He was, technically, the fifth Baron Profumo of the late Kingdom of Sardinia, but his family had settled in England in 1880, made its money in insurance, and, by the time Jack was born, were comfortably ensconced as Warwickshire landowners. As a rising politician, he had a sheen and a charm about him that Ian McKellen in the 1989 film Scandal never quite captured. I don’t suppose he thought they’d be making movies about him a quarter century later, but he accepted it. Profumo is Italian for scent, which gives the fallen political star a whiff of Ben Jonson: he caught the heady intoxication of cheap perfume one summer’s night, and, though he swapped his evening dress for a hair shirt, he understood the smell could never be washed out.
Shortly after Profumo’s disgrace, Macmillan resigned for health reasons and was succeeded as prime minister by the fourteenth Earl of Home. But the affair, Stephen Ward’s suicide on the final day of his trial for “pandering,” and tidbits such as “the man in the mask”—an otherwise naked personage who would serve guests at Ward’s parties, wore a sign advising dissatisfied patrons to whip him, ate from a dog’s bowl, and was said to be a High Court judge or perhaps another high-ranking cabinet minister—had taken their toll on the Conservatives’ reputation and conjured a Britain run by a decadent elite having all the fun the masses never got to have. In court, it was pointed out to Miss Keeler’s chum Mandy Rice-Davies that Lord Astor had denied sleeping with her, and she replied, prompting much laughter and a subsequent entry in many dictionaries of quotations, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” That neatly summed up the British people’s view of their rulers, and a year later the Tory government fell to a resurgent Labour Party.
Years later, in my radio days, I wandered into work and was told by the boss that a colleague was supposed to be interviewing Christine Keeler, but that he hadn’t shown up and I had to do it. I was old enough to recognize all the names—Profumo, Ward, and Rice-Davies still resonated as cultural markers—but too young to be entirely clear as to who’d done what to whom. It wasn’t a great interview. Miss Keeler spoke in a soft, breathy whisper, like someone suggesting you might want to come in for a nightcap—which only made her impenetrable footnoting of the case even harder to follow. At one point, she said, “Stephen killed himself because he couldn’t live with people thinking he was a ponce,” and I remember recognizing ponce as a British term of disparagement but not being entirely clear what precisely it was disparaging. A ponce can be a man who lives off a woman’s immoral earnings or a male homosexual, and I wasn’t sure which she meant, or indeed if she meant both. But even then it seemed a quaintly archaic term, and one that placed its speaker in what was already a time capsule.
In Scandal, Joanne Whalley had a bland smooth prettiness. By the time I met Miss Keeler, the vicissitudes of life had etched a lot more character into the face, but she looked if anything more beautiful than in the iconic photograph of her naked and straddling an Arne Jacobson chair (or copy thereof), an image much parodied by everyone from David Frost to Homer Simpson. She had a kind of fragile sensuality, except when she opened her mouth and revealed a full set of Austin Powers choppers. She was living in poverty in a “council flat” (British for “housing project”) and had nothing to retail but those few months in the early sixties, which she did incessantly and to diminishing returns, updating her story according to whatever new “evidence” emerged, the most recent being a treasure trove of conspiracy-rich reports positing Ward as a Soviet agent. For all the attempts to cling to her celebrity got her, Miss Keeler might as well have joined Profumo at Toynbee Hall and done charity work for four decades.
Still, you could see why a red-blooded male would have wanted to chase her naked round the pool at Cliveden. In 1953, Jack Profumo had gone along to see The King and I at the Theatre Royal, and been introduced to Valerie Hobson, who was playing Mrs. Anna. She switched roles to Mrs. Profumo the following year. Miss Hobson was one of the biggest British stars of the day, and she’s very good in Kind Hearts and Coronets and certainly a fine-looking woman, but, like a lot of other English roses of the period, it’s a sort of de-sexed good-lookingness, at least onscreen. Miss Keeler, by contrast, was very abandoned, though unfortunately not just in bed. If you were running auditions for the role of grande horizontale to the ruling class, she’s the last person you’d want—almost pathologically unable to keep her mouth shut. With the scandal unraveling, Jack took Valerie to Venice and spilled the truth over lunch. “Oh, darling,” she said, in near-parodic British, “we must go home and face up to it.” And so, like some stoic stiff- upper-lipped sequel to Brief Encounter, she did the decent thing and stood by him.
In 1963, Profumo was shorthand for establishment hypocrisy. Across forty years, he reclaimed the narrative as a story of shame and redemption, of acting honorably, making the best of a sticky wicket, and all the other allegedly obsolescent virtues of his class the sex and hookers had supposedly rendered risible. Had Stephen Ward not thrown a teenage girl’s bathing suit into the topiary, John Profumo would have been noted as the last surviving member of the House of Commons to vote in the confidence motion of May 8, 1940. He was one of the Conservative MPs to join the opposition in declining to support the continued leadership of Neville Chamberlain and thus to usher Winston Churchill into Downing Street. That vote changed the course of the war. But instead his place in history is as the man who saw a call girl naked in a swimming pool.