You’d think being the sons of a globally-famous, culture-defining rock star would be one of the greatest things that could happen to a kid. But for half-brothers Julian and Sean Lennon, having John Lennon as a father was very different. Born 12 years apart, their childhoods were the complete opposite of each other. And even after the star’s death, the pair still had many struggles to overcome.
As kids, Julian was perhaps best known for inspiring the song “Hey Jude,” one of the Beatles best-known hits. While Sean’s earliest taste of individual fame came with his appearance in Michael Jackson vehicle Moonwalker. Together, though, they are without doubt most famous for being the sons of pop legend John Lennon, one of the founding members of The Beatles.
However, being born over a decade apart and with different moms, Julian and Sean had very different upbringings on different sides of the Atlantic. Both essentially grew up without a father, albeit for very tragic reasons in the younger sibling’s case. He was just five-years-old when his father was assassinated outside their home.
John was shot outside New York’s Dakota Building in December 1980. The apartment building housed the family’s main residence and has since become a shrine to the murdered rocker. And believe it or not, Sean still calls it home.
While Sean was just five-years-old at the time of his dad’s death, Julian was a teenager of 17. And while losing a parent can often increase the strength of sibling bonds, that simply wasn’t the case here. In fact, John’s death made their relationship all the more unusual.
That isn’t to say that the half-brothers’ relationship wasn’t already slightly unusual. And perhaps given the crazy nature of the life of a pop legend, that odd bond is understandable. Having helped take the Beatles to super-stardom, John left the band in 1969, just seven years after their first success, and he soon went solo.
By that time, the Beatles had become the biggest band in the world, selling millions of records, packing stadiums and generally redefining what it meant to be famous. When Lennon left, essentially ending the band, teenagers the world over were distraught. And while the Fab Four were no longer, that extreme celebrity continued to follow them all.
Years before John went solo, he met Cynthia Powell in 1957 while studying at art school. It was around the same time that he encountered a young Paul McCartney, and, later, an even younger George Harrison. The couple tied the knot in 1962, before anyone had heard of the Beatles. Yup ,the famously mop-haired, gravelly-voiced musician was married the whole time he was in the band.
There’s a reason that you may not have known that John was married. And that’s because the band’s management decided to keep it a secret. Why? Well, just a few weeks after their wedding, the Beatles released their debut hit “Love Me Do,” kicking off the all-screaming, all-crying, knicker-throwing extravaganza that was Beatlemania.
The band’s enormous success with young people, in particular, girls, meant that admitting John was married might put off large swathes of their target audience. So it was decided that no one would ever mention the nuptials, or his wife. Even Cynthia was told to never admit to being the star’s other half.
So when Cynthia became pregnant with Julian, she was forced to wear baggy clothes to hide her baby bump in public. The couple’s son was born in 1963, just as the Beatles’ fame was hitting its towering heights. As such, he and his mom were installed in John’s country manor, Kenwood Estate.
Located just outside London, the estate housed a palatial home, something that Cynthia told Fresh Air was par for the course back then. She said, “The first thing you do is, if you’re a pop star and you’ve got a lot of money, you buy a mansion.” And of course, for a small boy, living in a country manor was a dream come true.
Julian remembers the family’s time together at the estate fondly. As he told The Guardian in 2020, the atmosphere in the house was electric. “A lot of the happy memories of my father are from the late 1960s at Kenwood. Without knowing it, I probably saw some of the greatest musicians in the world come and go through that house.”
But it wasn’t just the world famous musicians that made Julian’s time at Kenwood special. “At the time, my dad had his famous psychedelic Rolls-Royce Phantom V, which I adored because it had a record player in the back,” he added. Posh cars notwithstanding, there were other reasons for the young boy to love his countryside home.
Julian recalled, “As a kid, I thought my dad was pretty happy – with the family, the family home and his place in the world.” So blissful was the atmosphere that Julian ended up with a permanent nickname. “At Kenwood, my father and I were close… although my first name is also John, I started to get called Julian or Jules, since when my mom would shout, ‘John, your dinner’s ready!’ both my dad and I would react.”
Despite the family bliss that Julian described, his mom Cynthia had a slightly different perspective. During the Fresh Air interview, she revealed how difficult being married to a Beatle could be. “We saw very little of [John]. And when he did come home, he was so exhausted and so tired and so overwhelmed by the pressures of the outside world that… all he wanted to do was collapse.”
Perhaps inevitably, the couple’s marriage began to deteriorate and broke down altogether after John met Yoko Ono. But the split wasn’t particularly well-planned. As Cynthia told Fresh Air in 1985, “[Ono] had been staying with John that night and I came home and they were there. Which was sort of curtains for our marriage, as far as all of us were concerned, really.”
At just five-years-old, Julian had a completely different perspective on his parents’ 1968 split. As he put it, “Suddenly, my dad disappeared off the face of the planet. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.” But that wasn’t the only result of John’s leaving as far the little boy was concerned. “I felt as if my mom and I had been cast aside,” he told The Observer.
And those ramifications would last for many years. Julian revealed to The Observer just how long it took for the father and son to reconnect after the 1968 divorce. “Maybe ten years passed during which my dad and I barely spoke. I was very angry about how he left the family.”
Cynthia eventually persuaded Julian to talk to his father. And they repaired their relationship to the point that the youngster spent some holidays at John’s home in New York, where he’d moved in 1971. Around that time, he recalls that the former Beatle gave him a guitar for his birthday. But once again this bliss would be somewhat short lived.
John and Yoko married in 1969, the same year that the Beatles split. And the couple’s only child, Sean, came into the world in 1975. John essentially retired during this period, becoming a stay-at-home dad for the first few years of his youngest son’s life. The contrast between the two boys’ early childhoods, though, was plain for all to see.
Sean himself has many happy memories of the dad John could be. Unusually for the time, Ono spent long hours working, leaving the pair with plenty of father-son time. As he told Rolling Stone magazine, the former Beatle had a playful attitude. “I have a lot of memories of just talking with him, hanging out and watching TV. He loved The Muppet Show.”
But there was a dark side to having John present all the time. For a start, Sean wasn’t allowed to watch TV adverts – at all. And he also wasn’t allowed any sugar. That meant no soda or candy. But, it seems, the star also had some anger issues. “I have some less than happy memories, too. Of him screaming at me.”
Sean went on to Rolling Stone, “[My dad] definitely had a violent temper. He would get angry sometimes. And when he did, that voice that was soothing would become like a knife.” But it wasn’t just John’s youngest son that saw the dark side of his personality. His wife likely experienced it, too.
As Sean explained, “Like, that song ‘Cool Chick Baby,’ that’s all about him having sex with some girl at a party where my mom was. He was a macho pig in a lot of ways and he knew it.” And stories like that left their own impression on the young man. “When I think back on those events, and hear about them, I think of my dad as being a huge a**hole.”
With Sean’s arrival and Julian thousands of miles away from his father, the teenager did his best to maintain what relationship they had. As reported by the Daily Express, Julian told the BBC that during those final few years, things were improving, albeit from a distance. “Dad and I had been getting on and speaking a lot more on the phone, when I was sort of 15, 16, 17.”
Then in 1980, John made some public comments about his children that caused some eyebrow raising. Always one for outlandish, comical statements, during an interview with Playboy magazine, the musician claimed there was a big difference between the two boys. “Ninety percent of the people on this planet, especially in the West, were born out of a bottle of whiskey on a Saturday night, and there was no intent to have children.”
John went on, “So, 90 percent of us – that includes everybody – were accidents. Julian is in the majority, along with me and everybody else.” But where the star’s second son was concerned, that simply wasn’t the case. “Sean is a planned child, and therein lies the difference.” Wow.
Within weeks of making those comments, John’s life was tragically cut short in New York. At the time, Julian was a 17-year-old teenager, while Sean was just five-years-old. And while distance and age made a relationship between them difficult, what was to follow made it nigh on impossible. For reasons unexplained, the former Beatle left his entire estate to his youngest son and second wife. Julian got almost nothing.
The details of the will were mostly kept secret, but as of 1998 the Lennon Estate was worth around $300 million. All told, Julian got $3,000 per year as part of his mom’s divorce settlement, plus a trust fund of $65,000, accessible when he turned 25. He later sued Ono for a larger inheritance and was awarded an undisclosed sum. But the legal wrangling meant that the brothers still couldn’t really be friends.
And more pain was to come. Because Julian also revealed in 1998 that he’d had to buy back some of his dad’s possessions as he wasn’t left or given anything to remember John by. As you might imagine, the older brother was angry and hurt by the treatment he’d received from his father.
In the meantime, both brothers independently went into music. Julian had a brief but successful solo career, including two U.K. top ten hits and a U.S. number one in the mid 1980s and early 1990s. While he might not have been as big as the Beatles, the young Lennon definitely held his own.
Sean, too, became a successful musician both as a band member and solo artist. He also writes soundtracks and produces other acts. And as the decades have worn on, relations appear to have been thawing for a while. In 2019 Julian told radio station Sirius XM, “I think the key point to all this for me has been Sean.”
Julian went on, “I love Sean so much, I just don’t want to hurt him. I can get over it. I have got over it.” Sean, too, has been warming to his older brother for some time. As he told reporters recently, “Julian is the reason I started playing music. Because when I was a kid, when his first record, ‘Vallotte’ hit the charts, it was the biggest thing.”
But just as the brothers had begun to warm to each other, it seems they’d also learned to forgive their dad his transgressions. As Julian told CBS News in 2009, “With Dad running off and divorcing mom, I had a lot of bitterness and anger I was living with. I realized if I continued that [way] towards my dad, I would have a constant cloud hanging over my head my whole life.”
Plus Sean has come to terms with the duality of John’s genius, explosive personality. He told Rolling Stone magazine, “I miss my dad. Sometimes he would yell at me for no f****ing reason. [But] the reality was, he was my dad. I miss him everyday. I don’t miss John Lennon the persona. What I miss is the guy who put me on his shoulders and we walked on the beach together.”
These days, it seems that the brothers share a different type of bond. Not just that they have the same father. Nor is it that they’ve both lost that father. Rather, it’s that their father was a Beatle and a man for whom family often proved difficult. Talking to the BBC, Sean explained, “When you’re going through it, it’s weird, but you don’t really have a perspective on how strange it is to be John’s son.”
Or as Julian succinctly described their situation during the same interview, “The other thing is, we don’t know any different.” Despite all the turmoil and tragedy of their early years, the pair appear to have landed in a much happier, brotherly place. In fact, the siblings are about as loved up as it’s possible to be.
Julian continued to explain to the BBC, “More than anything, I’m just glad that we’re here, you and I love each other and are able to connect and talk so openly about any of this stuff… You are my family.” And Sean, it seems, feels the same way. He replied, “I know. [You’re] the only brother I’ve got.” That comment almost reduced the older sibling to tears. “Don’t get me crying over here!”
So both Lennon brothers have been successful musicians in their own right. But they also followed in some of their father’s other footsteps. Because both are vocal activists and campaigners for civil right and climate change action, raising money and awareness through film and charitable trusts. As far as chips off the old block go, the former Beatle could have done much, much worse.