The 1976 Robert Redford-Dustin Hoffman film All the President”s Men about the Watergate break-in gave movie viewers an idea of the chilling atmosphere during the years of the Nixon Administration when political opponents were followed by FBI agents and wiretapping of telephones was a regular occurrence.
But it became a real-life drama for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who became a Nixon Administration target during the era. In early 1972, they hired immigration lawyer Leon Wildes because the government was trying to deport them. The case is fully detailed in Wildes’ new book, John Lennon vs. The USA: The Inside Story of the Most Bitterly Contested and Influential Deportation Case in United States History (Ankerwyke Publishing, Aug. 7), with a foreward by his son, Michael, who now manages the firm. It’s a book that both Lennon and Ono had asked him to write.
Wildes said that at the time of his introduction to Lennon and Ono that he had no idea who they were. “I had never heard of John Lennon, much less Yoko Ono,” he writes. “While I was vaguely aware of the Beatles, I certainly couldn’t name any band members.” His son, Michael, confirmed his dad’s pop culture blind spot, saying in a telephone interview this week from New York with both himself and his father, “When Dad met John, he had no idea who he was.”
The case began as a simple legal procedure aimed at allowing the Lennons to keep trying to get custody of Yoko’s daughter, Kyoko, who then lived with her father, Tony Cox. “In the beginning of the case, we had no intention to apply for residence,” Leon Wildes said. “So all I was retained to do was to get an extension of six months so that John and Yoko could continue their custody proceedings with respect to Yoko’s eight-year old child. So I was confident that I could get that.”
But the government started making it clear they wanted Lennon and Ono out of the country. After Lennon and Ono participated in a rally in support of Michigan poet/activist and MC5 manager John Sinclair in Michigan, a Feb. 4, 1972 letter from Sen. Strom Thurmond to Attorney Gen. John Mitchell started the ball rolling to have them expelled. “When they started denying things and putting my clients under deportation proceedings, the case changed completely,” Leon Wildes said.
Wildes noted that the government targeted the Lennons for deportation because Nixon was afraid the activist couple would prevent him from being re-elected because of their influence on young voters. “It seems to me that they were out to get John and Yoko from the first moment I got into the case,” Leon Wildes said. He recalled that the District Director of Immigration told him, “The situation in Washington for vis-a-vis your clients is not a healthy one. They will not be given any further extensions and I suggest you tell them to get the hell out.”
The government tried to hinge getting rid of Lennon on a marijuana possession conviction in the UK, the infamous 1968 drug raid by Scotland Yard Detective Sgt. Norman Pilcher. But they were stymied when Wildes proved that legally what Lennon was busted for, hashish, wasn’t technically marijuana.
The government’s methods also included putting together an FBI dossier on Lennon and shadowing the couple everywhere they went. The government agents weren’t hard to spot. “There were two guys interminably fixing a bike, a broken bike across the street,” Leon Wildes said. “And whenever they (the Lennons) got into a car, when they had a car pick them up to take them anywhere, those two guys were in a car right behind them. They watched the house. They followed them. They wanted them to feel they were under surveillance.”
Ono proved to be a big asset to the case, the elder Wildes said. “I found her as being very intelligent,” he said. “She seemed to always ask the right questions. And she seemed to have a kind of sixth sense as to what was going on behind the motions.” He said she predicted that the government would deny their request for an extension. He said she told him “they’re not going to like somebody who is essentially opposing Richard Nixon and the way he’s running his government.”
Another person who helped the Lennons during this time was Beatles manager Allen Klein. “He was like a tough businessman and acted that way,” said Wildes. “Lennon was his client and he wasn’t going to let him hire a lawyer without his manager being there and being satisfied. And that’s why I was brought to see Lennon and why he came along to make sure I had to be the best guy for the case. And to the extent that he was involved, I found him very smart.”
It was a very tough time for Lennon himself, which became compounded when Nixon won re-election in 1972, beginning a long period of depression for the ex-Beatle, Wildes says. Lennon and Ono separated in 1973 and stayed apart for 18 months during what became known as his debauched “Lost Weekend.”
Wildes said he always knew they would get back together. “I spent most of my time being in touch with both of them and supporting Yoko during that time of being on her own in New York,” he said. “They had a loving relationship and it broke down because of all that pressure, Nixon being re-elected and so on. And they separated, but when they got back together, the relationship, their love was greater than ever before.”
The turning point in the complicated case was when Wildes filed under the Freedom of Information Act and proved the government’s inconsistency in filing deportation cases. “That was the first time anyone ever thought of filing in a deportation case under the Freedom of Information Act. The District Director, the Commissioner and everybody at the Immigration Department constantly said that Lennon was not being picked on, (that) he was not being treated differently from any other alien,” he said. “What they claimed was the government does not have a choice, (that) they must start a deportation proceeding in every case when they apprehend an illegal alien. And that wasn’t so.”
The final word came down Oct. 8, 1975, in a phone call from a court clerk as recounted in the book. “I wanted to report to you that you won the Lennon case,” the voice said. The case became a landmark in immigration law and is referred to even today. It was the basis for President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive orders for his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which were based on the Dream Act. Because of his experience, Leon Wildes taught a class on the Lennon case and immigration law for 30 years at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Son Michael now teaches the class.
But the Lennons haven’t been the only celebrity clients for the Wildes. They have also represented Boy George, soccer legend Pele and artist Sarah Brightman — and have also handled immigration matters for Donald Trump, representing the Republican presidential candidate when he owned the Miss Universe pageant. “We did all the Miss Universe visas and green cards and Trump models and other groups under his control,” Michael Wildes said. However, Wildes, a former federal prosecutor and ex-mayor of Englewood, N.J., said he is supporting democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in this year’s election.
Today, Leon Wildes says his time with Lennon was enlightening. “I thought I was with some kind of visionary who had a clear sense in his mind of what we should be doing what our government should be doing, what’s positive and negative about it,” he said. “He seemed to know exactly what he had in mind.” The Lennons and Wildes have stayed friendly in the years since. When Leon Wildes’ wife passed away in 1995, Ono sent condolences and flowers.
“The legacy of this case has to do with some things that disappoint lawyers and some things that are hopeful to the next generations of immigrants,” said Michael Wildes. “Every immigration lawyer saw that the restriction on possession of narcotic drugs or marijuana was refined when Dad eloquently proved that the hash was planted by the British police and Lennon should not be subject to such a possession charge. This was a major change in the law and had a dramatic effect on generations to come of criminality and immigration.
“A lawyer can go into removal proceedings and deportation proceedings and actually invoke the Lennon case to show that there is a path for people because of mitigating circumstances or greater equities that have developed in families or businesses to stave the removal of persons from America,” he said.
“That was the ballad of John and Leon and the gift to the next generation,” Michael Wildes added. “I think as we watch the candidates on TV banter on the immigration (John) would want them to just imagine.”