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Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ at 50: Meet the Runaway Who Inspired ‘She’s Leaving Home’

Melanie Coe looks back on her teenage days as an unlikely Lennon/McCartney muse

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Rolling Stone named as the best album of all time, turns 50 on June 1st. In honour of the anniversary, and coinciding with a new deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper, we present a series of in-depth pieces – one for each of the album’s tracks, excluding the brief “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” reprise on Side Two – that explore the background of this revolutionary and beloved record. Today’s instalment focuses on Melanie Coe, the real-life teen runaway who inspired “She’s Leaving Home.”

“A-Level Girl Dumps Car And Vanishes,” screamed a headline in the February 27th, 1967, issue of London’s Daily Mail. A pretty blonde 17-year-old named Melanie Coe stared out from the adjacent photograph, taken not long before she went missing from her family’s home in Stamford Hill, England. The report portrayed her as a “the schoolgirl who seemed to have everything,” including her own Austin 1100 car and a “wardrobe full of clothes,” both of which were left behind. “I cannot imagine why she should run away,” her father told reporters. “She has everything here … even her fur coat.”

The bohemian ethos of the late 1960s, best summed up in LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary’s famous “Tune in, turn on, drop out” mantra, led to record numbers of teenage runaways in the United States – some 90,000 in 1967 according to an FBI report. But the story of a well-heeled suburban London teenager on the lam was unusual enough to attract the attention of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, leading them to compose “She’s Leaving Home” for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who’d left home and not been found,” McCartney recalled in the 1997 biography, Many Years From Now. “There were a lot of those at the time, and that was enough to give us a story line. So I started to get the lyrics – she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up – It was rather poignant.” Lennon’s contributions were more personal, borrowing scornful lines from his stern Aunt Mimi, who had raised him as a child. “Paul had the basic theme, but all those lines like, ‘We sacrificed most of our lives, we gave her everything money could buy, never a thought for ourselves …’ those were the things Mimi used to say,” he told Hit Parader in 1972. “It was easy to write.”

It would be years before Coe learned that the Beatles were singing her story. “I first heard the song when it came out and I didn’t realize it was about me, but I remember thinking it could have been about me,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I found the song to be extremely sad. It obviously struck a chord somewhere. It wasn’t until later, when I was in my twenties, that my mother said, ‘You know, that song was about you!’ She had seen an interview with Paul on television and he said he’d based the song on this newspaper article. She put two and two together.”

In one of the more astonishing coincidences in Beatles history, Coe had actually met the band more than three years before “She’s Leaving Home” was written, during their first appearance on the English television program Ready, Steady, Go! on October 4th, 1963. Then just 14 years old, she had been booked to compete in an on-air lip-synching contest. To pass the time during the hours of rehearsals, Coe and her young competitors chatted with the newly minted pop sensations, who had scored their third British Number One with “She Loves You” just a few months earlier. “At this point they were big, but they weren’t the huge success they were about to become,” she recalls. “Ringo was just adorable. He had all these rings on and he let us try them on. He was a lovely guy. So was George; he stood and chatted with us and asked us about our schools and what we were thinking of studying. They were both very sweet. Paul said hello and that was it, and I remember John was busy talking to some of the studio producers and directors and didn’t really acknowledge that we were there.”

Coe earned the top prize with her high-spirited miming to Brenda Lee’s “Jump the Broomstick,” and McCartney presented her with an autographed Beatles album. Unfortunately, the moment proved to be somewhat underwhelming. “I was very disappointed because there had been two shows before mine, and on both of those shows the girl that won went out on a date with the pop star. I thought I was going to have dinner date with the Beatles, so I was terribly disappointed with my prize!” she laughs now. What’s more, she was mortified when McCartney’s firm handshake nearly caused her false nails to come loose. “I don’t think I’d ever worn them before, but I wanted to have everything perfect. You can imagine what a treat that was for a 14-year-old girl to go on that show and spend a day with the Beatles.”

Any trace of disappointment evaporated when Coe was also awarded a yearlong stint as a background dancer on the show, bringing her elbow-to-elbow with some of the biggest names in entertainment. “They were all there: Stevie Wonder, Lulu, Cilla Black, Freddie and the Dreamers, Dusty Springfield,” she says. Dancing would become a major passion for the teen, but it often incurred the wrath of her parents. She was particularly at odds with her mother, who denied her dreams of attending drama school and pressured her into pursing dentistry. “I wanted excitement and affection,” says Coe. My mother wasn’t affectionate at all – she never kissed me.”

Starved for fun, Coe often snuck into the city, finding solace in the joyful abandon of London’s nightlife. “Compared to how it is now, it was a small town,” she says. “In 1964 I’d say there were three or four discos in London. So you were likely to meet the same people wherever you went.” During one of these nights on the town, she had an additional run-in with one of the Fabs. “I was with a friend at the Bag of Nails when I was 17, just before I ran away from home. She was from Hamburg and she said she knew the Beatles very well, but I didn’t believe her. We were sitting down having a drink and in walks John Lennon with his entourage. And she waves to him and he comes over to us. ‘It’s you! Come join us!’ And before I knew it, I’m 17 and I’m at a table with John Lennon and his entourage! That’s how it was.”

Unable to express herself at home, Coe made a desperate lunge at freedom. One afternoon, while both her parents were out, she left a note and slipped out the door. Decades later, Coe remains stunned by the prescience of the Beatles’ lyrics. “The most interesting thing in the song is what the father said, ‘We gave her everything, everything money could buy.’ And in the newspaper article, my father actually says almost those words. He doesn’t understand why I would have left home when they bought me or gave me everything. Which is true; they had bought me a car and they always bought me expensive clothes and things like that. But as we know, that doesn’t mean that you get on well with your parents, or even love them, just because they buy you material things.”

As in the song, Coe met up with an older man named David, a croupier who worked in a club she frequented. “The article doesn’t say there was a man, but Paul figured a 17-year-old girl’s run away – she’s run away to a boyfriend. Although the young man I did run away to be with was a croupier, he had been in the motor trade before he was a croupier. And Paul got ‘a man from the motor trade’!”

Coe stayed with David at his London apartment for over a week before she saw her picture on a newspaper during an afternoon stroll. Despite her attempts to keep a low profile, her parents eventually tracked her down and forcibly returned her to the family home. The following year, after turning 18, she escaped her parents permanently by getting married. The union barely lasted a year, and by the time she was 21 she had moved to California, where she briefly dated Burt Ward (famous for playing Robin on TV’s Batman) and sought fame as an actress. Most recently she resided in Spain with her two children selling vintage jewellery from the glory days of Hollywood.

Having recently split with her romantic partner of 25 years, she found herself wondering about an old flame she had met 40 years earlier on a Mexican vacation. “I was contemplating – as a lot of people do – about the one that got away. What happened to him?” She found him online and the pair struck up a correspondence. “We’d been writing off and on, updating each other on what we were doing, and he said, ‘What happened to us? Why didn’t we stay together?’ I said, ‘Look, never mind what happened to us in the past – what about the future?’ He and I met, and it was the same love that had been there the first day we saw each other. We fell into each other’s arms, we went off to Mexico for a month and we’re madly in love. It’s a very happy ending for the girl that ran away from home.”