By Nov. 28, George Harrison knew the end was near. Frail and bedridden at a friend's Los Angeles home, the 58-year-old former Beatle was losing his four-year battle with cancer, and close friends were arriving to say their final goodbyes. Anoushka Shankar rushed to L.A. with her father, Ravi, 81, Harrison's Indian music mentor, to spend the day with her "Uncle George." "He had a look that I'd never really seen before, so full of love and peace," says Shankar, 20. "He wasn't able to say anything with his lips, but his eyes were saying it. That house was just so full of love."
Less than 24 hours later, Harrison took his last breath with his wife, Olivia, 54, and son Dhani, 23, by his bedside. His body, lying on a bedroom chaise longue and covered with a yellow silk blanket strewn with rose petals, was taken away and cremated nearby—all before the world even knew of his passing.
For the man known as the Quiet Beatle, the coda seemed appropriate. Self-effacing and enigmatic, lead guitarist Harrison was always the most elusive of the Fab Four. He wasn't the intellectual rebel (John) or the cute romantic (Paul) or the lovable mascot (Ringo). But his air of mystery provided a different cachet, and his curiosity—he was the first Beatle to embrace sitars, meditation and Eastern religion—helped move the group beyond three-minute love songs and mop-top haircuts and into the center of 1960s counterculture.
Harrison retained that mystique to the end. A reluctant celebrity who jealously guarded his privacy—even his death certificate listed an apparently nonexistent address—he railed against the grim public prognoses of his health and searched the world for a cure, using a string of pseudonyms to check into hospitals from Switzerland to Staten Island. A lifelong smoker, Harrison first found a lump in his neck in July 1997 and, after successful radiation treatment for throat cancer, promised in '98, "I'm not going to die on you folks just yet." But in March 2001 he flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to have a cancerous growth removed from one of his lungs. Then, in April, he underwent radiotherapy for a brain tumor at the Oncology Institute of Southern Switzerland. By October, Harrison's condition was deteriorating; living in an Italian lakeside villa, he was emaciated and hallucinating from painkilling medication, friends say. On Olivia's urging, Harrison headed to New York City for experimental radiation treatment at Staten Island University Hospital. Entering via an unmarked steel door, a surprisingly upbeat Harrison came in four days a week. "It was easy to feel a friend of his," says his oncologist Dr. Gil Lederman.
While Harrison was there, fellow ex-Beatle Paul McCartney flew over from the U.K. for a secret six-hour visit with him at the private home where Harrison was staying. "We were laughing and joking just like nothing was going on," McCartney, 59, recalled. "I was impressed by his strength." On Nov. 15, Harrison—by now so weak he needed help walking—took a private jet to L.A. for radiation treatment at UCLA Medical Center in a last-ditch attempt to buy some time with his family. But his health was rapidly declining, and he knew it. "He faced the end with such courage and quiet dignity," says longtime friend, musician Graham Nash, 59, "which is how he lived."
Unlike the horror triggered by John Lennon's 1980 murder by an obsessed fan, Harrison's passing was more poignant. "He was a beautiful man," McCartney told reporters outside his East Sussex home. "He was like my baby brother." Ringo Starr, 61, visiting friends in Vancouver, said he would miss Harrison "for his sense of love, his sense of music and his sense of laughter." Olivia and Dhani held an intimate memorial service on Dec. 3 at a Pacific Palisades, Calif., chapel overlooking the ocean. Fans wept and sang outside London's Abbey Road studios and in Strawberry Fields, the patch of Manhattan's Central Park dedicated to Lennon. In Liverpool, the Beatles' hometown, the Union Jack flew at half-staff over the town hall. "What's happening here is genuine," says Liverpool drama student Christina Redhead, 20, "a real feeling of sadness, not hysteria."
As Harrison would have wanted it. Known for his droll wit, he once told an interviewer, "As long as I get an equal share of the money, I'm willing to stay anonymous." He was the first to loathe the siegelike conditions the band was forced to live under during the height of Beatlemania. "After the initial excitement and thrill wore off, I, for one, became depressed," Harrison said in 1988. "Is this all we have to look forward to in life? Being chased around by a crowd of hooting lunatics from one crappy hotel room to the next?"
Once a quarter of the world's biggest rock band, he wanted to be known as more than that. "I'm not really 'Beatle George,' " he told the British rock magazine Q
in 1995. "For me, 'Beatle George' was a suit or a shirt that I once wore, and the only problem is, for the rest of my life, people are going to look at that shirt and mistake it for me." Harrison could reminisce without rancor in later years, but for a long time his memories of the '60s were colored by postbreakup bitterness, legal wrangling and the trauma of Lennon's murder. "For every pound, shilling and penny that the Beatles had earned, there was an equal amount of grief," he told one biographer in the late '80s.
Certainly nothing about his childhood marked Harrison for greatness. Born Feb. 25, 1943, the youngest child of bus driver Harold and former shopgirl Louise, George grew up in the dreary but bustling port city of Liverpool with his sister Louise, 70, and brothers Harry, 67, and Peter, 61, who works on George's estate. An Elvis Presley and Fats Domino fan, he bought his first guitar at 13 from a schoolmate and began jamming with McCartney after they met commuting to and from their high school, the Liverpool Institute. In early 1958 McCartney, a year ahead of Harrison, introduced him to the 17-year-old Lennon, who reluctantly let him hang out with his band, the Quarrymen. "He's just a bloody kid," complained Lennon at first, but after a sterling impromptu guitar audition in the back of a bus, the less adept Lennon accepted the kid into the band. Harrison, who had found school "a pain in the neck," dropped out at 16 to become an apprentice electrician. But "I kept blowing things up," he once said. With music, he found his calling.
Honed in the nightclubs of Liverpool and Hamburg, the band—eventually renamed the Beatles—modeled their sound on American rock and roll. With their matching suits, cheeky wit and ebullient tunes like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You," they conquered a U.S. that was looking for lighthearted relief following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. On their first visit in February 1964, pandemonium reigned: One toy company churned out 15,000 Beatles wigs a day; 73 million people tuned in to watch the band on The Ed Sullivan Show
; and thousands of teenage girls surrounded their Manhattan hotel. "Only Hitler ever duplicated their power over crowds," said Sid Bernstein, the Beatles' New York concert promoter.
Within the band, however, Harrison felt overshadowed, and perhaps overawed, by Lennon and McCartney, the band's two charismatic front men. "The usual thing was that we'd do 14 of their tunes and then they'd condescend to listen to one of mine," Harrison once said. Decades later he still seemed to harbor resentment. When McCartney told a journalist in 1989 that he wanted to write with Harrison again, Harrison's response was curt: "He has left it a bit late then, is all I can say."
But in vivid songs like "Taxman" and "Here Comes the Sun," Harrison's writing made up in quality what it lacked in quantity. Frank Sinatra once described his 1969 ballad "Something" as "the greatest love song of the past 50 years"—even though he had credited it to Lennon and McCartney.
Harrison also encouraged the band to experiment with Indian music and mysticism through his involvement with sitarist Ravi Shankar and religious leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Seeking sanctuary from Beatlemania, Harrison made the first of several pilgrimages to India in 1966. Rejecting his childhood Catholicism, Harrison began exploring Indian spirituality. At the same time he was experimenting with the psychedelic drug LSD and in 1967 traveled to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, looking for hippie enlightenment. "Instead it was all these spotty college kid dropouts who had taken too many different drugs," he told PEOPLE in 1997. "Their brains were all strangled. I gave up drugs after I saw that." His commitment to Indian religion and daily meditation, though, never wavered. "This was no fly-by-night fad to dally with until he got bored," says Mark Lewisohn, author of The Complete Beatles Chronicle. "This was the way, the truth and the life for George."
Perhaps buoyed by his spiritual quest, Harrison seemed to emerge relatively unscathed from the Beatles' final meltdown. After the band's split in 1970, he became the first ex-Beatle to score a solo No. 1 single with "My Sweet Lord," and his album that year, All Things Must Pass
(which has sold 6 million copies), earned critical plaudits, letting Harrison finally step out from under the Lennon-McCartney shadow. "By the time All Things Must Pass
came, it was like being constipated for years, then finally you were allowed to go," he told Rolling Stone
. On the heels of that triumph, Harrison organized an all-star charity concert in 1971 for the famine-ravaged country of Bangladesh. While the proceeds from the New York City performance were mired in legal limbo for years, the concert yielded a documentary film and a Grammy Award-winning album and set the precedent for other benefit concerts like Live Aid.
But the good karma waned in 1974 when Harrison's tour of the U.S. and Canada, backed by an Indian orchestra and assorted rockers, was panned by both critics and crowds. That same year his then-30-year-old wife, Pattie Boyd—the model he had met on the set of 1964's A Hard Day's Night
and married in 1966—left him for his good friend Eric Clapton. The ex-Beatle seemed remarkably ungrudging. "I'd rather she was with him," he said later, "than with some dope." He may also have felt responsible. Says onetime Beatles business manager Peter Brown: "He was not a very faithful husband."
Adding to his woes: a 1976 court case in which he was successfully sued for "subconsciously plagiarizing" the Chiffons' 1963 song "He's So Fine" to create "My Sweet Lord." He was ordered to pay more than half a million dollars in damages.
At least his love life was on the mend. Soon after his divorce from Boyd, Harrison met the woman with whom he would share the rest of his life, Olivia Trinidad Arias, a 27-year-old secretary in the L.A. office of his record label. "We were just very simpatico to each other and became friends," Olivia recalled in 1995. Harrison's version: "I fell for her immediately," he said in 1992. "I told her that I didn't want her doing all that typing." They wed in September 1978, a month after their son Dhani (Hindu for "rich man") was born.
Following Lennon's death, Harrison's unease in the spotlight increased measurably. "After what happened to John, I'm absolutely terrified," said Harrison, who sought sanctuary at his English estate and his seaside home in Maui. "You don't know who's crackers and who isn't." Though he scored a No. 1 single with "Got My Mind Set on You" in 1987, he never toured solo again. Even in the late '80s, when he teamed up with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to form the Traveling Wilburys, Harrison stuck to the recording studio. "I am leery about big crowds of people," he said in 1987, but he laughed at persistent rumors that he was a recluse: "I just don't go to discos where the gossip columnists hang out."
Instead, Harrison became an avid fan of Formula One racing (he owned a deep purple McLaren F1 sports car) and launched a career as a movie producer. When the irreverent movie spoof Monty Python's Life of Brian lost its backers in 1978, he joined forces with American investment banker Denis O'Brien and bailed it out. In the movie business, Python veteran Michael Palin told PEOPLE, Harrison could foster the quirky projects that appealed to him. "He was a kind of fairy godfather for us all, really." As head of HandMade Films, Harrison led a British film renaissance, producing a series of movies such as 1980's The Long Good Friday
and 1981's Time Bandits
. But a batch of stinkers followed, culminating in the Sean Penn-Madonna
1986 turkey Shanghai Surprise. In 1994 he sold HandMade at a loss and later won $11 million from O'Brien, his former partner, after a long-running lawsuit.
In his last decade Harrison, a keen gardener, stayed close to home, mostly puttering around the 37-acre grounds of Friar Park, the 19th-century Gothic mansion 35 miles west of London he lived in for more than 30 years. A former nunnery, it featured turrets, gargoyles and secret passages leading to underground lakes.
It also featured a state-of-the-art security system that unfortunately did little to protect him in the early hours of Dec. 30, 1999, when a deranged fan, Michael Abram, 33, broke into Harrison's home and stabbed the ex-Beatle repeatedly. Harrison suffered a punctured right lung before Olivia knocked Abram out cold with a brass table lamp. "I truly believed I was dying," Harrison said in a written statement read to the court during Abram's 2000 trial for attempted murder. (A former heroin addict, Abram was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a mental hospital.)
Deeply shaken by the attack, Harrison retreated further. Olivia and Dhani, who graduated from Brown University in May, became the focus of his life. "She's been a very calming influence on me," Harrison said of his wife in '92. "We're blissfully happy together." Harrison also enjoyed entertaining close friends like Palin, who knew him for more than 20 years and always disputed the Quiet Beatle label. "Whether it was gardening or Bulgarian choirs or whatever, he got a great kick out of life," he says. "He was one of those people who talked well, had a great sense of humor, was a great appreciator of other people's talents. A very generous man."
Though he sometimes felt trapped by his Beatles past, Harrison also "knew that it was the completely defining thing in his life," says his friend Bob Rose, a music producer. Harrison kept a trove of mementos, including his satin Sgt. Pepper jacket, and often reminisced with friends about the Beatles' heyday.
In his final months he had made equal peace with his future, however uncertain. "He was facing this without fear," says pal Jim Capaldi, an English musician. Harrison's sister Louise, who lives in Macedonia, Ill., credits her brother's religious beliefs. "He had the view," she says, "that his spirit had his body on loan." As well as the satisfaction of knowing that his life had been well-lived. "The past is gone and the future might not even be," he told PEOPLE in '97. "The only thing we ever experience is the now. I try to enjoy the moment."
Ron Arias, Jenny Hontz, Florence Nishida, Vicki Sheff-Cahan and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles, Nina Biddle, Laura Healy, Esther Leach, Pete Norman and Simon Perry in London, Peter Castro, Rachel Felder, Caroline Howard and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City and John Slania in Chicago
- Ron Arias,
- Jenny Hontz,
- Florence Nishida,
- Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
- Frank Swertlow,
- Nina Biddle,
- Laura Healy,
- Esther Leach,
- Pete Norman,
- Simon Perry,
- Peter Castro,
- Rachel Felder,
- Caroline Howard,
- Natasha Stoynoff,
- John Slania.