Brian Epstein: The Man who Made the Beatles by Ray Coleman - review by Tim Hulse

Tim Hulse

Lennon’s Bit of Stuff

Brian Epstein: The Man who Made the Beatles


Viking 463pp £12.95

Brian Epstein died at the age of 33 and his career as manager of The Beatles lasted less than six years. One could be forgiven for thinking that the major achievement of Ray Coleman’s biography is simply that he has managed to extend it over more than four hundred pages. But as the forty-page chronology of Epstein’s career at the end of the book makes clear, his short life was rarely dull. As the book unfolds, the catalogue of Epstein’s wheels and deals, successes and failures, and ultimate tragedy makes for surprisingly compulsive reading.

Epstein (‘Not Epstine, Epsteen,’ as he continued to point out through his life) not only built a show business empire but also became something of a star himself. He was a leading figure in the hierarchy of Swinging London in the sixties and enough of a celebrity to warrant the publication of an autobiography, entitled A Cellarful of Noise. And yet if proof were needed that money can’t buy you love (to paraphrase the Fab Four), then Epstein’s life would serve as a prime exhibit. Although he could display great personal charm, he was a shy man with very few friends, and his clandestine homosexuality served only to compound his loneliness. Towards the end of his life he became prone to depression and sought release in drugs, which caused his mood to fluctuate alarmingly.

To some extent the frustrations of his private life provided a stimulus for his management career. Epstein can take credit for launching the careers not just of The Beatles but also Gerry Marsden, Billy J Kramer and, in particular, Cilla Black, for whom he rightly predicted a successful career in light entertainment. But for Epstein the Beatles always came first. He struggled tirelessly to get them a recording contract against all the odds, and after putting them in suits, much to the disgust of their local following, he worked with singular determination to establish their success on a worldwide scale at a time when the pop music industry was still in its infancy. Epstein referred to the group as ‘my boys’ and on the whole his respect for their talents was reciprocated. When the Beatles were awarded MBEs, Paul McCartney suggested the letters stood for ‘Mister Brian Epstein’.

The major driving force in Epstein’s life seems to have been recurrent boredom. It can be seen at work in his early decision to abandon a secure job at his father’s Liverpool furniture store and enrol at RADA, although he only stayed there for nine months. And when he had successfully established the best-run basement record store in the North, it was perhaps in the vague hope of a new adventure that Epstein decided to take the three-minute walk to the dark and sweaty Cavern Club one lunchtime in November 1961. He wanted to check out for himself the group whose obscure first single, My Bonnie, had been selling in surprisingly large numbers at his shop. He was duly impressed, and at the end of their set, he went and introduced himself to the group. Over lunch he shocked his dining companion by announcing that he intended to become the Beatles’ manager.

His companion had good reason to be shocked. Epstein came from a middle-class Jewish family. He was a respected figure in Liverpool and, ironically in view of his homosexuality, one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. And yet he was determined to become involved with an insalubrious beat group, in defiance of the disapproval of his friends and family. And here we encounter one of the most vexed questions of Beatles scholarship — did Epstein have a homosexual relationship with John Lennon? Certainly it doesn’t appear beyond the realms of possibility that one factor in his decision to manage the group was the opportunity it offered for a little bit of rough. Indeed last year Professor Albert Goldman suggested in his book on Lennon that this was precisely what Epstein got. However, Coleman (whose own biography of Lennon ran to two volumes) places great faith in Lennon’s reputedly rapacious heterosexuality and strenuously denies that anything untoward ever took place.

Without doubt Epstein harboured a special affection for Lennon, as well as considerable admiration (he often referred to him, with great sincerity, as ‘a genius’), despite Lennon’s propensity to wound him with cruel jibes. Amongst the more inventive examples of Lennon’s famous barbed wit at Epstein’s expense came the suggestion that his autobiography should have been called A Cellarful of Boys and a particularly witty rewording of the title of Lennon’s song Baby You’re a Rich Man Too to Baby You’re a Rich Fag Jew. Epstein suffered in silence.

The other big question mark which hangs over Epstein’s life concerns the manner of his death. Did he commit suicide? One weekend in the summer of 1967 Epstein had arranged a small private party at his country retreat but suddenly decided to leave his guests and drive back to London. When he returned to his home, he went to his bedroom and locked the door. He was found dead from an overdose of sleeping tablets two days later. Coleman shows fairly conclusively that there is no reason to doubt the coroner’s verdict of accidental death, although Epstein’s motive for abandoning his own party without notice remains a mystery.

At Epstein’s funeral, the officiating rabbi, who hardly knew him, ignored Epstein’s considerable achievements and simply described him as a symbol of the malaise of the sixties generation. Epstein deserved better, and perhaps the real achievement of Ray Coleman’s book is that it goes a long way towards setting the record straight.

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