You may have heard the story before: In the early 1970s, ex-Beatle John Lennon took a sabbatical from his marriage to Yoko Ono. He took up with the family's personal assistant, May Pang, and spent the next year and a half getting his wandering ways (and his fondness for intoxicants) out of his system.
Judging by the many accounts of his friends and peers, it was one of the happiest times in his life. But a quote from Lennon calling his relationship with Pang "the lost weekend," as well as Ono's insistence that she orchestrated the entire event, gave many the impression that it was just a drunken fling. And that has remained a thorn in Pang's side.
"Everybody was talking about it, and everybody was [putting] their two cents in about my relationship," Pang remembers. "And I've had people say to me, 'Well, aren't you happy enough? That you know that you did this?' I say, 'No, it's not enough.' I don't like the idea that somebody else is taking credit for me. I'm not trying to take away from other people. I'm just saying, 'This is mine. Give me my dues.'"
Not that Pang herself hasn't told her story before. She has reiterated it time and again in interviews since her 1983 book, Loving John, but never as extensively as in her documentary, The Lost Weekend: A Love Story, which premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and is now available on screening platforms.
On Friday, February 16, Pang is coming to South Florida for her three-day pop-up exhibition, "The Lost Weekend: The Photography of May Pang," at Keshet Gallery in Boca Raton. Visitors can meet Pang in person and view her adventures with Lennon through her lens in the form of a collection of photos she took over the course of their relationship.
"What you see in these photos, it's really through my eyes," Pang says. "You see our life and how I saw him."
Pang grew up in East Harlem, where her parents had moved from China. Her father was very traditional and wanted a son; he adopted one while acting "like a tyrant" to Pang, she recalls. She took comfort in her mother, who was very independent and owned a laundry, as well as in rock music. And like most girls in the '60s, she loved the Beatles.
"I always wanted to be in the music business, because music was really in my soul. It saved me from a lot of the strife," Pang says. In 1969, she went to an employment agency to find work in any capacity. The agency sent her to a bicycle store for a receptionist position. After the interview, "I met my girlfriend, who was waiting for me downstairs," Pang recalls. "And she said, 'Do you know that Apple Records is here?' I said, 'What do you mean?' And I looked in the directory, and sure enough, there was Allen Klein's office and Apple Records."
Pang told her friend that she was going to go to Apple to ask for a job. "She says, 'You're nuts!' I said, 'What are they going to say to me? If they say no, I'm still where I am.' So I went up and got off on the 41st floor," she recounts.
"This woman looked at me and she goes, 'Can I help you?' I'm looking around because I'm looking for anything about the Beatles. And I said I was looking for a job. 'Oh,' she said, 'I don't think anything's here.' I said, 'Okay.' And she's looking at me again, saying, 'Um, is there something that's on your mind?' I said, 'I was wondering if the Beatles ever showed up here!' She just chuckled."
Then, the doors behind the woman's desk opened, and record executives began filing out for their lunch. "She happened to yell out, 'This woman's looking for a job!' And they told me to come back after lunch," Pang says.
She was 18 and landed a job at Apple, where she took on any and every task. In December 1970, Lennon and Ono came to the offices and enlisted Pang to assist on Ono's avant-garde films, Up Your Legs Forever and Fly. Pang then accompanied Lennon and Ono to London, where she saw him play "Imagine" for the first time. After the trip, Lennon and Ono asked her to become their full-time assistant, and Pang did everything from taking calls to running errands, working from an office in their famed apartment at the Dakota in Manhattan.
Issues between the spouses were becoming more prevalent when, one day in 1973, Ono approached Pang and asked her if she would become Lennon's girlfriend. Pang says she refused several times, noting that he was her employer, not to mention married to her other employer. But Ono was insistent. After she protested one last time, saying, "I won't," Pang remembers Ono replied, "Yes, you will," and walked out of the room.
Pang emphasizes that Ono was not the reason for the relationship; however, she says nothing would have happened if Lennon hadn't started pursuing him. She was helping him record Mind Games, and the two began flirting in the studio until finally Lennon kissed her. The first time they spent the night together, she woke up to him playing a song he wrote for her: "Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)."
After dating for a while, the new couple left for Los Angeles to promote Mind Games and work on other projects, as well as to find solace away from Ono. But even across the country, that could be hard. "She never stopped calling us. She says that John called her. It's the other way around. She called us all the time. It was the first phone call in the morning, and she called not once, not twice, but sometimes ten times a day, about nothing, for no reason," Pang says.
"I know that she told somebody she thought that our relationship was only going to be a two-week fling," she adds. "And when she realized it wasn't going to be a two-week fling, she was panic-struck."
At one point, "Yoko called John and asked for a divorce," she remembers. "He agreed, and she didn't expect that...but she then said the stars weren't right."
Meanwhile, Pang and Lennon were living the high life — and throughout, she snapped candid photos.
Each picture in her collection has a particular whimsical mystique to it, an image of such a famous individual whose life was so microscopically documented, yet in a moment no one would otherwise know about. The couple traveled often, and on a road trip around Las Vegas, they stopped at a ghost-town roadside attraction. No one treated Lennon as anyone different, Pang recalls, and she took a photo of him posing in front of a motorcycle — which made her realize he was wearing her jeans.
"I remember John looking at my stuff, and he goes, 'Let me see some of these photographs you've taken of me.' Then he told me, 'I don't like photo shoots...because I look at myself and I don't like the way I look,'" Pang recalls. "But then he goes, 'I like the way you portray me.'"
One particularly sweet photo shows John and Julian together on one of their beach trips. Pang, Lennon, and his son took a neighbor's boat out with some other kids, and after a short and ineffective swim lesson from Lennon, Pang sat on the boat and began to take pictures. "That clip on the boat, I just thought of Julian just sitting next to his father, and I thought, 'What a lovely photograph for Julian,'" Pang remembers. "My thought was always for Julian to have this of him with his father. I took a series of those, of the two of them. But the ones of Julian in the water with his father and the other kids and John swimming — it was the happiest moments. The happiest moments."
Pang and Julian, who has praised her in numerous interviews and throughout the documentary, still speak frequently. His most recent album, 2022's Jude, even uses one of the photos she took of him. "When I look back, one of the things I'm most proud of is reuniting Julian with his dad," Pang says.
She adds that her photos show that Lennon wasn't what the public perceived him to be. "He's not miserable. He's not drunk," she insists. "I saw someone who once said, 'John can't be that drunk to be doing all this work in this time frame.' He did more work in our time together than he did in any time of his solo career."
That included his collaborations with Elton John (Lennon played live for the first time since 1966 with John in 1974, on the condition that Pang be in a spot where he could see her) and his records Mind Games, Walls and Bridges, and his final solo effort, Rock 'n' Roll, all of which Pang helped record.
Pang also witnessed the moment that would make any Beatlemaniac swoon: During a Rock studio session at their place in Santa Monica, Paul McCartney and his wife, Linda, came by. It was the two rock stars' first time seeing each other after five years of fighting, and they greeted each other as old friends. They jammed together that night, with Stevie Wonder joining in, Pang and longtime Beatles road manager Mal Evans on tambourine, and Linda on organ.
At that house, Pang took the last known photo of the two Beatles together. "When they saw each other, it was like they hadn't left," she remembers. "When we were back in New York, our first visit was Paul and Linda. And every time they were in town, they stopped by."
Paul wasn't the only Beatle with whom John reunited. "It was George Harrison that turned around and said to John, 'I'm glad she's with you,' pointing to me as I'm sitting there," Pang says, recalling when Harrison visited them during his 1974 Dark Horse tour. "And then he looked at me, and he says, 'I'm glad you're with him.' So it was really lovely...George had not seen him in a long time."
Later, in '74, Lennon and Pang moved back to New York, where they found an apartment together on East 52nd Street overlooking the river and made a room for Julian. Pang was 23 years old. "It was a joy and pleasure," Julian recalls in the documentary. "It was just Dad and May and happy, happy times."
While Lennon was recently sober, his spirits were high; he was busy making music and doing more interviews than ever before. While he once derided his time with the Beatles, he was now responding, "You never know," when asked if the band would ever reunite.
And there was domestic bliss, as well, which is clear in Pang's photographs. Everything was shaping up for a happy life. Pang says she and Lennon were looking at houses in Montauk in February 1975, and they were also planning a trip to New Orleans to visit Paul and Linda. "Writing-wise, he was ready to write with Paul again," she recalls.
Then, everything changed with a single phone call.
Lennon didn't return to his apartment with Pang that night or the next — or ever again. She kept calling Ono, who wouldn't answer.
Finally, she was able to get through to Ono. Pang told her Lennon had a dentist appointment, which apparently was something she knew would get Ono to let him out of the house. Pang went to the dentist that day to meet Lennon in person, but he looked "dazed," she recalls.
"John's going, 'Yoko's allowed me to come home.' And I said, 'Really? So where does that leave us?' He goes, 'It's because she thinks it's better for my immigration,'" Pang remembers. "I just looked at a guy that I did not recognize at that moment. We had already told lawyers that we were interested in buying a house out in Montauk. So everything just stopped. Everything halted."
But Pang and Lennon did stay in touch, and she says she saw him "quite often." In their phone conversations, she would always ask if he was okay, and his one-word responses were unconvincing. "But I didn't press it," Pang recalls. "I just wanted to be sure he was okay. And I would always ask, 'Are you talking to Julian?' Because to me that was very important. If nothing else, I wanted to make sure that he and his son were still in contact."
The last time they spoke was months before he was assassinated, Pang says. "He called me from South Africa, from Cape Town, in 1980, and he just wanted to talk. He said, 'I'm trying to figure out a way to come so that we can get together.' He just told me how much he missed me."
Lennon was killed on December 8, 1980. Pang went on to marry David Bowie producer Tony Visconti in 1989; they had two children and divorced in 2000.
"There's no closure with me and John," she says. "That's the bottom line to that."
Putting the collection together took her years, and business partner Scott Segelbaum has helped organize exhibitions in various cities. "He's been wonderful. He says, 'You don't really have to do anything, but we're going to give people an experience. And the experience is the photographs that are there, but it's also going to be your story because you're there, talking to these people. You're going to give it to them because you're first-person, you're the actual person who was with John,'" Pang says.
"That's what all these pictures represent," she concludes. "It's him. John."
"The Lost Weekend: The Photography of May Pang." 3 to 8 p.m. Friday, February 16; noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, February 17; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, February 18; at Keshet Gallery, 8214 Glades Rd. (in Lakeside Centre), Boca Raton; 561-359-7918; keshetgallery.com. All photographs are available for purchase; Pang asks that guests not bring outside works for autographs.