Its now 2013 and Britain’s most sensational sex and security scandal is 50 years old.
It is half a century since John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, resigned from Parliament after he was found to have lied in the House of Commons about having an affair with call girl Christine Keeler.
The denial resulted in the exposure of a searing story of sex, suicide, intrigue and espionage – and demolished Profumo’s world of red-leather despatch boxes, scrambler telephones and the panoply of a Minister of the Crown.
Profumo began 1963 as Secretary of State for War. He was a rising star of the Tory Party, close to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, a favoured visitor at Buckingham Palace, a war hero and the dashing husband of a famous film star.
Then, seven shots fired at a house in a quiet Marylebone mews by a jilted boyfriend of Christine Keeler triggered Britain’s most notorious political sex scandal of modern times.
The Profumo affair convulsed Westminster for nearly six months.
Macmillan’s Cabinet was shaken by Keeler’s revelations that she had sex with both Profumo and Commander Eugene Ivanov, a handsome Russian intelligence officer and the Soviet assistant naval attache in London.
At the height of the crisis, Cabinet ministers feared some of their colleagues might become the targets for scandal-mongers.
Christine Keeler photographed in 1963.
There has got to be something special about a news story to push it onto a front page. Sometimes it’s grief. Or scandal. At other times it’s a significant event. Or a terrible crime. This story had just about everything: sex, politics, deceit, espionage, criminality, suicide, high society and an extra-marital affair.
5 June 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the resignation of the Conservative War Minister John Profumo – the culmination of a series of revelations that we now call the Profumo Affair.
But this wasn’t just any old political scandal. It is, in many ways, the political scandal of recent British history.
It gripped the country and had tabloid newspapers fizzing with gossip, not least because it linked a world of sex parties and prostitution with the previously untouchable elite of British society.
There were tales of organised orgies, including whipping parties at a house in Mayfair where, it was said, one of the guests became over-excited and died of a heart attack.
On March 22 1963, battered by parliamentary gossip, Profumo delivered a personal statement to MPs denying any “impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with Keeler.
His claim that a platonic affair had ended in 1961 was accepted by the Cabinet. Downing Street described the matter as closed.
Prime Minister Macmillan and Cabinet colleagues took Profumo at his word, but opposition MPs and newspapers remained sceptical.
On June 4 1963, after a welter of rumour, accusation and denial that rocked the Government, Profumo, known as Jack, was forced to resign when osteopath and man-about-town Dr Stephen Ward was arrested and charged with living on immoral earnings.
It was Ward, an artist and son of a country parson, who in 1961 took Keeler to Lord Astor’s country home at Cliveden, Berkshire, where Profumo first set eyes on the doe-eyed brunette climbing nude from the swimming pool.
She was 19 and he was 48, married to the beautiful Valerie Hobson, star of classic Ealing comedies such as Kind Hearts And Coronets.
Mandy Rice-Davies – Achieved Notoriety During The Profumo Affair In 1963
In Westminster and in Fleet Street, the talk was about little else for six months. By 1963, the Conservatives had been in power for 12 years. The Daily Mirror asked: “What the hell is going on in this country?” Even the broadsheets condemned the “moral collapse” of the Tories.
It was a time when the Cold War was at its most tense (the Cuban Missile Crisis had just been averted in October 1962) and the United States looked on in disbelief: a rising star of the British government had a mistress who was also sleeping with a Russian spy. Profumo became an international, as well as a national, scandal.
A scandal on which two films (The Keeler Affair in 1964 and Scandal in 1989) have been based (the first was banned from British cinema screens) and many books have been written.
3 June 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the resignation of the Conservative War Minister John Profumo.
Profumo came from a Sardinian family who emigrated to Britain in 1885 and built their fortunes on insurance. His father was an Italian baron and a King’s Counsel. John was born in 1915 and brought up as an English gentleman. From Harrow he went to Oxford.
He joined the Army in 1939 and ended the war as a brigadier, just the right background for a Tory MP. He entered the Commons at only 25, winning Kettering at a by-election in 1940, to become the youngest MP in the House. He was handsome, smooth, slightly balding and highly attractive to women.
After the war he lost his seat, but got back into Parliament in 1950 as MP for Stratford-upon-Avon. Two years later he was in government office, as Joint Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Transport. Ever ascending, Prime Minister Macmillan made him Secretary of State for War in July 1960 with a brief to boost Army recruitment following the end of conscription. He made a success of it.
It appeared as if nothing could stand in the way of Profumo’s ambition to be foreign secretary. He was even tipped as a future prime minister.
John Profumo met 20-year-old dancer and model Christine Keeler in 1961. He was staying at Cliveden House, the Berkshire country estate of a friend, Dr Stephen Ward, a London osteopath. She was having a party at a cottage in the grounds. When the married politician first saw the young model, 27 years his junior, she was climbing naked out of a swimming pool.
Rumours of the affair which followed did reach the press. Stories were written. But when it was discovered the mistress of the war minister was also sharing a bed with Russian spy Yevgeny Ivanov, the scandal reached new heights in Cold War Britain.
The involvement of the Russian was seen as a potentially serious threat to national security. Newspapers, to whom Keeler sold her story, held back from publishing details.
But gossip circulated in Westminster and Fleet Street, not only about the War Minister and Keeler, but linking other prominent Tory politicians with call-girls and sex orgies.
The affair became public by a grapevine of rumour that got considerably bigger all the time until the truth could be concealed no longer.
It had all the alchemy of a TV soap opera with a glossary of High Society names, weekend house parties, call girls, MI5, and government ministers thrown in for good measure.
The Macmillan Cabinet secretly feared Ward would exploit the publicity surrounding his trial to name other establishment figures involved in sexual scandal.
Newspapers ran teasing stories about the War Minister performing his duties, next to items about Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies.
Profumo lied to Parliament. In March 1963, he told MPs there was “no impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with Ms Keeler. The press gossip didn’t stop. Labour leader Harold Wilson smelled blood. Less than three months later, John Profumo admitted his deception and resigned.
Dr Stephen Ward pictured in 1963.
The story did not begin to break until the jealous Edgecombe went after Keeler and opened up with a revolver outside Ward’s home where she was staying. Police involvement revealed for the first time the seedy tale of prostitution, espionage and deceit.
The Profumo affair rocked the Tory establishment to the roots during the final months of the Macmillan administration, when he was sick and Labour – under its new leader Harold Wilson – was smelling blood. The rumours surrounding the case, including one that a Conservative minister attended an orgy wearing only a maid’s frilly apron and a mask, led to an inquiry by Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls. He found all the rumours to be untrue. The Denning report became one of the hottest-selling Government publications ever but was widely viewed as an example of the Establishment closing ranks.
Ward committed suicide after being found guilty on some, but not all, charges. In the end the seediness of the Profumo affair proved fatal to 13 years of unbroken Tory rule.
Before the year was out, Mr Macmillan resigned as prime minister and was replaced by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who lost the general election. Profumo suffered scandal without reply.
The summer he fell, he made a vow of silence and never opened his mouth again to answer any criticism or misrepresentation, however unfair. The only time he spoke of it was to his son David who produced the memoir Bringing The House Down.
Profumo served penance for parliamentary dishonour with more than 30 years of charity work among the poor in the East End of London. Friends believe he more than made up for the ruin he brought on a brilliant political career.
In 1975 he came in from the cold with a CBE for his work at Toynbee Hall, the East End settlement where he began the long road to rehabilitation washing dishes and helping meths drinkers. Profumo’s wife’s death was a terrible blow to him, but he carried on his work as best he could.
In 2003, the 40th anniversary of the Profumo scandal, all-party efforts were made in the Commons to restore his Privy Counsellorship.
Profumo died in hospital on March 9 2006 after a stroke.
To understand the significance of the events which led up to the resignation in June 1963 is to appreciate the cultural and political change it had on Britain.
The country was gripped by the story because Britain was also gripped by a social revolution. The Sixties were swinging. The ruling classes were not. But now, for the first time, people had in their tabloid newspapers a view through the bedroom window of the establishment. The old order was giving way to a new, more liberal society – a process in which the hungry press was a very willing participant. Previously, editors had been largely respectful of the ruling elite. Now they were happy to uncover their misdemeanors.
For the first time newspaper readers were given a tantalising glimpse of the double lives led by those they had hitherto respected. Never before had mistresses and ministers been written about in the same story.
Just who was the real villain, Ward, or the privileged few with a high society lifestyle?