Sunday 25 February 2018

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.

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler
Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler
Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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."

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