The Profumo Affair: a sex scandal that rocked British politics
With a new BBC adaptation to re-examine this true story of sexual relations, lies and espionage, Donal Lynch looks back on the extraordinary life of Christine Keeler, the former model at the centre of the drama
The photo, which is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is one of the most iconic of the Sixties. There is Christine Keeler, naked and incandescent with sexual power, her modesty barely concealed by a fake designer chair.
By the time the picture was taken her simultaneous affairs with John Profumo, the British war minister, and Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attache, had put her at the centre of Cold War politics. Spied on by the FBI, nicknamed "Bowtie" by MI5, she had all but fired the starting gun for the sexual revolution in Britain, and in doing so had brought down Harold Macmillan's government.
Establishment England was both fascinated and repulsed. The tabloid press gave her all of the shame and all of the blame - one journalist summed up the story as "tarts, titles and t***". And when the story of 'the Profumo Affair' would be told on stage and screen, it would never be her version of events. Half a century before the MeToo movement recast the interplay between sex and power, the men whose careers had been destroyed by the scandal were deemed more important than the woman at the centre of it.
Growing up, Keeler never thought she was beautiful. Her cheeks were too ruddy, her teeth not quite straight and she hated her breasts and the attention they brought her. Her father had deserted the family while she was a young child, and her mother later set up home with a man called Edward Huish. She was sexually abused by him and his friends. She would always, she later wrote, be burdened "by sex I didn't particularly want".
She left school with no qualifications and moved to London, where she had a series of jobs, including working in a gown showroom and a spell as a waitress. She was never, she later insisted, a prostitute "in the sense that most people understand the word", but added: "It's true that I have had sex for money but only out of desperation." At the age of 17, she became pregnant. Attempts at a self-induced abortion failed but the child, a boy, died days after the birth. "I was just 17, I did not have many illusions left," she later said, "and the ones that did remain were soon to vanish."
She was a teenage showgirl at Murray's nightclub in Soho. For posing topless she got £8.50 a week, which just about fed the gas meter.
It was at Murray's that she met the woman who would become her arch-frenemy - Mandy Rice-Davies. "It was dislike at first sight," Rice-Davies later wrote. "The other girls had gone out of their way to help me settle down, but Christine was always ready with a bitchy remark."
Keeler would return the fire in her own autobiography. "I thought Mandy Rice-Davies was a true tart. There was always shock on her face whenever she thought she might have to do more than lie on her back to make a living," she wrote. "Everything about her said 'I want to marry a millionaire' - she might as well have carried a placard." In spite of their battle of words, the women seem to have had a friendly truce, even sharing a flat at one stage.
Rice-Davies and Keeler both went out for a time with Peter Rachman, the notorious slum landlord whose ghost, The Guardian once observed, still haunts the rental market in England. Rachman showered Keeler with diamonds and kept her, before she was replaced by Rice-Davies.
Keeler moved onto Stephen Ward, an osteopath to the great and the good. Ward was also a prolific artist - as his sketches of The Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon all testify. He worked as a court artist for the Telegraph, sketching the Adolf Eichmann trial. He was an invitee at London's most fashionable parties, and a man who specialised in providing fun for his friends. Keeler moved into his flat. He called her "little baby", and liked to hear all the details of her affairs, though when she protested that one of his heavies had raped her he didn't seem bothered, as long as she had no bruises. He took her to dinner parties where lords and ladies hurried through their dinner courses so that they could begin their orgies. Keeler would accompany Ward to a cottage in the grounds of Cliveden House, recently made famous again by Meghan Markle, who stayed there the night before her wedding to Prince Harry.
During the Sixties, Cliveden was made available to Ward at weekends. Lord Astor, with his friends, including Profumo, would chase a towel-wrapped Keeler and others around the swimming pool.
But all this, Keeler later claimed, was a front for Ward's real activity: spying for Russia on the British establishment during the months before and after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"Stephen Ward has been portrayed in court, in government reports, in film and television as an immoral rascal; he was dismissed as a dilettante communist sympathiser who was only of harm to himself, a somewhat silly, vain man," Keeler late wrote. "In reality, Stephen Ward was a spymaster who befriended hosts of prominent and powerful people in the British government."
Profumo was fascinated by Keeler and they began an affair. He took her in his official car for a tour of London, visiting the War Office and Downing Street. "I'll show you the army barracks, too, where I inspect the men," he later told her. This would have been scandalous under any circumstances - Profumo was married - but all the more so because of the other arms of Keeler's love life. At the same time she was also sleeping with Ivanov, who was another regular attendee at Ward's parties. He and Ward spoke freely in front of Keeler, she claimed, about nuclear warheads. They weren't worried about her, apparently. Ward felt sure she was discreet. "Clearly, I was not a candidate for spilling Stephen's secrets and he didn't see me as a threat," she wrote.
Ward, Keeler claimed, took a great interest in her affair with Profumo. After the minister had left her bedroom one night, Ward entered and, between drags of a cigarette, began hatching a plan. "Stephen just asked me straight out to ask Jack (as Profumo was known to his friends) what date the Germans were going to get nuclear weapons," she recalled. "This seemed so bold. I had dropped off letters to the Russian Embassy (to Ivanov) - this was different. This was gathering information. Spying. Properly. Or rather, improperly." She refused: "I became afraid and begged him not to ask me to do such a thing, that I couldn't betray my country."
Even while she had Profumo and Ivanov on the go, Keeler was also involved with two other men: Johnny Edgecombe, a small-time criminal who had worked for Rachman, and Lucky Gordon, a Jamaican jazz singer. According to Keeler, Gordon assaulted her on the street, causing her to seek the protection of Edgecombe. In October 1962, the two men fought outside a nightclub and Edgecombe slashed Gordon on the face, resulting in the latter needing 17 stitches. Gordon subsequently posted each of the used stitches to Keeler, telling her that for each one she would get two in return. While Keeler was staying at the flat of Rice-Davies, Edgecombe, in a rage, fired shots at the window, and it was this action that was to bring Keeler's web of relationships into the public eye. The subsequent police investigation led the press to take an interest, and reporters soon learned of Keeler's relationship with Profumo.
The trickle of headlines created a suspicion that Keeler had obtained secrets from Profumo and passed them to Ivanov. Journalists were wary of being faced with a libel case if they attempted to publish the story, and for a time it appeared it would simply go away.
But this was the height of the Cold War, a time when Britain feared nuclear obliteration, and the frisson of a British minister moving in he same circles, maybe even the same bed, as a Soviet was enough to keep the pressure on. Eventually Labour MP George Wigg used parliamentary privilege to accuse Profumo of having an affair with Keeler.
Profumo was forced to come to the House, where he denied having sexual relations with Keeler. In a foretelling of the language that would be used by Bill Clinton more than three decades later, Profumo told MPs: "Miss Keeler and I were on friendly terms… there was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler."
Nobody believed him, however, and on June 5, 1963, Profumo resigned as secretary of state for war, having admitted that he had lied to the House of Commons about his relationship with Keeler. As with Clinton, Profumo's wife, to whom he had confessed the affair, stood by him. To many, the scandal seemed to mark the end of an era when a tight establishment circle could hush up misdemeanours and keep a prying public at bay. It ushered in a new era of press intrusion. Labour leader Harold Wilson said the episode revealed "the sickness of an unrepresentative sector of our society".
The national security concerns were soon subsumed into the sex scandal element of the story. Lord Denning, who chaired a parliamentary inquiry into the whole thing, said that there had been no security risk and called Keeler a prostitute.
Stephen Ward was arrested and accused of living on Keeler's immoral earnings. His trial began at the Old Bailey in July 1963 and Rice-Davies was a key witness. Told by James Burge, the defence counsel for Ward, that Lord Astor denied having an affair with her or even having met her, she giggled and gave a reply which became famous: "Well, he would, wouldn't he?"
By the time the jury announced its verdict, Ward was in a coma, having taken an overdose of sleeping pills. He died in hospital three days later.
Meanwhile, Keeler had testified at the trial of Lucky Gordon, who she claimed had assaulted her. He was jailed for three years but the sentence was overturned by the Court of Appeal, and Keeler was accused of lying at his trial. She pleaded guilty to charges of perjury, and was sentenced to nine months in prison.
The scandal cast shockwaves through British politics. Labour won the 1964 general election, having used the Profumo affair to accuse the Conservatives of being unfit to govern.
Keeler, meanwhile, appeared to alternately revel in and recoil from her infamy. She was dismayed that Denning had smothered the tales of spying with stories of smut and she set about setting the record straight. She got £23,000 from the News of the World and another £13,000 from the Sunday Pictorial, but quickly spent the money and ended up living in a council flat with her youngest son.
She changed her name to escape the notoriety - but felt understandably aggrieved when Margaret Thatcher invited Profumo to her 70th birthday party in 1995, with Thatcher saying: "He is one of our national heroes. His has been a very good life. It's time to forget the Keeler business."
But people did not forget. In the late Eighties the story was adapted into a screenplay which became the movie Scandal - ironically a huge hit for a young Harvey Weinstein. Twenty years later the story was turned into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but again the focus was on the men in the scandal, particularly Ward.
A new BBC drama, The Trials Of Christine Keeler, promises to show the affair through "the female gaze of today" but it comes too late for the woman herself, who died in 2017.
After her death, her son Seymour Platt, who lives in Longford with his wife and daughter, told a TV interviewer: "We would never speak about men the way we speak about women and certainly, Christine was blamed … for the urges of men."
When politicians err
Lord Archer and the lady
In 1987, when he was both an MP and one of the bestselling novelists in the world, Jeffrey Archer, was accused by a newspaper of having sex with a prostitute. He brought a libel case against the paper and won, getting an award of £500,000.
However in 1999 it emerged that he had fabricated his alibi for the 1987 trial, and he was jailed for four years for perjury.
The MP and the gangster
In 1964, the Sunday Mirror reported that police were investigating a gay relationship between an unnamed peer of the realm and a major criminal figure. The men involved were Conservative MP Bob Boothby and Ronnie Kray, a notorious East End gangster.
Boothby sued the paper and won, with the editor having to back down and the paper paying damages.
However, in 2009 a tranche of letters that resurfaced showed that Boothby and Kray were indeed more than friends.
Major and Minor
Spitting Image famously lampooned John Major as a grey character who ate his peas with a knife and fork - but Edwina Currie said of him: "He was a sexy beast. Trust me, I didn't have to teach that man anything."
In 2002 she revealed that between 1984 and 1988, while both were married to other people, she had a four-year affair with Major - who went on to become Prime Minister.
She said she stopped the affair when they became more senior in the party and it became impractical due to the presence of bodyguards, and called him "the love of my life".