In the wake of the recent revelations that the now former Governor of New York, Elliot Spitzer, had been having relations for years with a series of high class call girls, it made me think of other sex scandals, and who does a sex scandal better than the British? Particularly when it involves politics. Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, Jeffrey Archer, but the biggest sex scandal ever in Britain was the Profumo Affair. By the time the dust cleared, the Prime Minister had resigned due to 'ill-health' and the Labour party was swept into office with Harold Wilson as its leader and the new Prime Minister.
Let's go back into time shall we to 1963. Long before the swinging 60's were in force, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones launched the British invasion, England was still recovering from the devastation it suffered during WWII. Rationing had only ended in the late 1950's. King George VI had died and his daughter Elizabeth II was celebrating her tenth year on the throne. She'd given birth to a son, Andrew, the future Duke of York in 1960 and would give birth to her last son, Edward, in the next year.
1960 was also the year that the publisher Penguin was prosecuted for publishing D.H. Lawrence's racy novel (for the time) Lady Chatterly's Lover. Penguin won the case and was able to publish 200,000 copies as people raced to get their hands on it. The old order was being challenged and a new order was just beginning. The children born just before and during the war were coming of age. Ian Fleming's spy novels had hit the screen starring the very sexy Sean Connery as 007. The newest actors in Britain were not Hollywoodized versions of British men, but actors like Albert Finney and Michael Caine who were working class.
New magazines like Private Eye which poked fun at everyone and everything was established. Beyond the Fringe starring Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller hit the West End. And David Frost became a national celebrity hosting the hit TV show That Was the Week that Was (a more topical version of VH-1's Best Week Ever).
Politically however, things were much less happier. Although Harold Macmillan had swept into office in 1959 with a majority in the House of Commons, there was discontent in the country. While Japan and Germany had recovered nicely from the war, the economy in Britain was stagnant. There was inflation and labor unrest. Unlike America, with its young, vibrant president, Irish-Catholic, war-hero with a beautiful young wife, and two adorable children, it seemed that politicians in office reflected a by-gone era, the era of Churchill and Lloyd-George, old school politicians.
Still for all the changes, Britain was stuck in the 1950's. This was still the era when unmarried girls who found themselves in the family way were packed off to places where they could have their babies in secret and then give them up for adoption. The pill didn't come out until the end of 1960 in the States. If you've seen Mike Leigh's movie Vera Drake, you know that back-street abortions were still in existence. Promiscuity was something that the Upper Classes indulged in, not nice middle-class girls and boys.
It was the height of the Cold War, and Britain was still reeling from the revelations that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were Soviet spies. The idea that a British politician was not only cheating on his wife, but sharing her with a Soviet diplomat sent the public reeling. In 1963, Kim Philby would be revealed as the Third Man in their spy ring and would also defect to the Soviet Union.
The chief players in our little drama:
John Profumo - Secretary of State for War, married to the actress Valerie Hobson
Harold Macmillan aka Supermac - Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Christine Keeler - goodtime girl and model
Mandy Rice-Davies - fellow goodtime girl and model
Stephen Ward - osteopath and panderer
Lord Astor - owner of Cliveden, the great estate (now a posh hotel where anyone can come and stay. Kenneth Branagh got married there) where the shenanigans took place.
Yevgeny "Eugene" Ivanov - senior naval attache at the Soviet Embassy
Christine Keeler was one of those babies born during the war in 1942. She grew up in Middlesex, where she was raised by her mother and stepfather. She never knew her real father who left during the war. After an unhappy childhood (she felt threatened by her step-father although she admits that he never touched her), she left home at sixteen, finding work as a model in a dress shop in Soho in London. At 17, after having a brief affair with an African-American servicemen stationed in the UK, she gave birth to a baby that died after a few days (earlier she had tried to abort the baby using a knitting needle but it didn't work).
While working as a waitress, she met Maureen O'Connor, who worked at a club in Soho. Through her, she started working as a topless dancer. While working at Murray's Cabaret Club she was introduced to Stephen Ward, the unwitting architect of the Profumo Affair as well as another showgirl, Mandy Rice-Davies.
Ward was an osteopath and socialite. His father was the canon of Rochester Cathedral and he was educated at Highgate School in London before qualifying to practice as an osteopath in Missouri of all places. Ward used his social skills and his job as an osteopath to work his way into the homes of the rich and power members of London society. He was also a portrait artist who had several members of the Royal Family including Prince Philip, sit for him.
Ward was attracted to pretty girls from a lower-class background and Christine Keeler fit the bill. Soon she was living with him, along with Mandy Rice Davies, although she claimed that it was more platonic than anything else. Ward and Keeler had a tumultuous relationship, breaking up and getting back together several times. He introduced his new friends, Christine and Mandy into his circle of wealthy, sophisticated older men.
In July of 1961, Ward held a pool party at Cliveden, the home of Lord Astor. It was at this party that Christine Keeler met John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War. Profumo was the son of Albert Profumo, a prominent barrister, who held the title 4th Baron Profumo (originally awarded to the family by the Kingdom of Sardinia). On his father's death in 1940 Profumo inherited this title, but did not use it. He was educated at Harrow School and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he took his degree in agriculture and political economy. He had served in the army during WWII, and was awarded the OBE for services on Field Marshal Alexander's staff. He was highly regarded in the Conservative party having won his first election in 1945, becoming the youngest MP at the time.
Profumo and Christine started having an affair, but what he didn't know at the time was that Christine was also sharing her favors with Yevgeny Ivanov, among many others. But it was Ivanov who was the problem. It turned out that Ward was involved in helping MI-5 to entrap Ivanov. Sir Norman Wood warned Profumo about his affair with Keeler, and to warn him to be careful around Ward who was known to be indiscreet. When MI-5 tried to recruit Profumo to help them trap Ivanov by compromising him sexually, so that Ivanov would be enouraged to either defect or pass secrets, and informed him that Keeler was also involved with Ivanov, Profumo refused. Instead he dropped her but the damage was already done.
The affair came to light when Christine Keeler was involved in a shooting incident at the home of Mandy Rice-Davies. She had been involved with two other men, 'Lucky' Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe, two West Indians who were living in London. Gordon had been Keeler's lover and was a bit obsessed with her. She enlisted Johnny Edgecombe as a sort of bodyguard to protect her. In October of 1962, Gordon and Edgecombe got into a fight at a London club, and Edgecombe slit Gordon's face with a knife. Edgecombe went into hiding from the police, and asked Keeler to help him find a lawyer before he turned himself in. But Keeler refused out of jealously that Edgecombe had found another girlfriend. She told Edgecombe that she wouldn't help him and that she would testify against him at the trial. Incensed, Edgecombe showed up Mandy Rice-Davies flat where Christine was living, and blasted the door with a revolver when Christine refused to let him in. Hearing the commotion, someone called the police, and soon the Wimpole Street flat was crawling with police and reporters.
The press began to investigate Keeler, and soon found out about her simultaneous affairs with Profumo and Ivanov. Because of Ivanov's connection to the Soviet Embassy, a simple sexual affair took on a National Security Dimension.
Things might have turned out differently if Profumo hadn't made the fatal mistake of lying to House of Commons. Instead in March of 1963, Profumo told the House that there was "no impropriety whatever" in his relationship for Keeler and to make it even worse he said that writs would be issued for libel and slander if the allegations were repeated outside of the House.
Profumo's denials didn't stop the press from continuing with their stories on Christine Keeler. On June 5th, Profumo finally admitted that he had lied to the House, which was an unforgivable sin in British politics. He not only resigned from office but also from the House as well. Before his public confession, Profumo told his wife, and she stood by him (shades of Silda Wall Spitzer). In spite of the scandal, it was never proven that his relationship with Keeler had led to a breach in national security (presumably Profumo was too busy doing other things to whisper state secrets to his lover). Profumo never talked about the scandal for the rest of his life, even when the movie Scandal came out in 1989, and when Keeler published her memoir of the affair. After his resignation, he worked as a volunteer at the Toynbee Hall, a charity in the East End of London, cleaning toilets. Eventually, he ended up the charity's chief fundraiser. Fortunately for him, he was independently wealthy, and had no need to work for a living. He died in 2006 at the age of 91, after receiving the OBE from the Queen. Like Richard Nixon, another disgraced politician, he learned that career rehabilitation was entirely possible.
The biggest fallout of the scandal was not Profumo, but Stephen Ward, who was prosecuted for living on immoral earnings. To make matters worse MI-5 denited that Ward had informed them of Keeler's affair with Profumo and Ivanov. On the last day of his trial, he took an overdose of sleeping pills. He was in a coma when the jury reached its verdict, that he was guilty. He died a few days later from the overdose. Harold Macmillan resigned in September of 1963 due to ill health. He was replaced by the foreign secretary, Sir Alec Douglas Home.
Keeler was found guilty of perjury in the trial of Johnny Edgecombe and sentenced to 9 months in prison. Mandy Rice-Davies was the only one to escape prosecution, becoming famous for her statement at the trial "Well he would, wouldn't he?" when she was told that Lord Astor had denied her version of events.
An official report was released 2 months after Stephen Ward's death. Hundreds of people queued up for copies. But like the Warren commission or the Starr Report, there was no dirt to be had, just a lot of criticism for the government failing to deal with the affair quickly.
Mandy Rice-Davies traded on the notoriety the trial brought her, comparing herself to Nelson's mistress, Lady Hamilton. She married an Israeli businessman, Rafi Shauli, and went on to open a string of successful nightclubs and restaurants in Tel Aviv. The restaurants and nightclubs, which bore her name, were called: Mandy's, Mandy's Candies and Mandy's Singing Bamboo. Rice-Davies also parlayed her minor fame into a series of unsuccessful pop singles for the Ember label in the mid-'60s, including Close Your Eyes and You Got What It Takes.
As for Christine Keeler, she claims that the true story never came out during the height of the scandal. She wrote a book (ghost-written of course) claiming that not only did Profumo knock her up, but that Stephen Ward was a leading Soviet agent and that Sir Roger Hollis, who was then the head of MI-5, was working alongside him. Of course there is no proof of any of this, but it has kept her name in front of the public over the years as she works to 'clear her name.' After her prison term, she has repeatedly tried to restart her life, but the scandal continues to hang over her head like a sword of Damocles. She married and divorced twice, and had two sons. Over the years, she's held various jobs as a receptionist, and as a dinner lady in a school in London, all under an assumed name.
The 1989 movie Scandal starring Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler, Ian McKellan as Profumo, and John Hurt as Stephen Ward introduced the story to a new generation. The Profumo Affair opened the door in Britain to the type of tabloid journalism its now become famous for. No more were politicians coddled, their foibles covered up by the press. Now it was open season on everyone.
This post was prepared using sources including Wikipedia.
Derek Brown - 1963: The Profumo Scandal
1989 - Scandal - movie based on The Honeytrap by Stephen Dorrill