Ruth Dudley Edwards: Sex scandal's allure is still intact 50 years on
A new book revisiting the Profumo Affair tells a sad, sordid and compelling tale.
Published 24/02/2013 | 04:00
PAT Kenny had an entertaining interview last week with Richard Davenport-Hines, who has just published An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, in which he revisits one of England's most famous scandals 50 years on. Kenny should have Mandy Rice-Davies on some time, the author suggested. And so he should, for she is the great survivor of this whole sad, sordid and utterly compelling story of lust, lies, malice, unscrupulousness, class envy, bigotry, generational weariness and the death of deference.
In 1961, when he met 19-year-old Christine Keeler, 46-year-old Jack Profumo, Harrow and Oxford, was on a roll. In 1940 he was already in the army when at 25 he won a by-election a few days before his successful barrister father died, leaving him a hereditary Italian title he never used and a large fortune. In May he faced down furious whips to vote with a few dozen other Conservative radicals in a motion of censure that did for the Chamberlain government.
Profumo's courage and effectiveness during the war earned him British and American decorations. By 1961 he was married to the beautiful former actress Valerie Hobson and had the non-Cabinet post of Secretary of State for War, where he was in charge of professionalising the army and fostering a good relationship between the military establishments of Britain and the US. He was admired by Prime Minister Harold Mac-millan who respected courage above all other qualities, and was popular in Kennedy's Camelot for his energy, his youth, his attractiveness, his sociability and his treatment of women as "fair game", as his wife complained. "You will stretch any manners, at any time, to do this – not quietly and discreetly, but laughing and showing off and behaving like an adolescent." She also deplored his choice of trousers: "Surely there must be some way of concealing your penis."
Christine Keeler left home at 15 to escape a predatory stepfather. In London, one of the few men who didn't pursue her sexually was Stephen Ward, a celebrity osteopath, gregarious and indiscreet and kind. He let her, and later, her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, live unmolested in his flat. At Cliveden, the family home of the Astor family, where he had a cottage, among those he introduced Keeler to were Lord Astor, Profumo and the Russian attache, Yevgeny Ivanov, who became her occasional drinking companion but not her lover.
What in mid-1963 would destroy Profumo, Astor, Ward and ultimately bring Labour to power was the Ivanov link, which enabled muck-rakers and cynics to allege that a few casual couplings constituted a security threat and led Profumo to lie to the House of Commons.
Davenport-Hines's fascinating book is angry about many aspects of the story: the cruelty and hypocrisy of many of the major players, the sexism, racism and homophobia of the time, unscrupulous vested interests and the moral pusillanimity of the establishment.
Here's a sample of his informed denunciations: "Women were demeaned, if not incriminated, when they showed lust. During the Profumo Affair and Ward trial, the following words were used synonymously: girlfriend, model, nightclub hostess, dancer, artiste, good-time girl, Society belle, party girl, gold-digger, short-term mistress, enthusiastic amateur, mass-euse, call-girl, scrubber, adolescent drab, common tart, prostitute, whore."
Against the background of the Cold War and several spy scandals, the imaginary security scare gave an ecstatically prurient press the licence to feast on anyone associated with Keeler and Rice-Davies, not least Keeler's black boyfriends and – retrospectively – Rice-Davies's dead ex-lover, Peter Rachman, the Polish Jewish notorious slum landlord. The rumour mill was out of control. Macmillan was found one evening in despair at a report that eight High Court judges had been involved in an orgy. He didn't believe it, but – like David Cameron with the phone-hacking uproar – he set up an inquiry that would make everything worse.
Enemies seized the opportunities for vengeance and left victims strewn on the battlefield. Left-wing politicians and press sanctimoniously smeared the entire establishment. Lord Beaverbrook used his newspapers to settle an old grudge against the blameless Lord Astor, who became a pariah. (He would be forever damned by Rice-Davies's 'He would, wouldn't he', when challenged about her unsubstantiated assertion that they'd slept together.) Stephen Ward, who had done nothing wrong, was fitted up as a scapegoat by corrupt police – who blackmailed Keeler, Rice-Davies and others to get them to lie in court. Betrayed by conniving lawyers and judges, he committed suicide.
Keeler did time for perjury: these days she occasionally earns a bit recycling different versions of an old story. Rice-Davies married an Israeli and became a successful businesswoman.
Profumo served his time doing voluntary work, was rehabilitated but didn't change. Sitting beside the Queen Mother at a dinner, he whispered to the 17-year-old Guinness heiress on his left: "Ever been f***ed by a 70-year-old? No? You should try it."