Oh what have you done cried Christine,
You've wrecked the whole party machine!
To lie in the nude may be terribly rude
But to lie in the House is obscene,
On Saturday, 8th July 1961 the Viscount Astor1 was taking a stroll with his friend John Profumo in the grounds of his home at Cliveden House when they came across a woman cavorting naked in a swimming pool. The woman turned out to be the nineteen year old Christine Keeler, a former topless dancer and protege of one Stephen Ward, an osteopath with Society connections who was, incidentally, responsible for the disappearance of Miss Keeler's swimming costume on this particular occasion 2. The forty-six year old John Profumo, or Jack to his friends, was a politician from a wealthy family of Italian origin. Having first become a member of parliament in 1940, by the time he made the acquaintance of the stark naked Miss Keeler he had risen to the heights of Secretary of State for War.
Thus began the affair beween Profumo and Keeler, which was generally consummated in Ward's flat at No 17 Wimpole Mews in London, although on one notable occasion the venue was Profumo's Mini Minor. However, unbeknownst to Profumo, whilst he had succeeded in obtaining Keeler's phone number during the high jinks at Cliveden, she had actually gone home with one Eugene or Yevgeny Ivanov. This would not necessarily have mattered that much except that Yevgeny Ivanov was the naval attache at the Soviet embassy.3
As it happens MI5 became interested in the Ivanov-Keeler connection and at one time considered persuading Stephen Ward to help them set up a honey trap in order to encourage Ivanov to defect. Although MI5 eventually decided that Ward was unreliable and abandoned the idea, they did, purely as a consequence of their investigations, also become aware of the Profumo-Keeler connection. MI5 thus warned the Cabinet Secretary Norman Brook, who informed Profumo on the 9th August 1961. Despite this warning Profumo continued to see Keeler until December of that year when he finally terminated the relationship when she refused to become his full-time mistress.4
That perhaps would have been the end of the matter were it not for an unfortunate sequence of events.
In the year following the end of her affair with Jack Profumo, Christine Keeler became involved with a jazz singer named Lucky Gordon and another West Indian by the name of Johnny Edgecombe. This resulted in an altercation between the two rivals outside a Soho club on the 27th October 1962, during the course of which Edgecombe took a knife to Gordon's face and gave him a wound that later required seventeen stitches. There was a further incident on the 14th December 1962 when Edgecombe turned up at Ward's London flat and fired a number of shots. Naturally the police became involved and arrested Edgecombe, eventually charging him with attempted murder.
As a result of this little contretemps Stephen Ward threw Christine Keeler out of his flat. Suitably miffed, she made contact with a solicitor friend Martin Eddowes who introduced her to a journalist named Paul Mann and John Lewis, a Labour MP. Lewis, who taped his conversation with Keeler passed it on to his fellow MP George Wigg, a self appointed defence expert who held a particular dislike for Profumo. Meanwhile Paul Mann persuaded Miss Keeler to take her story to the Sunday Pictorial who offered her the sum of £1,000; £200 down and £800 on publication.
As a result of this, rumours of the Profumo-Keeler connection began circulating around Fleet Street and Parliament. On the 28th January 1963 Profumo was quizzed by the Attorney-General and denied that there was any truth in the story. He subsequently repeated these denials before the Solicitor-General and the Chief Whip and made it known that he would sue anyone who made such allegations publicly. Stephen Ward was equally as keen to keep things under wraps and in the end managed to persuade the Sunday Pictorial to drop the story and paid Christine Keeler £500 to keep quiet, a sum which she apparently thought inadequate, believing that she had in fact been promised £5,000.
The Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who had been in Italy, returned in February and heard the whole story. He concluded that Profumo "had behaved foolishly and indiscreetly but not wickedly" and that no further action was required. Jack Profumo might well have breathed a sigh of relief at this point and believed that he had 'got away with it', but events were to prove him wrong.
On the 8th March 1963 a rather obscure but nonetheless influential political newsletter called the Westminster Confidential published the allegation that both Profumo and a Colonel Ivanov had been sharing the same mistress and asked the question, "Who was using the girl to 'milk' whom of information?" Despite his previous threat Profumo decided not to sue the newsletter, excusing himself on the grounds that it only had a small and limited circulation.
On the 14th March Johnny Edgecombe was due to stand trial. Naturally the chief witness against him was Christine Keeler, but she failed to appear. The rumour mill suggested that Profumo had spirited her away to some secret location and press interest in the story was re-ignited, even if they were somewhat constrained in what they could actually print. The Daily Express nevertheless ran a story that Profumo was to resign, which they printed right next to a story about the disappearance of Keeler. They were to later claim that this juxtaposition was entirely coincidental, and that it was simply unfortunate if it had led readers to jump to any conclusion.
The Labour MP George Wigg, who had been itching to have a go at Profumo ever since he'd heard the Keeler tape, then used the occasion of a debate on the Vassall affair to raise the matter in Parliament on the 19th March. Wigg made reference to "a rumour involving a member of the Government Front Bench" and the connection between this unnamed minister "to Miss Christine Keeler and Miss Davies and a shooting by a West Indian". He urged the House to appoint a Select Committee to investigate the matter, a suggestion which attracted some support, most notably from Richard Crossland, but was flatly rejected by the government.
Nonetheless the government was spooked, particularly since now the allegation had now been raised in Parliament and could thus be legitimately reported by the press. On the 22nd March 1963 Profumo was dragged from his bed and interrogated by Ian Macleod (the chief whip) and William Deedes. He repeated his earlier denials and was persuaded to release a formal statement to the House of Commons. In this statement he admitted that he and Miss Keeler "were on friendly terms", but insisted that "There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler." He also promised that he would "not hesitate to issue writs for libel and slander if scandalous allegations are made or repeated outside the House". And indeed when such "scandalous allegations" were duly repeated in the Paris Match and Il Tempo Illustrato writs were promptly issued.
On the 25th March the Daily Express (who had found her in Madrid) published an interview with Keeler in which she stated that "What Mr Profumo said is quite correct", confirming his denials of any 'impropriety'. Once again it seemed as if Profumo was safe. He'd made a clear public statement denying a sexual relationship with Christine Keeler, and she had confirmed his story.
George Wigg however, appeared to be unimpressed by Profumo's denials. On the 24th March he appeared on the BBC's Panorama and during the course of the programme he expressed the opinion that he regarded Stephen Ward as a security risk. A suitably annoyed Stephen Ward contacted Wigg. The two met the following day, with Ward no doubt enlightening the Labour MP with what he knew of the affair.
On the 27th the Home Secretary Henry Brooke met with MI5, apparently concerned about Ward's contact with George Wigg. As a result MI5 instructed the Metropolitan Police to launch an investigation into Stephen Ward with a view to finding some criminal charge which could be brought against him 5. This attempt to silence Ward had quite the opposite effect, as he now became concerned that he was being subjected to what he saw as a politically motivated investigation and wrote a series of letters of complaint to the Home Secretary, his MP Wavell Wakefield and Harold Wilson, the leader of the opposition. The first two showed little interest in helping him, but Wilson was sufficiently concerned to insist on a meeting with Macmillan, as a result of which on the 29th May Macmillan agreed to set up an inquiry headed by the Viscount Dilhorne 6.
On the 4th June 1963 Jack Profumo was called to give evidence before the Dillhorne Inquiry. Whereas he had previously been happy to lie to the press and parliament he appears to have balked at repeating the same untruths to an official government enquiry and confessed all. That same day he wrote a letter to Macmillan in which he admitted that he was "guilty of a grave misdemeanor" and that his previous claim that there had been no "impropriety" in his "association" with Christine Keeler was untrue. He claimed that he had lied only to protect his wife and family but nevertheless tended his resignation both as a minister and as a member of parliament.
Profumo's resignation was made public on the 5th June and coincided with the first day of the trial of Lucky Gordon, charged with assaulting Keeler earlier on the 17th April7. Reporting of the trial kept the affair alive in the press and the public consciousness. Further excitement soon followed with the news of the arrest of Stephen Ward.
Ordered by MI5 to find some charge that could be brought against Stephen Ward, the Metropolitan Police had been questioning everyone who knew Ward and eventually came across a friend of Keeler's named Mandy Rice-Davies. Arrested on various minor charges, she was soon persuaded to provide the necessary testimony against Stephen Ward. On the 8th June 1963 Ward was arrested and charged with the offence of having 'knowingly lived wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution'. The subsequent trial excited much public interest and press comment and became noted for the claim by Mandy Rice-Davies that one of her clients had been the Viscount Astor. When, under cross-examination, she was informed that Astor had denied ever sleeping with her, she took the opportunity to utter the now immortal words, "He would, wouldn't he?"
Therefore although Profumo had resigned, the government was not quite off the hook, and found itself the target of continued public criticism. The most damaging allegation being that members of the administration had known about the Profumo-Keeler-Ivanov triangle all along, but had simply turned a blind eye to the affair. On the 17th June Harold Wilson attacked Macmillan for not having acted sooner and accused him of "gambling with national security" for "political reasons". The Prime Minister was also attacked by members of his own party, was notably by Nigel Birch and Quintin Hogg (although the latter had his eye on Macmillan's job.) The political pressure was such that on the 21st June Macmillan was compelled to announce yet another enquiry, this time into the security aspects of the affair to be headed by Lord Denning.
Published on the 26th September, people queued to buy a copy of his report when it was released at midnight and it sold 4,000 copies within the first hour. Many of the purchasers were no doubt disappointed by the lack of any salacious detail in the report, together with its rather predictable conclusion that national security had not been compromised.
Although the government survived the affair it was only the latest in a number of scandals that beset the Macmillan administration in its last days, particularly following closely on the heels of the Vassall affair which involved a not dissimilar mix of sex and espionage. Whilst the Profumo affair did not bring down the government, it was undoubtedly a factor behind Macmillan's decision to resign shortly after the publication of Denning's report in October 1963.
- John Profumo retired from politics and devoted himself to charitable works for which he was awarded the CBE in 1975. Although he has claimed that most accounts of the affair contain "deeply distressing inaccuracies" he has consistently refused to make any comment on the matter. He died peacefully in his sleep on the 10th March 2006 at the age of ninety-one.
- Christine Keeler was jailed for six months for contempt of court (for failing to appear at Lucky Gordon's trial) In 2001 she published her autobiography, in which she made a number of sensational claims, most notably that Stephen Ward had been running a Soviet spy ring whose members included both Anthony Blunt and the head of MI5 Roger Hollis.
- Yevgeny Ivanov was recalled to the Soviet Union. His subsequent fate is unknown.
- Mandy Rice-Davies went on to dabble in acting, wrote a number of novels before marrying a millionaire by the name of Ken Foreman.
- Stephen Ward was convicted of living off immoral earnings, not that this mattered to him as he was in a coma at the time having taken an overdose of sleeping tablets. He later died on the 3rd August. Few attended his funeral but a number of leading figures such as Kenneth Tynan and John Osborne clubbed together to send a wreath of a hundred white carnations bearing the message 'To Stephen Ward, Victim of Hypocrisy'.8
Epilogue: The Man in the Mask
On the 8th June the Washington Star published an interview with Mandy Rice-Davies, the contents of which were essentially repeated on the 21st June in the Daily Express for the edification of its British readers. This interview was most notable for Mandy's statement that she had attended "a dinner party where a naked man wearing a mask waited on table like a slave. He had to have a mask because he was so well known". Thus bringing public attention to the activities of what, the Lord Denning later referred to, as "a group of people who hold parties in private of a perverted nature".
There was naturally much public interest in the activities of these perverted party goers as well as much speculation regarding the identity of the 'masked man'. Many names were put forward including that of Prince Philip himself. The Lord Denning later interviewed the 'man in the mask' during the course of his investigations but only to satisfy himself that the man was no one of any political importance. He failed to name him in his subsequent published report. The identity of the man in the mask together with all the detailed evidence collected by Denning remains unpublished to this day on the grounds of national security.
1 This would be William Waldorf Astor, 3rd Viscount Astor.
2 Stephen Ward rented a cottage at the Cliveden estate from the Viscount Astor, where he frequently entertained guests, who naturally intermingled with Astor's own guests.
3 Christine Keeler seems to have preferred Ivanov as a partner because he took her out to parties, whereas John Profumo, who was needless to say married, as well as being a government minister, preferred to be discreet and thus took her nowhere. Keeler however, seems to have tolerated Profumo because he was generous and showered her with gifts, and also because she appears to have enjoyed the frisson of dallying with a man of 'power'.
4 But the warning was to have consequences much later as it prompted him to write a letter to Keeler which she kept, and which was thereafter always a threat to Profumo.
5 Now regarded by many as the most disgraceful part of the whole affair as the Met were basically given carte blanche to indulge themselves in a fishing expedition against an individual simply because they were proving to be an inconvenience to the government of the day.
6 This would be Reginald Edward Manningham-Buller, 1st Viscount Dilhorne, who happened to be the Attorney-General at the time.
7 Although convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment Lucky Gordon's conviction was later quashed on appeal.
8 Although it has been suggested that Ward was killed on the orders of MI5. See Honeytrap be Steven Dorril and Anthony Summers who further claimed that Ward was in possession of certain "sex photographs", which would have damaged both the Macmillan government and the royal family.
- Matthew Paris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals(Revised edition, Chrysalis, 2004)
- BBC - Crime Case Closed - The Profumo Affair
- Derek Brown, 1963: The Profumo scandal
- Suspicious deaths caused by car crashes in the UK