Attorney Leon Wildes, who stood next to John Lennon and Yoko Ono in court, in public and on TV during the early 1970s as the famous couple successfully fought unrelenting deportation attempts by the Nixon Administration, died Monday, January 8, at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. He was 90.
His death was announced by his son Michael Wildes, the Mayor of Englewood, New Jersey.
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Wildes himself would share at least a fraction of the Lennons’ massive fame for a while in the early ’70s, appearing with the couple on various high-profile TV talk shows during the three-year litigation.
After Lennon and Ono, both outspoken critics of the war in Vietnam, moved to New York City following the break-up of the Beatles, they soon became targeted by the Nixon Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Lennon had been convicted in London in 1968 on a marijuana possession charge, and a waiver he’d obtained was set to expire.
Wildes would, over the course of a three-year legal battle, uncover evidence that in 1972 conservative South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond urged Nixon’s Attorney General John N. Mitchell to toss the Lennons out of the country, with Mitchell forwarding the request to immigration officials.
“If Lennon’s visa is terminated it would be a strategic countermeasure” to the antiwar activism, Thurmond wrote in a letter to Mitchell.
Lennon’s battle to remain in the United States – in part because Ono’s daughter Kyoko lived here with Ono’s ex-husband – became a cause célèbre, with appearances on The Dick Cavett Show, the Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder and others garnering considerable public support. Celebrities including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Bernstein and New York Mayor John V. Lindsay were among the Lennons’ high-profile supporters.
Wildes’ efforts on behalf of Lennon and Ono proved successful: On October 7, 1975, a Federal Appeals Court judge reversed a deportation order for Lennon, with Judge Irving Kaufman writing, “The courts will not condone selective deportation based upon secret political grounds. Lennon’s four-year battle to remain in our country is testimony to his faith in this American dream.”
Lennon was granted a green card in 1976.
The landmark case was chronicled in the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon and, in 2016, Wildes’ own book John Lennon vs. The U.S.A.: The Inside Story of the Most Bitterly Contested and Influential Deportation Case in United States History.
Wildes also coproduced Mark St. Germain’s Off Broadway play Ears on a Beatle in 2004, a fictionalized depiction of the FBI’s Lennon investigation.
Born March 4, 1933 in Olyphant, Pa., Wildes is survived by wife Alice Goldberg Wildes; sons Michael and Mark; eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Watch Wildes with Lennon on NBC’s Tomorrow with Tom Snyder below.
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