In February 1962 Stuart Sutcliffe collapsed again. Once more he was taken to the room he shared with Astrid Kirchherr. He remained there for some time, painting and writing long letters, and suffering yet more violent head pains and blackouts. His worsening temper made it difficult for Astrid or her mother to look after him, and the medical treatment he received appeared to have little effect.
On 10 April 1962 Stuart Sutcliffe was rushed to hospital in an ambulance, with Kirchherr by his side, but died before its arrival. The cause of death was cerebral paralysis, as a result of bleeding in the right ventricle of his brain.
He died in my arms on that journey. I cannot say it was unexpected but the suddenness… the loss to me was great, and to anyone who knew him, because he was a genius, with a great mind and an original talent as an artist. He would have been outstanding, if he’d lived.
Three days later she met The Beatles at Hamburg airport and told them of Sutcliffe’s death. She fell into depression in the months afterwards, and was comforted by John Lennon. He told her: “Come on, make up your mind, live or die. Stop sitting at home – it won’t bring Stu back.”
I didn’t go to the funeral. That was it: as the man said, ‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’ But we all felt really sad and I remember feeling worst for Astrid. She was still coming to the shows and sitting there. I think it made her feel a bit better, at least, to hang out with us.
The precise cause of Sutcliffe’s ailments has never been fully known. It has been said that he had suffered a head injury after being attacked, following a performance at Liverpool’s Lathom Hall in January 1961. Allan Williams later claimed that Lennon and Pete Best went to help Sutcliffe, dragging him to safety.
Lennon broke a finger in the fight, and it is thought that Sutcliffe suffered a fractured skull. At the time Sutcliffe refused medical treatment, and failed to keep an x-ray appointment at the city’s Sefton General Hospital.
After his death Sutcliffe’s mother Millie bequeathed his brain to the Hamburg hospital that had been treating him. Eighteen months after his death a set of x-ray plates were brought from Germany to Liverpool by Kirchherr. The x-rays showed a small brain tumour; an accompanying note by a radiologist said: “Note the depressed condition of the skull.”
I looked up to Stu. I depended on him to tell me the truth. Stu would tell me if something was good and I’d believe him. We were awful to him sometimes. Especially Paul, always picking on him. I used to explain afterwards that we didn’t dislike him, really.
The Beatles, Hunter Davies
Following Sutcliffe’s death, Kirchherr wrote to his mother Millie, in which she apologised for being too ill to attend his funeral in Liverpool, and saying how much she and Lennon missed him.
Oh, Mum, he is in a terrible mood now, he just can’t believe that darling Stuart never comes back. He just crying his eyes out… John is marvellous to me, he says that he know Stuart so much and he love him so much that he can understand me.
John Lennon had two of Sutcliffe’s paintings on the walls of Kenwood, his house in Weybridge. A photograph of Stuart Sutcliffe was also included on the cover of The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sutcliffe appears on the far left of the montage, alongside fellow artist Aubrey Beardsley.
Not many of our contemporaries had died; we were all too young. It was older people that died, so Stuart’s dying was a real shock. And for me there was a little guilt tinged with it, because I’d not been his best friend at times. We ended up good friends, but we’d had a few ding-dongs, partly out of jealousy for John’s friendship. We all rather competed for John’s friendship, and Stuart, being his mate from art school, had a lot of his time and we were jealous of that. Also, I was keen to see the group be as good as it could be, so I would make the odd remark: ‘Oh, you didn’t play that right.’ But Stuart’s death was terrible, because if nothing else he should have been a great painter – you can see that from his sketchbooks.
The rest of us weren’t as close to Stu as John was – they’d been to college together and shared a flat – but we were still close. Everyone was very sad, though the blow was softened by the fact that he’d stayed in Hamburg and we’d got used to not being with him.
John didn’t laugh when he heard Stuart died, as people have made out; but being so young, we didn’t go on about it. The kind of questions we’d ask were, ‘I wonder if he’ll come back?’ Among ourselves we’d had a pact that if one of us were to die, he’d come back and let the others know if there was another side. So as Stuart was the first one to go, we did half expect him to show up. Any pans that rattled in the night could be him.
Astrid Kirchherr worked as an adviser on the 1994 film Backbeat, which chronicled The Beatles’ time in Hamburg and her relationship with Sutcliffe. Kirchherr was impressed with Stephen Dorff’s portrayal of Sutcliffe in the film.
I got the shock of my life… He’s the right age, but when he looked up, and I saw this shadow, my arms were geese pimpling. The way he talked, the way he smoked, his gestures, were just like Stu’s. I was very impressed.
The Beatles’ 1995 album Anthology 1 contained three songs with Sutcliffe on bass guitar: You’ll Be Mine, Cayenne and Hallelujah, I Love Her So. The cover artwork, by Klaus Voormann and fellow German artist Alfons Kiefer, featured Sutcliffe’s likeness in the top right corner.
The majority of Sutcliffe’s surviving works and letters are today owned by his younger sister Pauline. In 2001 she published a memoir which alleged that Sutcliffe and Lennon had had a homosexual relationship, and that her brother’s brain haemorrhage had been caused by Lennon during a jealous rage in Hamburg a few months before his death.
Pauline Sutcliffe said she didn’t want to reveal her beliefs about the death of her brother until their mother had died. She released papers including a letter from Sutcliffe describing how both men and women were attracted to him.
I’m waiting for my main meal of the day – beefsteak and mashed potatoes and a glass of milk – this costs 4 marks, every day. [I have just sung] and received the best applause of the night. Moments after I have finished singing, the people all look at me with sad wistful looks on their faces. Recently I’ve become very popular both with girls and homosexuals, who tell me I’m the sweetest, most beautiful boy. Imagine it, me, the one who has such a complex because I was small and thought I was ugly… It appears that people refer to me as the James Dean of Hamburg… I’m quite flattered.
In spite of all the conjecture, it seems clear that, had he lived, Stuart Sutcliffe would have been an accomplished and renowned painter. Indeed, it is tempting to wonder if he might have had a similar impact on the art of the 1960s as The Beatles had on its music.