I’m sorry to interrupt your Mexican retirement, but we need to discuss a bit of unfinished business—something I’ve wanted to get off my chest for 25 years. I know that’s a long time, but there’s no past in cyberspace. There’s only what’s out there now. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Internet, it’s that if you put out information people want, they’ll find it. Take my word for it. Internet killed the magazine star.
Imagine if there were a blogosphere in 1984.
The funny thing is, over the past nine years, as I traveled around the U.S., Europe, and Latin America promoting my John Lennon biography, Nowhere Man, conducting some 300 no-holds-barred interviews and press conferences, nobody has ever asked me about the Playboy article. It’s almost as if it’s ceased to exist.
But the story is still out there, buried in the dark crevices of cyberspace, like an unexploded bomb left over from an ancient war. And it’s accessible to those who want to find it—like the Zionist-conspiracy theorists who’ve embraced it as irrefutable proof that the Jews murdered Lennon (with a little help from the CIA).
I can no longer pretend that the article doesn’t exist, especially now that every day another story from that long-gone era seems to resurrect itself online, and especially now that the exhibition on Lennon’s New York City years at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex has put the past so prominently back in the news. Yes, Barry, I think it’s time to drag the article out into the open and expose it to a bit of sunlight.
The story, as you may recall, was no small matter. It was about 6,000 words and written by a journalist of some repute, David Sheff. It received a great deal of media attention when it was published. But what really gets me is that Playboy still had a reputation for journalistic integrity at the time and at least some people really did buy it for the articles. I was one of them. I believed in Playboy’s journalism. That’s why I sent you my manuscript—the manuscript that would become Nowhere Man. You were the executive editor in charge of interviews and articles.
I remember very well the day we met in your New York office: July 27, 1982—my 30th birthday. You had some nice things to say about my writing; you especially liked my chapter about Lennon’s relationship with Paul McCartney (“His Finest Hour” in Nowhere Man).
We spoke for quite some time, and I told you how after Lennon was murdered, his personal assistant, Fred Seaman, said it was time for us to begin work on the Lennon biography John had asked him to write in the event of his death, using any source material he needed to complete the project. I told you how Seaman gave me Lennon’s diaries, how I transcribed and edited them, and how Seaman then sent me out of town, ransacked my apartment, and took everything I’d been working on. I told you how I had re-created from memory portions of Lennon’s diaries. In short, I told you the entire Nowhere Man backstory—a story that I thought was the equivalent of a rock ’n’ roll Watergate. I also told you that I was in dire financial straits and needed a break.
You then strung me along for the rest of the summer, assuring me that you hadn’t forgotten about the story and that my name was in your Rolodex. But you never gave me an assignment.
So I sent the manuscript to Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, and met with him, too. At least he was up-front with me. He told me that he couldn’t publish the story and that the only way I could “save” my “karma” was to tell Yoko Ono herself what had happened. I met with her in the Dakota in September and told her the story. She then asked to read my personal diaries, and I gave them to her—16 volumes covering more than three years.
You finally called me in April 1983 to say that you’d assigned the Lennon diaries story to Sheff, and you asked me to cooperate with him—neglecting to mention something I didn’t find out until I saw the article in print: Ono had given you and Sheff (who was collaborating with his wife at the time, Victoria Sheff) access to my diaries. Because I thought that this was the only way I’d be able to tell the story, I allowed David Sheff to come to my house and interview me for two hours.
You had my trust, my cooperation, my manuscript, and my diaries, the intimate details of my life. And what did you do? You ran a story in the March 1984 Playboy, “The Betrayal of John Lennon,” that had one purpose only: to silence me by destroying my credibility, my reputation, my career, and my life. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that of the countless articles and reviews that have since been written about Nowhere Man—most of which, I might add, are positive—none of them, not even those written by anonymous character assassins, comes close to the sustained maliciousness and contempt of the Playboy story. It is indeed in a class by itself.
And now, 25 years later, I think it’s time for you to answer a couple of questions.
Let’s begin with my diaries. You had at your disposal approximately 500,000 words that I’d written in the heat of the moment. From them, you extracted about 200 words, including 5 that seem to be the only thing most people remember about the story—the takeaway, so to speak, the line the conspiracy theorists quote over and over. I can assure you that I’d prefer not to repeat my comment about what I saw as Ono’s skillful exploitation of the Lennon legacy: “Dead Lennons=BIG $$$$$.” But I’m not the one who made it public. And it certainly wasn’t my idea to depict the comment as an indictment of my own behavior, portraying myself as a criminal conspirator drooling over Lennon’s corpse.
That was quite an image, Barry. But don’t you think it would have been appropriate to help yourselves to a few more of the remaining 499,800 words and give your readers a more accurate picture? For example, you could have quoted—as I did in the first chapter of the paperback edition of Nowhere Man—from the passage that describes my state of mind the night Lennon was murdered, words about shedding tears in front of the Dakota and thanking John for touching my life. Or you could have quoted the part in which Seaman tells me, two days later, that he’s quitting his job at the end of the week to begin writing a book: “‘It’s what John wants,’ he said. ‘He knew he was going to die and he poured his heart out to me. He knew I was working on a book.’”
I suppose it’s possible that you excerpted only 200 words because you didn’t want to infringe my copyright any more than necessary to tell the version of the story that Ono had dictated to you through her spokesman, Elliot Mintz. But couldn’t you have avoided any additional infringement by using more than 22 words from my two-hour conversation with Sheff—the only direct quote that you allowed me in the story because those were the only 22 words that fit your story line?
Or couldn’t you have simply described my diaries? Nowhere in the article did you mention that the portion of my diaries from which you took most of your quotes was typed on teletype paper—hundreds of attached sheets, like a Kerouacian scroll. But apparently any images of serious literary endeavor were to be avoided at all costs. That would have interfered with the real conspiracy—the one you, Ono, and the Manhattan district attorney had cooked up.
I trust you remember what happened the day the article was published: First I was fired from my job at High Society magazine, where I was an editor. They didn’t want a “criminal” on the premises. Then the DA’s office told me I’d be arrested on criminal conspiracy charges if I didn’t sign a document forfeiting my First Amendment rights to tell the story of John Lennon’s diaries. Ono, as I’m sure you know, had by this time given my diaries to the DA—to use as “evidence” against me.
The DA, however, didn’t know that I’d managed to retain a top-notch criminal attorney, willing to defend me pro bono. His name was David Lewis and, as crazy as this must sound to you, he believed that the Constitution applied equally to everybody.
So, there I was, sitting in Lewis’s office, listening to him talk to an assistant DA, Steven Gutstein, on the speakerphone about my diaries, which had apparently provided Gutstein with hours of reading pleasure: His opening parry was a series of one-liners about how often I masturbated—a preview, I presume, of the evidence he was planning to present to the jury. Then Gutstein started talking about the “charges” against me, and I can still recall Lewis’s exact words: “You’re in gross violation of my client’s constitutional rights.”
And you know what? That was the end of it. Lewis called the DA’s bluff and it was shocking how fast he folded. I didn’t sign the document and nobody arrested me. In fact I never heard from the DA again. The case was a total fabrication that would never have stood up to scrutiny in open court. The whole thing was dependent on my not having competent legal counsel. What were you telling people at editorial meetings? “Rosen’s going to be arrested the day the article comes out. What’s he going to do, sue us?”
Not a bad idea, actually. But, as I understand it, your story elevated me to limited-purpose-public-figure status, meaning that if I’d wanted to sue the powerful Playboy corporation, I’d have had to prove that you not only libeled me, but that you did so knowingly and maliciously. Which, of course, you did. But proving it in a court of law was not really feasible on a pro-bono budget.
And it also appeared that the story wasn’t exactly having its intended effect. My friends and neighbors, for example, saw it for the textbook hatchet job that it was. Everybody in my building was wondering why Playboy was going to such extraordinary lengths to destroy the unassuming guy on the fifth floor. That story made me the talk of Washington Heights—a real International Man of Mystery.
And then there was the job offer. I assume you knew, or knew of, Chip Goodman. He was Martin Goodman’s son, and Martin Goodman, as I’m sure you know, is credited with inventing the modern men’s mag, or men’s adventure mags, as they were called at the time. You must have heard the story about how Hugh Hefner wanted to call Playboy “Stag Party,” but Martin Goodman was already publishing Stag magazine, so Hefner couldn’t use the title.
I can’t say that Chip hired me as managing editor of Stag because of the Playboy article. But Chip was no fan of Yoko Ono’s, and he did say that he’d read the article. Our conversation, in fact, left me with the distinct impression that the article was a contributing factor in his hiring decision—the cherry on top of my considerable editorial experience. And yes, I know, Playboy’s a much classier porn rag than Stag could ever dream of being, but at least Stag didn’t pretend to have journalistic integrity. We were an honest stroke book. And it was a pretty good gig for 16 years.
But you weren’t finished with me yet, were you? You had to go ahead and run that letter to the editor—the one suggesting that reading a man’s diaries was a crime as heinous as murder. Do you think John Lennon would have agreed with that analysis? Or maybe you think such notions only apply when “little people” read the diaries of the wealthy and powerful, not when members of the media elite read and publish without authorization the diaries of little people. Yes, that must be it—the Playboy Philosophy in the Age of Ronald Reagan.
Now I ask you, 25 years after the fact: Do you believe that the story has any journalistic merit whatsoever? I.e.: Is it something more than a press release Ono might have written herself if she hadn’t had you and the Sheffs to do it for her? I hope she at least thanked you for a job well done. And what did you hope to get out of it other than the grim satisfaction of currying favor with a rich and powerful woman? Was the article designed to do anything more than repress the story that Lennon told in his diaries and that I told in Nowhere Man? Is there something I’m missing here?
I will offer you a bit of friendly advice: Next time you try to whack somebody, make sure they’re dead before you walk away.
So, Barry, I do hope you’re enjoying your Mexican retirement. It’s a wonderful country you’ve chosen to live in—such warm and gracious people, in my experience. But I must admit, I am wondering if you ever read Proceso, the Mexican newsweekly, though I’d guess the answer is no. It’s not exactly a magazine for “gringo retirees”, is it? The Proceso editors and writers are into speaking truth to power, a concept that doesn’t appear to sit well with you at all. And they did give Nowhere Man the most amazing coverage when it was published there. As you probably noticed, they were hardly the only ones—even Playboy’s Mexican edition gave the book a good review. Jesus, with all those articles and the stuff on TV, you must have thought you were in Bizarro World and that I’d written Harry Potter or something. Too bad I didn’t know 25 years ago how receptive the Mexican media would be to Nowhere Man. I wouldn’t have bothered you with my query letter.
Anyway, that’s my side of the story.
Maybe we’ll talk again someday, perhaps the next time I’m in Mexico on a book tour.