50 years after ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ how Jews helped fill a Beatle’s lonely heart

LONDON — On May 25, the city of Liverpool in the northwest of England will commence celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ groundbreaking and best-selling album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

As part of the three-week Sgt. Pepper at 50: Heading For Home festival — a symbol of Liverpool’s enduring pride in its most famous export — posters will go up around the city by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller bearing slogans noting the contribution of Brian Epstein.

But Deller’s desire to ensure that Epstein, the band’s manager and so-called “Fifth Beatle” is not written out of the celebrations has an added poignancy this summer. Barely three months after the album’s release, the 32-year-old Epstein was found dead, having accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills.

The 50th anniversary of Epstein’s tragically early death provides a reminder of the Jewish threads, both professional and personal, which weave through the life of Paul McCartney, one of the Fab Four’s two surviving members. As music critic Seth Rogovoy has suggested, McCartney has displayed a half-century “love affair with all things Jewish — including collaborators, business associates, girlfriends and wives.”

The first Jewish woman in McCartney’s life was American scriptwriter Francie Schwartz. The 23-year-old flew from New York to London in 1968 after reading about the Beatles’ formation of a new multi-media company, the Apple Corps. She hoped that she might be able to interest the band in a film she had written about a street violinist and actor she had met outside Carnegie Hall.

Paul and Linda McCartney (photo credit: Henry Diltz)

On spec, she turned up at the Beatles’ offices on London’s Wigmore Street. Although McCartney was engaged to actress Jane Asher, the pair began a relationship. Asher is alleged to have returned from a filming trip to find McCartney and Schwartz in bed together.

The affair with Schwartz was not long-lasting, unlike McCartney’s marriage to Linda Eastman. Born in Scarsdale, New York, Eastman was the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants to the United States. Her father, born Leonard Vail Epstein, changed his name to Lee Eastman; his wife, Louise Sara Lindner, hailed from a German Jewish family.

Before her marriage to McCartney, Linda had established herself as an accomplished celebrity photographer. Her pictures of Eric Clapton were the first by a woman photographer to feature on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. While on assignment in London, she met McCartney at the Bag O’Nails club and snagged an invite to the launch party for the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album at Brian Epstein’s home.

A year later, with his relationships with Asher and Schwartz behind him, McCartney began dating Eastman. Their 30-year marriage — which saw Linda launch a musical career as a member of McCartney’s band Wings and co-writer on the Oscar-nominated Bond theme “Live and Let Die” — only ended with her death from breast cancer in 1998.

An entertainment lawyer, Lee Eastman was not simply McCartney’s father-in-law. With Epstein’s death, he also became McCartney’s manager. A tussle between Eastman and the former Rolling Stones manager, Allen Klein (whom John Lennon favored) helped contribute to the ill-feeling which led to the Beatles’ split in 1970.

Brian Epstein horsing around at his 30th birthday party. (Ron Joy-Belle Schwartz Estate/JTA)

McCartney’s choice of Eastman proved to be a wise one.

“Linda’s dad is a great business brain,” McCartney later said. “He said originally, ‘If you are going to invest, do it in something you know. If you invest in building computers or something, you can lose a fortune. Wouldn’t you rather be in music? Stay in music.’”

McCartney’s music publishing business — he owns the rights not only to his own material but also to that of countless others such as Buddy Holly — is one of the world’s largest privately owned and a major source of his wealth.

However, it is to Epstein that McCartney and the Beatles owe much of their success.

The Beatles -- from left, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison -- letting off steam with a pillow fight. (photo credit: Harry Benson/JTA)

As Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, suggested a decade ago, “I think Brian’s one of the forgotten people. It’s almost as if he’s been written out of the story. I don’t think they’d have got anywhere without Brian.”

Deller agrees, recently telling The Guardian newspaper of his determination that Epstein be properly recognized in this month’s Liverpool festival.

‘Without his contribution and sacrifice, the Beatles would not exist as we know them’

“Without his contribution and sacrifice, the Beatles would not exist as we know them and a lot that we take for granted in our culture would not exist either,” Deller said.

Although his grandparents were Eastern European immigrants to Britain at the turn of the 20th century, Epstein’s upbringing was solidly middle class. But, as he wrote in his autobiography, “I am an elder son — a hallowed position in a Jewish family — and a lot was expected of me.”

His teenage desire to be a dress designer was dismissed by his father, who wanted Epstein to work in the family’s furniture business and musical instrument shop. Put in charge of the record department of a new branch of the family’s North End Music Stores, Epstein grew it, and a further store, into one of the largest music stores in the north of England.

Brian Epstein, center, with George Harrison and John Lennon.

It was through that work that Epstein first heard of the then largely unknown Beatles. He went to watch them perform several times at the Cavern Club and, despite his lack of experience, approached the band and suggested he manage them.

McCartney’s father was allegedly suspicious of the “Jewboy,” though Epstein’s charm and good manners soon won him over, while the younger McCartney reportedly favored the arrangement because “Jews are good with money.”

Epstein immediately went to work on the Beatles’ image. Out went the scruffy jeans, black leather jackets and swearing and smoking on stage. In came a more wholesome look: suits, shirts and ties, and the later widely imitated mop top haircut.

‘Epstein changed the boys into clean-cut lads whom he could take home and introduce to his Yiddishe mamma’

As Ivor Davis, a journalist who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in London’s East End, suggested, “Epstein changed the boys into clean-cut lads whom he could take home and introduce to his Yiddishe mamma.”

Epstein’s determination — he encountered repeated rejections — finally landed the Beatles a recording contract several months after they signed him as their manager. It was Epstein, too, who, as the band conquered Britain, secured The Beatles a slot on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, the gateway to their American breakthrough.

Davis, who as the Daily Express’ West Coast correspondent, accompanied the Beatles on their first tour of the US in the summer of 1964, later provided a fly-on-the-wall account of the band and their manager as they hit the big time.

The Beatles getting haircuts on the set of 'A Hard Day’s Night.' (United Artists Pictures/JTA)

In public, the boys always deferentially referred to Epstein as “Mr. Epstein” or “Brian.” In private, he was simply “Eppy” or “Bri.” Lennon in particular appeared to delight in jokes at the expense of the manager being both Jewish and gay. One night, Epstein told the band he had just finished writing his autobiography.

“What is it called?” Lennon asked.

“’A Cellarful of Noise,’” replied Epstein.

“How about ‘Cellarful of Boys,’” joked Lennon.

“’Cellarful of Goys,’” Epstein responded.

“No, no,” said Lennon, “I’ve got the perfect title, ‘Queer Jew.’”

The 1962 contract between the Beatles and Brian Epstein (screen capture: Sotheby's)

On occasion, Lennon’s comedy routine would take a darker turn. Davis recalled Lennon addressing his manager as a “rich fag Jew.” On a flight to Seattle a Jewish radio reporter heard one of the band use the word “kike.” He believed the culprit was Lennon.

But Vivek Tiwary, whose best-selling 2013 graphic novel “The Fifth Beatle” is currently being turned into a Hollywood film, has a different take on Lennon’s behavior.

“He would make really rude, harsh jokes about his closest and dearest friends all the time,” Tiwary told Attitude magazine. “It was almost like a rite of passage. I think it was a test that allowed Brian to be close to John.”

That “The Fifth Beatle” is not the only film in development about him — Tom Hanks is producing a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role — underlines the recent interest in ensuring Epstein receives his due recognition.

Indeed, in 2014 — when Epstein would have celebrated his 80th birthday — he was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while the building in London’s West End from which he managed The Beatles now bears a commemorative blue plaque.

Plaque dedicated to Brian Epstein. (Flickr)

After his tumultuous 2002 marriage and 2008 divorce to model Heather Mills, McCartney appears to have found love again in the arms of a new, Jewish Lady McCartney.

In 2011, four years after their romance first became public, he married Nancy Shevell. A native of New Jersey who went to work in her father’s trucking company and served for 10 years on New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, Shevell appears to be everything McCartney’s second wife was not.

Stella McCartney at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, June 10, 2014. (British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC-BY-SA)

While Mills courted media attention, Shevell eschews it. Interviewed by the New York Observer shortly before the couple tied the knot, Shevell’s cousin, legendary American journalist Barbara Walters, was tight-lipped about her reported role as matchmaker.

“The thing about Nancy is that she doesn’t want this article,” Walters politely explained. “She doesn’t want anything to do with publicity.”

By all accounts, this has nothing to do with timidity. In a rare interview before she began dating McCartney, Shevell recounted her love of the macho trucking industry. She recalled her father’s gifts of toy trucks — she lined them up next to her Barbie dolls — as well as family days out to visit his truck terminals.

Of one man who tangled with her as she rose in the industry, she simply said: “I don’t know where he is right now but I know where I am.”

When the Observer caught up with her as she left a transit authority meeting, she had little to say about her romance with McCartney.

“It’s just not that intriguing. Not like his last marriage, which was really intriguing. I’m over 50. I work. That’s it. I haven’t been social and I have a small group of friends. There really isn’t much to talk about,” she said.

‘It’s just not that intriguing. Not like his last marriage, which was really intriguing’

Speculation in the run-up to his marriage that McCartney — a self-confessed “never very devout” Catholic — was intending to convert to Judaism proved baseless.

However, on the eve of their wedding the couple attended Yom Kippur services at the St. John’s Wood Liberal Synagogue, close to McCartney’s London home.

Despite marrying in a church, the most famous of McCartney’s three children with Linda, fashion designer Stella McCartney, identifies herself as Jewish.

“My mum was Jewish,” she told British Glamour magazine in 2002. “Maybe I’m a really bad Jew because I’m always so excited to say that I am, but I don’t live and breathe the religion.”

McCartney’s seeming love of all things Jewish has not, though, always been reciprocated.

Brian Epstein (left) with The Beatles on tour in 1964. (photo credit: AP Photo)

In 1964, Israel refused permission for The Beatles to play in the Jewish state. After lengthy deliberations, the Interdepartmental Committee for Authorizing the Importation of Foreign Artists, decided the band was likely to have “a negative influence on the [country’s] youth.”

Four decades later, however, McCartney defied the BDS movement and reported death threats and played Tel Aviv. Perhaps, as he performed before the 40,000 fans who had packed Yarkon Park, McCartney’s thoughts turned briefly to his former manager.

Although never a practicing Jew, Epstein’s will contained an intriguing request — that “all my clothes be sent directly and immediately to the State of Israel.”

For a man who adored expensive tailor-made suits, that was a sign of real love.

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