Ailing Yoko Ono’s billion-dollar fortune
Three years ago, when the National Music Publishers' Association presented Yoko Ono with their Centennial Song Award, Sean Lennon pushed his mother onto the stage at Cipriani 42nd Street in a wheelchair - shocking some who didn't realise the formidable avant-garde artist was so frail.
But in her signature shades, black leather jacket and white Panama hat, the widow of John Lennon didn't seem to miss a beat when she began a short acceptance speech by addressing the elephant in the room.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she said, clutching the award in one hand and a microphone in the other as Sean whispered to her about what was going on. "I've learned so much from having this illness. I'm thankful I went through that."
While it's not clear what "illness" she was referring to, Ono, now 87, is still ailing, requires around-the-clock care, a source close to her staff told The Post. She rarely leaves her sprawling New York apartment - in The Dakota building, where she lived with late husband John Lennon and where he was killed in 1980.
In photos taken at rare public appearances, including a women's march in Columbus Circle last year and at a commemoration of John in Liverpool in May 2018, Ono is confined to a wheelchair, or walks with great difficulty using a walking stick, often leaning on a caregiver or Sean for support.
She has also been selling off some real estate in recent years.
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"She has definitely slowed down, like anyone at that age," said Elliot Mintz, a close family friend who has known Ono for nearly 50 years, and has acted as a family spokesman, representing the John Lennon estate since the former Beatle's murder in December 1980. "But she is as sharp as she once was."
'SEAN IS HER BEST FRIEND'
Mr Mintz said he last saw Ono at her 87th birthday party in February. He was one of more than 30 guests, including Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner, singer Cyndi Lauper and Ono's daughter, Kyoko, 56, from her pre-John marriage to film producer Anthony Cox.
Two years after their divorce in 1971, Cox fled with Kyoko and raised her in Christian fundamentalist communes. Ono fought for years for Kyoko, who began reaching out to her mother after John's murder. According to Mr Mintz, Ono is now very close to Kyoko as well as Sean, her 44-year-old son with Lennon.
"Sean is her best friend," Mr Mintz said. "They have dinner two or three times a week, and he occasionally brings his mum out as a guest star in his band."
Sean organises Ono's birthday party every year, painstakingly obsessing over the decorations and flower arrangements, Mr Mintz said. In February, he took over Bar Wayo at the South Street Seaport for the party, where guests celebrated over champagne. In previous years, Sean and Ono have taken to the stage to perform.
But this year, the celebration was more low-key. "She blew out the candles with Sean and she was among the last to leave," Mr Mintz said. "She was in good spirits. I helped her into her wheelchair and gently helped her into her car."
Mr Mintz would not comment on Ono's personal medical history. "She is a particularly special being," he said. "In these 87 years, she's lived 400."
Yoko Ono was born in 1933 into a Tokyo banking family whose fortunes suffered during World War II. The family faced starvation and was often forced to barter household items for food while they sought refuge from Allied bombing raids.
Despite the wartime deprivations, Ono inherited her family's business acumen. In addition to becoming an avant-garde artist who once opened her show at MoMA by screaming into a microphone, she is also a hard-nosed businesswoman and a prodigious investor in real estate. After her marriage to John in 1969, she began to amass a mini-empire of properties that spanned New York City, the Hudson Valley, the Hamptons, Palm Beach, Ireland and England. She also has a sizeable art collection that includes works by her old friend Andy Warhol.
ASSETS OF $1 BILLION
Today, Ono has reported assets of over $1 billion. She still owns multimillion-dollar properties in Manhattan as well as hundreds of rolling acres in upstate Delaware County, public records show. She lives in the same nine-room apartment, on the seventh floor of The Dakota, that she once shared with John. She also keeps a unit at an adjacent building for visitors, and two small one-room spaces without kitchens that she uses for staff, a source told The Post. And she has an office on the first floor that was once used by John as a recording studio.
"She would wake up early every morning, go downstairs to the studio and handle the family business, allowing John to be a househusband," said Mr Mintz, adding that John had no real business sense, and often needed her help to figure out the most mundane financial matters, such as how much to tip a waiter when he paid for a meal at a restaurant.
But Ono has been shedding assets. In 2017, she sold a building in New York's Upper West Side that she had owned since 1988. She originally bought the property, housing two residential units, for just under $718,000 and sold it for almost $10 million, public records show. In 2013, she sold a penthouse apartment in the West Village, which Sean lived in for years, for almost $12 million.
Although Ono still owns more than 240 hectares near the town of Franklin, NY, locals say it's been ages since they saw her in the area where she used to holiday with Sean and groups of friends. John and Ono bought the property and 100 Holstein cattle to set up a breeding operation before he was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman in front of The Dakota on December 8, 1980.
"We haven't seen her for a very long time," said Roland Greefkes, an iron artisan who made a wrought-iron gate for Ono's property. "I never met anyone quite like her. She is really something special."
That sentiment is echoed by the directors of charities she has long supported. Although the charity she began with John, the Spirit Foundations, had contributions of only just under $35,000 from her in 2018, Ono does most of her charitable giving directly. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in New York, she donated $350,000 to Montefiore Medical Centre in The Bronx, to support frontline healthcare workers.
"Montefiore was specifically chosen because Yoko wanted to assist a hospital in a community hit hard by COVID that didn't have the ability to turn to wealthy donors and board members the way Cornell, NYU, Mount Sinai and others in Manhattan can," Mr Mintz said.
She has also recently supported musicians she has worked with in the past who have fallen on hard times. She helped Stanley Bronstein, who played in her Plastic Ono Band, when he needed emergency medical care, Mr Mintz said.
HER PET CAUSE
But hunger remains her pet cause. "I remember being hungry and I know it's so difficult to just be hungry," Ono said in a 2013 interview. "One day I didn't bring a lunch box. The other kids asked, don't you want to eat? I just said, no, I'm not hungry."
Ono recently donated $70,000 to the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, which, during the pandemic, has provided thousands of meals to out-of-work residents in her neighbourhood. And she has a 30-year relationship with WhyHunger, a New York-based non-profit fighting food deprivation around the world.
"She has been a true philanthropic partner," Noreen Springstead, the group's executive director, said. "She is the most energetic, the most vivacious person and is very hands-on. She has been incredibly invested for more than three decades."
A few years ago, Ono allowed WhyHunger to license John's "Imagine" song lyrics and drawings for a global anti-hunger campaign, helping the charity raise nearly $7 million for its projects in New York and around the world, Ms Springstead said.
And it was for "Imagine", the 1971 utopian anthem, that Ono collected the Centennial Song Award for her late husband in 2017. While she saton the stage in her wheelchair, the hosts of the National Music Publishers' Association surprised her with a second prize of her own - after playing an old audio clip from John saying that Ono should be credited as a co-writer on the song.
"That should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it - the lyric and the concept - came from Yoko," said the former Beatle in a voice-over. "But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution."
Ono beamed as Sean whispered the news to his mother.
"This is the best time of my life," she told the audience.
This story originally appeared on the New York Post and is republished here with permission
Originally published as Ailing Yoko Ono's billion-dollar fortune