Remembering Johnny Edge

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Johnny's message to his friends on his 76th birthday

Johnny Edgecombe obituary
Keeler's ex-lover, he fired the shots that set off the Profumo affair

On a clear December morning in 1962, Johnny Edgecombe, who has died aged 77, fired six shots at the central London mews flat where his ex-lover Christine Keeler was staying. In doing so, he set off a chain of events that altered not just his life, but British history. The resulting Profumo affair heralded the fall of Harold Macmillan's Tory government, and with it a substantial erosion of the deference shown to the upper classes.

Edgecombe, a smalltime hustler and jazz promoter from Antigua, met the 20-year-old Keeler through a mutual friend in September 1962. They soon became lovers. Keeler had already had affairs with the war secretary, John Profumo, and the Russian naval attache and spy Yevgeny Ivanov, whom she had met through her mentor, the society osteopath Stephen Ward. She had recently also had an entanglement with another West Indian, Lucky Gordon, but was on the run from him after he had briefly held her captive. She enlisted Edgecombe for protection, and gave him a Luger pistol that she had acquired for the purpose.

When Edgecombe showed up in a taxi at Ward's flat at 17 Wimpole Mews in Marylebone, she refused to see him and threw a £1 note out of the window for the cab fare. After failing to shoulder-charge the door open, he fired five shots at the lock and a sixth at the wall above. Keeler told the police investigating the shooting about Profumo and Ivanov, and rumours were soon swirling among MPs and the press.

These intensified when she fled to Spain to avoid giving evidence at Edgecombe's Old Bailey trial, and on 15 March 1963 he was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life.

A week later Profumo denied in parliament any "impropriety whatever" in his relations with Keeler, but on 5 June he admitted lying and resigned. As the press revelled in wild tales of high-society scandal and political cover-ups, Edgecombe started serving a sentence that he always viewed as unjust. The idea of a black man sleeping with a white woman who was also sleeping with a government minister was too much for the times, he maintained.

Edgecombe was born the last of eight children to a seafaring family in St John's, Antigua. His father, who owned a two-mast schooner and had a woman in every port, would take him on his trips transporting gasoline to Trinidad, leaving him in a bar while he conducted his business. Johnny's sole ambition was to be a sailor like his dad, and when the latter disappeared to New York, he stowed away on a ship to try to join him, getting caught en route and locked up in the county jail in Galveston, Texas.

In 1949 Edgecombe arrived in Liverpool, carrying his belongings in a paper bag. He ended up in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, shooting craps on the street corner, mixing with hustlers and hookers. Moving to London, he survived by legal and illegal means: posing as an African prince in an expensive jewellers while his accomplices attempted to steal rings (he got caught, receiving three months in a young person's prison), operating a shebeen in a Notting Hill property owned by the slum landlord Peter Rachman, and driving stars such as Count Basie around in his "jazz mobile".

After he was released from prison for the shooting, he became a successful jazz promoter, running a club called Edges, and later worked as a television and film extra.

The Profumo affair shadowed him – as it did all the main protagonists – for the rest of his life, and he was unhappy with his portrayal in the 1989 film Scandal. In 2002 he wrote his own account of the affair, Black Scandal, and at the time of his death was trying to interest publishers in a fictionalised version of his hustling days, entitled Calypso Train.

After being diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, Edgecombe added another catchphrase to his already long list: "I want to get high till I die." In early August, he dragged himself from his hospital bed for a party in his honour, held by family and friends at a London pub. As the jazz ensemble played, he knocked back the Guinness, and he stayed till the end. The diversity in age, race and class of those present mirrored another of his mottoes: "I am not a black man. I am a man who is black."

He is survived by his daughters, Camilla and Yasmin from his former wife Vibeke Filtenborg, and Melody, from his former partner Jane Jones.

• John Arthur Alexander Edgecombe, jazz promoter, born 22 October 1932; died 26 September 2010

Mark Olden
The Guardian, Thursday 30 September 2010 18.23 BST

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