“John was drinking, but that was overblown in retrospect,” says Pang, who'd like to remind the world that the ex-Beatle had a major career renaissance during their time together in the mid-'70s.
May Fung Lee Pang will be 72 in October, but was barely out of her teens when she boldly entered Apple’s New York offices, lied about being able to type, and secured a job at the Beatles’ multimedia company. She would soon become famous for a much more intimate tie to the group than that, as her very public 18-month affair with John Lennon in the mid-’70s is still a subject of great fascination to his fans, 50 years later.
“Music was my passion,” explains the Spanish Harlem-born author and subject of the upcoming documentary, “The Lost Weekend: A Love Story,” premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival for a sold-out show on June 10. “It was something I loved. I had no real abilities,” she admits of getting her start at Apple, “but answering the phone was easy enough. My mother used to tell me, ‘You have a mouth. You speak English. Go for it.’”
She’s still going for it with her involvement in the new documentary, which captures the whirlwind affair between a 22-year-old Pang and John Lennon that began when Yoko Ono tried to set them up during a period of turmoil in their marriage. The pair headed to Los Angeles for what has become known as “The Lost Weekend” for the former Beatle’s drunken escapades with his pals Alice Cooper, Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and Micky Dolenz, collectively known as the Hollywood Vampires, their hangout upstairs at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Blvd. next to the Roxy.
Pang, who was plucked from that Apple job by Ono herself to serve as her and Lennon’s personal assistant before May’s fling with Lennon, insists the phrase “Lost Weekend” doesn’t do justice to the pair’s year-and-a-half affair.
“Yes, Yoko did approach me, and I thought it was insane,” she says about being Lennon’s lover. “I told her I wasn’t interested at all. They were having problems in their marriage; they actually weren’t talking to each other. But John spontaneously decided to go to L.A. on his own and asked me to go with him. Yoko wasn’t even aware we had gone until after we left.”
Although May has written a pair of books about her relationship with Lennon — including 1983’s “Loving John: The Untold Story” and 2008’s “Instamatic Karma: Photographs by John Lennon” — she has hesitated until now to participate in a documentary, finally agreeing to work with a trio of producer-directors in Eve Brandstein (best known as the casting director for “This Is Spinal Tap”), Richard Kaufman (“Real Life: The Musical”) and Stuart Samuels (docs on Bob Marley and Midnight Movies).
“People have been taking my narrative and talking about my life as if they knew everything about me, and they didn’t,” she explains. “I decided it was time to reclaim my own history. It’s my version. I figured, if there was going to be a film about my life, I should be involved. Who better to tell the story than me? I lived it. These are my memories. No one experienced it like I did. Why should I let somebody else talk about my time with John? He understood better than anybody. He used to say to me, ‘May, it’s your opinion. It’s your life. Just be aware that people are going to be talking about you. And they are going to lie about it.’”
Pang was born to an industrious mother who opened her own business, OK Laundry, at the corner of 124th Street and Amsterdam, not far from where they lived before being forced to leave their tenement housing for the newly built George Washington projects at 97th Street and Third Ave. Her mother sent her to Catholic school at nearby St. Francis, where James Cagney once served as an altar boy. The film shows her and Lennon decades later attending an AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony in Los Angeles in Cagney’s honor, where the one-time Beatle and Mick Jagger mingled amid the likes of Hollywood icons John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Mae West, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, then-governor Ronald Reagan and George Burns.
“At one point, George turned to me and said, ‘May, this is the third party we’ve been to this week… People are going to start talking about us.’ He was such a lovely man. John loved movie stars. He grew up on American films.”
Dismissed by her stern father, who imagined he was still “king of the roost” back in China, May found herself subject to the ancient cultural tradition of sons being superior to daughters. But with the encouragement of her mother, who basically supported the family with her cleaning business, Pang got herself a job working for the Beatles’ company.
“I was definitely an innocent,” says Pang, who appears as wide-eyed and more than a bit naive in the footage. “All I cared about at the time was work. It just so happened I was working with a famous rock star. But I was eager to learn the music business. The music was what got me to where I was. I used to study the liner notes to learn about the songwriters and producers. The lyrics moved me. I once told Dick Clark that ‘American Bandstand’ helped me get through my childhood as a girl in a Chinese family, which was not particularly welcomed. The music took me to the next level.”
Like the rest of her boomer generation, Pang fell in love with the Beatles from seeing them on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but her fave Fab at first wasn’t John, but Ringo. “His blue eyes,” she laughs. As someone who grew up a fan of the Philadelphia sound — she cites singers like Bobby Rydell and Fabian — as well as the Beach Boys, she says the shock of seeing these British moptops gave way to pure affection.
“Once they started to sing ‘She Loves You,’ I was smitten,” says Pang.
The romance between the two started just shortly before they left for Los Angeles in 1972.
“Yoko kept pushing, but I waited for John to make the first move,” says May. “It was not something that I wanted. Afterwards, I’d say to him, ‘Where is this going?’ And he’d say, ‘I don’t know. I’m just tired of being pushed around. And ya know what? I’m just going for it.’ He wasn’t happy in his marriage, and it made life miserable for everyone working around them.”
May has defended herself in the past from reporters asking if she has exploited her brief affair with Lennon, and she admits being the other woman wasn’t something she was proud of.
“I felt awful, and I told John that,” she says. “Yoko was calling 10-15 times a day wanting to know what was going on. Little did I know, she was cheating on him at the same time. I had no idea, and neither did John. We found out together.
“I just wanted to treat him as a regular person. I didn’t want to be his mother, but I did act as his secretary, his personal assistant. I would answer the phones for him. Once we got together, I no longer worked for him. But I wanted to help him with everyday stuff. I wanted it to be just me and him.”
The movie’s story is told, in part, through animation and a period soundtrack — put together by veteran music supervisor Howard Paar — with the images created to resemble Lennon’s own artful squiggles, seen on any number of handwritten notes from him to May that also appear in the film.
“I thought the animation was brilliant, just so clever,” says Pang. “I was also surprised at some of the footage that was found of me. When people would ask for my autograph, I would tell them, ‘You don’t want mine… You want his.’ One star is enough for any family.”
Pang insists the celebrated Troubadour incidents — where John was thrown out of the iconic Hollywood club for heckling the Smothers Brothers and then for putting a sanitary napkin on his head — were anomalies in Lennon’s stay in Los Angeles, where he was relentlessly egged on by sidekick Harry Nilsson in particular.
“John was drinking, but that was overblown in retrospect,” says Pang. “The press keeps repeating the same stories over and over.”
May does admit she eventually fell for Lennon. Asked if he was a good lover, she smiles a Cheshire cat grin. “What do you think?”
The pair was forced to return to New York in February 1974 for Lennon to meet with lawyers about his immigration status in the U.S.
“Yoko told John she wanted a divorce and ordered him to her attorney’s office to sign the papers. When John came home, he claimed, ‘I’m going to be a free man in six months.’”
Ono had told Lennon she knew a way to get him to stop smoking through hypnosis. Pang recalls he went to meet with her, promising to come back to their E. 52nd Street apartment and take her to dinner. She and Lennon were planning to meet up with Paul and Linda McCartney in New Orleans, where the couple were recording a new album.
“I had a strange feeling, a premonition that something was not going the right way,” said May. Lennon never did return that night, instead landing back with Ono at their Dakota apartment for what turned out to be five years of house-husbandry and raising their son Sean until his murder in December, 1980.
“I knew, at that moment, if John and I had gone to meet Paul and Linda, there would have been new music. He asked me if I thought it was a good idea for him to write with Paul again. What do you think I said?”
After the split from Lennon, Pang was married to David Bowie producer Tony Visconti from 1989 to 2000, with two children now in their early 30s. Daughter Lara is a design director for Nest fragrance and candles, while son Sebastian is a consultant.
With a shock of purple hair, present-day May Pang looks very much the same as she did then, and looking back, she remembers “the Lost Weekend” as anything but lost. She is proud of reuniting John with his son Julian — who speaks glowingly of May in his on-camera interviews — and ex-wife Cynthia, who died in 2015. She also remembers the good times for Lennon career-wise. He had his first No. 1 solo single with “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” a collaboration with Elton John; she recalls John being inspired for the title by a sermon by eccentric TV evangelist Reverend Ike. That hit single fueled Lennon’s chart-topping album “Walls & Bridges,” and Lennon made first live concert appearance in years at Madison Square Garden to perform the new song with his friend and co-writer.
“Let’s put it this way. My time with John might have been short, but everything during it was monumental,” she says. “I was there when he jammed with Paul for the last time… I played tambourines with Mal Evans. We saw UFOs together.”
Looking back on Lennon’s death 42 years ago, May believes that if he’d lived, Lennon, who would now be 81, would still at this age “continue writing songs. He couldn’t stop. He was such a magnificent writer. It just flowed out of him on that level. He would’ve been very vocal about what he was going on in the world. Everything to him was ‘barmy… What’s wrong with everyone?’ I miss those conversations.”
And what is she doing with all those mementos Lennon left behind, the doodles, drawings and photographs?
“They’re all in a safety deposit box and very valuable to me,” says Pang. “Maybe not to anybody else. Perhaps I’ll pass them on to my kids, but I cherish all of it. The first guy I ever lived with turned out to be John Lennon… Imagine that.”
A Variety and iHeartRadio Podcast