More than five decades after the British invaded American music, interest in The Beatles still speeds down a long and winding road. A new landmark on that journey opens at the Peace Center this month, with John Lennon, The Mobster, & The Lawyer. “It’s a terrific story. It’s John’s story. It’s never been told. There have been articles written here and there, but nobody’s gotten it right, because nobody had the contact that I did with him,” says Jay Bergen, the lawyer—the only one of the three still alive—and does he have a story to tell.

Photography by Paul Mehaffey

February 1975 / Midtown Manhattan

Long Island native Jay Bergen was gaining stature at Marshall, Bratter, Greene, Allison & Tucker. The Fordham University grad had been at the firm several years, after practicing law both in New York and St. Croix. All in all, his career was going well, especially for someone who’d entered law school not knowing much about the profession beyond what he’d seen on Perry Mason. “I was a history major,” he reveals with a chuckle. “It was my senior year of college and it dawned on me, I wasn’t qualified to do anything! I’d taken an aptitude test that said I could be a good writer or lawyer. So, I said, ‘That sounds like a good idea.’”

Jay’s firm was representing John Lennon in a personal-injury lawsuit, involving an audience member who’d fallen off a ladder during a TV show. While pushing paper for that case, the litigator learned of another brewing and asked to get involved. Lennon had found himself off-beat with Morris Levy, a notorious powerhouse in the music publishing industry with mob connections. Levy owned the rights to a Chuck Berry song Lennon admittedly used as inspiration for the opening in “Come Together” (“Here come ol’ flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly”). To repay Levy, Lennon verbally agreed to record three songs. But what happened (and didn’t happen) after that promise turned into a federal case with a potential $42 million judgment against the former Beatle.

Senior partners tapped Jay to work the lawsuit, even countersue. Bergen found himself in a meeting with record company executives when Lennon entered the room, and they met for the first time. “He made the decision early—he was not going to settle this,” Jay recalls. “He really wanted to get rid of Morris, because he thought Morris was going to be an albatross around his neck, and he was a crook. He was wired into the mafia. He was a bad, bad guy.” The artist and attorney were just two years apart in age. On the way down in the elevator, a bond formed that lasted until the day Lennon died.

(L-R) Lawyer Howard Roy, John Lennon, lawyer Harold Seider, Yoko Ono and lawyer James Bergen eating dinner at Sloppy Louie’s, NYC. January 30, 1976. Bob Gruen, www.bobgruen.com

Merging Myth & Man

Jay spent the next year preparing his client for the case. He and Lennon—who, despite performing before millions, was quite shy—shared walks in Central Park, limo rides, and sit-downs at the Dakotas. “He was smart. He was witty. He was very, very bright and had a great sense of humor,” Jay recollects. “We were always cracking jokes. I remember him saying one day, his son Julian was into some band called Queen. And he asked, ‘Does anyone know anything about a band called Queen?’” Jay remembers the day he was invited up to the apartment to meet Lennon’s wife. “Yoko was very interesting. She wore black a lot, long flowy stuff,” he says. “She was more business-oriented than John. Like any artist, singer/songwriter, he wasn’t that interested in business, but he was a terrific witness.

The case was not a sure thing, but Lennon lifted Jay’s confidence. “He really listened when I prepared him to testify in deposition or trial. He had a very good memory, and he understood the problem, and was really offended that Morris was doing this. His testimony about how The Beatles learned to make records was just fascinating.” Multiple rulings later, Levy ended up owing Lennon thousands of dollars.

March 2017 / Saluda, North Carolina

Banker’s boxes filled with 5,000 pages of transcripts and notes from the case stood stacked in the back of Jay’s garage in Saluda. They’d survived multiple moves and marriages. Just over a year ago, the retired litigator lifted the lids, with thoughts of writing a book. Conversations led to a collaboration with director Catherine Gillet and a multimedia, one-man show that sold out three nights at the Tryon Fine Arts Center last March. “It’s John’s story. People don’t know who they [John and Yoko] really are. It’s partially my story about the case and my relationship with John. Who John was during that period of time from early 1975–77.”

Lennon really wanted to get rid of Morris, because he thought Morris was going to be an albatross around his neck, and he was a crook. He was wired into the mafia. He was a bad, bad guy.—Jay Bergen

 

The show ends with Lennon’s murder, outside the iconic building where Jay used to visit his friend. The attorney’s eyes brim with tears as he shares, “When he was killed, it was a real blow. Double Fantasy? I have the album, but you know, I’ve never listened to it.” Jay admits he gets emotional during the intimate storytelling on stage. “He was cut off in the prime of his life. Who knows what he could have accomplished, not only in terms of music, but because he was such a peaceful person. He was so interested in peace. All you have to do is listen to “Imagine” and you know what he was all about.”

Memories flood back—seeing The Beatles in concert for the first time in ’64 at Forest Hills, laughter-filled-lunches at Sloppy Louie’s by the Seaport, meetings with Yoko after John’s death. The widow recently sent Jay a message through a friend, wishing him luck with the show. “You know, I never asked him about The Beatles. I never mentioned that. I treated him like any other client, with openness, kindness, and respect. We just talked, and we laughed,” he says. Audiences are now able to laugh, and cry, hearing how Lennon and his lawyer beat a mafia man in court, and became close friends in the process.

Jay Bergen will share his story at John Lennon, the Mobster & the Lawyer at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre on Thursday, August 2, at 7 p.m.