Johnny Edgecombe Haunted by the Profumo scandal
In 1962, Johnny Edgecombe, an ex-lover of Christine Keeler, inadvertently triggered the biggest political sex scandal of the last century. And he and his family have felt defined by it since Melody Edgecombe was nine when the film Scandal was released in 1989. The politics, tangled relationships and scenes of lurid behaviour in high places may have been lost on her,but the portrayal of her dad as the jealous, violent West Indian who detonated arguably the biggest political sex scandal of the last century, made an indelible mark. “He’d always spoken about what happened,” she says, “but I suppose as a kid I didn’t pay much attention until that film came out. He’s furious about it to this day.”
On a bright December morning in 1962, Johnny Edgecombe, a 30-year-old hustler from Antigua, took a taxi to 17 Wimpole Mews in Marylebone, central London, where his former lover Christine Keeler was holed-up. He rang the doorbell and shouted up at her to come down. She refused and threw a pound out of the window for his cab fare. He lost his cool and tried to shoulder the door open. When that failed, he fired five shots at the lock from a handgun Keeler had given him earlier for protection from another West Indian she was involved with, called Lucky Gordon. The sixth bullet hit the wall above the door.
With his subsequent arrest, everything began to seep out. The sensational tales of establishment orgies and dodgy Notting Hill dives. The wild rumours of political cover-ups, leaked atomic secrets and threats to national security. And at the heart of it all, there was John Profumo (the secretary of state for war) and Yevgeny Ivanov (the Russian naval attache and spy) both sleeping with the same woman (Keeler).
The Profumo affair, it’s said, sounded the death knell for Harold Macmillan’s Tory government, as well as for the age of deference: the sexual proclivities and hypocrisies of the ruling classes were no longer off-limits. But for the central characters in the drama, the repercussions were of a different order. Edgecombe, for one, has seen his life and reputation defined by it ever since. Even today, Profumo casts a shadow over him and his family.
At 77, Edgecombe still has the casual saunter and hip turn of phrase of the small-time jazz promoter he was before becoming a footnote in British history. When he isn’t making the odd fleeting appearance as a television extra – wandering through the Queen Vic with a Guinness in his hand in EastEnders, or lying in a hospital bed in pyjamas in Holby City – he’s a doting grandfather of his five-month-old grandson, Johnny Rocco, the latest addition to the Edgecombe clan.
“He’s obsessed with him,” says Melody, a vibrant 28-year-old personal assistant, as little Johnny clamours for her attention. She lives a 15-minute stroll from her dad, in south-east London. “I would never move far. Even when I was nine months pregnant I used to waddle down the road to him at 10am every morning. He might rely on me for things like tuning his TV and working his mobile phone, but I rely on him for everything. He drives me to the shops, takes me to the doctors, helps me with my flat.”
When Melody was 14, Edgecombe – who has two other daughters from his marriage to a former Danish au pair – split up with Melody’s mother, and raised her single-handedly. “He had a hard time. I was quite a difficult teenager, but he was brilliant. He was a liberal dad. He never hid anything from me. He’s had his various girlfriends.” She laughs. “Most of them have been interesting to say the least. He’s very open, too open sometimes. I have to cover my ears when he’s talking with his friends.”
She can recall only three occasions when he has even raised his voice to her, so she finds it hard to reconcile the dad she knows with his enduring public image. “People just don’t get what a kind man he is. He gets taken advantage of because he’s too soft.”
As a child she would sit and listen to him talk endlessly about the Profumo affair. “To be honest, I found it quite boring. I didn’t really understand what had happened and just how huge it was.” But as she’s grown older, its legacy has crept up on her – along with a sense of anger that her father’s whole life will always be reduced to those explosive moments outside Wimpole Mews. She avoids reading about the case, but it still intrudes – as when she recently saw him referred to as a “violent, West Indian dope-dealer” in Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain BBC series. “I find it quite upsetting. His name’s been blackened for ever. He did a lot of time in prison for something not as severe as it’s been made out to be.”
A short distance away, the soft afternoon light fills the living room of her dad’s cluttered old council flat. John Coltrane and Charlie Parker feature heavily among the CDs and cassettes stacked by the ageing stereo in the corner. On the mantelpiece, surrounded by photos of Melody and his other daughters, Camilla and Yasmin – who live in Copenhagen and Milan respectively – is a poster a friend mocked up: “Johnny Edgecombe – Wanted for crimes against the white establishment,” it declares in bold letters.
The seven-year sentence Edgecombe was given for firing shots at Wimpole Mews still burns him. He takes little prompting to return to the events that are always lurking and never far from the surface.
After his arrest, when the scale of what he was involved in began to unfold, paranoia set in. “Well, I’m beginning to feel like I’m in a curious situation here. I felt vulnerable, I think they might try to knock me off.” Keeler, the chief witness, had hot-footed it to Spain, but his prosecution still went ahead. “I was blatantly fitted up, right. I haven’t shot anyone. I haven’t wounded anyone. And yet I was in the No 1 court in the Old Bailey. I find my arse in Wandsworth doing seven years. I petition the Home Office, they ignore me, so I petition about my petition … The only person I thought was genuine was a chick called Alice Bacon, she was an MP and she asked for my case to be discussed in the Commons, but they didn’t do it.”
For Edgecombe, the thought of a black man sleeping with a white woman who was also sleeping with a government minister, was too unpalatable for the times. “It’s like you’re having a big dinner for all the aristocrats and you’re serving the rice pudding and there’s a fly in it. So they have to dump the whole goddamn thing. The fly and the buttermilk.”
As a child in Antigua, he’d seen a different future before him. “I didn’t want to go to school. There was no job I wanted to do. All I ever wanted was to be a sailor like my dad.” Captain Johnny had a two-mast schooner and a girl in every port, and on calm days would tie a rope round his young son and hang him over the side to splash around in the warm sea below.
His dad disappeared to New York when he was 10, and Edgecombe eventually tried to join him there, stowing away and only making it as far as Galveston, Texas, where he was promptly jailed. “It was all segregated and there’s guys waiting to go on trial for dope, murder, rape.” A week later, they let him go. He’d already worked as a pantry boy on another ship, and in 1949 at the age of 15, arrived in Liverpool with his entire worldly goods in a paper bag. A few months earlier, the Empire Windrush had docked at Tilbury, Essex, carrying around 500 Jamaicans, heralding the first major influx of West Indian immigrants into Britain.
With no money, Edgecombe hustled his way to Tiger Bay, Cardiff. “That was the safest place in Britain if you were a black man. There were Somalis, Maltese, Indian, some of the guys from Windrush, you name it. It was a multiracial situation. We used to shoot craps on the street corner.”
He moved on to London, surviving by means both legal and illegal. There were nights he slept in Hyde Park. Days when he’d buy a tube ticket and fall asleep on the Circle line after carousing in Soho clubs till dawn. He ran a shebeen in Colville Terrace in Notting Hill, in a property owned by the slum landlord Peter Rachman (whose name was also to be forever tied to the Profumo affair via his liaisons with Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies). Actors, pimps, hookers, villains, American GIs and slumming bohemians would drink, play poker and have a smoke there. He lived with, as well as off, various white women. “They were called ‘nigger-lovers’ or whatever, but the hookers were like us. On the edge of society.” And he had his “jazz-mobile”, the estate car he would drive stars like Tubby Hayes round in. Then came Profumo and the end of life as he knew it.
How does he view the other main protagonists in the saga today? Profumo, who was forced to resign in disgrace and who died in 2006, “picked the wrong chick at the wrong time. He wasn’t the only government guy who was a sugar daddy. He just happened to get caught.” As for Keeler, whom he hasn’t seen since January 1963: “She was so naive. She wasn’t evil. She liked having a good time. She’s been used worse than I have.”
He hands over his mobile phone with a photo of newborn Johnny Rocco on the screen. His spirits visibly lift. “He’s a handsome little guy,” he says.
The Edgecombe name may still resonate for the wrong reasons, but despite the albatross of Profumo, Melody views some of her dad’s exploits with amusement. Just the other week, for instance, he managed to set off the alarm at Gatwick and briefly evacuate part of the airport on his way back from visiting her half-sister in Milan.
“I’d like to think my life will run a bit more quietly. A bit less excitement in my life please,” she says, as she prepares for a low-key evening in with her son. Meanwhile, her dad is off for a night on the tiles with his old friend, the former dope smuggler Howard Marks.
Johnny Edgecombe sadly passed away in September 2010