How 'Beatlemania' hit the embassy
By Ian Herbert, The Independent
Monday, August 13, 2007
A diplomatic incident of some kind is perhaps foreseeable when four young Liverpudlians arrive in a land they've never seen before to meet legions of screaming, weeping young women. That might be what Harold Wilson had in the back of his mind when, as Prime Minister, he ensured that a visit to the British embassy in Washington was on the Beatles' itinerary when they travelled to the US in February 1964.
If that was the case, then Wilson had evidently not anticipated quite how enthusiastically the Fab Four would actually be received by the likes of Lord Harlech, British ambassador of the day, and his wife Lady Sylvia Ormsby-Gore.
In what might be described as the Ringo Snip Affair, the band's dignified soiree at the embassy came to an undignified halt when one of the diplomatic corps appeared to remove a locket of Starr's mop top amid some extraordinary scenes of manhandling. And that was not the end of it. New Foreign Office files also reveal the extent to which the diplomats went to cover their tracks for fear, in the words of one, of providing "ammunition for press comment".
The band arrived at the embassy, in Massachusetts Avenue at 12.45am, after a concert, to hand out raffle prizes in support of the National Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. There, according to an eyewitness report by an American journalist contained in the FO file, they encountered "several hundred diplomats and their wives" raucously singing "yeah, yeah, yeah" before submitting the four to a "concerted charge".
John Lennon was pushed and pulled by a "rugby scrum of young Foreign Office officials" while George Harrison was grappled into a corner by dozens of autograph hunters in formal dress. But Ringo had the worst of it. "Someone just cut off a piece of my hair. I'm ruddy mad. This lot here are terrifying," he said. "Much worse than the kids."
In a show of sardonic defiance the band conducted the draw in "mock Etonian" accents and informed a middle-aged guest, who had won a Beatles LP, that he could always exchange it for something by Frank Sinatra. "I really am terribly sorry about the scene in the ballroom," Lady Ormsby-Gore told the band as they left.
Back in Westminster, the Tory MP Joan Quennell wrote privately to the Foreign Secretary, Rab Butler, demanding to know if it was true that "the young British entertainers known as the Beatles" had been manhandled by officials in Washington.
In correspondence that the press never got wind of, Foreign Office mandarins assured her that "no manhandling took place". Lord Harlech, who had been asked to provide his version, stated in a letter on 19 February: "The Beatles were received with friendly enthusiasm. I am assured that the suggestion they were manhandled by anyone is untrue."
But the file reveals the private deliberations about the dangers of revealing more, plus a letter from the British embassy to the Foreign Office dated 10 March, 1964, which reveals a "diplomat's wife" had been under suspicion.
To the embassy's relief, a Canadian newspaper, the Oshawa Times, got them off the hook. A teenage music fan, Beverly Markowitz, told the paper she had managed to sneak into the party and was responsible for cutting the drummer's locks.
The Beatles were unconvinced. In a version of events supported by Paul McCartney, Starr recalled in 1983 his "horrendous time" in the embassy. "Most of the people there didn't relate to music in any shape or form," he said. "After they had a few drinks they got really silly and one guy decided he'd cut a lock of my hair off. I just started screaming at him and we didn't stay there long. These diplomats just don't know how to behave."