LONDON - Eleanor Rigby: fact or fiction?
That question, which has bedeviled Beatles' fans for decades, may be answered in part by a 1911 hospital payroll sheet to be auctioned in London on Thursday.
The document, sent by Paul McCartney in 1990 to the director of a music charity who had asked for funding, contains the signature of a scullery maid named "E. Rigby" who worked in a Liverpool hospital.
The director of the company auctioning the document believes the woman who signed the payroll is the same Eleanor Rigby buried in 1939 in a Liverpool graveyard next to the church where McCartney met the young John Lennon.
"I've spoken to the person who lived in the house where she used to live, and they've confirmed that the signature is the same signature of the person in the graveyard," said Tom Owen of the Fame Bureau auction house, adding that the finding may contradict McCartney's longtime assertion that the song was based on a made-up character.
"It's intriguing that McCartney owned it because he says he created the song around a fictitious figure," said Owen. "And yet, how did he have this document and why did he have it? When he was asked to donate money, he sent this."
Interest is so high it's estimated the document may fetch $750,000.
McCartney has said the song was not based on a real person but concedes he may have been subconsciously influenced by seeing the tombstone.
When the auction was announced earlier this month, he released a statement reiterating that the character was not real. "If someone wants to spend money buying a document to prove that a fictitious character exists, that's fine with me," McCartney said.
The payroll sheet was signed by "E. Rigby" after she collected her pay at Liverpool's City Hospital. McCartney has not revealed how he got the document, or why he sent it to the charity 18 years ago.
According to the tombstone, Eleanor Rigby was born in 1895. If she is the woman who signed the hospital payroll, she would have been about 16 at the time. She worked as a maid washing pots and pans in the hospital kitchen, the document says.
The song "Eleanor Rigby," released in 1966 as a single and on the Beatles' "Revolver" album, represented a sharp break for the band, which until then had largely relied on cheerful tunes for their international hits.
With its haunting refrain, "Ah, look at all the lonely people," it is a devastating portrayal of an isolated woman whose death draws so little notice that no one attends her funeral.
There are no rock 'n' roll guitars or drums on the somber track - McCartney's lead vocal is backed by violins, violas and cellos arranged by Beatles producer George Martin.
"It's a Beatles song with no Beatles instruments," said Glenn Gass, a rock historian who teaches a course on the Beatles at Indiana University.
"It's just so bleak and so sad: she picks up the rice at someone else's wedding, the whole image of her wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door. There are things happening emotionally that you just can't see. It's not a pop song in any traditional sense, but it's one of their great songs."
Lennon and George Harrison sing harmony; Ringo Starr does not play or sing, although Beatles experts say he contributed one line to the lyrics. "Eleanor Rigby" is credited to the Lennon-McCartney writing team, but it is widely regarded as primarily by McCartney.
McCartney has said he considered naming the woman in the song "Daisy Hawkins." He also mulled naming the unsympathetic priest "Father McCartney" but decided on "Father McKenzie" so his own father wouldn't be burdened.
The song has had so much impact that a statue honoring Eleanor Rigby - be she real or imagined - has been built in downtown Liverpool. Passers-by often place flowers there.
Owen said "every penny" from the auction will go to Sunbeams Music Trust, a charity that provides music instruction to people with special needs.
The charity's founder, Annie Mawson, received the document from McCartney after writing him an 11-page letter seeking help for her foundation, which uses Beatles songs, among others, to teach music to people with physical and mental disabilities. She has found, for example, that autistic children respond well to Beatles music.
"I told Paul McCartney how his music had helped so many vulnerable children," she said.
She hand-delivered the letter to McCartney's London office in 1989 and received the hospital payroll document in the mail the following year. It was in an envelope carrying the logo of McCartney's world tour, but did not contain any note.
"I think my letter moved him, so he sent me this beautiful parchment document, a ledger, from 1911, showing E. Rigby," Mawson said. "My head was whirling when I saw the significance."
Her plan is to use the proceeds from the auction to finally build a music instruction center in Cumbria, England, where the charity is based.
"This is what I dreamt about in the '90s," she said, explaining that she held the document for years as the value of Beatles memorabilia soared.
"It's taken this long to develop the charity and get a good team behind it and now we really need a proper center."