Yoko Ono and the Dakota

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Yoko Ono and the Dakota
A crowd outside the Dakota, the day after John Lennon was killed in the archway, in Manhattan on Dec. 9, 1980. Word that the pop culture icon Yoko Ono has left the fabled Upper West Side apartment building that she defined for a generation has sparked reflection on her impact as a resident there for 50 years. (Chester Higgins/The New York Times)

by Anna Kodé

NEW YORK, NY.- Much is transient about New York City real estate. Buildings are demolished, cafes turn into Duane Reades, and rents go up. But for the last 50 years, there was a constant: Yoko Ono lived in the Dakota. She stayed even after that tragic December day in 1980 when John Lennon was fatally shot right outside the building.

For years, tourists and New Yorkers alike trekked uptown, hoping to catch a glimpse or have the chance to meet the artist, singer and New York icon. Ono’s presence sustained the mystique of the Dakota — already well known as a coveted quarters for celebrities and artists when she and Lennon moved into the Upper West Side apartment complex in 1973.

To the distaste of some residents, the couple at one point owned five units at the Dakota, which — in addition to being their primary residence — they used as a guest home, a storage space and a studio for Ono. The living space and studio alone had a combined square-footage of nearly 6,000 square feet, New York magazine reported in 1996.

Stories of the couple’s rumored lavish expenditures spread in tabloids and magazines, such as one 1979 report that Ono and Lennon imported a Japanese teahouse for their first-floor apartment, which they promptly returned upon realizing it was too large for the space. More mundane activities made the news too, including the couple contributing sushi to a building potluck.

After a half-century of eccentricity, opulence and tragedy, Ono has moved out of New York City to the sprawling Catskills farm she bought with Lennon in 1978, according to reports earlier this year. For many, it signals that yet another link to old New York — the one filled with grit and glamour, run by artists and musicians — is missing. City residents and artists feel a sense of loss knowing that the odds of a momentary sighting or fleeting run-in with Ono are now even lower, and some have started writing tributes to her time in New York in blogs and small outlets.

The thought of New York without Ono is a New York with a little less magic.

After hearing the reports, author Lorraine Duffy Merkl wrote in the local news site The West Side Spirit, “I’m still in the ‘New York or Nowhere’ zone, but I have to confess, this native, Bronx girl was beginning to fade.”

“I think Yoko lent such a great romance to the Dakota,” said Julie Lucas, a trustee of the Emmy Awards.

In the early 2000s, Lucas briefly met Ono in the elevator of the Dakota. The interaction was fleeting but impactful for Lucas, who remembers it sharply to this day.

“That was the one person, as we came into the Dakota, I had always hoped to see — not even talk to, but just see,” said Lucas, 71, who was there for a cocktail party hosted by television personality Maury Povich. “She had this wonderful calmness and sense of welcoming about her.” For the next 45 seconds or so, until the elevator opened its doors and the two went their separate ways, they spoke about a recent art exhibition of Ono’s.

“That building represents so much of the hopes of the ’70s and ’80s,” Lucas said. “And then when John Lennon was killed, she soldiered through all of that grief and stayed on in that building.”

Ono, who turned 90 earlier this year, no longer participates in interviews, Elliot Mintz, a representative for her, said in an email. Mintz said she “continues to own her apartment at the Dakota” and added that information on her whereabouts is kept private for security reasons.

‘The Capital of the Capital’

The mid-rise, gothic style building sits at 1 W. 72nd St., overlooking Central Park, and was built by developer Edward Clark, who died before its completion in 1884. All 65 units in the complex were rented out before its doors even opened. As the popular tale goes, the Upper West Side was largely unclaimed at the time, so the building’s name came from the notion that it was so far away from developed downtown Manhattan that it might as well have been in Dakota, so say many guidebooks and New Yorkers. But in 1993, The New York Times reported that Clark wanted to name his projects after the new states and territories that were named in “excellent taste” (he also suggested Montana Place for Eighth Avenue and Idaho Place for 11th Avenue, but those didn’t stick).

Although it was sumptuous from the start, it wasn’t always the most expensive; there was a time where it was rent-controlled, drawing in creative types. Yet its design lends itself to a private way of life that celebrities would naturally seek out; the building encircles its courtyard, so it isn’t visible from the street. The ornate exterior and strict security make it obvious that it isn’t a place anyone can just stroll into.

As the setting for the 1968 classic horror film, “Rosemary’s Baby,” the building’s lore grew. If “New York were considered to be the capital of American art, culture and fashion, the Dakota seemed to be the Capital of the capital,” wrote Stephen Birmingham in his 1979 book, “Life at the Dakota.”

Roberta Flack, Graydon Carter, Rosemary Clooney, Leonard Bernstein and Judy Garland have been on its long list of notable residents. It takes more than fame and wealth to get in; the co-op’s notoriously stringent board has rejected Billy Joel, Madonna and Cher.

The building’s board once stopped documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who was also a collaborator of Ono’s, from selling his unit to actress Melanie Griffith. “More and more, they’re moving away from creative people and going toward people who just have the money,” Maysles told the Times in 2005.

Today, there is one unit listed for sale in the building: a 6,000 square-foot, five-bedroom, nine-bathroom apartment on the eighth floor. It has its own separate studio unit, and the listing price is $20 million.

Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday

For those who haven’t been inside the Dakota, they’ve been able to vicariously experience it through the stories and photos. One homey image, taken by rock ’n’ roll photographer Bob Gruen in 1975, shows Ono and Lennon sitting comfortably in bed with magazines splayed. In it, Lennon, who is wearing a robe, holds their newborn son, Sean. In 1980, Annie Leibovitz photographed Lennon nude and curled up, with his arms wrapped around Ono’s head while kissing her cheek. It would later run on the cover of Rolling Stone, but just hours after it was taken, Lennon was killed.

Another from Gruen, taken in 1981, shows Ono at work, photographing Lennon’s bloodstained glasses from that day for the album cover for “Season of Glass.”

Ono’s life in the Dakota was spent in the company of friends and collaborators.

Before Ono had moved there, in 1966, Maysles, the documentarian who also lived in the building, and his brother had filmed Ono’s performance work “Cut Piece.” The performance, which eventually became an influential work of fluxus art, involved Ono inviting audience members to come up to her and cut off a piece of her clothing.

Flack, the Grammy-winning singer of “Killing Me Softly,” had lived next door to Ono. In “Roberta,” a documentary about Flack, Sean Lennon said, “At first, you know, I didn’t even think of Roberta as this incredible artist and musician; she was just this really cool neighbor. We used to call her Aunt Roberta.”

“We’re very close to each other, and our kitchen is connected,” Ono said in the documentary.

Erika Belle had heard the stories. So when Keith Haring, a friend of Belle’s, invited her to dinner at Ono’s apartment on a rainy Tuesday night in the 1980s, she let out a squeal. “I’d been obsessed with that building, like many lifelong New Yorkers, for years,” Belle, who is in her 60s, said in an interview. “It had so much old, ’50s Hollywood glamour.”

“To arrive at that building and to know that I was meeting Yoko was like ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy birthday’ all rolled into one,” said Belle, who co-owned the nightclub Lucky Strike and is a model. Belle was also a backup dancer for Madonna, who she said came to the Dakota with her that evening.

After taking off her shoes to enter, the first thing Belle noticed about Ono’s apartment was “how high the ceilings and how wide the hallways were. You could drive a car through those hallways.”

The dinner menu was simply takeout from a Chinese restaurant, but the highlight of the night was getting an apartment tour from Ono. “She held my hand — even saying it now, I get goose bumps — and asked, ‘Do you want to see the apartment?’”

It was an obvious yes from Belle. What she remembers most from that intimate walk-through wasn’t a work of art or an expensive piece of furniture, but a bathroom. “Yoko took me to see this bathroom, and she said she left it the same as the day John was murdered,” Belle said. “She’s like, ‘I haven’t touched this bathroom.’ And that was very touching and moving.”

‘New York is Like an Old Friend’

Before Ono was associated with the glamour of the Dakota, she lived downtown, where she became a pioneer of conceptual art.

After moving from Japan in the early 1950s, Ono attended Sarah Lawrence College in a suburb north of New York. She dropped out in 1956 and then moved to the city. Many of the places she lived and spent time in became meeting places for artists and are now unofficial landmarks of the downtown art scene. In the early 1960s, her Chambers Street loft was where she organized performance events with composer La Monte Young. This became the Chambers Street Loft Series, which was attended by John Cage, Peggy Guggenheim and Marcel Duchamp.

For her 2015 Museum of Modern Art show, Ono reflected on that time in her life. “By then, I knew a few people. And I realized that all these people usually create music in New York City,” she said. “But there’s no place for them to present their work. And I said, you know, I think it’s a great idea if we created a place where all of us can present our music.”

The Chambers Street loft was a far stretch — in city blocks and in essence — from the Dakota. “It’s a cold water flat, and it was in the winter. It was so cold, you know? We didn’t even have electricity,” Ono said.

In 1965, Ono performed “Morning Piece” at 87 Christopher St., where she briefly lived and worked as a superintendent. She and Lennon met in 1966, at an exhibition of her work in London; she had a work titled “Apple,” which featured a real apple on display, and Lennon went up and bit into it.

The couple soon moved to 105 Bank St., which is now memorialized as “John Lennon’s First New York Home” on Google Maps. They lived there from 1971 to 1973, when they, as the Plastic Ono Band, released the album “Some Time in New York City.”

In more recent times, Ono has expressed her evolving relationship with New York through posts on Twitter. “John once said that he fell in love with New York on a street corner,” she said in January of this year.

After a half-century of Ono living at the Dakota and even longer in New York altogether, New Yorkers are filled with nostalgia, melancholy and gratitude for the various ways she has shaped the city and their life in it.

To many people, Ono will forever be a part of New York. Writer and curator Phillip Ward — who organized a public 90th birthday celebration for Ono this year — thinks of the artist every time he passes by the Dakota. “I always look up and just smile and say, ‘Thank you,’” he said.

Ono, too, has felt reflective about her time in New York.

“New York is like an old friend. It has its moods,” Ono wrote in 2017. “But I know them all.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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