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Sunday 17 December 2017

Johnny Edgecombe

Dope-dealing lover of Christine Keeler and the man who fired the shots that would lead to the Profumo revelations

JOHNNY Edgecombe, who has died aged 77, fired the gunshots that precipitated the Profumo affair of the Sixties, which brought down Britain's Conservative government of the day and led to Labour's narrow election victory in 1964.

Edgecombe, a dope-dealing drifter, was the lover and minder of Christine Keeler, the nightclub "hostess" who was also the mistress of John Profumo, Secretary of State for War. This irregular state of affairs might never have become public knowledge but for Edgecombe's decision to seek a showdown with Keeler 10 days before Christmas in 1962, following her decision to end their live-in relationship.

Keeler had sought sanctuary at the Marylebone flat of her "mentor", the society osteopath Stephen Ward, where at lunchtime on December 14 an agitated Edgecombe leapt out of a minicab clutching a pistol. When Keeler refused to see him, he attempted to charge down the front door, and then fired several shots at the lock.

He was only one claimant to her affections. As well as Profumo, Keeler was also sleeping with Yevgeny Ivanov, a spy based at the Russian embassy in London under diplomatic cover as assistant naval attache. Furthermore she had become involved with a vicious Jamaican drug dealer called Aloysius 'Lucky' Gordon, who was jealously infatuated with her. When she ended this affair, Gordon had assaulted her on the street and held her hostage for two days while wielding an axe.

As a result Edgecombe confronted Gordon in a Soho club and sliced his face with a knife. Fearful of reprisals from Gordon, he asked Keeler to help him find a solicitor so he could surrender himself to police. But Keeler, jealous that Edgecombe (whom she called "the Edge") had taken another lover, refused to help him and said she planned to give evidence against him in court. This decision led him to plot her murder, and thus to the exposure of the whole Profumo story.

When Edgecombe fired at the door of Ward's Wimpole Mews flat, it gave the still-deferential newspapers of the day the chance they had been looking for to dig deeper into rumours about Keeler and Profumo that had been circulating in Fleet Street for some time. An apparently motiveless shooting in a quiet London street would normally have attracted little attention; but Edgecombe's appearance in court the following day made front page news.

Keeler, already threatened by the pressure she had been put under to extract nuclear secrets from Profumo, was left feeling even more vulnerable after what Bernard Levin in the Daily Telegraph called Edgecombe's "Sarajevo-like" volley of shots. Three months later, when she failed to turn up at Edgecombe's trial, the dam of press reticence finally burst. On March 15 the Daily Express ran the headline 'War Minister Shock' alongside a large picture of Keeler under the heading: 'Vanished'.

John Arthur Alexander Edgecombe was born on October 22, 1932 in St John's, the capital of Antigua, the youngest of eight children. His father, a sailor known as "Captain Johnny", owned a schooner running gasoline for Esso from Trinidad to Antigua, and his small son often accompanied him until, in 1942, he took American citizenship and disappeared.

The 10-year-old Johnny junior stayed with an uncle in Trinidad, but ran away after a few weeks. After returning to Antigua, he sailed as a pantry boy aboard a ship carrying sugar to Liverpool. From there he moved to Cardiff, where he slept at a seamen's mission in the Tiger Bay dock area and smoked his first joint. "Within days," he remembered, "I had a full time job smoking dope." He appeared to have had no formal education, and his teenage years floated past on a cloud of marijuana.

Determined to try to find his missing father, he hid on a ship bound for Galveston, Texas, but on arrival was arrested and put back on board for the return trip. When he docked at North Shields, magistrates jailed him for 28 days as a stowaway. Drifting to London on his release, Edgecombe -- posing as an African prince -- persuaded a series of jewellers to show him expensive rings which he and two accomplices proceeded to steal.

The scam landed him back in prison for three months. Putting his then girlfriend on the street, he combined the trade of pimp with that of running what he claimed was London's first shebeen, an illegal drinking and dope den, from a rented flat in Notting Hill, owned by the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman.

There he met and first crossed Lucky Gordon, who threatened to tip off the police about the shebeen. Edgecombe closed it down, and drifted into the jazz scene, driving musicians like Tubby Hayes, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie to gigs.

He moved on to dealing dope, mainly to black American GIs who arrived in London from their bases flush with cash. In September 1962 he met "a very foxy chick" called Christine Keeler and moved into her flat in Sheffield Terrace.

At the Old Bailey in March 1963, Edgecombe was acquitted of assaulting Lucky Gordon, but jailed for seven years for possession of a firearm outside Wimpole Mews.

A week later Profumo told Parliament that there had been no impropriety in his relationship with Christine Keeler; 10 weeks later he admitted lying, and resigned from the government. For his part, Edgecombe complained of his "unjust" treatment at the hands of the Establishment.

He maintained his conviction had been racially motivated, and served more than five years before being released. "The British people wouldn't wear a situation where a government minister was sleeping with the same chick as a black guy," he said.

On his release Edgecombe became a jazz promoter, ran a club called Edges, and found work as a film and television extra. His highly unreliable memoirs, Black Scandal, appeared in 2002.

Johnny Edgecombe, who died on September 26, is survived by two daughters from his marriage to Vibeke Filtenborg, a Danish au pair, and by a daughter by his former partner, Jane Jones.

Sunday Independent

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