As luxury travel writers, visiting hotels around the world, we are often met with the question, “Did you know that The Beatles stayed here?” As recently as yesterday, we met up with Mark Ricci, Hilton Hotel’s Director of Corporate Relations for the North East US and Canada, who told us that The Beatles made Hilton their home during the famous Ed Sullivan Show performance, and that, in 1971, during a stay with Yoko Ono, he penned the lyrics for “Imagine” on Hilton Hotel stationery.
As New Yorkers, we’re keenly aware of the ways in which The Beatles—and especially John Lennon (himself a New Yorker in the last years of his life) are woven into our everyday lives—and our lives of luxury.
So it was not surprising when we got a lovely congratulatory note on our new website from an old friend, May Pang.
Beatles fans will remember May as John’s companion during his Walls and Bridges days—the subject of his song, “(Surprise, Surprise), Sweet Bird of Paradox” and a music coordinating producer, photographer and memoirist who shared some of John’s most productive days in the mid to late 1970s—working with collaborators like Harry Nilsson, Ringo Star and a tantalizingly close possible but ultimately unrealized reunion with Paul.
We agreed upon El Coyote Mexican Restaurant in Forest Hills for our first “Ambassador of Luxury” interview, which turned out to be more like a simple dinner among old friends. The conversation ranged from May’s days with John to her life today as a photographer, media personality, world traveler (Liverpool is one of May’s favorite destinations besides London) and popular lecturer at Beatles events in the US and abroad.
After margaritas and munchies, we took the long and winding road to discussions of luxury and life with John. Like a proud parent, May showed us images on her cellphone of a smiling and remarkably robust Lennon from her recent book, Instamatic Karma (St. Martin’s Press). “Didn’t he look great here?” May said wistfully as we scrolled through images of the couple spending days at the pool (“John loved the water”) and playing with a young Julian Lennon, John’s son with first wife, Cynthia.
May mentioned that she’d be attending a Moody Blues concert at The Jones Beach Theater (Justin Hayward was best man at her wedding to music producer, Tony Visconti). She also had summer drinks scheduled with old friend, Eddie Money, reminding us just how entwined her life has been with the music and the musicians of our time. Even though May has had a front row seat to some of most legendary music making of our century, she’s remarkably down-to-earth—something John particularly cherished in his time with her. May’s fan base is huge and her social media following is too, so we wanted to ask questions that they would be curious to know at the same time, satisfying our own curiosity about what it was like to live in and out of hotels in the late ‘70s with one of the most famous names in music history.
ELG: You mentioned that "luxury" to you during your time with John wasn't about staying in expensive hotels or dining out, but it was sometimes just about having alone time away from fans and paparazzi. Can you talk a little bit about what "felt" like luxury to you and John back then?
MP: John enjoyed the simple things. He loved to go swimming or just lie in the sun. So when our neighbor asked us to join him and his family on his boat for the day, John jumped at the chance. The water relaxed him. He also liked taking long car rides. We drove from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, NYC to the Hamptons, or just Upstate.
ELG: You've stayed in some of the world's most known hotels both on your own and with Tony [Visconti], John and your music clients. What's your favorite hotel in the world, and why?
MP: That's tough. There are a few in different parts of the world. When I was in Hong Kong, I stayed at The Peninsula. The old world charm was fantastic. John and I loved staying at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel, too.
ELG: Do the images you took of John truly depict the feel and texture of your time back then? If not, how was the reality different from the image you made indelible?
MP: The photos of John that I took were very much John, then. He let me take them of him in our private time. They speak for themselves.
ELG: I remember that you visited China (with your Mom). Can you talk about how "luxurious" or not that felt for you on your first trip?
MP: I went to China with a friend of mine. It was a side trip in between appearances in Japan. I was the only one, at that time in my family, that wasn’t born in China and I needed to connect with my immediate relatives. My mom went years later when she wasn't afraid of the government anymore. I stayed in a luxury hotel called the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou. So different when I went to visit relatives in the countryside. I'm sure things have changed since then. I went in the winter of 1983/84 when China was just opening up to the Western World. I would love to go now and visit some of the other cities.
ELG: What is on your bucket list? Are there any places on the list that you and John always wanted to visit together?
MP: There's still many places I'd like to visit in this world...Eastern Europe, parts of Asia, Arctic and Antarctica. Also, places in North America, like Alaska and Canada. John and I wanted to visit Hawaii and also China, but he could not leave the US mainland at the time because of his immigration status. In the song, Meat City on the Mind Games album, he sang, “Well I’m gonna to China to see for myself.”
ELG: You mentioned visiting Liverpool, and being very familiar with it. Can you talk a bit about your feelings traveling there? Did you stay in the Hard Days Night Hotel? Did you feel oddly at home?
MP: I love Liverpool and the people that live there. They always give me a warm welcome, and I have some very close friends there. I stayed at the Hard Days Night Hotel a couple of years ago when my friend Freda Kelly was having a big birthday bash. Freda was the head of the Beatles' Fan Club, and worked for Brian Epstein. There was a documentary called Good Ol' Freda about that time of her life. At the hotel, I got to stay in the room where the painting on the wall depicted John and me with his son Julian. Besides Liverpool, I lived in North London for a while and I had my son there at Portland Hospital.
Having raised my kids, and being a new empty-nester, I want to go back to traveling again. I would love to take a cruise on the Mediterranean coast. Since I'm not a good sleeper normally, a cruise would lull me to sleep like in a car. I did sleep well in the South of France all those years ago. Love the food and wine!
All photos courtesy of May Pang.