Who Killed John Lennon?

For a ten-year period starting in the spring of 1980 I bought every Beatles book I saw. The good ones, I read. The garbage, I let sit gathering dust. I never asked myself why I bought trashy Beatles books, since I obviously was wasting my good money, but the ongoing joke among my fellow Beatles collectors was that we were fans who had to have everything. I do have the consolation of not paying full price for this piece of hardbound garbage, as I distinctly remember forking over a few dollars for it at a remainders store. Yet 23 years after I bought it, I finally got around to reading Who Killed John Lennon? by Fenton Bresler.


The title is misleading, for this is not a biography of Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman. Bresler asks the question with psychological undertones, wherein he attempts to get into the mind of the killer and find out what drove him to commit murder. Bresler offers the outlandish proposition that Chapman did not act alone and was programmed or brainwashed by some unknown source to do the deed. He found the timing of the assassination–shortly after Lennon ended his self-imposed musical “retirement” and before president-elect Reagan took office–as too convenient to be merely a coincidence. Bresler believed that Lennon’s activist past in the early 1970’s was too much of a threat to the incoming Republican presidential administration. Lennon was bound to resume his political activism once he returned to public life and Chapman could only have been sent by the Reagan administration to shut him up for good. 

Thus we are given the grounds for a conspiracy of the highest order. If only Bresler had the proof to back his claims. It doesn’t help him any when he makes errors involving simple album titles: 

“It somehow did not seem to matter to the worthy dean nor to the diligent SAC [Special Agent in Charge] that the same photographs were readily available in almost every record shop in the country: they were on the cover sleeve of Lennon and Yoko’s recently released album, Two Virgins (better known in the United States as the White Album).” 

Bresler is confusing two albums, Unfinished Music No. 1. Two Virgins with The Beatles, commonly called the White Album

Further reasons to nitpick are spelling errors: 

“Yoko now issued this typed statement on her official Dakota stationary” 

and dating errors: 

“They [Chapman’s psychiatric assessments] are based on over 150 hours of taped interviews beginning on 7 January 1980 (Dr Bernard Diamond) and ending on 17 June 1980 (Dr Daniel Schwartz)”. 

If we go by these dates, both psychiatrists apparently analyzed Chapman many months before he murdered Lennon, as Lennon was assassinated in December of 1980. Bresler clearly meant 1981. If a writer is going to raise the issue of a conspiracy under the directive of a winning presidential candidate, one must present solid facts. The points I quoted are glaring errors, which undermine Bresler’s conspiracy claims by seeming careless and not being double-checked. The more errors I found, the more I wanted to shut the book and throw it into the garbage.

Bresler presents the case that Chapman was targeted by the CIA via his work at the YMCA to be trained as an assassin on-call. Bresler uses the term “programmer” to describe any number of unknown men who worked towards brainwashing Chapman to be ready at any time. Chapman would be prompted by subliminal triggers, such as The Catcher in the Rye, which, when implanted in his brain by a programmer, would be his signal to commit murder. A mysterious phone call from an unknown voice uttering only “Holden Caulfield” would be enough to trigger Chapman into committing the deed. 

One of the most despised books about Lennon is The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman. Tabloid-style and exploitative, painting Lennon as the polar opposite to his public peace-loving persona, this biography serves to dispel everything good about the man. Goldman portrays Lennon as a wife-beating homosexual pedophile crackhead and he doesn’t stop there when piling on the demonizing descriptors. However it doesn’t take much to reveal the slop-job Goldman conjured up in his own personal cauldron. Inaccuracies abound and I can attest to that because I [gasp] own this book. (Well I pretty much let you know all this in the very first sentence of this review.) Any Beatles or Lennon fan with records at hand can disprove many of Goldman’s claims simply by looking at record labels or reading the credits, and that’s just the objective side to Lennon’s life that he’s gotten wrong. How Goldman knew what went on in the privacy of the Lennons’ bedroom I do not know, but some of the claims he made were so flamboyant he would have had to bribe the flies on the bedroom walls to spill the beans in order to write what he did. In Who Killed John Lennon? Bresler made constant reference to Goldman’s book, as if he were trying to gain some kind of literary legitimacy by calling Goldman on the lies he told. Since Who Killed John Lennon? came out one year after The Lives of John Lennon, Bresler seems to be on the hunt for easy credibility points by refuting the slop. With so many references to Goldman’s biography in this sad example of investigative journalism, Bresler unfortunately yet unknowingly comes across as having done his Lennon “research” by reading merely one and only one book about John Lennon, which even at the time of publication was dismissed by even the most cynical of rock journalists. 

Goldman believed Lennon was a closet homosexual, and Bresler believes that Chapman too was a closet case. What a perfect subject to indoctrinate into becoming a murderer-for-hire: a selfless, church-going closeted gay loner who only wanted to belong and feel wanted and become famous. And Chapman certainly killed Lennon for instant fame, according to the NYC police.  

One remark about Chapman’s time in jail did not add up. Bresler claims that Chapman was isolated and on suicide watch. That very well may be, but if it was true, then the following passage seems an impossibility: 

“[Chapman] went into bitter seclusion. He would not even see Gloria, who had flown from Hawaii to be with him during the trial. Then exactly one week after Justice Edwards had accepted his plea of guilty, he telephoned Jonathan Marks to say that he was tearing his hair out. Sure enough, when Marks arrived at Rikers Island the next day, he found his client with his whole head shaved. He now shared his hospital wing with another prisoner under suicide watch whom he had asked to finish off the job with clippers and scissors.” 

Really? Prison guards would give two men under suicide watch clippers and scissors?  

For the past 23 years I had looked at Who Killed John Lennon? on my Beatles bookshelf and wondered “why did I buy that?”. I didn’t even like looking at it. Now that I have read it, it won’t be returning to its vacated gap.    

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