Magical Manor Tour

In 1980, John & Yoko searched Virginia for a grand estate.

John Lennon was on the road to Upper Shirley, seated in the back of a limousine wearing blue jeans and a work shirt. Next to him, Jimmie Carter, a 28-year-old Gloucester real estate agent, had mentioned that the estate’s owner, Em Bowles Alsop, was a bit of a grande dame. 

With that, Lennon turned to him to ask, “How do I look?”

“I told him he looked great and everything was fine,” says Carter, who spent a memorable two days in April 1980 showing Virginia manor homes to Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono, and their four-year-old son Sean. “He didn’t want to commit a social faux pas when he met her,” Carter recalls, 43 years later. “Just think about it: John Lennon asking me whether he was presentable for this Virginia matron.”

This magical manor tour began five days earlier, when Carter’s father, Jim, fielded a call at Jim & Pat Carter Real Estate in White Stone. A New York business manager was inquiring on behalf of an “undisclosed client” who was looking for a rural manor home. Jim passed the message to Jimmie in their Gloucester office.

“My parents had listed the bigger plantations,” says Carter, now a real estate developer in Lancaster County. The caller said his clients were in a hurry, so Carter drove to Byrd Airport in Richmond to dispatch property brochures to New York via courier.  

Ticket to Ride

Two days later, the manager phoned. The clients would visit on Friday. “Who’s the client?” Carter asked. “When he said ‘Mr. and Mrs. Lennon of New York City,’” Carter needed no further prompting. “I just assumed he was talking about John and Yoko.” 

The Lennons were interested in two properties: Poplar Grove, a stately Mathews County house built in 1770, and Upper Shirley, located on the James, just outside of Richmond. When the manager asked where they should stay, Carter wisely suggested the Williamsburg Inn. 

Built in 1937, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had personally guided the Inn’s design, adding luxuries like private baths and air conditioning—unfathomable in hotels at the time. The Williamsburg Inn attracted luminaries such as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, guests during Jamestown’s 350th-anniversary celebration in 1957. Surely, it would suit the Lennons.

“Why don’t you make the hotel reservation in your name?” the manager suggested, noting the guests would like two double mattresses, pulled together to make one big bed.

“That was because their son would be coming and they would all be sleeping together,” Carter says.

The couple, who’d met in a London art gallery, stirred controversy even before they married in March 1969; first with a nude cover photo on their 1968 album, Two Virgins, and later, on their honeymoon, where they staged a five-day “bed-in,” inviting press to their Amsterdam hotel room in a call for world peace. Ono was painted as a divisive force within the Fab Four, but they’d since settled into a well-heeled domestic life.

Carter couldn’t have known, but the Lennons were on a buying spree. They’d recently purchased a 14,000-square-foot Palm Beach mansion and 16,000 acres in upstate New York. In addition to real estate, John and Yoko shared a passion for sailing trips and owning registered Holstein cows. But their world revolved around Sean.

All four Beatles were famously reluctant to fly so, as the story goes, the couple took the train from New York’s Penn Station to Washington, D.C., hiring a limousine for the drive to Gloucester. When they arrived at his office around noon, Carter sent his secretary to Morgan’s Drug Store—now Farmasea Restaurant—for sandwiches from the lunch counter, which they ate in the back room of the realty office. “They didn’t need us hovering,” Carter says. “We left them alone to eat.”

After lunch, they left in the limo for Poplar Grove, set on 22 acres overlooking the East River. “Sean was very well-behaved,” Carter recalls. “They seemed to be a very loving family. John was relaxed, very friendly, deferential to his wife. She was the brains in the family, he told me. She made the decisions. Yoko was reserved but not offensively so.”

Yellow Submarine 

Poplar Grove impressed the couple, although Carter thought the place needed work. They were particularly enamored with the estate’s Colonial-era tide mill. Virginia’s only surviving example, it’s still in use today. “They didn’t dig in with a lot of questions,” says Carter. “There was a reference to a good investment.” After lingering for an hour, the Lennons returned to Gloucester, dropping Carter at his office before continuing on to the Williamsburg Inn.

“I was supposed to call Yoko that evening,” Carter says. “But when I rang the hotel and gave them my name, they said I had no room there. I asked, ‘Well, do you have a Mr. and Mrs. Lennon?’ Nope, they said. Eventually, he got the manager on the phone: “I know they’re there, and you know they’re there,” he told him. “Could you just have Mrs. Lennon call me?” She did.

The next day, Carter’s sister, Cary Turpin, an agent in the family’s Richmond office, joined him to collect their famous clients. “The Williamsburg Inn was aflutter,” says Turpin, an unabashed Anglophile who had attended the London School of Economics. “Word had definitely gotten out. People were stacked up looking through the window at them as they sat on the patio.”

Of the drive to Charles City, Turpin recalls, “John was more engaging. Yoko was friendly but businesslike. She definitely wore the pants in the family.” She asked Sean if he’d met his father’s former bandmates. “I recall he said Ringo may have come by once.” 

The exchange spurred an unforgettable moment. “Sean and John started singing “Yellow Submarine” in the back of the limo. Obviously, Sean had seen the movie. It was just adorable to hear them together singing, ‘we all live in a yellow submarine’ as we drove along.”


If you want the full story about their trip to Virginia, get a copy of our: March/April 2023 issue.
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