Before their last gig, the Beatles had dinner with the folk singer Joan Baez in a San Francisco baseball stadium. They dined on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding whilst doodling on the tablecloth. After the performance, fans gathered cigarette butts from the stage like sacred relics. The tablecloth was nabbed by Joe Vilardi, manager of the catering firm that had served this last supper for the Beatles as a touring band.
A regional newspaper columnist dubbed it “THE souvenir of the Beatles visit” upon which the band and Baez had “doodled all sorts of wondrous designs and autographed the same”. The caterer hung it up in his front window in the middle of town, and Beatles fans assembled on the pavement outside to goggle at it. Then a burglar shattered the window, and it disappeared from the public eye.
More than half a century later, it has re-emerged, gravy-stained but still marvellous. The family are selling it at Bonham’s after it was returned to Vilardi’s grandson, Michael. They are expecting up to $25,000. Yesterday the bidding had reached $18,000 with nine days left. “It’s been quite a ride,” Michael Vilardi said. For decades his grandfather had told the story of the tablecloth at Christmas dinners and had not given up searching for it, he said.
Though his grandfather had catered for some film sets, cooking dinner for the Beatles had been “a real feather in his cap”, Michael said. “Year after year, there was still nothing on the tablecloth. Once the internet came into being, my father… started searching bulletin boards.” After his father died in 2014, Michael took up the quest with no luck. Then, one evening last spring, Michael, 62, who lives in Nevada and works as a financial adviser, was sitting on his sofa when his phone rang. The phone displayed a Texas number. A woman asked him to confirm his name and said, “Did your family have a catering business in San Francisco?”
“Then I thought: ‘This is going to be something about the tablecloth’,” he remembered. The caller “was very emotional”, he said. According to her story, which seemed to him a little “fuzzy” in places, her brother lived in San Francisco from the late 1960s to the early 1970s with two flatmates. Towards the end of his time there, “they had a big argument about money,” she told Michael.
To settle it, “his room-mate produced the table cloth, threw it to him, said: ‘Here, it has value, we are square’.” Her brother kept it safe and a secret until last year when he ran into financial difficulties and tried to sell it. She said one of the dealers “said you are probably going to have problems because it’s documented as being a stolen item”, Michael said. The San Francisco Chronicle had reported the theft in 1966. Michael, who was six then, said his grandfather had called a photographer he knew to come and take a photo of the broken window. He recalls being asked to hold a broom and sweep the glass while the photographer took pictures.
The caller from Texas had found Michael’s article and convinced her brother that they should return the tablecloth. He sent her a FedEx label, and it came three days later. He had never known how it looked. Black and white photos from that night showed the band eating dinner and sketching but not the art itself, which one observer described as “psychedelic drawings”. As Michael’s grandfather had kept it out of sight, “nothing’s faded”, he said. “It’s a little yellowed from age, but the drawings on it are as crisp and colourful as when they drew them.”
In a golden pen, John Lennon had drawn a “blue meanie”, one of the music-hating characters from Yellow Submarine, riding a bike. Baez, a folk musician now a portrait artist, created a series of head and shoulder paintings on her corner of the fabric, possibly with extras from Paul McCartney. Ringo Starr and George Harrison autographed it, whilst McCartney appears to have scribbled his name in block orange letters next to a note declaring that he “did not lay a hand on this table”. He said later, “it was like: ‘Don’t tell anyone, this is probably our last gig.'” Lennon and McCartney carried cameras onstage with them.
“They were disgusted with travelling,” Michael said. “As they were sitting there drawing on that tablecloth, they knew. No one else knew but they knew this was going to be it.” The year after it was returned, he ensured every family member got to see it while keeping it sealed in a safe deposit box.
Joe Vilardi’s descendants will split the profits, including two of his great-grandchildren, who both need to purchase a car. “That’s what my grandfather would have approved of,” Michael declared.