It was a cold wet night in October, 1966, and in a private room in London's Middlesex hospital, guarded by security men, on of the best known women in Britain was dying. Alma Cogan, the bubbly singer from the East End, was the country's first woman pop superstar. Her face, once so alive with health and vitality was instantly recognisable to millions of viewers and record fans. But as cancer spread inexorably through her body she had lost so much weight that she was almost a living skeleton. Now at only 34, she had lapsed into a coma from which she was not expected to wake. Now in the dimly-lit silent Middlesex Hospital room one man sat weeping at the bedside. No one but a tiny handful of friends knew he was there. Certainly his wife Cynthia didn't, although she had her suspicions.
In fact it wasn't until years after they had both died that it was revealed that Alma Cogan and Beatle John Lennon had been secret lovers for at least a year before her death. There had been numerous clandestine meetings of which John's wife Cynthia was totally unaware. Both heavily disguised, they met in London hotel suites where they sometimes registered as Mr and Mrs Windsor — Lennon's middle name. The other Beatles, all fond of Alma and regular visitors to her luxury West End home, knew what was going on but kept the secret.
John was potty about Alma, George Harrison revealed years later. He thought her really sexy and was absolutely devastated when she died. He called her Sara Sequin and we would go round to her house for meals and parties. Paul wrote Yesterday in her sitting room at 3am. At first he called it Scrambled Eggs because Alma's mother had just cooked us some...
Ironically, Alma Cogan, known for her chuckle and her yards of petticoat tulle, would normally have been the sort of person the Fab Four couldn't wait to deride. For ten years until the early 60s, Alma Cogan, daughter of a London East End tailor, was the UK's richest and most successful UK woman singer with a record-breaking 18 hits and four number ones.
She would have been a major star for decades, believes her sister Sandra. "She had the knack of adapting to every new style and trend. She was the only girl singer of her time who never got out of date." Alma's brilliant career started - and finished - early. At ten she was singing at local dances, was spotted by a talent scout and at 16 was in the chorus line of a West End show. Winning a record contract, she had her first major hit at 22 with Bell Bottom Blues which sold over 100,000 copies and featured the trademark sound she had found by accident. While rehearsing a song she had a fit of the giggles and became the"girl with a laugh in her voice." For the rest of her life she would be a major star. Now everything she did was a hit. She appeared before the Queen,(who remarked: "That's a beautiful dress, Miss Cogan"), starred in America's Ed Sullivan Show, the Morecambe and Wise Show, and became her own manager when such a bold move was unheard of.
Her parties became legendary with guest-lists which included, apart from the Beatles and Stones, megastars like Noel Coward, Sean Connery and Sammy Davis Jr. Alma Cogan never married — 'who needs a husband? I can buy my own minks' — but was never short of admirers, who included Prince Aly Khan, Cary Grant and Danny Kaye. But according to her sister Sandra, not until John Lennon came along did she finally fall in love. "I knew about John and Alma," she said.
"But it was something no one admitted to because John was married. We had a very strict upbringing and my family would never have approved of a relationship between Alma and a married man. She was really and deeply in love with him. She used to wonder about whether Cynthia would divorce him if she knew what was going on. 'I've got all this fame and fortune'" she once said. 'But what's the use of it if you can't be with the person you love?'"
In 1965, accepting that John Lennon was not for her, she became engaged on her 33rd birthday to London club-owner Brian Morris. But there was tragedy on the horizon. Alma was a workaholic who never spared herself but in the summer of 1966 she was complaining of tiredness and was admitted to hospital after an exhausting Scandinavian tour. I just need some time off, and I'll be fine, she told John Lennon as she went into a clinic for what was described as rest and relaxation, but sadly there was more to it than that. Her condition grew suddenly worse and appendicitis was diagnosed, but in fact she had inoperable ovarian cancer. It was almost like a national disaster, Sandra remembers. "Alma was front page news as if she was royalty and over 10,000 people blocked the streets at her funeral. People just said it was like losing a friend or even a daughter."
Friends said that John Lennon never really got over losing Alma Cogan. Although he married again —Yoko Ono — the magic of the girl with the golden giggle remained for the rest of his life deep in his heart.