The Beatles in New York's Central Park in February 1964Lennon's First Pot Party
Who introduced John Lennon
to marijuana in the Sixties?

by Cherri Gilham

The truth about John's first pot party,
as eyewitness Cherri Gilham recalls,
didn't involve Bob Dylan, but a blonde
and a blue movie.

I don’t wish to be a killjoy, but a brilliant, authoritative new book on the life of Bob Dylan by Clinton Heylin has a flaw in it. Heylin credits Dylan with having introduced the Beatles to marijuana in August 1964. Apparently Dylan dropped in on the Fab Four in their New York hotel, and not finding any ’cheap wine,’ his preference over the champagne on offer, he rolled a joint. Paul McCartney is quoted as saying he "discovered the meaning of life that evening" and it has thus gone down in Dylan legend that that was the moment the Beatles first got high on weed.

It might have been a first for Macca, but I know for certain that it wasn’t for John Lennon. Lennon took his first puff or two of pot a few months earlier; in the spring of ’64, in a basement flat in Bayswater. Not only did he smoke his first joint, or ’reefer,’ as it was called then, but he also threw up. I know this because I was there.

I was a Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald fan then, and I didn’t ’get’ the Beatles until Sgt. Pepper three years later, so meeting John Lennon did not have the same appeal for me as the memory of it does today. But even I, who was not enamoured, knew that it was a seminal moment to see Lennon sick in the bath after his first smoke. There had been so much made of the Beatles’ clean-cut image, those ’loveable mopheads.’ Beatlemania had swept Europe the previous autumn and the Beatles had been top of the album charts for 51 consecutive weeks with their first album, Please Please Me. They had had a clutch of No. 1 singles and by the end of ’63 their single, She Loves You, was the biggest-selling single of all time in the UK. In February ’64, just before I met John Lennon, the Beatles conquered the US with 10,000 screaming fans awaiting their arrival at JFK airport. At the end of March ’64 they had the awe-inspiring top five slots on the Billboard charts with Can’t Buy Me Love, Twist and Shout, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and Please Please Me. In March they were filming A Hard Day’s Night.

How John and Cynthia came to be in that flat in Palace Court I do not know. It belonged to a couple called Pat and Tony Shaw. Pat was an incredibly beautiful 28-year-old hourglass blonde and Tony was a portly, bearded, jovial man in his fifties with a penchant for watching his ’wife’ in bed with other men. I lived around the corner in Clanricarde Gardens and a few weeks before had been invited to a beatnik party a few doors along from my flat. I braved it and went alone.

The place was full of scruffy people sitting around on the floor, the air thick with smoke and dope. I felt out of my depth, a bit wary, and was about to leave when this stunning threesome stepped into the halo of light in the hallway. A beautiful blonde in a shimmering silver dress flanked by two handsome men with glittering blue eyes and wearing identical Prince of Wales check suits. To my astonishment, one of the men asked me to dance. His name, so he told me, was Baron Pierre Cervello, and he was engaged, he later told me, to Mandy Rice-Davies, who was involved in the then breaking Profumo scandal. Over the next few months Pierre would introduce me to an underlife in London which was both breathtakingly sordid and wondrous at the same time. Orgies with film stars and nobility and layers of willing girls. I was an innocent 18-year-old, fresh out of virginity, and I assumed that as I was at what appeared to be the epicentre of fashionable London, then it was absolutely the fashionable thing to do -- to swing. Everybody, it seemed, was a swinger. For the record, I only ever participated with Pierre...well I would say that, wouldn’t I? But it was true, for I did, along with dozens of other women, totally adore him, and was completely in his thrall.

The gorgeous blond at this beatnik party that night was Pam and the other devilishly handsome lothario was a French hairdresser called Raphael de Rosa, who was in partnership with Leonard, who later became Twiggy’s hairdresser. (They were Raphael and Leonard, until Raphael did a bunk with the takings one day). Falling in behind them, quite inconspicuously, was Tony. Pierre whisked me off from that party to my first quasi-public coupling round at Pam and Tony’s. We watched a blue film (my first), then Pierre seduced me on the sofa and Pam and Raphael bonked in the bedroom with Tony blithely looking on. I don’t think any doors ever closed in that flat.

Somehow the Lennons stumbled into this den of iniquity in or around March 1964. I received a phone call at about 9 p.m. from Pierre saying he would be collecting me in 15 minutes to go to a party. We fetched up at Palace Court at the same time as the Shaws were climbing out of a car with Cynthia and John Lennon, who was already a bit sozzled. Inside, I remember Cynthia drinking only water, but John and Tony had Scotch. Pierre never drank, as far as I knew. I didn’t like Scotch but that’s all there was, so Tony put a Coca-Cola in it. Funny the things you remember and those you forget.

Tony and John were laughing and joking and Pat was slyly acting provocatively around the star. Pierre whispered to me that the plan was to get John Lennon into bed with Pat and he would have to distract Cynthia. I was wondering if Pierre was going to try to inveigle Cynthia into a ’situation’ with him. I remember pleading with him not to leave me with Tony, although I don’t think that Tony was inclined towards me. He got his rocks off in other ways.

Tony produced a huge reefer, and although 37 years later I cannot recall the conversation, it was understood that Lennon hadn’t tried it before. But the cool thing to do was just to take it when it was passed to you. And so he did. I can remember thinking that Cynthia, who was very subdued, was unhappy that John wanted to smoke the dope.

“Don’t have any more,” she said when Tony poured yet another drink for Lennon. I felt sorry for Cynthia because she plainly didn’t want to be there and had no idea, as far as I could tell, what the others had up their sleeves.

We seemed to drift into the bedroom and the inevitable blue film was put on the projector. In case you’re wondering we all still had our clothes on, although I have a picture in my mind of Pat in black bra and pants on the bed talking to John at some point. John was giggling and swaying around, and suddenly he staggered into the bathroom which was off the bedroom, and was puking into the white enamel bath.

Cynthia was quickly by his side, holding on to his juddering shoulders as he retched and heaved. It was awful. The four of us looked on in quiet bemusement. It was embarrassing to watch this huge pop phenomenon, who was a god to tens of thousands of fans, being a basic human being. Like catching the queen on a Portaloo. But we couldn’t tear our eyes away.

I thought, “Wow...John Lennon being sick in the bath...imagine.” They left pretty hurriedly after that, and Pierre took me home in a sulk.

You know what they say about the Sixties. That if you remember it you weren’t ’there.’ Most of those who were ’there’ are not here today to tell it. So in that respect I’m rather glad I wasn’t.

Copyright © 2002 Guardian Unlimited / Guardian Newspapers Limited

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