Christine Keeler and The Profumo Affair: How a tragic cabaret dancer gave birth to the 1960s

Christine Keeler: What was The Profumo Affair and what did it lead to?

Christine Keeler has died at the age of 75

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

You might think the current sexual harassment allegations swirling around Westminster are the first of their kind, but it's got nothing on the events of 1963, which practically brought a Government down.

The woman at the centre of that scandal, Christine Keeler, has died at the age of 75 after suffering from lung disease COPD for several months. But her risque reputation will live on, offering as it does a snapshot of the intrigue, suspicion and sexual awakening of the early 1960s as buttoned-down, black-and-white Britain burst into mini-skirted technicolor.

The scandal erupted when Keeler, a model and cabaret dancer, got into a relationship with the secretary of state for war John Profumo. Nothing too unusual about that you might think, apart from the significant age gap between the pair. 

But here's the kicker. Keeler, who has been described in some quarters as a call girl, was also seeing a Soviet naval attache Eugene Ivanov. Looking back, it's like something out of an airport spy novel.

As if that wasn't complicated enough, Keeler was also seeing two other men, Lucky Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe. It's hard to know how she found the time, really. Profumo himself was married to actress Valerie Hobson and, as a close ally of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, was widely seen as a rising figure in the Conservative Party.

Keeler met Profumo through another of the men in her life, flatmare Stephen Ward, an osteopath and socialite (one might think those two career paths would be diametrically opposed, but apparently not). They were introduced at a pool party held by the playboy Lord Astor, who was rumoured to be having an affair with Keeler's friend and fellow dancer Mandy Rice-Davies. A fittingly epicurean launchpad for this most salacious of stories.

The pair managed to keep their dalliance quiet for a while, but eventually Keeler's chequered love life came back to haunt her. Edgecome ended up firing shots at a flat where Keeler stayed, meaning the police got involved and began to piece together the backstory.

Labour claimed Keeler could have been handing information to Ivanov from Profumo and therefore suggested the alleged affair was a security issue. Labour MP George Wigg then accused Profumo of the affair, under Parliamentary privilege.

At first Profumo denied the affair when the allegation was levelled in March 1963. However in June he resigned, admitting his earlier denial had been a lie.

Rumours began to spread including allegations of orgies and whipping parties taking place at a house in Mayfair. One rumour spread even suggested someone was so excited at the house they died of a heart attack, but an inquiry found rumours to be false.

Fifty years on, it's hard to describe the sort of convulsions this scandal generated among the chattering classes. Britain was still to fully emerged from the horrors of wartime, and one might argue that the Victorian era had yet to fully pass. Teenagers were slowly becoming a thing, but it was still an age of stiff-upper-lip austerity rather than hippy hedonism. Bands were still appearing on TV in shirts and ties, Twiggy was still an unknown schoolgirl and George Best had yet to make his debut for Manchester United. 

In this sense, Keeler and the scandal which engulfed her can be seen as the harbinger of the swinging '60s, the first shot in the youth revolution. With incredible timing, the Beatles' first LP, Please Please Me, was released the very same day Profumo issued his denial. Then Keeler outdid even herself by posing nude, behind a precisely placed chair, for the aritst William Morley. The picture would come to adorn a thousand bedroom walls, make Keeler a saucy sweetheart for teenagers across Britain and become one of the defining images of the age.

As it rumbled on, the affair took on huge political ramifications as well as cultural ones. Labour were able to tar the Tories as titillating sleaze-mongers, a tactic which would prove equally devastating when employed by Tony Blair thirty years later. The public booted the Conservatives out in 1964, ushering in six years of socialism under Labour and Harold Wilson. It would be stretching the point to suggest the Tories were as weak then as they are today - they enjoyed a parliamentary majority right up until the '64 vote. But, in a very real way, Keeler helped precipitate the sort of left-wing upheaval Jeremy Corbyn is plotting now.

For Keeler itself, fame was cruel and intrusive. In July 1963 she was forced to speak during the trial of Ward, who was accused of living on immoral earning. He took sleeping pills in an apparent suicide attempt before the verdict was read, and died as a result. The trial is also remembered for Rice-Davies's response when told Astor had denied their affair. "Well he would, wouldn't he?" she said with a giggle.

Another legal case would have even more severe ramifications for Keeler. In April she accused Gordon of attacking her. Gordon was initially found guilty and jailed, but the conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal, which found that Keeler's evidence during the initial trial had been substantially false. In December 1963, she was sentenced to nine months in jail, serving six. 

When Keeler emerged from prison, the sixties were really beginning to swing. Carnaby Street was getting ever-more popular, the Rolling Stones were about to embark on their first tour of America and Best was winning the championship with United, becoming a teen idol in the process. Yet the woman who arguably started it all was happy to fade into the background; Keeler rarely ventured back into public life for the remainder of her life; although she had two children, the marriages were both short-lived, and she claimed she was barely "surviving" during the 1970s.

The Profumo affair would remain a popular conversation topic among journalists and Westminster watchers, and most of the key characters in the story came out well. While Mandy Rice-Davies released an album and became a nightclub mogul in Israel, John Profumo began working as a volunteer and earned a CBE for his efforts, restoring his reputation. 

For Keeler, however, there seemed to be only disillusionment. She lived alone for much of the rest of her life, turning her back on the riotous, rule-breaking modern world she had helped create.