Mary Elizabeth "Mimi" Smith (née Stanley) (24 April 1906 – 6 December 1991) is best known as the maternal aunt and parental guardian of the English musician John Lennon. She was born in Liverpool, England and was the eldest of five daughters in the Stanley family.
Lennon lived with Mimi and her husband George Smith for most of his childhood. He remained close to her throughout his life, although Mimi was highly dismissive of Lennon's girlfriends and wives.
The Beatles' success later enabled Lennon to buy her a bungalow in Poole, Dorset, where she lived until her death in 1991.
The Stanley family
According to Lennon, the Stanley family once owned the whole of Woolton village. Mimi's father, George Stanley, was born in the Everton district of Liverpool in 1874, and became a sailor. Mimi's mother, Annie Jane Millward, was born in Chester around 1875, to Welsh parents. Annie gave birth to a boy and a girl, who both died shortly after birth, and then had Mary, known as 'Mimi' (1906-1991), Elizabeth 'Mater' (1908-1976), Anne 'Nanny' (1911-1988), Julia 'Judy' (1914-1958), and Harriet 'Harrie' (1916-1972).
After the birth of all of his daughters, Mimi's father retired from sailing and found a job with the Liverpool and Glasgow Tug Salvage Company as an insurance investigator. He moved his family to the Liverpool suburb of Woolton, where they lived in a small terraced house at 9 Newcastle Road, which is close to Penny Lane. To help her mother, Mimi had to take a matriarchal role in the Stanley house, looking after the whole family. Despite this, Mimi always wore sensible dresses, and always looked as if she was on her way to a weekly garden club meeting. Mimi based everything on decorum, honesty, and a black-and-white attitude: either you were good enough or you were not. Lennon's school friend Pete Shotton later commented that "Mimi had a very strong sense of what was right or wrong". Annie Stanley died in 1945, so Julia Lennon had to take care of her father with help from Mimi.
When other girls were thinking of marriage, Mimi talked of challenges and adventures that arose from her attitude of stubborn independence. She once confided that she never wanted to get married, as she hated the idea of being "tied to the kitchen sink." She became a resident trainee nurse at the Woolton Convalescent Hospital and later worked as a private secretary for Ernest Vickers, who was an industrial magnate with businesses in Manchester and Liverpool. She had long-term plans to buy a modest house in a respected suburb of Liverpool one day so that she could entertain the "scholars and dignitaries of Liverpool society."
Marriage and Mendips
In early 1932 Mimi met George Smith, a tall and stocky milkman, who lived across from the hospital where Mimi worked and to which he delivered milk every morning. George and his brother, Frank Smith, operated a dairy farm and a shop in Woolton that had been in the Smith family for four generations.
George started seriously courting Mimi, but was constantly thwarted by Mimi's indifference and her father's interference. George Stanley would only allow the couple to sit in the back room at Newcastle Road when he or his wife were in the front room, and before it grew too late he would burst into the back room and loudly order George home. The courtship lasted almost seven years, but George grew tired of waiting, so after delivering milk to the hospital one morning he gave Mimi an ultimatum that she must marry him, "or nothing at all!"
On 15 September 1939 she finally married George. They bought a semi-detached house called Mendips — named after the range of hills — at 251 Menlove Avenue (across the road from the Allerton Park golf course) in a middle class area of Liverpool. Menlove Avenue suffered extensive damage during World War II, and Mimi often had to throw a wet blanket on incendiary bombs that fell in their garden. During the war the government took over the Smiths' farmland for war work, and George was called up for service, but was discharged three years later, and subsequently worked in an aircraft factory in Speke until the end of the war. George later left the milk trade and started a small bookmaker's business, which led Mimi to complain later that George was a compulsive gambler and had lost most of their money.
Mimi and John
Julia Stanley married Alf Lennon on 3 December 1938, and on 9 October 1940, the couple's first and only child was born. Mimi phoned the Oxford Street Maternity Hospital that evening and was told that Julia had given birth to a boy. Mimi immediately went to the hospital, despite there being an air raid, and was forced to hide in doorways to avoid the shrapnel. She ran, as she later recalled, "as fast as my legs could carry me." Mimi took Lennon in her arms 20 minutes after he was born. When a parachute-borne landmine fell outside the hospital, Mimi later said, "My sister [Julia] stayed in bed, and they put the baby [Lennon] under the bed. They wanted me to go into the basement, but I wouldn't. I ran all the way back to Newcastle Road to tell Father the news. 'Get under shelter,' the wardens were shouting. 'Oh, be quiet,' I told them."
After Julia separated from Alf Lennon, she and the infant Lennon moved in with Julia's new partner, John Albert "Bobby" Dykins, but Mimi twice contacted Liverpool's Social Services and complained about Lennon sleeping in the same bed as Julia and Dykins. Julia was eventually persuaded to hand the care of Lennon over to Mimi and George, who had no children of their own. Mimi later confided to a relative that although she had never wanted children, she had "always wanted John." Mimi would later say: "John loved his uncle George. I felt quite left out of that. They'd go off together, just leaving me a bar of chocolate and a note saying: 'Have a happy day.'"
In July 1946, the returning Alf Lennon visited Mimi and took Lennon to Blackpool, ostensibly for a long holiday, but with the secret intention of emigrating to New Zealand with him. Julia went to Blackpool and took Lennon back to her house, but a few weeks later she handed him back over to Mimi. Lennon then lived continuously at 'Mendips,' in the smallest bedroom above the front door.
Although Mimi was a caring guardian, she was also known for being very strict, compared to the more relaxed influence of George and Julia. Family friends described Mimi as stubborn, impatient, and unforgiving, but also said that she had a strong sense of humor. On many occasions when she criticized Lennon, he would respond with a joke, and the two of them would be "rolling around, laughing together." Mimi had three Siamese cats that she was very fond of: Tich (a marmalade-coloured half-Persian), Tim (a half-Persian) and Sam (a cat that Lennon found as a stray in the street) and would later have cats of his own.
Mimi bought volumes of short stories for Lennon, and George taught the five-year-old to read by reading aloud the headlines of the Liverpool Echo. Every summer, from the age of nine until he was 15, Mimi sent Lennon alone on a 10-hour bus journey to visit his Aunt Mater and cousin Stanley Parkes at their home near Loch Meadie in Durness, Scotland. Mimi also took her charge to a garden party in Calderstones Park every year, where a Salvation Army band played. Mimi remembered Lennon pulling her by the hand to get there, saying, "Hurry up Mimi – we’re going to be late." Strawberry Field, in Beaconsfield Road, was the name of a Salvation Army house that Lennon would later immortalize it in the song "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Despite the talk of Lennon being working class — as were Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — he refuted the idea by saying, "I was a nice clean-cut suburban boy, and in the class system I was about a half an inch in a higher class than Paul, George and Ringo, who lived in subsidized government houses. We owned our own house, had our own garden. They didn't have anything like that." Lennon also said that Mendips was "a nice, semi-detached place, with a small garden and doctors and lawyers and that ilk living around ... not the poor slummy kind of image that was projected in all the Beatles' stories." After Lennon became famous, Mimi would berate him for speaking in a Liverpudlian accent, but Lennon replied: "That's show business, they want me to speak more Liverpool."
Mimi's husband George died of a liver hemorrhage in 1955, at the age of 52. Mimi rented a spare room at Mendips out to students for extra income after George's death, even though he had left Mimi £2,000 in his will. Three years after George's death, Julia was killed on Menlove Avenue — shortly after a visit to Mimi's — when she was knocked down by a car driven by an off-duty police officer, PC Eric Clague. Mimi did not witness the accident, but cried hysterically over Julia's body until the ambulance arrived. Calgue was acquitted of all charges, given a reprimand, and a short suspension from duty. When Mimi heard the verdict she was so incensed that she shouted "Murderer!" at Clague.
Mimi and Lennon's music
Although Mimi later claimed that she had bought Lennon's first guitar, it was actually Julia, after John had pestered his mother incessantly for weeks. Julia insisted that the instrument had to be delivered to her house and not to Mimi's.
Mimi and Julia first saw Lennon perform with The Quarrymen at the Woolton St. Peter's Church fête on the afternoon of 6 July 1957. Julia (who knew that Lennon would be performing) heard music coming from a large marquee in the field behind the church hall, and dragged Mimi along with her to listen to it. Lennon saw Mimi coming through the crowd and comically changed the words of a song to feature her name. Mimi related two versions of what she thought that day about seeing Lennon on stage: "Horrified to behold John in front of a microphone," and "as pleased as Punch to see him up there."
With help from Mimi and Lennon's headmaster, Lennon was accepted into the Liverpool College of Art as Mimi was insistent that Lennon should have some sort of academic qualifications, but Lennon was beginning to show an interest in music. Mimi hoped Lennon would become bored with music, and often said, “Music's all right John, but you'll never make a living out of it.”
In later years, Lennon would jokingly remind Mimi of her comment, and after The Beatles' success he presented her with a silver plaque engraved with her words. When later asked about the plaque, Mimi would say that Lennon had it made for her husband George, and not her.
Mimi was against the idea of Lennon forming a band and disapproved of McCartney because he was, she said, "working class" — calling him "John's little friend" — and when Mimi later met George Harrison, she "hated him" because of his thick "scouse" accent and "Teddy Boy" clothes. Lennon and McCartney often met at 'Mendips' to write songs, and rehearsed in the glass-paneled porch at the front of the house, which was the only place Mimi would let them play. Mimi once asked Parkes to take her to The Cavern to see Lennon play, but when she descended into the damp, dark cellar, full of screaming teenagers, she shouted to Parkes, "Get him [Lennon] out, get him out! Tell him to come off the stage! He can't stay here.... We'll have to stop this!" The Beatles' first Hamburg trip also shocked Mimi, as she wanted Lennon to continue his studies, but Lennon ignored her. Lennon later placated Mimi slightly by greatly exaggerating the sum of how much money he would earn in Hamburg.
Lennon's girlfriends and wives
Mimi's attitude to Lennon's partners was either frosty, disdainful, or sarcastic. She constantly criticized Lennon about his relationships, and even criticized Cynthia for divorcing Lennon and allowing him to start a relationship with Yoko Ono.
Mimi and Cynthia Lennon
Mimi once referred to Cynthia Powell as "a gangster's moll," and was particularly unpleasant or cold towards her. In the summer of 1962, Cynthia discovered that she was pregnant with Lennon's child. Lennon proposed marriage, but when he told Mimi she threatened never to speak to him again in order to stop him from going through with it. Lennon and Cynthia were married on 23 August, at the Mount Pleasant Register office in Liverpool, but Mimi did not attend. Lennon had wanted his half-sisters, cousins, and aunts to be there, but Mimi made sure that did not happen.
When Lennon returned to Mendips after a Hamburg trip, Mimi threw a cooked chicken (that Lennon had bought especially for her) and a hand-mirror at Lennon for spending money on a suede coat for Cynthia. After Lennon and Cynthia had been living at Brian Epstein's flat for a few months (and after hearing about Cynthia's near-miscarriage) Mimi offered to rent Mendips' downstairs room to them both. Cynthia remembered Mendips as cold and draughty (it had no central heating system) with only old electric fires in the downstairs rooms.
Whilst Lennon was in Hamburg he would often telephone Mendips, but Mimi always got to the phone first and talked to Lennon until shortly before his money ran out, only then handing over the phone to Cynthia. Cynthia had to boil hake fish for Mimi's three Siamese cats every day, which made the pregnant Cynthia nauseous. After Julian Lennon's birth, Cynthia often found one of Mimi's cats (along with cat hairs) in Julian's cot, and later said, "Mimi's passions throughout her life were money, Lennon and cats — in about that order." Mimi came downstairs one morning and told Cynthia that she had had a dream in which Cynthia's mother had come to the door and she [Mimi] had absolutely refused to let her in the house. This was the final straw and led Cynthia, in November 1963, to leave Mendips and move into a bedsit with Julian and her mother.
Mimi and Yoko Ono
On 14 March 1969, while Lennon and Yoko Ono were visiting Mimi in Poole, Lennon asked his chauffeur, Les Anthony, to drive to Southampton and enquire if it would be possible to get married at sea. On 20 March 1969, Lennon and Ono flew to Gibraltar and were married in the British Consulate.
Before Christmas in 1972, Mimi met Cynthia at the funeral of Mimi's sister, Harriet, in Liverpool. Mimi sternly criticized Cynthia for divorcing Lennon — and letting him start a relationship with Ono — by saying she should have stopped him from making "an idiot of himself." Even though Mimi was described as having been a domineering woman, Ono later compared herself to Mimi when describing her own relationship with Lennon. Mimi complimented Ono by saying that she had to admit that she was a good wife and mother, and that she had told Lennon so. After Lennon's death, Ono and Sean Lennon visited Mimi in Liverpool, where she was staying at Aunt Anne's house because of a heart condition. Mimi said, “Sean is like John in every way — looks and manner — and he has got John's sense of humor. As long as he keeps away from music, he will be all right.”
Ono later bought Mendips and donated it to the The National Trust. It was renovated to make it look as it was in the 1950s when Lennon lived there, and Ono visited it before it was opened to the public. Lennon's cousin, Michael Cadwallader, advised the National Trust on how the house looked when Mimi lived there.
Mimi had relatives in Eketahuna, New Zealand, as her maternal aunt, Harriet Millward, had married and moved to New Zealand. Mimi exchanged letters with her relatives over the years, so Lennon arranged for a Beatles' tour to visit New Zealand in 1964, in part because he wanted to give Mimi the gift of a visit to her relatives. Mimi stayed there for five months.
The Beatles' success caused a problem for Mimi, as she was constantly pestered by fans at Mendips. She sold the house for £6,000 in 1965, and Lennon bought her a £25,000 bungalow by the beach called Sandbanks, at 126 Panorama Road, Poole, in Dorset, which was Mimi's home for the rest of her life. Lennon, Cynthia and son Julian visited her there in the summer of 1965, which was the last time all three of them visited Mimi together. Lennon later gave Mimi his MBE medal (which she kept on the top of her television) until Lennon asked for it back so that he could return it in protest.
Lennon gave Mimi an allowance of £30 per week, but when Mimi found out that Cynthia's mother was being given the same amount, she phoned the Lennon's house and said, "What has she [Cynthia's mother] done to deserve anything? Tell John, when you speak to him, that I am very, very annoyed", before slamming down the phone. Lennon moved to New York in 1971, and never returned to England. Despite losing touch with several family members, he kept in close contact with Mimi and telephoned her every week. On 5 December 1980, three days before Lennon was murdered, he called Mimi to say he was homesick and was planning a trip back to England.
Lennon's half-sister Jacqui, Julia's daughter, lived with Mimi for a time at Sandbanks, but left after she became pregnant. She later reappeared when she became pregnant for the second time. She often visited on weekends during Mimi's last years. After Lennon's death Mimi was furious to find out that he had never transferred the ownership of the house over to her; this meant that Ono owned the house, and could sell it at any time.
Mimi died on 6 December 1992, at the age of 89, while being cared for at home by Lynne Varcoe, an auxiliary nurse, whose main job was as a mathematics teacher, but worked for her mother for extra income. Varcoe's mother ran the Varcoe Nursing Agency, and was asked by Ono to look after Mimi. During the night, carers from the Cheshire Trust were present. Mimi collapsed on the toilet, so Varcoe helped her to the bed, where Mimi started Cheyne-Stoking. According to Varcoe, Mimi's last words were, "Hello, John."
Although the oldest of the Stanley girls, Mimi was the last of them to die. Cynthia, Sean and Ono attended her funeral on 12 December 1991; McCartney, Harrison, and Starr all sent floral arrangements. Despite the animosity between Cynthia and Mimi, Varcoe remembered Cynthia crying throughout the whole funeral, and said that Mimi had always spoken positively about her. Mimi was cremated at the Poole Crematorium (on the A349 Poole to Wimborne Road) and the reception was at the Harbour Heights Hotel, on Haven Road, Poole, which is close to Sandbanks. The whereabouts of her ashes is unknown. Ono put Mimi's home up for sale on the same day as Mimi's cremation, and sometime later the house was torn down.