Written by Allan Hall
The door to the suite opened wide, its bed reflected in the mirror of a large wardrobe which stood on the wall at its end. Two pairs of feet poked out from beneath the sheets.
Entering the room I saw Justin Fashanu – Britain’s first one million pound black footballer – nestling in the arms of another male.
An under-aged male.
A rent boy under-aged male, bought for by money paid to him by The Sun.
Things were about to get ugly.
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I was in the 3rd of the 11 years I was to spend in America when the call came to go north of the border to meet with a footballing legend. His name meant nothing to me, as football interests me not one jot. But I was informed by thought control that this was a big one, the biggest buy up I ever did – 70,000 pounds – for the story of Fashanu’s secret gay life. Editor Kelvin Mackenzie was perpetually fascinated by the sexual mores of others – particularly if they were in the realm of what he considered deviant – and there was a constant chain of Press agents and other assorted bottom feeders ready to punt the prurient his way.
Justin Fashanu had fallen on to relatively hard times when I met him at a ramshackle apartment near to Toronto. His Division One glory days were behind him and he was now with a minor club in a country where soccer was mostly played by children. I was told to take him to lunch, milk him for everything he had to tell, and write Mackenzie a very long memo. He would then decide if Justin was worth the money.
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Three Small Rooms, which shuttered its doors permanently a year later, was the restaurant venue. In its heyday Hollywood greats like Katherine Hepburn, Rex Harrison and Christopher Plummer were habitués. On the day when we showed up we shared the place with a couple of tired business executives and an elderly woman feeding a French bulldog on her lap. The dog ate well. And so did we.
The biggest ever buy up? Cue humungous lunch.
Being an avid fan of both ingredients, the Rocket Salad with Sqid leaped out at me as Justin and I set down to begin. You can substitute scallops for the squid if you wish.
As we waited for the second course Justin expounded on his desire to come out of the closet via the pages of Britain’s biggest selling newspaper. His narrative was underpinned by a central plank – that his homosexuality was less about sex (always less about that) than about friendship. It was a line I was to hear repeatedly over the coming days.
But right then the main course arrived – and what a course. Justin’s sexuality interested me in reality as much as his footballing skills. But he was an enthusiastic eater.
This Terrine of Pork is not a terrine, or pate, but a country casserole made with pork chops, juniper berries, onions, leeks, bacon and potatoes. It closely resembles the one by Elizabeth David in Provincial French Cooking.
Naturally the wine to accompany this was sublime – Rupert Murdoch purchased for me that day a Volnay and a Cote de Beaune. Thanks Rupe! I vaguely recall Justin banging on again about his gayness being more about companionship than sex when I noticed a dessert I just had to have.
Actually, the dessert at Three Little Rooms was strawberry soufflé with sabayon sauce, but I prefer this more rustic showcase for the fantastic sabayon sauce and I think you will too.
Justin caught a cab back to his apartment, I repaired to my hotel in downtown Toronto to snooze and write the memo for mad dog Mackenzie. You might think I had had enough to eat for the day. How well you don’t know me.
At around 6.00pm I received the green light from London telling me to get Mr. Fashanu over to the UK on the first available flight the next day, which just happened to be a Thursday. That left one more munching window open in Toronto where, for the purposes of expenses, I could pretend to be entertaining him.
In a small downtown French brasserie, imported from the suburbs of Montreal I was informed, I could have been in Paris; small tables, red-chequered tablecloths, a soundtrack of Edith Piaf telling me she had no regrets. And neither did I.
I am an enthusiast of cold meat dishes. This was the version of Aromatic Pork as given to me by the proprietor.
I managed a coffee and a calvados but, unlike Mr. Creosote, could not even consume a wafer thin mint to follow. I collected Justin at 6.00am the following day and we made it to the airport to fly business class to Heathrow. While waiting for the plane I called London to arrange hotel rooms for us. Justin saw me tap in the number of my telephone credit card into the payphone – a card issued by the bureau in New York for Murdoch’s America-based hacks. He asked if he could use it to make one phone call. Why not?
After all the dining came the sour aftertaste of actually having to do some work. For close to nine hours in the sky, interspersed with numerous refreshments and meals dispensed from the aluminium cart, I jotted down the life story of Justin Fashanu, the man who lived a lie in the misogynist, testosterone-fuelled world of top-flight soccer. Yawn.
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It was late when we landed and a car was waiting to meet us to take us to the Waldorf Hotel at the bottom of The Strand in London. I bade a weary goodnight to Justin, and said I would meet him for a late breakfast. When he didn’t show I went to his room, but he wasn’t there. I enquired at reception if they knew where he had gone. They said he was “dissatisfied” with his room and had insisted on a mini suite. Who cares? I wasn’t paying.
He eventually showed. That Friday was spent debriefing him further, interrupted by a photographer who took him down to the House of Commons to take a photo of him outside; part of his story involved sleeping with an MP.
That gave me the opportunity to cab it to Greek Street in Soho where I knew a family Persian restaurant, long since deceased. Iranians may have a bad rap when it comes to politics and religion but boy, can they cook.
I met Justin early in the evening in the Waldorf bar. All was going to plan when a groin strain – a Sun sports reporter – came in and said Kelvin had green-lighted for him to interview Justin for a sports story. That was all very well – but then I saw the groiny slip him a bundle of cash. By the time I went to the loo and back, Justin was gone, lost in the underbelly of the big city.
Saturday dawned and there was no sign of him. I cursed the sports hack. Today was in essence a free day, but I could hardly tell Mackenzie that the Sun’s biggest buy up had gone walkies and I had no clue as to his whereabouts. So I went to lunch at a small French bistro, again in Soho.
I wasn’t feeling very hungry come Saturday evening, merely pensive. Come Sunday Mackenzie would be on the phone demanding last minute tweaks to the story and its central character was still MIA in London.
Next morning, sure enough, Mackenzie was on the phone demanding many answers to many questions. I daren’t tell him the buy-up had vanished – that would have been career hari-kari. I ventured to the breakfast room – no Justin – then to his suite. The door was locked. No reply. Back to the lobby. I walked around outside and then back to his room where I pushed very hard – and it opened – to reveal the sight described in the introduction to this tale.
“You!“ I bellowed at the astonished male prostitute in the arms of Justin. “Get dressed and get out.“ He obeyed in a something of a daze. When he was gone I turned on Justin. “What’s all this bull about companionship eh? I could see that lad was 15 at most. Do you want to do some time in a British jail for under-aged sex?“ He mumbled an apology and I sat him down with some strong black coffee and grilled him for two hours with the questions set by the editor.
The next day Britain’s biggest selling paper had a wipe-out front page with Justin’s photo on it and the headline; ‘I Am Gay.‘ I never saw him again. I flew back to New York the next day and I presumed he hung around London long enough to collect his cheque before returning to Canada.
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But eight months later he turned up unexpectedly in my life. In New York Murdoch’s US reporters were coralled in a bureau with a bookkeeper keeping an eye on expenses and a manager called Deena overseeing the smooth running of the operation. Deena was a genial if unhappy soul who kept her nose out of the mad world of tabloid newspapers as much as she could. But she appeared in my cubbyhole one day concerned with the spiking costs of my telephone calls as they appeared on the AT&T credit card I was issued with.
The last bill was $2000 dollars, the one before that $3,000, the one before that $4,000 – stretching back eight months and totaling some $26,000. Incandescent with rage, I chose a number at random from the list, one that had been called many times. I dialed and waited until a woman answered.
I told her that I was the holder of the credit card and that it had been used to make illegal phone calls. Who was calling you? I demanded. She refused to say. “You’ll tell me or you’ll tell the AT&T fraud department,“ I countered.
“Justin Fashanu,“ she replied, confirming my suspicions. The crafty git had scratched down, or memorised, the credit card number when I let him use it at the airport.
That was that then. And yet my bizarre relationship with him was still not over.
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In May 1998 I had slipped the bonds of both the Sun and the Daily Mirror and was freelancing as co-owner of the Big Apple news agency. It was a Sunday morning and, the day before, the news had come that Justin Fashanu – accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy in Maryland – had been found hanged in a garage in East London.
I managed to get the preacher from the small American town where the crime allegedly took place on the telephone. He was immediately hostile, lambasting the British Press for Justin’s woes, refusing to talk with me, claiming his born-again friend was “misunderstood.“
I told him that I understood him – understood him to be a thief at least, and recounted the story of the stolen telephone credit card. The line went silent then the pastor said; “Is your name Allan Hall?“
“It is,“ I said. “Then I have to tell you,“ he replied, “that Justin was tormented by what he did to you and told me many times how much he regretted it.“
I got my story just before lunchtime. But, for once, I had no appetite.