The following article was written by JD Heyman and appeared in Us Weekly magazine on December 17, 2001.
Fighting cancer at the end of a rich diverse career, former Beatle and Renaissance man George Harrison says goodbye surrounded by friends and family.
He faced death unafraid. In his final hours, George Harrison was a man at peace, sustained by the deep spirituality that defined life. "His face was full of beauty and love," said musician Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of famed sitar player Ravi Shankar, Harrison's close friend and mentor.
Emaciated and exhausted from battling the cancer that had first attacked his throat, then his lungs and finally his brain, the 58-year-old Harrison retreated behind the 10-foot-high ivy-covered gates of a rambling white villa in Studio City, California, in the last week of November. Harrison had rented the secluded compound-the privacy of which was zealously guarded by his celebrity-security expert and friend Gavin de Becker-to say his goodbyes. "He died with one thought in mind," said de Becker. "Love one another."
On Wednesday, November 28, the eve of Harrison's death, Ravi Shankar, his wife and their daughter paid a last visit, spending the entire day by the former Beatle's bedside, joining Harrison's wife, Olivia Arias Harrison, and their 23-year-old son, Dhani, also a musician. As he faded in and out of consciousness, Harrison was meditating, a practice of the Eastern-religious philosophy that he had embraced after studying the sitar with Shankar in the mid-1960s. "We used to say that Uncle George was more Indian than any Indian," said Anoushka Shankar. "With each breath he took, he was saying 'Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.'"
It was the end of a long journey that had sent Harrison around the world in search of treatments to extend his life, an odyssey that had taken him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota; to a world-famous cancer clinic in Switzerland; to the sacred waters of India's Ganges River; and to Staten Island University Hospital in New York, where he had undergone an experimental therapy with cancer specialist Dr. Gil Lederman. But in the end, the youngest Beatle accepted that the disease had beaten him. "He saw death as a part of life," says Lederman. "For him, it was part of a continuum. He was no fearful because he was very religious."
A heavy smoker for most of his adult life, Harrison was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, when a lump was discovered in his throat. It was successfully removed and he underwent two courses of radiation treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital, near London. "Lucky for me they found [it]," Harrison said at the time. "This nodule was more of a warning than anything else." He quit smoking and began to monitor his health more carefully. For the next four years, he was cancer-free, but his health was dealt a severe blow on December 30, 1999, when he suffered a collapsed lung after being attacked by a knife-wielding intruding at his 120-room mansion outside London. Then, last March, Mayo clinic doctors discovered discovered that Harrison had lung cancer. In May, they removed the growth from one of his lungs in an effort to stop its spread. The operation was pronounced a success, but within a few months, another malignancy was discovered, this time in Harrison's brain.
In July, Harrison decided to undergo grueling cobalt radiation therapy at the Oncology Institute of Southern Switzerland in Bellinzona. "We foresee no need for further treatment," Dr. Franco Cavalli told reporters. Harrison put on a brave face. "I'm feeling fine," he said to reporters in Switzerland. "Please do not worry." But in reality, the cancer continued to spread. Privately, friends say, Harrison had come to accept that his life was nearing its end. Gaunt and pale from the radiation, Harrison traveled with his family by private jet to Varanasi, India, the Hindu holy city on the Ganges River, where he had discovered Eastern mysticism in the 1960s. There, he bathed in the river's waters (according to Hindu practice, to be cleansed of all sin, believers must bathe in the Ganges). Keyboardist, Gary Wright, a friend of Harrison's, says that the musician was always unfazed by death. "We spoke about death a lot [on a trip to India in 1974]," Wright recalls. "He said, 'I want to have my ashes scattered on the Ganges.' He was frightened of it at all."
After his pilgrimage, Harrison returned to his $10 million villa in Montagnola, Switzerland, about 20 miles from Bellinzona. On October 1, British musician Jools Holland and singer Sam Brown visited Harrison to record a song he had cowritten with Dhani called "Horse to Water." The song, released on Holland's new record, Small World Big Band, contains references to Harrison's struggle with cancer and is sardonically credited to "RIP Ltd. 2001" on the album's liner notes. A week after recording the track, Harrison and his family reportedly few to his beachfront estate in Maui, Hawaii, to rest.
By late October, Harrison was again in Switzerland-friends say he was determined not to return to England, to avoid its high estate taxes-because his health was deteriorating rapidly. But Olivia Harrison had not given up. In desperation, she reportedly turned to the Internet to look for alternative therapies. Online, she read about Lederman's work in Staten Island using a nonivasive procedure in which cancerous tumors are blasted with high doses of radiation. Neither Harrison nor his new physician believed that the treatment would save him. "When one is in a final stage, it serves to reduce the pain, stop internal bleeding and relieve pressure caused by the obstruction of a vital organ." Lederman explained after Harrison's death. "Then the patient can be pain-free, which improves their quality of life. They can save time with their family, get off narcotics and enjoy their last moments."
In November, Lederman flew to Switzerland on a private plane and ferried Harrison and his family to the United States. A row of seats on the jet was turned into a makeshift bed. The musician was in excruciating pain and on heavy medications. Once in New York, the Harrisons rented a home near Staten Island University Hospital, and he began therapy. Ten days later, he wsa feeling well enough to sit in a chair, play his guitar and talk to friends and family.
It was then that Harrison was visited by his fellow surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Although Harrison was close to Starr, his relationship with McCartney had long been fractious. From the early days of the band, their personalities had clashed; Harrison was shy and humble, while McCartney was outgoing and a bit of a showboat. But, according to friends, this last meeting was "joyful, tearful and magical." The two men mended fences and laughed about the old days. "He was such a brave lad, he was still cracking jokes," McCartney said shortly after Harrison's death. "He is really just my baby brother."
Soon afterward, Harrison reunited with his older sister, Louise, whom he had not seen in several years. "He was very loving and very kind [during the visit]," she says. "George had no fear. Why be afraid of dying when you know you are going to a better place?"
With his cancer treatment in Staten Island completed. Harrison was determined to spend what time remained in Maui with Olivia and Dhani. But after a cross-country flight to Los Angeles, Harrison's health further declined. At the urging of his doctors and his wife, he decided to remain in L.A. The Harrisons rented the house on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Studio City and prepared to make a last stand: The former Beatle would undergo an arduous round of chemotherapy at UCLA Medical Center in the hope that would hold off the disease long enough for him to return to New York to undergo more of Ledeman's radiotherapy.
On November 19, Harrison checked into room 948-A on the VIP floor of the medical center using his wife's maiden name as part of the pseudonym Jorge Arias. He was treated by oncologist Dr. Lee Rosen and Dr. H. Phillip Koeffler, a hermatologist who specializes in advanced-cancer casees. After three days, a hospital source says, the UCLA team decided "that pretty much everything that could be done had been done." Unable to eat and nauseated by the chemotherapy, a wraithlike Harrison checked out of the hospital. Despite being in tremendous pain. Lederman says, Harrison was quiet and dignified. "I didn't tell him he was about to die," says the doctor. "But he was smart enough to know that death was near."
Harrison returned to the secluded house in Studio City, which had been decorated with items from his Swiss villa to give it the feel of home. Books on Indian philosophy and pictures of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and other Indian gurus were arranged around the master bedroom alongside family photos. "The atmosphere was filled with love," says Lederman. "His wife made sure that he was surrounded by visitors." These reportedly included the Shankars, comedian and Monty Python star Eric Idle and his family, Harrison's former Traveling Wilburys bandmate Tom Petty and former Warner Bros. Records CEO Mo Ostin.
Four days later, on Thrusday, November 29, at 1:30 p.m., Harrison passed away peacefully, with two Hare Krishna follows chanting softly by his bedside. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. A man identifying himself only as a bodyguard asked the funeral home's staff to come to the Laurel Canyon address to pick up the body, which was placed in a plain wooden casket and taken to the crematorium. Olivia and Dhani Harrison, de Becker and other members of Harrison's security staff followed in a somber procession. "There was no funeral service per se," says Annette Lloyd, the cemetery's production coordinator. "Prayers were said over the body-that was the extent of it."
Olivia and Dhani returned to their rented home, where on November 30 they were visited by John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono. "She wanted to be with them," he spokesman told Us Weekly. "They are like family." A few days later, the Harrisons left Los Angeles for India and were expected to arrive at the banks of the Ganges on December 4 to scatter some of Harrison's ashes, according to Hindu custom, in a private funeral ceremony in Varanasi.
Officials at the London headquarters of the Hare Krishna movement said an urn would be kept at a Krishna temple so that the public can offer its last respects before the ashes are scattered on the Ganges. More of Harrison's ashes will be sprinkled in the Indian city of Allahabad, where the Ganges and Yemuna rivers converge a third, mythical river, the holy Saraswati.
Before this final rite, Olivia and Dhani Harrison plan to say a few final prayers at a local temple, then walk six miles to the rivers, accompanied by a small procession of Hare Krishnas-a final tribute to a soulful man who valued living a holy life far more than being a rock star. "We are deeply touched by the outpouring of love and compassion from people around the world," Olivia and Dhani said in a joint statement. "He longed to be with God. In the pursuit, he was relentless."