Friday, September 19, 2014

The fifth Beatle

Brian Epstein, legendary manager of the Beatles who died in his early 30s from a drug overdose, would have been 80 today. He lived a hectic business schedule and a complicated private life, being an active gay when homosexuality was still illegal. He left some early diaries/notebooks with his then-bodyguard and chauffeur Bryan Barrett, who sold them at auction in 2000. A good description of these notebooks and their content can be found online thanks to the auctioneers, Christie’s, and to a Beatles fan blog, A moral to this song.

Epstein was born in Liverpool into a small Jewish family on 19 September 1934. His father, Harry, was the son of an East European immigrant who had started a furniture store in the city. Brian’s mother, who everyone called Queenie, came from the successful Hyman furniture family. Brian was moved around from one boarding school to another, being expelled from some. He spent two years at Wrekin College, but then was apprenticed at 16 before joining the family firm.

After a brief spell of national service, three terms at the RADA theatre school, and some department store experience in London, Epstein returned to the family business. Harry put him in charge of the ground floor, in the family’s newly opened store (NEMS) on Great Charlotte Street, where he sold musical instruments, among other things, and gramophone records. This must have suited him because the shop soon become one of the largest music outlets in the North of England. Epstein then opened a second store in Whitechapel, not far, in fact, from the Cavern Club.

Epstein first came into contact with the Beatles (John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Pete Best) in late 1961, at the Cavern Club. By early December, he had proposed to manage them; and a first contract was signed a few weeks later in January 1962 (which sold at auction in 2008 for £240,000), and another in October. He formed a management company NEMS Enterprises before signing Lennon and McCartney to a three year NEMS publishing contract, and, within days of that, the Beatles had released their first single Love Me Do.

Despite having no previous experience of managing performers, Epstein did much to mould the Beatles dress and stage presence, and to win them a record contract. After being rejected by many record companies, he persuaded EMI to give the Beatles a deal with its Parlophone label, paying (initially) just 1p per record sold. A first recording session at EMI’s Abbey Road studios took place in June 1962. Pete Best was dismissed by Epstein soon after, and replaced by Ringo Starr, who was already well known to the others. Epstein also organised a hectic shedule of performance tours, as well as appearances for television and film. Epstein’s role in ‘making’ the Beatles has been widely acknowledged in recent years, with McCartney, for example, stating in 1998, ‘If anyone was the Fifth Beatle, it was Brian’. But, in the 1960s, when MBEs were awarded to the four Beatles he was not so honoured.

Epstein seemed to flourish in the new world of pop stars, and as busy as he was with the Beatles, he also successfully managed other groups, like Gerry and the Pacemakers, and singers such as Cilla Black. He did not settle in London until 1965, after when he bought the lease to the Saville Theatre and promoted new plays by young writers, including Arnold Wesker. His personal life, however, was one of unfettered and growing attachments to drugs, gambling, and a promiscuous homosexual life. Although it was not public knowledge until after his death in 1967, Epstein’s homosexuality was an open secret among his friends. Lennon is said to have quipped that Epstein’s autobiography (2004, and ghostwritten by his assistant), A Cellarful of Noise, should have been titled A Cellarful of Boys. Epstein died from a drugs overdose in August 1967, he was only 32 years old. Further information is readily available online at the official Brian Epstein website, Wikipedia, or The Beatles Bible.

Epstein left behind 13 notebooks written between 1949 and 1963, according to amoralto (a Beatles fan blog). Three of these (along with other memorabilia) were put up for auction, at Christie’s London, in 2000 by Bryan Barrett. Barrett (who had also made the notebooks available for a 1998 TV documentary on Epstein) was quoted as saying: ‘It is now well over 30 years since his death and I no longer feel that anyone who was close to him could be hurt by the revelations.’ The diaries fetched £3,290. The auction notes (still freely available online) included information about, and extracts from, all three diaries. Amoralto has republished these notes, and found a few extra quotes (from other notebooks) in archived newspaper articles. Here, though, is the substance of the notes provided by Christie’s in 2000.

Lot notes: ‘The insight these highly personal and tortured notes give us into Epstein’s formative years cannot be overestimated. The mental anguish his sexual orientation caused him, combined with his interest in style as evidenced by his dress and furniture designs, executed in his late teens, give fuel to the thought that Epstein was a talented man who had the misfortune to be born at the wrong time.’

First notebook (59 pages)
‘The earliest of the three notebooks begins with an entry dated October 18th, 1950 Thoughts on Things, the following six pages written in the same month give a poignant insight into sixteen-year-old Epstein’s unhappy school life at Wrekin College in Shropshire, entries include:
 - “To be a success at school one must above all be either distinctly original or good at games (all of them). Intellects of a quiet nature are at school invariably a failure. . .”
- “ ‘Playing Soldiers’ . . . in what is presumed to be an intellectual establishment is . . . futile and childish . . . and a waste of anybody’s time. . .”
- “Depression is the route of all great and important thought”
- “The majority of school boys are lyers . . . Public schools as such encourage lying however they fail to realise it.”

Epstein’s schoolboy thoughts also reflect his interest in modern art, architecture and jazz; the second half of this notebook is filled with Epstein’s pencil and ink designs for furniture, dresses, evening and day outfits and a wedding dress, on several pages Epstein also practises his flamboyant signature in blue ink.’

Second notebook (19 pages)
‘In the second notebook, written in ink in 1957 at the age of twenty-three, Epstein gives a brutally honest account of his life to date, tracing the development of his homosexuality culminating in his arrest for soliciting in 1957, in the first half entitled “Background and History” Epstein outlines the misery of his unsettled school life, moving between nine different schools, the combination of frequent poor reports and entrance exam failures generating his low self-esteem

“The matter of always attaining low marks, being bottom of the class and receiving poor reports and other factors contributed in my thinking of myself even then as a failure, dullard and inferior person . . .”

He was briefly happy in his penultimate school [Claysmore School in Somerset]: “The first half of that third term was I think perhaps the only entirely happy and contented period in my life . . .”

He discusses arguments he had with his parents regarding his artistic leanings and his desire to go to acting school rather than the family business, the personal agony he experienced whilst serving in the army during his National Service in 1952: “I venomously hated nearly everything about the army and suffered at the merciless hands of the R.S.M.”

The development of his awareness of his own latent homosexuality and the misery and mental anguish the suppression of his feelings brought him, writing that in 1954 whilst working in the family business: “My life became a succession of mental illnesses and sordid unhappy events bringing great sorrow to my family . . .”

In the final eleven pages of the notebook Epstein gives a harrowing account of how he was set-up by the police and arrested for Persistently Importuning. After the horror of this experience Epstein wrote philosophically: “I do not think I am an abnormally weak-willed person - the effort and determination with which I have rebuilt my life these last few months have, I assure you, been no mean effort. I believed that my own will-power was the best thing with which to overcome my homosexuality. And I believe my life may have become contented and I may even have attained a public success . . .”

His bitterness at the injustice of his treatment is expressed in his closing comments: “I am not sorry for myself. My worst times and punishments are over. Now, through the wreckage of my life by society, my being will stain and bring the deepest distress to all my devoted family and few friends. the damage, the lying criminal methods of the police in importuning me and consequently capturing me leaves me cold, stunned and finished . . .”

This autobiographical account, clearly written before Epstein had received a verdict, ends with instructions he would like to be followed should he be remanded or given a prison sentence, the feelings of sympathy this frank account provokes are enhanced by the dignity of his closing comment: “I must apologise for my writing which I realise is difficult to read. I was unable to procure a typewriter and my hand is nervous.” ’

Third notebook (five pages)
‘The third notebook comprises four handwritten accounts of Epstein’s visits to various cities and restaurants in 1960; in the first entry apparently written after consuming five whiskies, Epstein expresses a desire: to rid himself “of hum drum, dreary god-forsaken surburbia”; [and] for the joys of Rome and his aspirations to join “that very attractive utterly ridiculous little group that call themselves . . . the International set”. In his final entry, Epstein confesses to being robbed in Barcelona adding rather poignantly: “But, I ask, is this my fault? Yes I think because I behaved foolishly and irresponsibly.” ’

See also Lennon and Linda McCartney

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