Not every mother’s son gets to change the course of musical and popular history, but for these ordinary mothers, that’s exactly what happened. Let’s revisit the backstories of four Beatle moms.
Mary Mohin was born in the Fazakerley section of Liverpool on September 29, 1909, as the second child of five for Owen and Mary Mohin. Mary’s mother died at age 41 when Mary was just 9 years old. She left her father at age 13 to live in the city’s Wavertree section (where the Harrisons would later settle) to stay with her uncle. Her cousin played in Jim McCartney’s band and later married his sister Annie McCartney. She, no doubt, would meet Paul’s father Jim at that wedding in 1925.
She was determined to raise her prospects in life. With an eye to becoming “someone,’” she put herself through nursing school, eventually becoming a successful traveling midwife, as many babies of that WWII era were delivered in homes rather than hospitals (hospitals were often targets of German bombings).
Mary became a lodger at the home of Jim’s sister Gin (as in “Auntie Gin” from Paul’s 1976 hit “Let ‘Em In”). One night the warning sirens blasted as Hitler’s bombing campaign forced everyone into the basement of the house. It was here that Mary and Jim had long hours to talk and ended up considering each other romantically. They married on April 15, 1941, when she was 31, he was 38, both considered “old” for marriage.
Signs of her health turning in the wrong direction showed themselves when Mary was 46, suffering breast pain. They decided not to tell their boys when she chose to have a mastectomy in September of 1956; unfortunately, cancer had already spread into a brain tumor. By the end of October, she was gone. The family has publicly shared that some of her parting words included: “I would have liked to have seen the boys growing up.” Paul has told us she (still) often visits him in dreams, most famously when the Beatles were breaking up in 1969: “…..Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let It Be.”
His brother Michael has speculated on what would have happened if she had not passed at such a sensitive period for him and Paul. “Mum was very much one for keeping up a respectful front for the neighbors. If she’d lived, there would have been a hell of a lot of pressure at home for Paul and me to have respectable jobs, to go into the professions. To become lawyers, or Doctor McCartney, something like that.” We can only wonder, without Mary’s passing, would the world have ever heard “Yesterday” ….or Paul meet John Lennon nine months later?
When John’s mother Julia Stanley met his father, Alf Lennon (known as Freddie), they connected over shared outrageousness (not unlike John’s connection when meeting Yoko in 1966). In September of 1929, while the redheaded Julia walked through Liverpool’s Sefton Park, the 16-year-old Freddie had on his best blue suit complete with an outrageous cigarette holder and bowler hat. Upon seeing Freddie strutting his stuff, her first words to him were, “You look silly! Take off that hat.” His reply to her was, “You look lovely!” and then he promptly flung his bowler hat into the nearby boating lake. They both laughed.
Julia laughed a lot in those days; at age 15, as she was the free-spirited second sister of five Stanley girls. The apple of the eye of her merchant seaman father George, she was the only daughter to be given leeway to be the wild one. Letting her wit, musical abilities, and flirty behaviors step outside the otherwise strict Stanley home, Julia became a mischief-maker, practical joker, and supreme attractor of men’s attention.
As a magnet for the best men in Liverpool, why Julia would marry that Lennon, a low-level ship’s bellboy cum saloon steward was a constant mystery to her family. Her strict older sister Margret was her total opposite. Known as “Mimi,” she summed up the situation years later: “We were all shocked. It was not as though Julia had to be married, nothing of the kind, just defiance against the family for refusing to accept him. She soon regretted it when she realized it was not so clever. We all make mistakes; Julia was not realizing the seriousness of a defiant prank. The only good thing that came out of it was John.”
Indeed, John would be born on October 9, 1940, with Freddie out at sea until November. When he returned, it would only be for two months before he was off again to sea. This was the longest period in which John Lennon would ever enjoy living in a standard family unit.
Julia had a lot to do with this inconsistent family life. With Freddie away most of the time, she played the field, eventually becoming pregnant by a young Welsh soldier named Taffy Williams, who offered to marry her. Fat chance, as she was still legally married to Freddie. She sent Taffy packing and decided to put the baby up for adoption. That incident would slow down most people, but not Julia, as she was soon involved with John Dykins, a waiter at the café in which she was now employed. Dykins possessed a nerve spasm that caused a tic in his speech and facial muscles, causing young John to call him “Twitchy” behind his back.
Soon enough, Julia announced she was moving in with Dykins, and upon that declaration, older sister Mimi protested hard. She convinced Julia to let her raise John in order to spare him from being subjected to living with a mother who was shacked-up with another man while still married to the boy’s father. John would never live under Julia’s roof again. She would eventually have two daughters by “Twitchy,” while still married to Freddie.
This story comes to a tragic end on the evening of July 15, 1958, (a year and one week since John and Paul had met and begun playing music together). Julia left Mimi’s house after a visit and crossed busy Menlove Avenue without looking at the traffic. An off-duty policeman hit her; an inquest found there was no driver alcohol involved but reported that her body had been flung fifty-eight feet, killing her instantly. Freddie, still married to her, had not seen Julia in 12 years. John was 17 at the time and had been spending a lot of his free time with Julia before her untimely death. He would go on to write “Julia,” “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” in her memory.
Of the four Beatles, George enjoyed the most stable home life. That family consistency was fortified by his mother Louise, a warm, cheerful lover of dance who was six months pregnant when she married a steadfast bus conductor Harold “Harry” Harrison. Louise was the opposite of Harry: alive, verbose, and the light of the room. Harry, like George, was quiet, insightful, but had a high “no-bull” meter that could spark a temper.
George grew up with two older brothers and a big sister (who would later emigrate to the USA through marriage). As the great encourager of her children, Louise was the one who found the money to buy George his first guitar. Later at age 17, George quit his electrical apprenticeship, and having no high school degree, was in line for a very tough life. While his father began to relentlessly push him to find a job, it was Louise who continued to support George, encouraged him in his musical quests, and even picked up the payments on his Futurama guitar.
She openly embraced George’s fame, keeping scrapbooks of news clippings and pictures of her son’s trajectory. Right from the beginning of George’s success, Louise made sure she was right in the middle of the excitement. Volunteering to work at their early fan club office, she wrote to George’s fans on his behalf, taking up to 2,000 letters a month home to answer, most all of them personally.
Louise was tragically cut down at age 59, suffering through a twelve-month battle with cancer leading to her passing in July of 1970. George wrote (and later recorded) “Deep Blue” as he sat at her bedside to express his final moments with his mom. By then the Beatles were broken up, but the lady who was the supportive Beatle mom even caught tough guy John Lennon’s heart. With the rancor between the estranged bandmates running high, John took the time to remember Louise and wrote to George saying, “Sorry about your Ma.”
Elise Starkey Graves
Elise Gleave was born in Liverpool’s worst section, known as “The Dingle,” October 1914. She was the oldest of 8 (of which 3 died), born into a family living in squalor. Poverty was Elise’s daily existence.
Forced out of school at 14, she contributed any way she could, as a house cleaner, steps scrubber, and eventually working at a Liverpool bakery. It was here she met one Richard Starkey (Ringo’s dad). Marriage was a relief of sorts; becoming a wife and eventual mother would be tough at age 22, but not as tough as her full-time labor work had been. When Richard asked for her hand, she didn’t hesitate. They married in October of 1936.
Little Richey chose to enter this world in July 1940, right in the middle of the German bombings of Liverpool. For many, that summer would be remembered as having spent an exorbitant amount of time in dark underground bomb shelters. Elise had memories of Ringo being a quiet baby except for one incident in the underground shelter: baby Ringo would not stop crying. When the lights came up, she realized she’d been holding him upside down wrapped in his blanket.
When Richey was 3, his parents separated. Marital breaks were part of the many downsides of war; men suddenly leaving home was a pattern for that generation. Eventually, the elder Starkey would leave Liverpool, never to be heard from again; the money that used to be sent back to Elise and Ringo came to a halt.
Elise found herself on the government breadlines, and back to having to scratch for any job anywhere. “She tried to bring me up decently. We were poor but never in rags. I was lucky,” Ringo would later reflect. More heartbreak for Elise came when 7-yr. old Richey suffered a burst appendix causing peritonitis and putting him in a coma. Three different doctors told her that Richey would not survive the night; he did but spent 16 more weeks in hospital. He would have a total of three long-stays in the hospital for various ailments, essentially ending any chance for formal education.
Elise caught a break when she married Harry Graves, a well-meaning bloke with a steady painter/decorator job. As a boy in need of a father figure, Harry and Ringo got on fabulously. Graves would be the one to buy Ringo his first drum kit for Christmas at age 16. “I learned gentleness from Harry,” he would say in later life. But the love between Elise and Harry had another unfortunate partner between them: they both liked the drink. “My parents were alcoholics, and I didn’t realize it,” Ringo would share around the same time he tackled his own sobriety issues in the 1980s.
Elise kept to the background when Ringo became famous, often feeling less than worthy to have a role in the high-society settings the Beatles found themselves in. Ringo has told the story that soon after he had played for the Queen in the fall of 1963, he was back to Liverpool to visit Elise, Harry, and a couple of his aunties. While there, someone inadvertently knocked over a teacup on his lap, in which Elise profusely apologized and hastily wiped up, asking if she could pay for cleaning his stained pants. Now Richey was being seen as “Ringo” by his own mother!…and he put a stop to it right there: “Don’t EVER think you will pay for anything for me anymore. You have already done far more than any mother could be asked to do!” he lovingly shouted at her.
Elise Graves passed at age 72 in 1987.
Photo: The Beatles, 1966 (Getty Images)