When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Invited the World into Bed with Them
It was the year 1969, 14 years into the deep morass of the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon had been in the White House for two months, and San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” was all but a fading memory as American troops continued to drop bombs on Vietnam and Cambodia. But despite all this, a fervent push for peace and utopianism was percolating over 5,000 miles away—in a hotel room in Amsterdam.
In late March of that year, the press received word that Beatles star remembered years later. Lennon and his partner
The couple had appeared naked on the cover of their 1968 LP Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, an unmade bed visible behind them. So when journalists learned they’d be given bedside access to Lennon and Ono in their matrimonial suite, many arrived breathlessly assuming they were about to witness a spectacle–cum–performance art event of a sexual nature. What they found was a far more innocent scene: Dressed in white pajamas and robes, their hair long and unkempt, the pair lay surrounded by bouquets and handmade posters proffering messages of peace.
“It was a honeymoon,” said Beatriz Colomina, an architectural historian and professor who has staged her own recreations of Lennon and Ono’s now-iconic “Bed-Ins for Peace” at both the Venice Architecture Biennale and London’s Serpentine Gallery. “It was also about creating the tantalizing feeling that something is going to happen,” she added.
From March 25th through 31st in Amsterdam—and then from May 26th to June 2nd at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada—Lennon and Ono received visitors between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. They coddled babies, sung with rabbis and Hare Krishnas, played with Ono’s daughter Kyoko, argued down conservative media figures, and dispensed advice on how to resist the establishment, urging onlookers to get their hands dirty for the cause. Sometimes their advice came straight from Beatles song titles and lyrics: “Come together” or “All you need is love!”
They expounded on the importance of unity and the shared bonds of humanity, and broadcast a global message—that even the smallest things count. “It’s an achievement to eat your breakfast and it’s an achievement to brush your teeth,” Lennon would say during the couple’s second “Bed-In.” The message? That humanity’s real work begins at home, in bedrooms and in personal relationships—and perhaps most importantly, with oneself. “Don’t fight against the monster, fight yourself, your ignorance,” Ono told a reporter that called in over the phone.
Among the visitors to their Montreal bed chamber were Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Dick Gregory, all of whom would contribute to the anthemic song “Give Peace a Chance,” recorded in the hotel room with Lennon leading a chorus of dozens, rocking in time to his guitar strums and tapping rhythmically on objects in the room. The song—which scholar Robert J. Kruse II, in his essay on the couple’s campaign for peace, suggests was the most influential product of the “Bed-Ins”—would later be sung by Pete Seeger and thousands of protesters at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam march in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1969. “We think it’ll work,” Lennon said of the campaign’s impact during one of the events. “All we need to do is turn people on to the fact that they have the power.”
At the time, the “Bed-Ins” attracted mixed reviews. “Beatle Lennon and his charmer Yoko have now established themselves as the outstanding nutcases of the world,” ran one headline, Kruse notes, while Rolling Stone was considerably more supportive: “A five-hour talk between John Lennon and Richard Nixon would be more significant than any Geneva Summit Conference between the U.S.A. and Russia.”
Years later, Ono would reflect back on her role as one part of Mr. and Mrs. Peace, as Lennon referred to them. “John and I thought after ‘Bed-In,’ ‘The war is going to end,’” she recalled. “How naive we were, you know? But the thing is, things take time. I think it’s going to happen. I mean, that I think we’re going to have a peaceful world. But it’s just taking a little bit more time than we thought then.”
Tess Thackara is Artsy’s Writer-at-Large.