How a TV baseball movie inspired late Lennon love song

Beatles expert studied dozens of obscure films to solve mystery of the 1980s track Grow Old With Me

A month before he was shot dead in December 1980, John Lennon recorded the song Grow Old With Me, its lyrics drawn from a Robert Browning poem.

Inspiration for the song was known to have come to Lennon in July that year, while watching a film about baseball during a visit to Bermuda. Now, after a somewhat quixotic hunt that involved scouring television schedules and watching dozens of obscure movies, a leading Beatles scholar has identified the exact film, solving a mystery that has lasted for decades.

Kenneth Womack waded through dozens of baseball films before realising that Lennon had to have seen A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story, a 1978 made-for-television movie about the baseball player whose life was cut short by a rare nervous system disorder. It starred Edward Herrmann as Gehrig, who was struck down by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 37.

A Love Affair: the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story
The 1978 made-for-TV movie A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story, which inspired Lennon. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Womack told the Observer that Lennon had clearly been moved by a scene in which Eleanor – played by Blythe Danner – reads a letter in which Gehrig referred to the first lines from Rabbi Ben Ezra, Browning’s 1864 historical poem inspired by a 12th-century scholar.

“Thanks very much for sending me that book of poems. I especially liked the one by Robert Browning that goes, ‘Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be’…”

When Lennon watched the film, “it was a different, much smaller world where folks enjoyed more shared experiences via television and music especially”, said Womack.

Robert Browning
Robert Browning wrote the poem Rabbi Ben Ezra, the first lines of which featured in the film A Love Affair. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“For that reason, I wanted to know what film had inspired him to compose such a beautiful song. For John, the use of such ‘found objects’ in life and art was essential to his composition practices.”

He added: “For decades, American filmmakers had put out one baseball film after another, and there are hundreds of them.

“After watching dozens in search of the mysterious film in question, I began to study TV guides from that period. John was a regular subscriber.”

Having established that this particular television film had been screened at the time in Bermuda, Womack said: “The mystery, quite suddenly, was solved.”

Womack, professor of English and popular music at Monmouth University in New Jersey, will include his latest research in his forthcoming book, titled John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life, to be published this week.

• This article was amended on 6 October 2020 to correct an editing error that led an earlier version to say Grow Old With Me was released in November 1980; that is when John Lennon recorded the song but it was not released until 1984.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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