A very British scandal: The tale of Christine Keeler

A very British scandal: The tale of Christine Keeler

Christine Keeler was the girl at the heart of the notorious Profumo affair in 1963 which rocked the British establishment, convulsed Westminster and ultimately contributed to the downfall of the beleaguered Tory government the following year.

She was the central and seductive figure in a searing story of sex, intrigue and espionage which led to the shaming of John Profumo, who was forced to quit his job as war secretary, and to leave the British parliament altogether.

It was a scandal which was both seedy and sinister, uncovering a hitherto secret world of sex, horse-play, drinking orgies and spying, in high places, in which Ms Keeler shared her favours with Mr Profumo, and Commander Eugene Ivanov, a Russian intelligence officer and the Soviet assistant naval attache in London.

A very British scandal: The tale of Christine Keeler

The security implications — and indeed the security consequences — of a British call-girl sleeping both with the War Secretary and a palpable Soviet spy were breathtaking.

Astonishingly, the patrician prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was initially in disbelief that not only could such things could happen, but worse, that the trusted, brilliant and ambitious John Profumo could have been embroiled in them.

It was only after Mr Profumo was forced to admit that he had lied to the Commons in March 1963 when he

denied any impropriety with Ms Keeler, that Mr Macmillan accepted the full enormity of the scandal.

The Conservatives, already looking careworn, had been in office for nearly 13 years, and this explosion of sleaze and scandal at the top echelons of society was more than enough to help topple them from power.

Christine Margaret Keeler was born in 1942. She left school at the age of 15 and left home, at Wraysbury, Bucks, a few months later. She worked as an office junior, a showroom assistant and a barmaid.

Before she was 16 she was working as a showgirl in a club in Greek Street, in the heart of London’s red-light Soho district. She was said to be earning about £8 a week.After 1960, there was no obvious employment in her records, almost certainly because she had become what in those days was euphemistically termed a ‘model’.

Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan
Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan

It was during this period that she found herself launched into the unsavoury world of high-society osteopath Stephen Ward, variously described as an artist and a procurer of women, as well as suspected of being a double-agent.

This marked the beginning of the biggest British political sex scandal of the 20th century.

Christine Keeler was stunning, leggy and red-headed and was soon moving in Mayfair’s smartest but not necessarily the most savoury circles.

Ward, who lived in a Thames-side summer house on Viscount Astor’s famed estate at Cliveden, arranged an unsuccessful screen test for her with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

But he also introduced her, fatefully, to Ivanov and Profumo. Keeler also had a West Indian lover, John Edgecombe, a petty criminal and film extra, whose actions, ironically sparked off the whole Profumo scandal.

Mr Edgecombe was involved in a shooting incident outside a flat — Stephen Ward’s — in Wimpole Mews, Marylebone. It was alleged that he fired shots at her, but was acquitted on charges of shooting at her with intent to murder her or cause grievous bodily harm.

But he was convicted of having a firearm with intent to endanger life. He was sentenced to seven years.

However, Ms Keeler, who was due to give evidence at his trial, had gone missing. By now, March 1963, Westminster, and indeed the whole country, was teeming with rumours about Profumo’s presence at wild parties at Cliveden and his association with Keeler.

Questions were asked in the House of Commons about the suspicious and intriguing circumstances surrounding the “missing witness”, who had fled to Madrid, where she was actually tracked down by reporters.

Meanwhile, Profumo (below inset) was forced to make a statement to the Commons in March that year, in which he denied any impropriety in his relationship with Keeler and threatened libel writs on those who suggested otherwise.

His statement, which took no more than two minutes to read in a half-empty but rapt House, said: “I understand that my name has been connected with the rumours about the disappearance of Miss Keeler.”

Profumo
Profumo

Indeed, he said, he and his wife, the late actress Valerie Hobson, had met her at Cliveden, and he had

subsequently seen her “on about six occasions at Mr Ward’s flat” in London.

“I last saw Miss Keeler in December 1961, and I have not seen her since. Any suggestion that I was in any way connected with or responsible for her absence from the trial is wholly and completely untrue.

“There has been no impropriety between myself and Miss Keeler. I shall not hesitate to issue writs for libel and slander if scandalous statements are made outside this House.”

His assertion of a platonic friendship with Keeler, which he said had ended in 1961, was accepted, incredibly, by the Cabinet. Downing Street described the matter as closed.

But MPs and newspapers remained sceptical. There were thinly veiled suggestions that Keeler had been packed off to her hiding-place in Madrid to avoid an embarrassing cross-examination at the Edgecombe trial, so as to protect those in high places with whom she had cavorted, and also those who might have been guilty of treachery.

Finally, on June 4, 1963, Profumo resigned after confessing he had lied to the House. It was at the time when Ward was arrested and charged with living on immoral earnings. Ward committed suicide after being found guilty of some of the charges.

But Keeler’s troubles were by no means over. In December 1963, she was jailed for nine months after

admitting perjury and conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

This arose from evidence she had given at the trial, the previous June, of Aloysius “Lucky” Gordon, a

Jamaican jazz singer. In her evidence, she had falsely denied that two other black men were present during an attack on her by Gordon.

Years later, in 1986, Keeler was to revisit Cliveden and the famous swimming pool. She said: “I was just a 19-year-old girl having a good time. I loved every minute of it. But if I had known then what was going to happen, I’d have run off and not stopped until I had reached my mum.”

She said Profumo, who was introduced to her at Cliveden, chased her twice round the dining room, before finally stealing a kiss in the library. The following day, at the swimming pool, as the champagne flowed freely, Profumo horsed around with Keeler on his shoulders. It was at this point that Ivanov came into the picture, with the fateful consequences that became history.

Eugene Ivanov
Eugene Ivanov

In 2001, Keeler wrote a book in which she claimed that Ward ordered her to sleep with Ivanov and Profumo in the hope she would pass on secrets. She also claimed that Ward threatened to kill her when he thought she was about to expose his part in the spy network.

She also insisted that Roger Hollis, the former head of MI5, was the mysterious “fifth man” in the 1960s spy ring that included Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt. And according to her version, Lord Denning, author of the Profumo report, refused to accept her evidence on the involvement of Ward and Hollis.

“I went to Lord Denning looking for a way out of the mess I was in and he juggled with my life and, like a conjuror, made the truth vanish.”

She made considerable sums from her memoirs, but this money was soon spent. Although her name will forever be associated with the Profumo scandal, Keeler disappeared from the scene and for years lived either at Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, or at a dingy flat in Chelsea. She was married twice and had two sons.

A very British scandal: The tale of Christine Keeler

Sharing the limelight but not friendship

Christine Keeler was close friends with fellow showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies in the early 1960s.

The pair met backstage at Murray’s cabaret club in London and in her 1980 autobiography Mandy — written with Shirley Flack — Rice-Davies said: “It was dislike at first sight. The other girls had gone out of their way to help me settle down, but Christine was always ready with a bitchy remark.

“Once, as I was about to go on stage, I realised I had mislaid the top half of my Red Indian costume. I was going frantic. I am meticulously tidy and I knew I could not have lost it. Muffled giggles coming from

Christine and her little set indicated the culprit. Hastily the costume lady improvised with a few strips of leather and I went on.”

She added: “It was difficult to equate the public image of Christine, as the hard bitten go-getter, with the Christine I knew.

A very British scandal: The tale of Christine Keeler

“She was shy and quiet, domesticated in that she liked to cook and play house, at the same time sweet and amusing company.

“She had a good sense of humour, not particularly witty because she was never sharp in that way, but light, easy company.”

Miss Rice-Davies, who died in 2014, also described Miss Keeler for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2013 documentary Sex, Lies and a Very British Scapegoat, saying: “She was a very beautiful girl. She was good fun to be with. She was a free spirit and I’d never met anybody like Christine before.”

The pair did not remain friends after the scandal and Keeler was less generous to Rice-Davies in her 2012 autobiography Secrets and Lies, written with Douglas Thompson.

“I thought Mandy Rice-Davies was a true tart. There was always shock on her face whenever she thought she might have to do more than lie on her back to make a living,” she wrote.

“Everything about her said ‘I want to marry a millionaire’ — she might as well have carried a placard.

“Mandy was bubbly: she lived a lark, not a life.”

But while Miss Keeler later said she often felt isolated and unhappy as a result of her notoriety, Miss Rice-Davies made the most of the spotlight.

She went on to run a chain of nightclubs in Tel Aviv, had some acting roles and helped with the development of Lloyd Webber’s 2013 musical Stephen Ward.

She was said to have described her life as “one slow descent into respectability”.

‘My life has been cursed by sex I didn’t particularly want’

Christine Keeler described her colourful life in two books written with journalist Douglas Thompson.

The Truth At Last was published in 2001 and was updated in 2012 as Secrets And Lies.

Here are some of the quotes from the book where she reflects on her sometimes difficult life:

“My life has been cursed by sex I didn’t particularly want. Jack Profumo was all over me and there wasn’t much I could do about it. He was a much older man, not someone I wanted to be with, it just happened. Jack had power too and that was part of it for me.”

“Jack Profumo was seriously out of line in his behaviour with me. I was young but he was the one who didn’t know any better. He’d been taught that he could take anything he wanted.”

“Stephen Ward has been portrayed in court, in government reports, in film and television as an immoral rascal; he was dismissed as a dilettante Communist sympathiser who was only of harm to himself, a somewhat silly, vain man. In reality, Stephen Ward was a spymaster who befriended hosts of prominent and powerful people in the

British government, aristocracy and even the royal family. With associates, he lured many of them into compromising situations.”

A very British scandal: The tale of Christine Keeler

“I am always asked if I wore knickers for the shot astride the chair. I certainly did, but it had been a battle to keep them on. (Lewis) Morley had wanted to photograph me without any clothes on but I used the chair to cover my bust and pulled up my white knickers around my waist. Although the illusion was that I was totally naked, I wasn’t.”

“The only two people in the world who wouldn’t take my phone calls were the Pope and Marlon Brando. I tried.”

“Before Profumo I knew that people looked at me because I was attractive. Afterwards I couldn’t be sure.”

“Ever since the Profumo Affair, I have never known if a man was capable of loving me for me and not for being Christine Keeler.”

“I have survived and possibly I should not hope for more than that.”

Here is a timeline of events:

Christine Keeler’s fling with John Profumo created a political scandal.

January 30, 1915:

            John Profumo is born to a privileged background in Kensington, London.

March 3, 1940:

            Mr Profumo, educated at Harrow School and Brasenose College, Oxford, is elected MP for Kettering.

February 22, 1942:

            Christine Keeler born to a modest background in Uxbridge, Middlesex.

July 1960:

            After rising steadily through the Tory ranks, John Profumo is appointed Secretary of State for War.

July 8, 1961:

            Ms Keeler catches Mr Profumo’s eye at the outdoor swimming pool of Lord Astor’s Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire where she is staying in a cottage in the grounds with her friend Dr Stephen Ward.

            Mr Profumo is married to actress Valerie Hobson, but the pair have a brief affair. Ms Keeler later sparks security concerns when she claims to have also had sex with Commander Eugene Ivanov, a Russian intelligence officer and the Soviet assistant naval attaché in London.

            December,

1962:

            Another of Ms Keeler’s lovers, Johnny Edgecombe, fires shots at Stephen Ward’s flat in Wimpole Mews, London, after she refuses to talk to him. The incident attracts press attention and rumours begin to circulate about Ms Keeler and Mr Profumo.

March 22, 1963

            : As speculation continues, John Profumo delivers a personal statement to MPs denying any “impropriety whatever” in his relationship with Christine Keeler. His claim that a platonic affair had ended in 1961 is accepted by the Cabinet. Downing Street describes the matter as closed.

June 5, 1963:

            John Profumo resigns after admitting he misled the British House of Commons about his relationship with Christine Keeler. The scandal rocks the Conservative government.

October 19, 1963:

            Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigns.

October 15, 1964:

            The general election sees Labour defeat the Conservatives.

1975:

            John Profumo, rehabilitated through charity work including volunteering and fundraising for Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, is made a CBE.

March 9, 2006:

            John Profumo dies at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London, having never spoken about the scandal which ended his political career.

December 4, 2017:

            Christine Keeler dies at Princess Royal University Hospital, near Farnborough. She had struggled to escape the notoriety of the 1960s and her son says she paid a “huge personal price” for her place in British history.

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