Yoko Ono’s Ex-Husband, Tony Cox, Reveals His Strange Life Since Fleeing with Their Daughter 14 Years Ago


February 03, 1986 12:00 PM

Last week a man broke into Yoko Ono’s lavish New York apartment that she had shared with husband John Lennon before his murder in 1980. Yoko was asleep at the time, and the man, apparently deranged, left behind a picture and some notes. That was a bizarre visitation, but even more strange has been the recent emergence of Yoko’s shadowy former husband, Tony Cox, 49, with the first significant news in 14 years about his and Yoko’s daughter, Kyoko. When Cox went underground with the then 8-year-old girl on Christmas Eve, 1971, their disappearance was an international sensation and prompted Yoko and Lennon to launch a massive—but fruitless—manhunt. Cox, an artist and filmmaker, now says he and his daughter spent many of those obscure years as members of a religious cult. An evangelical Christian, Cox has produced and directed a 32-minute documentary film, Vain Glory, about his involvement with an organization called the Walk, from which he says he “escaped” in 1977. Cox accuses the Walk of being a pseudo-Christian cult that prayed for the deaths of Jimmy Carter and David Rockefeller and even thought its prayers had caused Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. Kyoko Cox, now 22, is listed as an associate producer of the film, which is soon to be available on videotape. Kyoko has not talked to her mother since 1977 and has not communicated with her at all since 1980, when she and Cox sent a telegram of sympathy after Lennon was shot. Cox says that Kyoko helped him make the film but adamantly refuses to go public. “She really has her own life. I can’t emphasize that enough.” Cox himself has a mania for privacy from long habit. He says he fears reprisals from the Walk because of his film and agreed to be interviewed only if his and Kyoko’s whereabouts were not revealed. For the first time, however, he spoke in detail about the strange course of his life.

Cox relates that he met Yoko in 1961 after he’d become intrigued by some of her work in an anthology of avant-garde art. He tracked her to Tokyo, he says, where she was recovering from a nervous breakdown. “I helped get her out of the hospital.” They married, and their only child, Kyoko, was born in 1963. Cox became a househusband while both he and Yoko continued with their art, a pattern that would repeat itself when she married John Lennon. “That was part of something that Yoko felt very strongly about,” says Cox, “that if she had kids, the husband should help take care of them. I agreed to it before the marriage.” The two collaborated successfully as “conceptual artists” after they’d moved to London in the late ’60s. Yoko met John Lennon at one of her art shows in 1966, and within three years she and Cox had divorced.

As Cox remembers it, he was very much a part of the ’60s. “I grew up with the whole scene—I was a beat, then I was a beatnik, then I was a hippie. I went through the whole drug trip. I was taking acid when you could get acid for free. I took my first mescaline and acid before one word had been written about it. I took a lot of acid thinking this was going to improve my mind, and it took me years to discover the opposite was true. All drugs are a very bad scene.”

By 1971 Cox and his second wife, museum curator Melinda Kendall, were living on the Spanish island of Majorca, studying mysticism with a fashionable Indian guru. Though he had been given custody of Kyoko, a bitter battle had broken out over Yoko’s visitation rights. One day John and Yoko “kidnapped” Kyoko from her school on Majorca. The girl was returned, but Cox says he became increasingly afraid that Yoko would one day try to keep the child. He and his family fled to Houston, his second wife’s hometown, where they both became evangelical Christians. Late in 1971, when a Houston judge ordered Cox to let Yoko visit Kyoko, they fled once more. “I was not getting a fair shake at all,” says Cox, who felt that the Lennons’ power and money would eventually cost him his daughter.

This time they sought refuge with a Los Angeles friend who belonged to the Church of the Living Word, also known as the Walk. They soon joined the church, and for the next five years lived with members of the sect in rural Iowa and California. The Walk’s beliefs have been described by a cult expert as a mixture of Pentecostalism, occult practices and Eastern mysticism, and Cox became a prominent figure, a “prophet and set-aside elder.” Cox claims in Vain Glory that cult founder John Robert Stevens, in addition to praying for the deaths of political leaders, considered himself the earthly incarnation of Jesus Christ and practiced “forehead bonding,” a form of mind control and hypnotism, with his disciples. (When Stevens died in 1983, Cox claims, cult members kept his body lying in state for eight months awaiting his resurrection.) Cox says his disenchantment was complete well before his divorce from his second wife, who since has remarried within the Walk. In 1977 he decided to leave.

Kyoko was attending the Walter Reed Junior High School in North Hollywood, Calif. under the assumed name of Ruth Holman. According to Cox, when founder Stevens suspected that Cox planned to quit, the cult had the child escorted to and from the school. Cox says he feared the cult would take Kyoko away to keep him from leaving, so one day, before the guards arrived to take her home, he went to school and took Kyoko himself. “We left with the clothes on our backs. I was afraid even to return home before getting out of town in my old car.

“I’m an unusual case,” says Cox of his cult involvement. “I’m what is termed a ‘walkaway.’ I got up and walked out on my own volition. I was there for five years, and experts in the field say that after five years there’s very little chance someone’s going to get out on their own.” (A spokesman for the Walk categorically denies all of Cox’s assertions about their beliefs and practices as well as their behavior toward Kyoko.)

His daughter, Cox says, weathered the experience well. “Because of our life-style,” he explains, “she was taught with tutors, studied in foreign schools and has a conception of the world that’s very mature for someone her age.” Family friend Eric Pement of Jesus People USA in Chicago has said, “She’s a marvelously bright woman, a real Christian who loves the Lord but is not a real straitlaced fundamentalist.” Adds Cox, “She’s in great shape, really together. She came out of the experience smelling like a rose.”

As for Yoko, Cox declares that he harbors no ill will. “I don’t have any bitterness toward Yoko. We both made terrible mistakes. Although [the Lennons] nearly destroyed me, at the same time she really had tremendous remorse, and when I found that out later, that changed my whole attitude. I really felt sorry for her. Regardless of how much I suffered, she was suffering also, and I’m genuinely aware of that.”

Is there a chance, then, for a reunion between mother and daughter? Cox says the decision is Kyoko’s. “She’s a completely independent individual. After seeing what some of the aspects of public life are about, she realized that was one thing she did not want.”

Yoko Ono responded to her ex-husband’s unexpected reappearance with an extraordinary open letter to her long-lost daughter:

Dear Kyoko,

All these years there has not been one day I have not missed you. You are always in my heart. However, I will not make any attempt to find you now as I wish to respect your privacy. I wish you all the best in the world. If you ever wish to get in touch with me, know that I love you deeply and would be very happy to hear from you. But you should not feel guilty if you choose not to reach me. You have my respect, love and support forever.

Love, Mommy