replied in an even voice, “I’ve just shot John Lennon.” Police arrived within minutes of the shooting to find the shooter sitting on the sidewalk, holding a paperback copy of “The Catcher in the Rye.”
A policeman hauled Lennon’s body over his shoulder and took him to nearby RooseveltHospital. Upon arrival Lennon had no blood pressure, no pulse. Dr. Stephan Lynn recalled:
"I actually held his heart in my hand as the nurses rapidly transfused blood. I tried to massage the heart as we put blood into his body. We knew that there was no way that we could restore circulation, there was no way that we could repair the massive injury to all of the blood vessels in the body."
Lennon was dead on arrival. His sobbing wife was given John’s wedding ring and led away. The outpouring of grief was world wide. Several Beatles fans committed suicide. On December 14 Ono requested a 10-minute silent vigil. Millions around the world participated. Lennon’s body was cremated. There was no funeral service.
Mark David Chapman’s lawyers wanted to make an insanity plea. Chapman disagreed, and pled guilty to second degree murder. He is still in prison. Every two years he comes up for parole, and each time he is denied. In 2012 Chapman told the board: “I felt that by killing John Lennon I would become somebody and instead of that I became a murderer and murderers are not somebodies.”
Some years before he was killed John Lennon declared:
"Neither of us [Yoko or I] want to make the mistake that Gandhi and Martin Luther King did, which is get killed one way or the other. Because people only like dead saints, and I refuse to be a saint or a martyr."
What a nice fantasy that is – that we can pick the way we die. Even when we think we know what we are doing, life – in the form of other people – disrupts our best laid plans. John Lennon refused the path of a martyr or a saint, but he had no control over the world's reaction to his death; like Gandhi, Lennon became a secular saint. Mark Chapman expected fame from his actions, and got the kind of fame he ended up renouncing. Two very different lives, two very different fantasies – John Lennon’s and Mark David Chapman’s – became intertwined, and the result shook the world.
Jones, Jack (1992). Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John. Lennon, Villard Books.
New York Daily News, Mark Chapman Tells His Version of the John Lennon Slaying, Tuesday August 19, 2008.
McGunagle, Fred, Mark David Chapman: The Man Who Killed John Lennon, Crime Library, Criminal Minds and Methods.
Mark Chapman: The Assassination of John Lennon, from Crime and Investigation.co.uk/crime-files.
Descent into Madness, James R. Gaines, The Life and Crime of Mark David Chapman.
John Lennon Biography, published in Rolling Stone magazine.
Daily Mail UK, Mark David Chapman’s Chilling Letters.