Making the Best of a Sticky Wicket

John Profumo (1915–2006)

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.

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.