Infamous British Political Scandals: The Profumo Affair

Christine Keeler on her way to court in July 1963. (Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)

Anglophenia’s look at British political scandals, occasioned by the series State of Play (airing Wednesdays at 10/9c), continues with a look at what many people would consider to be the mother of all modern British scandals: the Profumo Affair, which combined sex, politics and Cold War espionage.

In 1961, Secretary of State for War John Profumo had a short, adulterous affair with London call girl Christine Keeler. That in itself would hardly seem to merit a mention in the annals of notorious British scandals, even though Profumo was married to the famous British actress Valerie Hobson. No, the real problem for Profumo was that Keeler was also seeing a Soviet naval officer, Yvgeny “Eugene” Ivanov – and there were fears that British government secrets were making their way to the Russians via pillow talk.  Profumo was, after all, the country’s top military minister.

The affair was publicly exposed after a former lover of Keeler’s showed up at the London house where she was staying – and he fired a gun at the front door. That house belonged to society osteopath Dr. Stephen Ward, who had introduced Keeler to both Profumo and Ivanov.

At first, Profumo vigorously denied the affair in Parliament – there was “no impropriety whatever,” he told the House of Commons. But just several months later, he was forced to admit that he had not only lied but had also tried to cover the affair up by helping Keeler avoid testifying in court proceedings about events that arose after the gun firing at Ward’s house.

In his letter of resignation to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, Profumo wrote that the rumors of a security breach and of his assistance in the disappearance of a witness were so serious “that I allowed myself to think that my personal association with that witness, which had also been the subject of rumour, was by comparison of minor importance only.”

“In my statement I said there had been no impropriety in this association,” Profumo wrote. “To my very deep regret I have to admit that this was not true, and that I misled you and my colleagues and the House.”

John Profumo in June 1963. (Associated Press/AP Images)

The scandal is often credited with bringing down the Macmillan government and ending more than a decade of Tory rule.

The person most devastated by the scandal was Ward, who committed suicide during his trial for “procuring” and “living on immoral earnings.”

Keeler was convicted on perjury charges that arose from incidents arising after the shooting (including her being kidnapped by a jealous drug dealer) and she was sentenced to nine months in prison. She became a celebrity, not only for the scandal itself but for the iconic 1963 photo of her naked astride a turned-around chair. In the 1980s, after two divorces, she found herself living in a public housing project. She has also published several books about the scandal, including one with Yevgeny Ivanov called The Naked Spy. The most recent, The Truth At Last: My Story, came out in 2001.

The scandal has been a cultural touchstone of sorts ever since it originally broke. It provided the basis for A.N. Wilson’s novel Scandal, or Priscilla’s Kindness. Perhaps the most well known work about the affair is the 1989 movie Scandal, (which, despite its title, is NOT based on Wilson’s book). It stars Joanne Whalley as Keeler and Ian McKellen as Profumo, though the real focus of the film is John Hurt’s Ward.

There was a play, Hugh Whitemore’s A Letter of Resignation and even a musical, A Model Girl, in 2007.

Speaking of music, the affair has found its way into songs by everyone from Phil Ochs, who wrote a song called “Christine Keeler” in 1963, to Dusty Springfield.

The most amazing epilogue, however, remains Profumo’s. Just a few days after he resigned, he presented himself on the doorstep of a London charity and asked to help as a volunteer. He worked there for more than four decades, at times serving as chairman and president.

In 1975, he was made a Commander of the British Empire.

In 1995, he was invited to Margaret Thatcher’s 70th birthday party; calling him “one of our national heroes,” she seated him next to the Queen.

“It’s time to forget the Keeler business,” said Thatcher. “His has been a very good life.”

Profumo died in 2006.