Original publish date: November 17, 2011 Reissue date: June 20, 2019
The last couple of weeks have witnessed yet another sign of the staying power of the Beatles as a couple of items hit the auction block at two different auction houses in Great Britain. One of them is historically significant while the other is slightly creepy.
On Saturday November 5th, the tooth fairy was denied when a tooth belonging to former Beatle John Lennon was sold by Omega Auction House in Cheshire England. (Admit it, an image of Austin Powers saying “Yeah, baby” just flashed through your mind.) Americans have long parodied the English and their bad teeth. The thought of actually paying money for the tooth of anyone, let alone a Beatle, may repulse and revile you. However, 49-year-old dentist Michael Zuk from Calgary, Alberta, Canada thought enough of the relic to plunk down $ 31,200 to own it.
Zuk, a crusading whistle-blowing dentist and author of the 2010 book, “Confessions of a Former Cosmetic Dentist”, has practiced dentistry in the Canadian town of Red Deer for 25 years. He admitted he hoped the high profile tooth purchase might draw attention to his book. He said Lennon’s tooth is another example of how even celebrity’s teeth can be imperfect. “It’s visibly rotten and contains a large hole, Zuk said, adding it’s likely a second or third molar from the lower part of Lennon’s mouth. I’m guessing Lennon may have had an acid reflux problem caused by the rock star lifestyle.” says Dr. Zuk. “That’s my speculation, he had a stomach problem that caused a massive cavity.” Zuk said. The Doctor says he’s already making plans to take it on tour and show it off at dental schools worldwide. He added it could be used for future research. “The nerve of the tooth is dried up and inside,” he said. “But that’s where DNA would be if in the future people are interested in trying to clone John Lennon.”
The molar, slightly yellowed with heavy coffee stains and a large cavity, was given to Dorothy “Dot” Jarlett, John Lennon’s housekeeper for half-a-decade. The story goes that one day Lennon encountered the housekeeper in the kitchen of his Kenwood home in Weybridge, Surrey. John, having just returned home from a trip to the dentist, gave Dot the tooth wrapped in a piece of paper and asked her to dispose of it for him. Then John paused for a moment and suggested that Dot give it to her daughter as a souvenir, since she was such a huge Beatles fan. Dot Jarlett’s daughter cherished the sacred relic and when she married a Canadian, she brought her Beatle biting bicuspid into the marital union. The tooth has been “living” in Canada for all but a couple of the last 45 years.
Dot Jarlett, who was employed by Lennon from 1964 to 1968, developed a warm relationship with John. Lennon’s mother died in an automobile accident less than a decade before when Lennon was just 17-years-old. He was in his mid-twenties and Dot was in her mid-forties during their association. Undoubtedly, Dot filled a void in Lennon’s life as a much needed maternal figure during her employ, thus strengthening the connection between the two. Dot’s son Barry told BBC News, “He treated her like family because he didn’t really have a very big family and he really looked after my mum. He used to call her Aunty Dot.”
While “Aunty Dot” is selling the tooth, she plans to keep a leather wallet and a pearl necklace Lennon gave to her after returning from a concert tour of Japan. Lennon gave the Jarlett family many gifts over the years. A few years ago, Dot sold the jacket worn by John on the “Rubber Soul” album cover, also given to her by Lennon. Dot, who is now 90-years-old, said it was the right time to pass it on rather than to risk the tooth getting lost. Auction house experts have determined that the tooth is too fragile to conduct a DNA test but they have no doubt about its authenticity and point to the impeccable provenance that accompanies it.
Of course, this isn’t the first Rock-N-Roll body part to be sold at auction. In 2009, a clump of hair trimmed from Elvis Presley’s head after he famously joined the Army in 1958 sold for $18,300 at Chicago’s Leslie Hindman auction house. Lennon, who was a huge fan of the King, would be pleased to share that stage.
Less sensational, but undoubtedly more historically significant, 10 days later on Tuesday November 16, 2011, a placard for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 “Bed-In for Peace” sold for $155,892 by Christie’s International auction house in London. The winning bid for this anti-Vietnam War movement relic came from an unidentified phone bidder. The handwritten cardboard rectangular sign featured the slogan: “BED PEACE” and could be seen behind John & Yoko in the window directly behind them when they spent seven days occupying rooms in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada.
The Montreal bed-in came two months after the couple’s honeymoon bed-in in Amsterdam and was their take on a sit-in. Lennon’s idea was for protesters to stay in bed and grow their hair rather than doing anything violent. The couple opened their hotel room door to the world’s media and spoke to journalists, politicians and artists trying to promote the idea of peace in the world. They also found time to record the anthem Give Peace a Chance. Many artworks and placards were created over the week and were moved around and given away but the Bed Peace sign was a constant.
The placard, signed and dated by the couple, was acquired by a sound engineer who attended the event. He passed it on to a colleague, whose family kept the relic safe ever since. The message “BED PEACE” was scrawled in black ink on a piece of plain manila colored foam board. The two words were outlined and then colored in with black felt tip by John Lennon himself. John and Yoko produced many artworks during the event but this was one of only two kept prominently above the bed (The other was a sign that read “Hair Peace”). Many were moved around the room and some were given away to friends and fans. However, the sign sold at the Christie’s auction was displayed in the window of the Montreal hotel room (Suite 1742) for the couple’s entire stay. It can be seen in nearly every picture taken of the pajama-bathrobe clad couple as they called for an end to the Vietnam War. The sign includes John’s self doodled mini-portrait of the newlyweds and is signed by both Lennon and Ono.
The sign is not the only item from the Montreal “Bed-In” to be auctioned by the famed auction house recently. On July 10, 2008, Lennon’s hand-written lyrics for “Give Peace a Chance” sold for $800,000 at Christie’s. When Lennon gave teenager Gail Renard his scribbled lyrics to “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969, he told her to hold on to the cue card. “It will be worth something someday,” predicted Lennon. She did, and it was.
Renard, a teenage fan who sneaked past security guards, was among the first to arrive. She befriended Lennon, helped look after Ono’s young daughter, Kyoto, and made copies of the song Lennon wrote during the “bed-in” so their friends could read the lyrics and record it in the room. “It was a bit ‘Mission Impossible,'” Renard recalled. “It was back up back staircases and fire escapes and waiting until the security guard — until nature called — and the moment he went away, running in, knocking on the door, and Yoko answered, and I said, ‘Could we have an interview for a school magazine?’ and she said, ‘Yes’! ” They were wonderful. We were lucky. It was before the world’s press got in, and they had just arrived, and John was very tired and hungry, and they couldn’t get room service yet, and I had a Hershey bar in my handbag, and I said, ‘Would you like a chocolate bar?’ And he went, ‘Yes, please.’ And we bonded over a Hershey bar! … He was a lovely man.”
The lyrics, she added, were “on my wall originally, but then somebody pointed out, ‘Is it really wise keeping it on your wall”‘ And it became a responsibility, because it had to go into a vault and things, and I thought, ‘It should be enjoyed. It has to be enjoyed and seen, and remember why John wrote it in the first place. John and Yoko did it for love and peace.'” Renard, now a British-based TV writer and presenter, developed a lifelong friendship with Lennon, who helped launch her journalism career by placing an article she wrote about the bed-in in the Beatles Monthly magazine. The actual recording of “Give Peace a Chance” took about five minutes. It became a worldwide hit after it was touched up in the studio. A number of famous guests, including Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Tommy Smothers, sang on the record, which went to No. 14 on the Billboard charts. The song is a simple, casual affair recorded without any of the Beatles’ typically high level of musicianship and artistry, but the phrase “Give Peace a Chance” has entered the popular lexicon, surviving long after Lennon’s death in 1980.
Who’d have thought that a cue card, a sign or a tooth could be worth so much money? There was no such thing as rock memorabilia back in 1969. Who could have predicted what a big business Rock-N-Roll would become?