‘Mind Games’ with John Lennon at the New York City Bar Association

The New York City Bar Association has hosted foreign dignitaries, Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, and Presidents of the United States. But perhaps no guest of the City Bar was as famous in his own time as the Beatle John Lennon, who held a press conference here on April Fools’ Day in 1973.

Lennon had legions of adoring fans, but his outspoken criticism of the war in Vietnam also earned him some powerful enemies, including President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. On the suggestion of Senator Strom Thurmond, Hoover and Nixon had conspired in classified correspondence to have Lennon’s visa terminated as a “strategic countermeasure” to his increasingly vocal criticism of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. At their urging, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began deportation proceedings against Lennon in 1972, arguing that a 1968 misdemeanor conviction for possession of hashish and marijuana resin disqualified him from permanent residency. On March 23, 1973, Lennon was notified that he had 60 days to leave the country.

On April 1, Lennon appeared before an eager press in the City Bar’s Stimson Room, wearing a bead-and-coin necklace and a badge reading “Not Insane,” in support, he said, of the “National Surrealist People’s Party.” With his wife, Yoko Ono, and his lawyer, Leon Wildes, by his side, Lennon claimed that the immigration ruling was “strange” and “not humane,” and expressed his desire to stay in the United States with his wife. Yoko, he said, had taught him that the U.S. was “a place to be in, rather than just scoot in and out with the loot.” He then produced a “birth announcement” for Nutopia, “a new conceptual country with no laws other than the cosmic,” where anyone could be a citizen merely by thinking about it. Lennon promptly declared Yoko and himself ambassadors for Nutopia and—to the amusement of the assembled media— granted them both diplomatic immunity from further deportation proceedings.

While his Nutopian diplomatic status did not hold up in court, Lennon did eventually get his green card. A court of appeals in 1975 barred the deportation order, stating that “… the courts will not condone selective deportation based upon secret political grounds.” And his April Fools’ Day stunt did earn him a few laughs. At the end of the press conference—“with a characteristic instinct for showmanship,” The New York Times noted— he produced a tissue, announcing, “this is the flag of Nutopia—we surrender, to peace and love.” Then he blew his nose in it.