It began like a movie: July 8, 1961. An unusually warm evening at a grand country estate. A girl in the swimming pool. She pulls herself up out of the water. She’s beautiful, and naked. A larky lad has tossed her bathing costume into the bushes. Among the blasé weekend guests dressed for dinner and taking a stroll on the terrace, one man reacts with more than amused sophistication as the girl hastily wraps a towel around herself. She leaves with someone else the next day, but not before the man on the terrace has inquired after her name.
It was Christine Keeler. The house was Cliveden, country home of the Astors. The name of the fellow who threw away her swimsuit was Stephen Ward, to whom Lord Astor had rented a cottage on the estate for £1 a year. Ward was, formally, a society osteopath and basked in the dingy glow of reflected celebrity: his client list included Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, and, when in town, Averell Harriman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Frank Sinatra. The man in the dinner jacket so taken by the girl in the dripping towel was the Right Honorable John Profumo, Her Majesty’s secretary of state for war. The man the girl left with was another guest of Ward’s, Yevgeny Ivanov. Miss Keeler was a showgirl at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho. Commander Ivanov was the Soviet naval attaché in London. “Showgirl” was a euphemism for call girl, “naval attaché” a euphemism for KGB officer.
It’s hard to devise a precise contemporary parallel for “the Profumo Affair”—imagine Donald Rumsfeld is having an affair with one of Mullah Omar’s wives—but in London it became the standard by which were measured all subsequent political sex scandals. They occur with depressing regularity but remarkable variety (straight, gay, three-in-a-bed, autoerotic asphyxiation, toe sucking while accoutred in the garb of the Chelsea Football Club) and have prompted some cringe-making performances in the House of Commons. One thinks, for instance, of the resignation statement, in 1998, of Ron Davies, secretary of state for Wales, after getting mugged in the shrubbery of Clapham Common during a comically inept nocturnal foray in search of some Rastafarian “rough trade.” “We are what we are,” said Mr. Davies, echoing the first-act finale of La Cage aux Folles before going on to enter more mitigating circumstances—unhappy childhood, abusive father—than his fellow Labour members were in the mood for. Profumo was less maudlin. With the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, at his side, he rose from the government benches in Parliament and declared flatly, “There was no impropriety whatsoever in my relationship with Miss Keeler.”
Given that Miss Keeler was distinguished by a noticeable lack of non-improper relationships, even fellow Tories found this hard to credit. “What are whores about?” scoffed the MP Nigel Birch. The denial was soon proven false, and that’s why Profumo resigned—not because he was untrue to his wife but because he was untrue to the House of Commons. The Westminster system—all the “my honorable friend,” “the noble Earl,” “the right honorable member opposite” stuff—is predicated on the assumption of integrity. As a much-retailed limerick of the day put it:
Oh what have you done? said Christine. You have ruined the party machine. To lie in the nude
May be terribly rude
But to lie in the House is obscene.
In other words, Profumo was done in by the “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” moment. Whether or not President Clinton should have suffered the same fate for his finger wagging, it would doubtless have been merely a temporary retreat before re-emergence on a full-scale redemption-by-talk-show tour, doing the flawed-but-all-too-human schtick to Larry and Oprah, explaining how he’d conquered his demons and how you can conquer yours, too, with the help of his new self-help video, etc. The advance from Random House probably wouldn’t have been any bigger, but the book would have been at least partially readable.
Profumo didn’t do any of that. There was no comeback, and no attempt at one. He accepted that his career was ruined and never sought public sympathy. As extraordinary as his downfall was, the aftermath was unique. On June 5, 1963, he resigned from the government, from Parliament, and from the queen’s Privy Council. Not long afterward, he contacted Toynbee Hall, a charitable mission in the East End of London, and asked whether they needed any help. He started washing dishes and helping with the children’s playgroup, and he stayed for forty years. He disappeared amid the grimy tenements of east London and did good works till he died. And, with the exception of one newspaper article to mark Toynbee Hall’s centenary, he never said another word in public again.