Pauline Sutcliffe, sister of former Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, visited Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to sort out and identify artifacts for the upcoming exhibit “Stuart Sutcliffe: From the Beatles to Backbeat.” The exhibit marks the first time her brother’s 100 or so paintings and sketches have ever been shown in one place.
While in town, Ms. Sutcliffe took the time to discuss two primary relationships of her brother’s short life (Sutcliffe died in 1962 of a brain hemorrhage): his friendship with John Lennon and his love affair with photographer Astrid Kirchherr — both were presented in the 1994 biopic, Backbeat.
Though Sutcliffe was Lennon’s art school mentor and after-hours instructor, it was Lennon who talked him into using his earnings from the sale of a painting to buy a bass guitar and join the fledgling band. It was also Lennon who lured him to Hamburg, where he embraced the sex, drugs and rock & roll lifestyle the Beatles discovered in that city’s notorious Reeperbahn red-light district.
“My mother’s whole concept of her son’s death was that the worst thing that happened to him was John [bringing him] into the group,” Pauline Sutcliffe said. “If he hadn’t joined that group, he wouldn’t have been in Germany. And he wouldn’t have died.”
She said she agreed with her mother on that point, saying that there is no reason a healthy young man who was never ill would suddenly be so sick the last year of his life, unless he was damaging himself by living an unhealthy lifestyle. The film implied that a bad beating Sutcliffe received after he and Lennon got into a barroom skirmish in Liverpool caused the painful attacks he suffered and his eventual hemorrhage.
After Stuart’s death, Kirchherr became quite close to the Sutcliffe family. Pauline says she began calling their mother “Mummy” and “Mum” in her letters instead of “Mrs. Sutcliffe.” Pauline and Sutcliffe’s other sister, Joyce, were her “little sisters.”
According to Pauline, Kirchherr had promised to send Stuart’s belongings home to the family, but a year later, the Sutcliffes had to make a formal request for their return. Pauline, now the executor as well as the beneficiary of her brother’s estate, said objects have surfaced over the years, the existence of which she was previously unaware — specifically two letters to her mother that showed up in a Sotheby’s auction house catalog along with the bass Stuart had given to Kirchherr’s friend Klaus Voormann.
“My mother died thinking that the last person my brother was thinking about most when he died was [Joyce, because of] a letter he was writing to my sister,” Pauline says. “And several years after my mother’s death, I open the Sotheby’s catalog and there are two unfinished letters to my mother. So she didn’t know about them. Furthermore, they were very personal — throw them away, but don’t put them up for sale!”
Pauline agreed to let the bass be sold and to split the proceeds, on the condition that the letters be returned. (They will not be among those displayed in the exhibit.) In addition to Sutcliffe’s artwork, some of Kirchherr’s photographs are also being included in the Rock Hall display.
“Stuart Sutcliffe: From the Beatles to Backbeat” opens May 15th and runs in conjunction with the much larger exhibit, “Lennon: His Life and Work,” which has been extended at least until the end of the year.