As every Beatles fan knows, Paul McCartney lost his wife in 1998. Linda McCartney, who made a name for herself through her photography and her strident advocacy for animal rights, had been married to Paul since 1969. And, naturally, when she passed away at the age of 56, Paul was left completely bereft. Two decades on, however, the former Beatles star chose to open up about Linda’s death and reveal the heartbreaking truth about how it had affected him.
And it’s true that grief can take many forms. Some people choose to mourn privately, for example, while others want to display their emotions openly. For someone as much in the spotlight as Paul, though, there was the added aspect of the whole world knowing about the bereavement, as Linda’s death made headline news.
It seems, too, that Paul’s father took the strong and silent approach to his own wife’s death, as the musical icon told the BBC in July 2019. And in the same interview, the star revealed in a remarkably candid manner how he himself had mourned the loss of the person whom he had loved.
Way before Paul was ever a global icon, however, he had a generally happy childhood – even though he entered the world while the Second World War was raging. At the time, his father, James, was a firefighter and his mother, Mary, was a nurse. But after the war ended, the family were able to live in Liverpool off Mary’s salary. And as he approached his teenage years, Paul encountered future bandmate George Harrison on a bus, with the pair going on to become good buddies.
Paul has since spoken highly of Liverpool, too. “The type of people that I came from, I never saw better! … I mean, the presidents, the Prime Minister – I never met anyone half as nice as some of the people I know from Liverpool who are nothing, who do nothing,” he told Playboy magazine in 1984. “They’re not important or famous. But they are smart, like my dad was smart.”
But Paul’s life was shattered in 1956 when Mary passed away as the result of an embolism after treatment for breast cancer. Her eldest son was only 14 years old at the time and so barely a teenager. “We had no idea what my mum had died of because no one talked about it. She just died,” the star told the BBC in 2019.
But the future pop legend could at least bury his grief in music. Young Paul learned to play the guitar and began writing songs; it was during this period of his life, in fact, that he penned what would later become “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Then, when he was just 15 years old, he encountered John Lennon for the first time.
Back then, John was in a group called the Quarrymen, and both Paul and George would subsequently join the outfit. In that way, what would become one of the most famous bands in the world took shape. And in August 1960, the members of the Quarrymen decided to change the name of the band. Now, they would be known as The Beatles.
At the beginning of 1962, The Beatles came under the management of Brian Epstein, who helped catapult them to fame. In August of that year, Ringo Starr also took over from original drummer Pete Best. And the band got bigger and bigger in the U.K., with the U.S. ultimately succumbing to “Beatlemania” as well.
So, Paul became a star. His good looks didn’t hurt matters, either; for a while, the media dubbed him the “cute” member of the band. And the frenzy around The Beatles rapidly became more and more fervent. By 1964, in fact, John, Paul, George and Ringo had practically conquered the world.
Despite the demands of being in a chart-topping pop group, though, Paul still had time for a love life. He started dating actress Jane Asher, for instance, after meeting her at a Beatles concert, and he moved in with her for a spell before the two got their own home together. In fact, Jane may have been Paul’s first wife if things had worked out a little differently. Yes, while Paul did ask Jane to marry him, in 1968 she allegedly caught him in bed with another woman – and that spelled the end of the relationship.
Paul would eventually settle down, however. Even while he had still been involved with Jane, he had felt an attraction to photographer Linda Eastman, whom he had met at the Bag O’ Nails nightclub in London. “As [Linda] was leaving… I saw an obvious opportunity. I said, ‘My name’s Paul. What’s yours?’ I think she probably recognized me,” Paul told The Daily Telegraph in 2008. “It was so corny, but I told the kids later that had it not been for that moment, none of them would be here.”
Linda’s career was going very well at that point in her life. She was noted for her pictures of famous musicians, with the Grateful Dead, The Doors, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience all having been among her subjects. But after taking snaps of The Beatles, she became romantically involved with Paul.
And as Beatles aficionados know, Paul and Linda went on to marry in March 1969. Linda had already been wed once before, and her daughter Heather from that relationship was present on the big day. Hordes of fans gathered outside the Marylebone register office where the ceremony took place; some even tried to jump in front of the couple’s car.
But if Beatles fever was bad then, it got even worse in 1970 when the band split up. To be exact, fans took out their rage on the wives of The Beatles. Yoko Ono married John a week after Linda married Paul, and both women were subjected to criticism and insults by both elements of the wider public and the media.
In 1971, however, Paul and Linda formed a band of their own called Wings. Inevitably, they weren’t as popular as The Beatles – the previous group had been a hard act to follow, after all – and their albums got some poor reviews. Paul’s misadventures didn’t help matters either; while touring in Japan, for example, he was arrested for cannabis possession. And in 1981, Wings were no more.
After that, Paul and Linda settled down with their children: Mary, Stella, James and Heather, who was officially adopted by Paul. Often they would stay at Paul’s farmhouse in Scotland – a place that the couple dearly loved and a retreat away from the public eye. Paul’s song “Two of Us” is about that time in the family’s life, in fact.
Linda became a fierce campaigner for animal rights, too. Throughout the course of her life, she advocated for animal welfare organizations such as PETA and the League Against Cruel Sports, and in 1991 she even started vegetarian meal company Linda McCartney Foods. The venture was a commercial success and made Linda rich in her own right.
Tragically, though, Linda discovered at the end of 1995 that she had breast cancer. And the McCartneys kept quiet about Linda’s condition even as the disease spread to her liver, leading the media to perhaps believe that she was winning the battle. Yet sadly that wasn’t the case, and in April 1998 the photographer and activist died at 56.
Paul and his two surviving Beatles bandmates, Ringo and George, reunited for Linda’s memorial service in London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields church. Over 700 people attended, and together the congregation sang the song “Let It Be.” Paul had originally written the song in tribute to his mother, who had of course been another victim of cancer.
And Paul chose to give a eulogy for his late wife at the occasion. “She was one of the kindest people — a lot of people have written to me to say how kind she was. Through our kids, our beautiful kids, her spirit lives on,” he said. The star added that anyone who wanted to pay their respects to Linda could either donate to charity or do “the tribute that Linda herself would like best: go veggie.”
Linda’s beautiful photographs still live on, of course. In 2019 a retrospective of her work was shown at the prestigious Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, with some of the images being ones that she had taken at her and her family’s Scottish home. And Paul himself went on BBC Radio Scotland in June of that year to talk about Linda, her talent and her death.
While speaking to the station, Paul reminisced about his early married life with Linda, for example. “When I met Linda and we were becoming a couple, she said, ‘Haven’t you got a place up in Scotland?’” he said. “We went up, and she totally fell in love with it. She loved the wildness, and she loved horse riding and animals generally.” There, he said, the whole family found freedom.
Being in Scotland also seemed to have inspired Linda artistically. “When she came to Britain and we got together, the greatest thing about it was [that] we both wanted to be free,” Paul explained. “We did what we wanted, and she took pictures of it all.” And Linda would have been delighted by the idea of a retrospective showing of her work, he said.
Then Paul turned to recounting the aftermath of his mother’s death, including the fact that his father never cried in front of him. “The [worst] thing about that was everyone was very stoic. Everyone kept a stiff upper lip, and then one evening you’d hear my dad crying in the next room,” the former Beatle explained to the BBC. “It was tragic… It was a quiet, private kind of grief.”
But Paul’s grief for Linda was apparently much more open. “I think I cried for about a year on and off,” he revealed. “You expect to see them walk in, this person you love, because you are so used to them. I cried a lot. It was almost embarrassing – except it seemed the only thing to do.”
And that wasn’t the first occasion on which Paul has talked about the bombshell of Linda’s death. In 2006, for instance, he spoke to The Guardian about how he stopped working on music after his wife’s passing. “I just couldn’t do anything, really, [and] I was just grieving,” Paul explained. “I gradually got back into it, [and] I just sort of wrote my sadness out.”
And in 2008, which marked ten years since Linda’s death, Paul spoke to The Sunday Times Magazine about his late wife. “Linda was very down to earth. She taught me to relax. Her priorities were private rather than public,” he said. “She didn’t go on television to ingratiate herself. She was just very funny, very smart and very talented.”
The musical icon explained, too, that he had never told Linda the cancer was killing her. “The doctors leave it to you, the immediate family,” he said. “I talked it over with the doctor, and he said, ‘I don’t think [Linda] would want to know. She is such a strong, forward-thinking lady and such a positive girl that I don’t think it would do any good.’”
Ultimately, though, Paul did get married again, as in 2002 he wed model-turned-activist Heather Mills. Heather wasn’t popular with the British public, either. “They didn’t like me giving up on Jane Asher,” Paul told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2004. “This time around, I married a younger woman, and they didn’t like that. It reminds me of the stick Linda got.”
Yet Paul and Heather’s marriage didn’t prove to be one for the ages. After having daughter Beatrice together, they parted ways in 2006. And the divorce proceedings were less than amicable. In the courts in 2008, Mills was not portrayed sympathetically when the judge gave his verdict, and she was forced to walk away with £100 million less than she’d sought.
It appeared, too, that Heather was viewed less than favorably by Paul and Linda’s son, James. “My relationship with Heather was not very good. I didn’t like her,” James told the Daily Mail in 2013. “But I wouldn’t want to say anything negative about her because she’s a good mother to Beatrice, and that’s the most important thing.”
James also revealed to the newspaper that he had been incredibly upset about Linda’s death. “[Dad and I] were both grieving together. That first night in Arizona, when she’d just died, I thought it would be too sad for dad to sleep on his own, so I kept him company,” he said. The loss also ultimately drove James to substance abuse, although he has since overcome his dependency.
Then Paul tied the knot with his third wife, Nancy Shevell, in October 2011. “A little while ago, I was getting divorced, and that was that weird bit of life. And before that, I was living 30 years and raising a family with Linda – that was that bit of life. I’m now married to an American, Nancy – lovely girl – [and] that’s this bit of life,” Paul told GQ magazine in 2018.
Yet even though Paul is now seemingly happily married again, he still sometimes takes time to pay tribute to Linda. In April 2018 – so, 20 years after Linda’s death – the musician posted a picture and message on his Instagram in honor of his late wife. “Remembering Linda with love today. Beautiful memories,” he wrote.
And in 2019 Paul also spoke to The Guardian about his life with Linda. “I always used to joke that I ruined Linda’s career,” he said. “She became known as ‘Paul’s wife’ instead of the focus being on her photography. But, as time went on, people started to realize that she was the real thing. So, yeah, she eventually did get the correct reputation.”
It seemed, too, that Paul was more than happy to talk about his late wife’s skill behind the lens. “She was a great believer in the happy accident,” he explained to The Guardian “Where other people might have said, ‘Well, this is blurred, we can’t use this one, we’ll go and look for the sharper photographs,’ she went with it.”
The former Beatle continued, “Linda took a lot of pictures of ordinary people that to her seemed extraordinary… We wouldn’t go to the big places; we’d just go to a little beach. That was very much my relationship with Linda. She’d had a reasonably strict upbringing… but then she’d started to smell freedom when she went to university in Arizona.”
And Paul also spoke about how Linda had enriched his life. “When she met me, I’d been like a robot, having to go on tour, make a record, go on tour, do this — and I’d had it up to here,” he said. “So we started to have a life where we didn’t have any plans. We’d go to Greece, book a hotel and just bum around.”
Paul further reminisced, “That feeling, that sniffing freedom – it went all the way through [Linda’s] photography and my music.” Without his first wife, then, some of Paul’s songs may not have been the same or have become such beloved hits.