This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair, when the War Minister slept with a good-time girl called Christine Keeler while she was, allegedly, also bedding the Assistant Soviet Naval Attaché. Coming in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis and the continuing threat of nuclear annihilation posed by the Cold War, a juicy spy scandal was lapped up by press and public alike. But even today questions are raised. Did Keeler actually sleep with the Russian spy? Just how many secrets did the minister know anyway? And did the affair truly change Britain for ever? These questions and many more are addressed in a new book on the subject and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has mounted a photographic display which tells the story of the scandal through press photos and related memorabilia of the time.
The book is called An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo and its author is historian and biographer Richard Davenport–Hines. He has carried out an immense amount of research into the social mores of the post-war era and many of his findings are a revelation, especially in terms of how establishment figures thought nothing wrong in openly disparaging women and the blinkered, prejudiced attitude towards homosexuality. But there are also elements of his case which do not withstand close analysis and present divergent, and perhaps more probable, interpretations, not least about whether there ever actually was a security risk behind the affair or not.
In addition, his depiction of the shabby and sordid behaviour of the press at the time will surely come as no great surprise to his readers post-Leveson, but, contrary to Davenport-Hines’s view, this rabid tabloid approach was hardly unknown pre-Profumo, although it may have taken on a more aggressive tone due to ever-falling newspaper circulations and a far less deferential attitude by the media to the ruling class.
John Profumo himself was a scion of Sardinian royalty, immensely rich and well-known for pursuing young women, despite his marriage to former actress Valerie Hobson. He was a favourite of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who promoted him, probably too far as Davenport-Hines states, to the position of Secretary of State for War, although outside the cabinet. He first encountered Christine Keeler by the swimming pool of Lord Astor’s house Cliveden, in the Berkshire countryside, on a hot weekend in July 1961.
Keeler had been invited to a party there by her London landlord and close friend, society osteopath Stephen Ward, who rented a cottage in the grounds from Bill Astor. He had use of the outdoor swimming pool and it seems that Astor quite liked meeting Ward’s sometimes louche house guests. That was why he and Profumo wandered down to the pool that day to see who might be frolicking there. Keeler was then 19 and Profumo 46.
The minister obtained Keeler’s telephone number from Ward and matters quickly progressed to an affair which, sexually at least, petered out just a few months later. Another guest of Ward’s that weekend was Yevgeny Ivanov, Assistant Naval Attaché at the Soviet Embassy and an officer of the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, whose mission it was to infiltrate the upper echelons of society and seek out persons of influence to obtain information and perhaps even turn them. He was followed everywhere by MI5 surveillance teams who attempted to gain information on his own activities, including any peccadilloes. The plan was either to blackmail him into becoming a double agent or, failing that, to reveal the embarrassing evidence to the world, as the Russians still do today, and so make his intelligence role impossible. This is when spies are politely requested to leave as their presence is no longer deemed ‘conducive’ to the public good.
In many respects, Stephen Ward is the most interesting person in the whole story. He was a qualified osteopath, went by the title of doctor (his qualification was gained in America although not recognised in Britain), and successfully treated many famous people including Paul Getty, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill.
Yet he was a gossip and his indiscretion and overly familiar approach in the consulting room were not welcomed by all. He seemed to get on better with women than men and made enemies as easily as friends. His sexuality was also open to question. Judged by some to be homosexual, he appears to have enjoyed S&M beatings and the company of young women. Although “quite busy” sexually, as Davenport-Hines relates, he was perhaps more of a voyeur. In a recent talk at the NPG, the author said: “Unusually for men of his generation, he loved sharing his flats with young women because he loved the whole business of their bras and knickers over the backs of chairs. So he had at different times both Christine Keeler and then Mandy Rice-Davies as tenants, first off Bayswater Road and then a mews flat in Marylebone.” Ward himself told a close friend just before his death that he “loved people – of all types.”
It was Keeler’s disappearance from his Marylebone flat after shots were fired there that broke the story. She had long favoured the company of black men, partly through sexual attraction and also because they supplied her with the marijuana which she used heavily. She had had a relationship with one man, Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon, a Jamaican with a violent past and convictions for breaking and entering and assault. His violence against Keeler led to her leaving him and she then took up with a former merchant seaman from Antigua, Johnny Edgecombe, who had served time for larceny, pimping and possession of drugs.
Edgecombe knifed Gordon in a confrontation outside a Wardour Street jazz club in October 1962 after the latter had struck Keeler. She then ditched Edgecombe himself two months later. He, riven with jealousy, promptly turned up at Ward’s Wimpole Mews flat, raging that she had been seeing Gordon again. Mandy Rice-Davies was staying there at the time and tried to fob Edgecombe off with a story about Keeler being at the hairdresser’s. This did not placate him and he took out a gun, fired two shots at the flat, dropped the weapon and fled.
Although Keeler left Ward’s apartment after the shooting she maintained her racy lifestyle, smoking a lot of dope and being generally indiscreet about her activities. In addition, the shooting incident in December 1962 had alerted the press to a major story involving so-called call-girls and a government minister. It did not take long for the hacks to track Keeler down and offer her money for her story and Fleet Street’s presses suddenly became red hot.
Davenport-Hines is particularly good at relating the seedy and disreputable press manoeuvres during the whole affair. However, he maintains that, contrary to what Keeler herself has repeatedly stated, she never slept with Ivanov, in which case, he believes, “if the Ivanov affair didn’t happen then the whole security story behind the Profumo affair is actually nugatory, it just isn’t there at all. And I certainly think that the [Profumo story] reached the state it did because of the state of Fleet Street at the time.”
Personally, I find it more difficult to believe that Keeler and Ivanov didn’t sleep together given the climate of the time, Ivanov’s intelligence mission to influence senior members of the establishment, Keeler’s own contacts, her sexual appetite and general availability. He was drinking heavily with her at Cliveden the weekend they met, drove her home to London and continued drinking in her flat. He may not have been capable of sex after the amount of alcohol he had imbibed, but it is a safe bet that he tried, and perhaps subsequently succeeded. Ivanov’s wife left him, apparently in part as a result of the affair, and he later told Keeler in Moscow that everyone in the GRU was jealous of his glamorous London assignment.
There could have been an intelligence implication, whether fabricated by the gutter press or not. Even if Ivanov wasn’t sleeping with Keeler, the situation still represented a high security risk. Davenport-Hines maintains that despite his impressive job title of Minister of War, “it didn’t mean as much as it implies and he was in charge above all of the end of National Service and conscription.” Yet it is difficult to believe that no classified material ever crossed his desk or that he never attended any confidential briefings or meetings, especially with the Americans who were supplying Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Even if he was just a humble bureaucrat, he was an obvious blackmail risk and Ivanov and his fellow agents could have induced him to obtain higher-grade intelligence information from his more senior colleagues or risk exposure. MI5 may not have been able to reveal Ivanov’s indiscretions as planned as a result of the information he possessed about Profumo’s own activities, so a sort of Mexican stand-off may have prevailed in London’s spy world.
Ward had also been used as a conduit by MI5 to pass on information to Ivanov and feed back intelligence to them. This suited both sides as a means to spread genuine information or disinformation. Ward had his own MI5 handler – Keith Wagstaffe, who used the alias ‘Woods’ – but who found Ward “of doubtful reliability” according to his case report published in the official history of the intelligence agency.
Ward told Wagstaffe that Ivanov had asked him to find out when the US was going to provide nuclear weapons to West Germany. Davenport-Hines agrees that Ward did ask Keeler to question Profumo about this but claims it was ‘a joke’ on Ward’s part. If it was, it was a singularly unamusing one. This information was vital to Russia’s security and a major concern to the Soviets as they feared nuclear encirclement by America. They already had Jupiter intermediate range nuclear missiles ranged against them in Turkey and Khrushchev feared more missiles stationed close to Russia’s western border could encourage the United States to mount a first-strike attack. He tried to counter this by basing nuclear weapons in Cuba which led to the crisis of 1962 when Ward was again used as an intermediary in London between the government and Ivanov at the Soviet Embassy. Although Khrushchev eventually agreed to withdraw his nukes from Cuban soil, America also removed the Jupiter missiles from Europe as part of the deal.
As to why Ward would be working for MI5 yet seeking to gain intelligence for Ivanov, he loved to be the centre of attention and holding secret information would place him in this position. Given his self-important nature, love of gossip and appetite for excitement, he could have been a double agent or simply naïve. It is just as likely that MI5 asked him to do this when told of Ivanov’s interest so as to maintain his relationship with the GRU man and also test Profumo’s loyalty.
Presuming Profumo had such information and had he leaked it to Keeler during pillow talk, the Soviets would have had an intelligence coup and Profumo would have unknowingly acted against western interests as a result of his cupidity. As it happened, the US never did arm West Germany with nuclear missiles although they were stationed on its soil under US control for many years during the Cold War.
Davenport-Hines comes into his own when he describes the machinations to set Ward up as a scapegoat in this whole lurid affair. He knew both too much and too little as his gossipy nature and perceived unreliability were causing problems for the government and MI5. As Davenport-Hines says: “It was an extraordinary investigation. Normally the police are called when a crime has been committed and then try to find out from clues who committed it. In this case they were told to find out if there was anything they could charge Stephen Ward with. They interviewed between 120 and 130 witnesses, some of them repeatedly. They stopped anyone going into Ward’s osteopathic practice if they were female and asked them if he had pounced on them or made an improper proposition. If it was a man had he tried to introduce them to women? They detained people, usually vulnerable people such as Paddington street walkers, threatening to take their children away from them or their sisters if they lived with them.
“They threatened them with arrest, kept them up till two in the morning before they let them sign their statements and used the most improper and ruthless pressure on witnesses and as a result got a lot of very false statements which could eventually be used against Ward.”
Keeler had been in a ludicrous fight with the brother of an acquaintance, Paula Hamilton-Marshall, in which she sustained minor cuts and bruises. The police knew this but ‘persuaded’ her to say that ‘Lucky’ Gordon was actually her attacker, which she duly did. Gordon was then told the charge would be dropped if he gave false testimony against Ward who the police wanted to convict on charges of procuring. To his credit, Gordon refused and was sentenced to three years for GBH.
Six weeks later he was released after the case against him collapsed due to Hamilton-Marshall’s brother telling anyone who would listen that he had attacked Keeler and the emergence of tape recordings of Keeler herself revealing the truth. She was then tried for perjury and sent to Holloway for nine months.
Profumo had already made a statement to the House of Commons in March 1963 saying that “there was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler.” No one in the House believed him but it was a convenient way to settle the issue as personal Parliamentary statements such as this cannot by convention be questioned. However, for him to have lied to the House indicates how high he believed the stakes to be and his fear of the consequences of exposure.
Ward knew he was being framed for living off immoral earnings and used all his MI5 and government contacts to plead his case and portray Profumo as the liar he was. Keeler was also talking at length to the press and although they created stories to sell their papers, the truth itself was so damning they hardly needed to. Pressure began to mount on Profumo and he finally resigned in June 1963.
Stephen Ward’s trial opened at the Old Bailey on 22 July 1963. He was charged on five counts, three of living off immoral earnings and two of procuring. The prosecution was led by Treasury Counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones who, three years previously, had uttered the famous ‘servants’ remark during the Chatterley obscenity trial. The journalist and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy wrote that Griffith-Jones was not simply prosecuting Ward but was behaving “as the state guardian of private morals…acting as a sort of Establishment front man for an ethos which few people besides himself any longer believed in.”
Ward knew he was going to be found guilty given the judge’s hostile summing up, despite the fact that the evidence showed he had supported Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies financially rather than lived off them. The day before the trial was due to conclude he took an overdose of barbiturates and died three days later.
In retrospect, the Profumo Affair now seems to have been a catalyst for the radical changes which came about in British society during the decade that followed. It signalled the end of the old, disciplined way of life which had endured for generations and led to distrust of their elders as the default posture of the younger generation. Whereas previously children had largely aspired to become like their parents in an atmosphere of obedient conformity, now they reacted against everything they stood for, from music to politics. As Davenport-Hines said during his talk “the well-drilled military aspect of British society in the 1950s was becoming harder and harder to maintain. More and more people didn’t like doing what they were told or knowing their place or keeping quiet. And from 1963 onwards there was increasing and open disrespect of established authority with the view that anyone in a senior position was probably a humbug.”
As for the press, which Davenport-Hines sees as the real villains in the affair, I am only surprised he did not find time to quote Humbert Wolfe’s famous epigram of 1930:
You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
But, seeing what
the man will do
no occasion to.
However, in a recent newspaper article he did quote Larkin and his famous view of the year 1963:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Larkin’s own sexual life had actually begun much earlier but it was the feeling of the time, the zeitgeist, that he was describing and nothing has ever been quite the same since that annus mirabilis of fifty years ago.
The display of photographs and related material – Scandal ’63 – can be see at the National Portrait Gallery, London.