December 8, 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s death in the archway of The Dakota. Roy Lutter baked for John, a frequent customer of a popular Upper West Side bakery.
Around six am on the morning of December 9, 1980, Roy arrived on the Upper West Side from Queens. “There were people all around 72nd street. I passed The Dakota. They blocked off the street to traffic. Thousands of people were standing outside and singing in front of the building.” Many held candles; flames flickered in the pre-dawn darkness. Sparks and smoke seared into the night like red scars; they seemed to rise up toward the arched main entrance and central courtyard of the eighteenth century, renaissance-style structure. Unseasonably warm 65 degree weather stood in stark contrast to the emotional chill. Gables, dormers, balconies and niches crowned the top of the ten story building. Wrought iron gargoyles stood sentinel. Scored stones resembled scars.
That morning in 1980, Roy left the Dakota and headed to work, a few blocks away. He’d spend the day baking and decorating various items, such as praline ice cream cake, challah, and a large, chocolate-dipped horseshoe-shaped pastry, like a large croissant. All of those were John’s favorites. According to Sunita Sanssi, who took most of John’s phone orders, “He also liked the Parisian whip cake, which was bittersweet chocolate on top, and light chocolate inside.”
John’s death resonated with Roy strongly. In addition to being a baker, Roy was also a musician. Roy first entered a professional kitchen in the summer of 1970, a few months before he was to begin college at SUNY New Paltz. An aspiring drummer who played in bands since junior high, Roy planned to study music and graphic design. Looking for a summer job to help defray college expenses, he applied to work as a bus boy at the massive Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake. Roy had definite plans. Life had other plans. The hotel baker’s helper quit and Roy was asked to fill in. He loved it and didn’t go to college. Instead of riffing to The Stones or The Beatles, he rolled dough to a soundtrack of clanging pots, rattling freezers, squeaking ovens and wire whisks hitting metal bowls. Churning mixers replaced mixed tapes, frosting and fondant replaced ink and paper, and Roy’s skills and passion grew. Fast forward to 1980 and Roy, after working at several other Catskills resorts, began working at Grossinger’s Home Bakery on the Upper West Side.
Roy never saw John inside the bakery, but he did see Yoko. “She came in one day and, while shopping, was talking to Alla, the salesgirl behind the counter.” At one point Alla, a recent immigrant from Russia who had no idea who Yoko was, mentioned she never tried sushi. According to Roy, “About two hours after Yoko left, a big limo pulls up and in comes a guy with a tray of sushi. He said, ‘This is for Alla, from Yoko.'”
Forty years later, Roy’s thoughts once again turn to John. Unlike some celebrities, who were recluses, John was a fixture on the Upper West Side. “I’d see John walk around the neighborhood, just him alone, or sometimes with Yoko. The first time I saw him, I was shocked. There he was, just walking around like anyone else. Then, I got used to it. Everyone in the neighborhood got used to it.”
A September 1980 Playboy interview (published in January of 1981) with John Lennon and Yoko Ono revealed an interesting and then-unknown fact about John. He not only enjoyed eating bread, but also liked to bake bread. According to John, “I’ve been baking bread and looking after the baby … because bread and babies, as every housewife knows, is a full-time job. After I made the loaves, I felt like I had conquered something … I took a Polaroid photo of my first loaf. I was overjoyed, you know. I was that excited by it. I couldn’t believe it, it was like an album coming out of the oven.”
John, who would have been eighty-years-old on October 9th, is remembered by Roy through not only his music and the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park, but also by his love of eating pastry and baking bread.
Here’s to John Lennon, Upper West Sider, rocker and baker: vibrant, multi-dimensional, mourned.