THE photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono posing after getting married in front of the Rock of Gibraltar are among the most seminal from the Rock n Roll vaults of fame.
The iconic shots that have appeared in thousands of publications and dozens of documentaries show perfectly the depths of love the Beatles lead singer and his Japanese paramour were in.
The story has been recounted to death, but like so many chapters in the life of the world’s most famous band, there is a back story almost as interesting.
And in this case it’s a darker one, for the set of photos – and others taken during the period in 1969 – were stolen, leading to a half-century mystery and, no less than two police investigations in Europe and the USA.
But this week, the world may finally be that bit closer to finding the negatives and explaining, at last, what happened to them.
It comes after the Olive Press received two anonymous letters from an individual in America with nearly a number of copies of the negatives inside.
Some blown up on cardboard, some as part of a contact sheet, they arrived two weeks apart, posted from Colorado and gave hardly any clues to the sender’s identification.
But what they did do was bring one of the most exciting times in British music history very much back to life.
The photos, including John Lennon wearing a silly hat, reading a newspaper on a plane, and canoodling with his new wife – as well as posing at the registry office and signing the marriage forms – have only once been seen before.
And that is in the book of the man who borrowed them before they mysteriously vanished.
Poring through them was like watching a decades-old cold case come back to life before our very eyes: The blackened embers of one of the greatest mysteries in Beatles history spluttering and sparking up once more.
Stamped from Fort Collins, Colorado (a ‘fake address’) on April 25, the first letter teased us with promises of new leads and a tantalising clue behind the legendary negatives, missing for nearly five decades.
The second letter, a week after we published a story on the first letter, expressed the writer’s pleasure at making print and reaffirmed her goal – to get the missing photos ‘back to the photographer who took them’.
But first, we have to travel back to the spring of 1969, and a time of the Apollo program and sexual emancipation, when the soul of a young generation was unleashed by a new brand of rock’n’roll.
The fabled Summer of Love was imminent, New York was gearing up for Woodstock, and the Beatles had just played their last ever public performance.
Lennon, by now one of the greatest icons in pop music, had eloped with his controversial lover, Yoko Ono, often dubbed a groupie and hanger on.
They had chosen to wed in the one place where the press would not be able to hound them – at the registry office in Gibraltar.
At the peak of General Franco’s embargo of the British-held peninsula, the region was isolated and inaccessible, the border closed and flights limited.
John and Yoko flew out on March 20, 1969, and there they met a young London hipster photographer, David Nutter, who was handed the ‘secret assignment’ and had no clue of who his subjects were to be.
“I was told to come to Gibraltar with my camera and no questions asked,” Nutter told the Olive Press.
Londoner Nutter is a fabled snapper whose career spanned the golden era of rock and pop, working with luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Elton John and the Beatles themselves.
The ‘magical’ day of the wedding featured just a few close friends and family of the couple – Paul McCartney absent – and no press.
Nutter snapped away as the couple, who were like lovebirds the minute they landed at Gibraltar airport, trooped over to the local registry office and got married, giddy and in high spirits.
The pair then embarked onto their famous ‘bed-in’ protest for six days in the honeymoon suite at the Amsterdam Hilton, harnessing the interest in their wedding to promote their message of peace.
The remarkable series of photos continued well beyond the wedding day. Nutter would also go on to capture the legendary duo back in New York in their Greenwich Village studio, on their rooftop and even in their kitchen.
One incredible photo captures Lennon on an aeroplane reading a newspaper dated to April 11, 1970 with the headline ‘Astronaut – We May Die’ from the Apollo 13 catastrophe averted.
But then disaster really did strike – when Nutter ‘stupidly’ lent the negatives to a friend while they were living in New York in the mid 1970s.
The recipient, Anthony Fawcett, who had been an assistant to John and Yoko at the time, was writing a biography called John Lennon: One Day At A Time, published in 1980.
But the negatives in Fawcett’s possession inexplicably vanished after his New York apartment was either repossessed or a quick-fingered guest pinched them – Fawcett has suspiciously given conflicting reports.
Included in the missing batch, taken on Nutter’s Nikon camera, were a dozen never-before published photos of the wedding day in Gibraltar alone.
In the ones seen by the Olive Press they are seen posing coolly for the camera and lounging on a private jet.
There were also a number of strips from scenes at the registry office itself as John and Yoko went through the legal process of signing the papers on one of the most famous rock and roll marriages of all time.
Understandably upset at the loss, Nutter reported the crime, which led to separate investigations by London’s Metropolitan Police and, later, America’s FBI, but to no avail.
Indeed, a 1983 letter from Southwark Police to Nutter, seen by the Olive Press, shows that officers questioned Fawcett at his home in south London.
Fawcett told them he ‘knew who had the negatives’ and would contact Nutter – whose brother was famous Savile Row tailor, Tommy Nutter – with the information. But in the end, he never did.
And despite Nutter’s best efforts to track down the missing negatives – conservatively valued now at around €150,000 – the trail went dead for many years, leaving Nutter bereft.
The first faint sparks of life flickered briefly for the case back in 2005, when world-renowned Beatles memorabilia expert Peter Miniaci claimed he had received an email offering him ‘some rare John and Yoko wedding photos’.
“I was suspicious and asked if the sender had the rights to the images, to which it was claimed that ‘the photographer is dead’ so I didn’t need to worry about it,” he told the Olive Press in 2016, when we took up the baton.
But, as the Olive Press discovered in a two-part investigation, Nutter was certainly far from dead, and was still alive and living in New York. Where he is today.
Curiously, as we discovered seven years ago, another photographer, American Brian Hamill, had also had photos of John and Yoko – captured in New York in October 1972 – stolen from him.
Having been stored in the Getty archives, they were officially declared as ‘misfiled’ after officials were not able to locate them. Hamill was awarded a paltry $10,000 in compensation.
Yet, shockingly, these same missing photos mysteriously appeared – alongside Nutter’s missing ones – in Fawcett’s Lennon biography, now a long time out of print. Lennon was shot dead the same year it came out in 1980.
Even more mysteriously Hamill also told the Olive Press how he had been offered the opportunity of buying them back in 2010.
It came over lunch in New York, via a lawyer representing an unnamed woman, who offered to ‘broker’ a shady deal in which Hamill would effectively purchase his own photos.
In a letter to the FBI’s Stolen Art Recovery Unit, he wrote that the loss of those images ‘feel like the loss of my memories and, therefore, a piece of my identity.’
“The FBI did next to nothing to help me out when I reported this,” Hamill told the Olive Press in 2016. He pointed the finger squarely at Fawcett, insisting we should investigate him.
We said we would try to locate them, however, despite our best efforts to track down the negatives, our efforts came to little.
But we were able to track down a 62-year-old Beatles biographer in the Far East, who issued instructions that the fee for the negatives would be £5,600, he put us in touch with the mysterious seller.
Our reporter was told to ‘send 90%’ of the agreed price after two contact sheets showing the original negatives were sent as proof of ownership.
After a week of exchanges, two remarkable never-before-seen contact sheets from the wedding were emailed over.
But when the seller (wrongly) suspected our undercover reporter was working for Yoko Ono, he launched into a vile tirade against her before threatening to sue and ending contact.
When we finally approached Fawcett about the negatives back in 2016, he replied: “These were in fact stolen from my New York apartment around 1976 along with everything else from my flat.
“Yoko Ono was extremely upset that these negatives were stolen, and has asked my help many times to try to get them back.”
Nutter admitted he was heartbroken and after adding he was struggling financially, he said he had ‘sort of given up.’ It was ominous.
The fate of the negatives seemed destined to forever remain a mystery.
That is until May 11, when we received our first letter from the apparent Good Samaritan in the USA – ‘a real shot in the dark’, the mystery writer admitted.
In the typed letter addressed to editor Jon Clarke, which left no return address or name, the individual explained she had actually had the missing negatives in her hands in 2011, but did not realise their significance.
Over around ten short paragraphs she went on to explain that someone had arrived at her office where she worked at the time and had taken a set of negatives to her boss, whom she declined to name.
She added that the mystery seller had brought the items hoping to make a profit, but the company had eventually declined, and the negatives remained in the mystery seller’s hands.
“Perhaps the issue of rights came up,” she added.
Either way, in the short time the collection had been in the office, she had made digital scans of the negatives in order for her boss to evaluate them and was amazed to see photos of ‘John and Yoko.’
“I’ve been a fan of the Beatles, particularly John Lennon, since I was a kid. I think the photos are wonderful,” she wrote.
And coming to the point, she added: “I recently remembered (out of the blue) that one envelope had David Nutter’s name written on it.”
When she did an internet search she came across our investigation of Nutter’s missing negatives from 2016, and suddenly understood the importance of the scans she had made in 2011.
“I feel real sympathy for Mr Nutter’s plight and I want to get the scans to him,” she wrote.
She added she has also sent a copy of the entire set to the Aperture Foundation in New York, a non-profit that supports photographers as a form of art, in the hope that they would be able to get them to Nutter and Hamill.
But the foundation appeared clueless to the saga when contacted this week, although did eventually confirm that they had received a pen drive, but without an accompanying letter.
Because of this they had decided not to check what was on it for fear it might be malicious.
“We will now be looking into this now,” a spokesman told us.
The letter writer herself meanwhile appealed to us to help her hand-deliver the scans to the photographers in person.
“I would love to meet Mr Nutter and talk with him about his photographs.
“This is a real shot in the dark with no guarantees it will work, but I’m hopeful,” she concluded.
In the second letter, she wrote: “I’m hopeful these photos will find their way to David and if they bring him new fame and money after all these years, that would be a wonderful outcome.”
When the Olive Press finally managed to track Nutter down to his Manhattan home again this week, he told us it would be ‘fabulous’ to finally receive digital scans of the original negatives.
The pain of ‘betrayal’ and’ losing something very valuable and dear’ to him has lingered for decades.
“I would feel very relieved and ever so grateful just to have anything, even if I don’t do anything with them, but just to have them,” he told us by phone.
And he went on to recall the ‘surreal’ time he had with the two icons of the Sixties, in which he appears in one photo (see left).
“It was an incredible day in Gibraltar, It really was,” Nutter reminisced. “They were in such a good mood. And they were very funny and we had a really good laugh, and it was just wonderful.”
The starstruck photographer was even dragged in to serve as a witness for the marriage ceremony.
“They actually spelled my name wrong on the marriage certificate. Otherwise, it was magical.”
The 84-year-old added he would gladly meet in person with the ‘kind’ anonymous letter writer who got in touch with the Olive Press and asked us to try and set up a meeting.
“I would happily chat about the Beatles and the golden era that we lived through back then,” he continued.
We also got in touch with New-Yorker Hamill, who told us the prospect of having the scans would be ‘just dandy.’
“Are you kidding?” he then cried jubilantly down the phone. “I’d be delighted.”
He told us: “I tell my daughter how important journalism is, and I want to say thank you so much for doing this.”
Thus the enigmatic saga, heading towards its 50th year, might finally reach a bittersweet conclusion, as we now await our mystery letter writer to continue the correspondence.
Help, we need somebody…yes, it’s over to you Ms secret letter writer!
- EXCLUSIVE PART ONE: Original Olive Press investigation into missing John Lennon wedding negatives
- EXCLUSIVE PART TWO: Olive Press investigation uncovers mystery seller of stolen John Lennon photos
- WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Never before seen photo of John and Yoko sparks life into missing Gibraltar wedding pictures mystery