In preparation for my play, All Together Now, based on the local legend that the former Beatles almost met at the Haskell Free Library, I’m sharing an article I researched and published in the Stanstead Historical Society Journal in 2017. All Together Now runs May 10-12 and May 17-19. Tickets available online through Catamount Arts.
It’s strange to get excited about something that didn’t happen, but for more than 40 years the Stanstead/Derby Line border communities have transformed an event that almost occurred into the stuff of myth: a planned meeting at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House between the former members of The Beatles that ultimately didn’t take place.
The event (or non-event) is often described as a “reunion,” as if the former Fab Four were expected to break out their instruments right there in the library’s International Reading Room. As it turns out, not only was there no music but there is no hard evidence that such a meeting or reunion was ever even discussed. Still, that hasn’t stopped the legend from spreading.
The story goes that one or more Beatles was unable to enter the United States or perhaps Canada. The reason given usually has to do with the British musicians’ history of drugs and drug-related arrests. The Haskell, therefore, with its front room partially in Derby Line, Vt., partially in Rock Island, Que., served as the ideal loophole for getting around immigration.
The versions of this story that make it into print or online are usually vague, with the players varying in terms of who was line bound.
“John Lennon wasn’t allowed into the USA at the time. Three of the Beatles could have sat on the US side of the line while John could have sat in the same room, just a few inches away, on the Canadian side.”
“At the time, John Lennon lived in New York City and was what was termed ‘line bound,’ meaning that officials would not have gone looking to deport John, but if he did happen to exit the U.S., reentry would have been problematic. George Harrison, on the other hand, was prohibited from entering the U.S. altogether…. Inevitably, it was not to be, nixed by prudent local law enforcement who conceded that the crowds such a meeting was sure to gather would reach unmanageable proportions.”
“The group considered meeting there to talk at a time when John Lennon, a U.S. resident, feared he wouldn’t be readmitted because of a drug charge if he left, and Paul McCartney and George Harrison were barred from the U.S. as ‘undesirable aliens’ due to their drug convictions. After the meeting was arranged, the singers cancelled it, fearing they’d be mobbed by fans.” (“A House Divided Can Stand” San Bernardino County Sun, March 21, 1982.)
Or even quite astonishingly:
“Legend has it that back in the day the Beatles used to meet [at the Haskell Library]. John was banned from the US so he would enter the library from the Canadian side with George, Paul and Ringo coming in from the US side. The locals claim that George, Paul, and Ringo used to stay to relax afterwards because they could walk around and everyone just treated them a regular people.” [italics mine]
In some versions, Ringo Starr is of course the man who cannot enter the United States. In fact, the only member of the Beatles who ever had documented trouble entering the United States was Paul McCartney, and it’s his dilemma that makes a Haskell meeting actually plausible.
In 1972, John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono had been living in New York for a year, during which they had become vocal opponents of the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon wanted Lennon gone and issued a deportation order during this, his reelection year. The justification for the order was Lennon’s misdemeanour charge for cannabis possession back in London in 1968. The Lennons were in the midst of fighting the order and feared that, should John leave the country voluntarily, there was a strong likelihood he wouldn’t be allowed back in.
Meanwhile, on his farm in Scotland, Paul McCartney was busted for growing marijuana, and in March 1973 he was fined £100. “As a result of his drug convictions, the US government repeatedly denied him a visa until December 1973.”
Therefore, between March and December 1973, with John unable to leave the United States and Paul unable to enter it, the Haskell Library would have presented an opportunity to hold a meeting had the former Beatles wanted to gather in a single room.
But after this plausible scenario, the trail runs cold.
For a meeting that was supposedly cancelled because word got out, I have found no mention to date of such a meeting in The Stanstead Journal, either during this March-December time period or in the years leading up to or following.
The minutes of the Haskell Free Library offer no evidence of a meeting being discussed.
Patricia Walsh of Derby Line was a library trustee in 1973 (incidentally the first woman to ever serve as such). In an interview, she stated that she had no recollection of such a meeting being discussed. The president at the time was Ken Baldwin of Rock Island. The vice-president was Lloyd Selby of Derby Line. Both men are deceased.
Roland “Buzz” Roy, also of Derby Line, was a village trustee that year. Asked whether he had ever heard or seen evidence of any planned Beatles meeting, he said, “Absolutely and positively not.”
The assistant librarian at the time was Ethel Whiteman, who passed away in 2003. Her daughter, Joyce Thayer, never heard her mother speak of such a meeting.
But Kim Prangley remembers her mother speaking of it quite clearly. Prangley is the daughter of Adelaide Prangley, who was librarian from 1971 until her death in 1982. Kim Prangley succeeded her mother in that post.
“My mother talked to their business manager about them getting back together,” she recalls. “They made all the arrangements but finally cancelled when they realized Stanstead couldn’t handle it.”
With Adelaide Prangley now deceased, such a memory could be attributed to the convincing nature of oral legends were it not for the fact that here it is from the horse’s mouth. In an interview with Ottawa Journal in 1979, Adelaide Prangley is quoted as saying:
“Their agent came to see me – this was about seven years ago – and made the arrangements. They had heard that this was, perhaps the only place in the world where they could get together. Well, I told the president of the board [now deceased] and in no time the news was all over so they cancelled.” (Bain, Christopher. “Separation Crosses the Borderline,” Ottawa Journal, December 22, 1979)
“About seven years ago” would have been 1972, possibly 1973.
Sometime in the early 1980s, Mrs. Prangley told an interviewer with “Real People” a similar story. “John Lennon couldn’t leave the United States for fear he wouldn’t be let back in. George Harrison and Paul McCartney couldn’t enter the States because of charges against them.” The voiceover then simply declares, “The Beatles never got together.” (This link starting at the 2:00 mark.)
Yet even author Mark Lewisohn, recognized as the world’s leading Beatles historian, was unaware of the proposed meeting.
“I’ve not heard of this possible Haskell meeting of the ex-Beatles and certainly never seen any mention of it within the inner-circle,” he wrote in an email. “This doesn’t mean the rumour is untrue, but it does make it doubtful, I’d say.”
Piers Hemmingsen, author of The Beatles in Canada, noted that three out of four Beatles had supposedly gathered in a recording studio in New York in 1970 or 1971, so it’s possible a reunion could have been discussed. Though he couldn’t substantiate the Haskell story, he had heard of it and was intrigued by the possibility.
“[T]here is no smoke without a fire,” he wrote.
Indeed, there’s no reason for Mrs. Prangley to have made up such a story, and yet there is no hard evidence it ever happened – or didn’t happen, as the case may be.
Which raises the question: why has something that didn’t happen become such a durable oral legend? Why do people want so badly to believe this almost-event occurred?
One reason is that people will believe anything. When I posted on social media the preposterous story about the former Beatles frequently gathering at the border and mingling casually with the locals, the story was shared multiple times without comment, as if it were factual.
The more likely reason, though, is that the story speaks to the revered status of The Beatles and our desire to be associated in any way possible with these historic and legendary figures of 20th century pop culture. Combine this with the bi-national nature of the Haskell Library, itself a unique and intriguing institution that delights public imagination, and the story become irresistible. In the end, whether it’s true doesn’t matter, because, in the end, the meeting never happened. But it could have, the notion is plausible. At the Haskell itself, the story is referred to as “the most famous thing that never happened.”