by Kristin Thieling
The engraved plaque above the keyboard reads, “For Sam – Love From Yoko and John – 1979.”
The piano is an unimposing black Yamaha upright (nowhere near as impressive as the famous white grand). It sits today in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum as a part of its Beatles collection. Because, as could probably go without saying, the “John” of the inscription is John Lennon, arguably one of – if not the – most famous and influential musicians of the 20th century. “Yoko” is Lennon’s widow, the avant-garde artist and musician Yoko Ono.
Less obvious, perhaps, is “Sam,” the man who was gifted the rather large piece of musical history. He is Sam Green, the late New York art curator and socialite. Green was well known to spend much of his summer time with a collection of famous friends (the Lennons , Greta Garbo, and Robert Mapplethorpe among them) at a compound of beach homes he owned in Oakleyville, Fire Island. And it is in Oakleyville that the gift piano became a part of musical – and Fire Island – legend.
The story of Green, Lennon, Ono, and that piano is intriguing, to say the least, and ties itself into an often-forgotten part of Fire Island history. The piano – that modest upright now living in Cleveland – once made a trek across the Great South Bay to Fire Island and Sam Green’s isolated Oakleyville retreat. Shipped to the island by Yoko Ono (because, according to the museum display, she felt the “creative atmosphere at Green’s house would help inspire Lennon to write songs for their new album”), the piano served as the writing vehicle for several of the songs on Lennon and Ono’s Double Fantasy, which was released just three weeks before Lennon’s death in 1980. Ono was right: Fire Island did inspire Lennon’s creativity. Despite an overwhelmingly negative initial reception, the album has since been recognized as one of the greatest of the 1980s.
But then again, “Oakleyville was magical,” at least according to fashion show DJ Tom Dillow, who spent time at Green’s compound in the 1970s. But before we get to the magic, or the music, or the piano; before we get to friendship or the tragedy of murder, we should probably step back a bit. Because while many know of Lennon and (by extension) Ono, a relative few are as aware of Green. A descendent of Founding Father Samuel Adams, Samuel Adams Green was born in Boston in 1940. His father was Dean of Fine Arts at Wesleyan University, and he was raised to appreciate art and architecture. After only one year of college, Green quit school and moved to New York City where, at the age of 22, he was hired by avant-garde art dealer Richard Bellamy to run the front desk at Bellamy’s Green Gallery on 57th Street. A case of mistaken identity (the artist assuming that Green was the son of the non-existent “Green” who owned the gallery) led to a friendship between Sam Green and pop icon Andy Warhol who was, in 1963, searching for a place to display his works.
Within six months at the gallery (and with the help of his father), Green was able to secure a loan of some very important works of art, including Warhol pieces and Yoyoi Kusama’s “Ten Guest Table.” He installed them in the Division Art Center at Wesleyan. The collection was much-discussed, and as a result, Green’s reputation grew.
In 1965, Green became the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. His first exhibition for the museum was comprised mainly of Warhol works and was a rousing success. He left the Institute in 1967, and his creation that year of a museum exhibition featuring works by Barnett Newman, Tony Smith, and Philip Johnson was so successful that it gave him reentry into New York’s art scene, this time as a master of contemporary art installation.
A commander of publicity, Green was soon appointed a cultural advisor by New York City Mayor John Lindsay. Among his most remembered acts was the installation of a giant Easter Island Moai head on the plaza of the Seagram Building in protest of the redevelopment of an Air Force refueling station on Easter Island (the plans were later dropped).
It was through the art scene that Green came to know Yoko Ono. He once described their meeting: I had met Yoko Ono before I met John Lennon. She shared an apartment with a Japanese artist I admired called Yayoi Kusama. Yoko fancied herself an artist and whenever I went to see Yayoi, Yoko would say, ‘Sam, you have to see my new work. It is so fantastic.’ After about the sixth time I said to her, quite bluntly, ‘Yoko, I’m not interested.’
According to the Lennons, John and Yoko met in 1966, when Lennon visited a gallery in London at which Ono was preparing an exhibit. Despite the fact that Lennon was married at the time, the two began an affair. After he divorced his first wife, the couple married in March of 1969. Lennon announced his departure from The Beatles in September of that year. He and Ono had already recorded albums together, and many blamed Ono for Lennon’s decision to leave the iconic group. The band’s breakup was difficult, to say the least, and Ono suggested that she and Lennon move permanently to New York City to escape the resulting acrimony. They made the move in August of 1971, living on 55th Street, followed by the Village. In 1973, the couple moved to the Dakota on the Upper West Side.
Sam Green met John Lennon in 1974. In his memory: …I got a call from Andy Warhol. ‘Sam, you’ve got to help me,’ he said. ‘John and Yoko are insisting I introduce them to everybody in New York.’ So Andy and I put together a party for them. John and Yoko sat in the corner, not saying much to anyone. Every night after that they wanted Andy to arrange something for them. After about five days of this he called and said: ‘I just can’t do it anymore. They are so boring.’ So I took up the cause and gradually we became good friends. They regularly invited me over to their apartment in the Dakota building, and I had them over to my place, just four blocks away.”
They became such good friends, in fact, that Lennon named Green as the guardian for the couple’s young son, Sean, in the event of both his and Ono’s death. A fact which Green says, “I discovered only after his death. It was a total shock.”
Sean Lennon was born on October 9, 1975. Following the birth of his son, Lennon took a hiatus from his musical career in order to spend time with the child. That made his 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll, which consisted of ‘50s and ‘60s covers, the musician’s only album for five years (not counting the compilation collection Shaved Fish).
With nearly five years of minimal musical activity, Lennon was ready in 1979 to begin work again. Thus, the search for creativity at Sam Green’s beach compound. Thus, the piano shipped across the Bay. And thus, Fire Island’s unbelievable and irrevocable connection to musical history.
On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was killed outside the Dakota while returning home from the Record Plant recording studio with Yoko Ono. The global outpouring of grief over Lennon’s death was unprecedented. While no funeral was held, millions paused for ten minutes of silence on December 14 to honor the slain musician. 30,000 gathered in Liverpool, and over 225,000 came together in New York’s Central Park. City radio station’s suspended broadcast, offering their silence to the collective. The world was in shock and mourning.
Until his own death, Green offered only kind and loving remembrances of his slain friend. He marked the anniversary of Lennon’s murder with an annual tradition at Mortimer’s , the storied Upper East Side watering hole, which closed its doors in 1998.
As for that Yamaha upright, gifted to Green in 1979? He lent it to the New York Academy of Art, where he was a board member, in 1988 because he felt that it would be a great reputation builder (‘this piano belonged to John Lennon’). He wanted it used at limited, special events. According to Green, the piano was to remain his property, and its use by the school came with the understanding that he could reclaim it whenever he wished.
There has been debate about whether the piano was indeed on loan, or if it was actually a gift. This misunderstanding led to legal issues in 2000, when Green tried to reclaim the instrument, only to find that it had been sold for a mere $3,000 by the school.
The inscription, “For Sam – Love From Yoko and John – 1979”, was used as evidence in the resulting lawsuit.
Sam Green died on March 4, 2011. He’d spent the final years of his life working to preserve ancient art installations from such global locations as Bhutan and Sri Lanka. He founded the Landmarks Foundation in 1997, which has become a leading organization for historic preservation. It seems therefore fitting that his gift piano now sits in a museum of its own, helping to preserve the legacy of John Lennon, appreciated by fans from around the world.