John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War and member for Stratford-on-Avon was a charming and respected Tory politician who was educated at Harrow and Oxford.
As well as being a rising star in Macmillan‘s Conservative government, he was married to the movie actress Valerie Hobson and moved in sophisticated London circles.
Christine Keeler, a striking beautiful young woman, had run away from home at the age of 16 and become a showgirl at Murray’s cabaret club in Soho, London, where she was employed “to walk around naked”.
This was where she had befriended another showgirl, Mandy Rice-Davies, and Dr Stephen Ward (pictured below), a fashionable London osteopath who enjoyed sketching the rich and famous.
Ward introduced Keeler into a world peopled with the rich and famous: aristocratic, charming and powerful men, all eager to meet her and take her out.
Through him, she lived the high-life, but her irresistible attraction for men would ultimately lead her down a dangerous path.
Keeler and Ward often spent weekends at a cottage belonging to one of Ward’s friends, Lord Astor.
It was at a party at Lord Astor’s Cliveden country residence in Berkshire in 1961 that Keeler and Profumo first met.
According to Keeler, they flirted around the swimming pool (pictured at left) and jokingly tried on suits of armour in the rooms of the mansion, but the War Minister was smitten and the couple subsequently had a passionate affair.
Keeler often visited Profumo’s home and his offices, but their affair was brief and probably would never have come to light were it not for a few complications in Keeler‘s love life – namely, that she had also slept with Eugene Ivanov, a patriotic Russian who was a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy – he was also a spy . . .
When the story broke in 1962, Profumo initially tried to deny the affair, but his efforts were futile.
Once the whiff of sex, spies and scandal was out, the media hounded him. And in March 1963, he made the crucial mistake of lying in the House of Commons about it, telling the chamber “Miss Keeler and I were on friendly terms”.
“There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler”. However, 10 weeks later he appeared before MPs again to say “with deep remorse” that he had misled the House because he wanted to protect his wife and family, and would resign.
The relationship between John Profumo, and Christine Keeler shocked the nation. The public queued up to scorn the morality of the upper classes, as the newspapers dished the dirt on what was undoubtedly the biggest political sleaze story of the decade.
A photograph of Keeler, naked across a chair has even become an iconic image of the swinging sixties era.
The scandal seemed to mark the end of the straight-laced fifties and usher in a new era of sexual liberation. And at the height of the Cold War, the fact Keeler had also slept with Ivanov was political dynamite. It was enough to force the resignation of Profumo on 5 June, who was felt to have compromised British security.
Dr Stephen Ward was seen as the ringmaster of the sex and security circus, although it was Ward himself who tipped off MI5 when he became concerned that the former showgirl was also having a liaison with Soviet naval attaché Eugene Ivanov.
This has since been strenuously denied by Keeler, who claims Ward used women and sex, not for cash, but to gain influence among his peers.
However, she did make a statement saying Profumo gave her money “for her mother”, and Rice-Davies admitted having sex for money in Ward’s flat.
Ward was prosecuted but committed suicide on the very last day of the trial (pictured at left), before the jury reached their verdict. He left ten suicide notes.
At Ward’s trial, the prosecution alleged Mandy Rice-Davies had received money from Lord Astor in return for sex. When she was told Lord Astor had denied ever sleeping with her, she uttered the immortal line: “He would, wouldn’t he?”
John Profumo kept a low profile after the events of the 1960s, mainly occupying himself with charity work. He was named Commander of the British Empire in 1975 for his charitable work. After the scandal broke, the Naval attaché Ivanov was called back to Moscow and never heard from again.
Profumo suffered a stroke on 7 March 2006 and was admitted to London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. He died two days later surrounded by his family, at the age of 91.
Keeler lived quietly in North London and said she still felt “bewildered” by what happened. She passed away in December 2017 at the Princess Royal University Hospital in Locksbottom, London, having been ill for some months with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was 75.