Upper West Side optometrist Gary Tracy helped the intensely near-sighted Lennon correct his vision, examining the rock legend's eyes and fitting him for at least a dozen pairs of his trademark wireframe glasses during the last four years of the musician's life.
With the 31st anniversary of Lennon's shooting death on Thursday, Tracy looked back at his time with the iconic figure, who lived at the Dakota, just a short walk from the doctor's former office on Columbus Avenue and West 73rd Street.
"He was dynamic, he had an energy about him," Tracy remembered. "He wasn't a totally relaxed person. He was high-strung."
The 63-year-old doctor recalled that Lennon and Yoko Ono first visited his office in 1975, a couple of years after Tracy opened his optometry practice in a storefront on Amsterdam Avenue he leased for $600 a month.
"I remember my heart pounding while thinking, 'I'd better get this prescription right!'" Tracy wrote recently on his website, on which he's documented his dealings with Lennon.
"I was imagining headlines: 'John Lennon Trips During Concert, Blames Optometrist for Poor Prescription,' or 'Ex-Beatle Now Blind — Optometrist Charged with Misdiagnosis.'"
But the exam went smoothly, and Lennon became a regular customer over the next four years. "He was very near-sighted," Tracy said. "He definitely needed his glasses."
Tracy said Ono would sometimes accompany Lennon, but she stayed quietly in the background, with "calmness oozing out of her," relaxing the gifted singer and songwriter.
Tracy never talked to Lennon about his celebrity, and he believes his famous client appreciated the optometrist's low-key demeanor. "They just wanted to connect with normal people," Tracy said.
He remembers the couple staying in his shop after closing time, chatting with him about neighborhood news.
Tracy also had an eerie brush with the darker side of Lennon's life in New York. He once ran into a "shaken" Lennon on the street, and said the singer told him a strange man in a trenchcoat was following him. Together, Tracy and Lennon scared off the stranger.
Lennon went through glasses fast, and frequently needed repairs for cracked lenses and broken arms on his spectacles. He tried contact lenses, but didn't like them, telling another patient of Tracy's that "the only way I could keep them in my bloody eyes was to get bloody stoned first."
At one of this last appointments with Tracy, Lennon branched out and tried a new look, choosing chunkier plastic rims instead of his trademark round "granny"-style frames.
Tracy believes he prescribed the lenses for the glasses the singer was wearing the night Mark David Chapman gunned him down. A photo of the blood-stained frames, similar to the ones Lennon chose from his shop, was exhibited in 2009 at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York.
Pairs of Lennon's glasses, a key part of his image, have been displayed at the Hard Rock Cafe and sold at rock-memorabilia auctions for thousands of dollars.
Tracy has a collection of Lennon artifacts tucked away in a safety deposit box, including copies of checks the singer wrote him and handwritten instructions, complete with drawings, detailing how he wanted his glasses tinted.
But Tracy has no plans to sell the mementos, and he won't divulge Lennon's prescription. If it falls into the wrong hands, someone could use it to manufacture fake Lennon glasses, he said. Ono has asked Tracy on several occasions to verify whether glasses actually belonged to her late husband.
Today, more than 35 years after he first opened on the Upper West Side, Tracy has become one of the longer-surviving small businesses on Amsterdam Avenue.
When he moved to New York, Tracy thought he would stay a couple of years and then move on. The Beatles and Bob Dylan fan originally wanted to live in the Village, but settled on the more affordable Upper West Side. He currently lives in New Jersey.
Tracy said it was fascinating patients like Lennon who kept him in the city.
"The people are so interesting," he said, "and he was the epitome of that."