The Scandal That Rocked Britain

Irving-fe0214profumo-tease1
Keeler, photographed in January 1963, before the Profumo scandal erupted. Popperfoto/Getty

She sits astride a knockoff copy of a plywood Arne Jacobsen chair, the chair reversed so that its kidney-shaped back provides just enough modesty to the axis of her nakedness. Her elbows rest on the chair back; her forearms cover her breasts, her chin in her cupped hands. She stares with impudence at the camera. She is young, but there is a little coarseness to her as she plays the vamp; she has been groomed in a hurry for the role.

“Lucky chair,” says someone.

The chair itself is a clue—austere Danish utility in a country inclined to Victorian bulk. Such economy of design is disruptive to many eyes, part of a disruptive time. Tastes, generations, the protocols of a calcified society are colliding.

And like the chair, the famous loins that will become even more famous are also disruptive; for a season, they will be the loins of the most famous femme fatale in the world. Already they have destroyed a politician, shaken a government, revealed uncomfortable truths, and threatened to reveal dangerous things. A man close to her will die.

The prime minister, Harold Macmillan, mutters, “I will not be brought down by that tart.” He’s referring to the girl in the chair, Christine Keeler. But he will be brought down, because of a miscalculation: it is a scandal of a kind that no longer belongs exclusively to his own caste and times, that cannot be hushed up. This is both the last gasp of an old order and the appearance of a new impertinence toward privilege and power, the likes of which have never been seen and will change the country profoundly.

We are in London in that riotous, rampant, and insolently creative year of 1963. It is summer, suddenly, and the scandal, as ripe as the strawberries, provides the enormous pleasure of a spectacle that nobody seems able to control. The faces of the mighty are puce in their impotence to assert order; their mouths spew cant about concepts they hold dear: “propriety” and “decency.”

The disgraced government minister who so enjoyed those loins is at the center of the whole affair. At first he insisted that there had been “no impropriety whatsoever.” He had stood up and said this in the sacred chamber of the House of Commons, flanked by his prime minister and the cabinet. But the girl had kept a copy of one of his letters: “Darling, In great haste because I can get no reply from your phone—alas something’s blown up tomorrow night ... I won’t be able to see you again until some time in September. Blast it. Please take care of yourself and don’t run away. Love J.”

J for Jack. Jack Profumo, the minister of war, with his shiny forehead and receding hairline. Profumo, unusual name for a Tory, second-generation English descended from a baron of Sardinia who had risen steadily if not spectacularly, had had a good war and—a rebel in his party—backed Churchill. Good old Jack, one of us. And he understood the rules of this political class. OK to cheat (who could resist a girl like that?). OK to lie about it. But not OK to be caught lying, and lying to Parliament, a place of practiced, polished dissemblers ready to be ruthless with the failed liar. Rules of the game. Victorian, permissive until threatened.

Irving-fe0214profumo-tease2 Minister of war Jack Profumo, with wife Valerie Hobson, in a photo taken while the spying and sex scandal were unfolding. Taken in the 1960's AFP/Getty

Outside in the streets, it is different. Miniskirts. Mini Coopers. The Beatles. Their first anthem, “Love Me Do,” is casting its spell. The pill has made libertines out of the sexually repressed. Swinging. Making a whole new louche boulevard of a street called the King’s Road, where the owner of one boutique (creator of hotpants) uses as her brand identity her own pubic hair shaved (by her husband) into the shape of a heart. Swinging.

But behind the music, behind the carnival, is the Cold War, and the scandal has ensnared a spy—or, to be more precise, those same loins have. A Soviet spy, Eugene Ivanov, who operated under the cover of naval attaché, but can be more accurately portrayed as the bedroom attaché.

Keeler spoke of Ivanov’s virility as a capital asset: “he was a man.” Size mattered, and in the few pictures of him Ivanov does indeed have a chunky Slavic muscularity. Ivanov’s presence suddenly becomes the detonator of the whole scandal: while pleasuring the Russian, Keeler has been asked to pump Profumo the war minister for information about the movement of U.S. missiles in West Germany. Technical stuff. Ballistics. Logistics.

No matter that Keeler never got around to the subject. We are shocked, shocked!, that such a ménage could exist with all its risks. What were they thinking, these Brits? To J. Edgar Hoover, who is watching from afar, it is getting too hot to be left to them. He fires off a telex to his man at the U.S. Embassy in London: “Determine from your sources whether any United States nationals are involved ... and arrange to be promptly informed should such information be developed by the British in the future.” That blind phrase “United States nationals” is loaded: Hoover is grasping at straws, suspecting a tastier target than a Soviet philanderer, indeed, a philanderer in the White House and another, his brother, who happens to be, technically, Hoover’s boss, the attorney general. Hoover’s bile is as activated as his file.

Every scandal needs a fall guy, and as they begin to clean up the mess, the scrutiny of Britain’s ruling elite centers on a recurring name in the social undergrowth—the same name, as it happens, that is in Hoover’s crosshairs: Stephen Ward.

Ward is an osteopath whose supple hands have been the making of both a professional reputation and social ascent. They have brought clients as illustrious as Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, and Prince Philip, and scores more, not all of them either illustrious or respectable. (The more illustrious sometimes sat for him; he was a keen but amateur portraitist.) Among them Ward becomes a connector of worlds that otherwise have few connections—a dangerous place to be. Suddenly, Ward—not well born, a climber who has had to ingratiate in order to keep up appearances, to live at the limits of or even beyond his means—has flaunted those connections. Now Ward is trapped in a web of his own making.

Irving-fe0214profumo-tease3 Dezo Hoffmann/Rex USA

The pivotal scene goes back two summers before, to Cliveden, the palatial country seat of the British branch of the Astor family. There, Profumo takes an evening stroll to the pool and comes upon the 19-year-old Keeler draped only in a wet towel. Keeler is a guest at a cottage on the estate that has been rented to Ward. Ward’s landlord is the lord of the estate, Bill Astor, one of his patients and a man with a roving eye for the kind of girls Ward seems to collect. These arrangements are very different from the new and relatively class-free intercourse of Swinging London. Women of lower rank are picked up, swapped, and traded in the kind of sexual bourse that had been a feature of London salons since the Reformation—it is consensual and never regarded as prostitution.

But the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and at the first shaft of limelight falling on this ménage in the summer of 1963, Astor arrives at Ward’s flat in London and demands his keys. Ward is about to know what it’s like suddenly to be a nonperson. Within a week of Astor’s call, his patient visits have gone from 60 to four.

And this is where I enter the story myself. The tabloids are as happy as pigs in shit as they pursue Keeler with checkbooks and ghost her story in the strange demotic of a flighty damsel drawn into a plot too devious for her to understand. At loftier editorial levels there is apoplexy: the loftiest of all voices, that of The Times, a famous establishment scold, rants at length about a serious moral collapse. I am leading the three-man investigative reporting team called Insight at The Sunday Times (no kin of the daily Times), reporting for a so-called quality newspaper devoted to a higher motive than tabloid titillation, but unable to avoid sifting through the trash left by those same tabloids. I cannot claim that we have a confident grip on events. In the wake of Profumo’s resignation, it seems clear that the role of Stephen Ward wanders into the picaresque. Spooks mingle with cops of dubious reputation; Keeler’s past skirmishes with a couple of West Indian lovers lead, in a violent and roundabout way, to the beginnings of a case against Ward.

Simultaneously, Hoover discovers that Keeler and her bosom pal, a feisty blonde called Mandy Rice-Davies, had visited New York in the summer of 1962, and on this tenuous basis he sets agents in both the U.S. and London on the mission of finding if they connected with a high-end call-girl ring with clients at the U.N. headquarters in Manhattan—a service Hoover has been monitoring and believes might have involved the Kennedy brothers.

What now follows is a grotesque public lynching of Ward disguised in the form of a trial. (And, no wonder, its quality of operatic tragedy has, 50 years later, inspired a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.) On June 6, Ward calls Scotland Yard and says, “I’m thinking of leaving the country for a few days. Any objections?” He is told to get a lawyer. A short while later, while taking a stroll in carpet slippers and casual clothes, he’s arrested and charged that he “did knowingly live wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitutes.”

Ward’s trial begins Monday, July 22, at No. 1 Court at the Old Bailey, scene of some of Britain’s most notorious criminal cases and, as we discover in covering the trial, a place with atrocious acoustics and, in the summer, poor ventilation. Witnesses give evidence standing on a curious dais resembling an 18th-century sedan—with their backs to the jury. Because of a quirk in the law where prostitution is involved, the usual presumption of innocence until proved guilty is reversed: Ward’s defense has to prove that he had not received “immoral earnings.”

Irving-fe0214profumo-tease4 Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies (l) after attending the first day of Stephen Ward’s trial for living “on the earnings of prostitutes.” two of the principal witnesses in the vice charges case against osteopath Dr. Stephen Ward. AP

But that is a relatively transparent technicality. Far more slippery is how the case against Ward is argued as a choice for the jury between (illegal) prostitution and (morally deplorable) promiscuity—the latter too notional to be easily nabbed by the law.

The police are in difficulty: they see that Keeler and Rice-Davies are hard to categorize either way. So they come up with two other witnesses who are self-confessed professional prostitutes, swept up from the streets by the cops and coerced into giving dubious testimony that Ward has been their pimp. One of them, by the time she arrives at the Old Bailey, retracts earlier statements and says the police have threatened to take her baby from her if she doesn’t testify. The other, who appears to have no history and disappears after the trial, sticks to the story she has been tutored in.

Inevitably, the trial is a tabloid dream. Keeler appears in a clinging gold sheath dress and gives the impression of being a slightly synthetic creation, with a carefully modulated voice, rehearsed gestures, and awkward timing. She loses control only once, when she cries out: “I would like to say I am not a prostitute and never have been.” Rice-Davies is a lot more natural and harder, and in one exchange utters the words that for their chutzpah long outlive the trial. Told that Lord Astor denied knowing her, she replies, to laughter: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

The judge, Sir Archie Pellow Marshall, has seemed dismayed by the more graphic details of the Ward demimonde—the market price for whipping a client, the court hears, is £1 a stroke. Marshall is not a fearsome “hanging judge” like some others who preside at the Old Bailey, but he is known as an atavistic, austerely puritanical figure given the nickname “the Hen” by some of his colleagues. (He is also thought to have been quite pliant, if not corruptible, under political pressure. The most damning evidence came some time later from Phillip Knightley, another alumnus of the Sunday Times Insight team. Knightley reported on a conversation with a lawyer who told Knightley that in the final days of the trial, Judge Marshall had a telephone call “from a person very high up in the judiciary. Someone was accidentally able to overhear part of the conversation. This high-ranking person said to Marshall, ‘Are you certain that you will be able to get him?’ And Marshall replied: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get him on the immoral-earnings charge.’”)

Marshall begins summing up on July 30, and it is soon clear to us where he is going. He tells the jury to put out of their minds “any abnormal sexual activity”; it is enough if the women had offered their bodies “indiscriminately for payment in return for normal sexual intercourse.” He also gives the jury a new directive, which none of the reporters except us discovers, that reminds them of (dubious) evidence suggesting that money had changed hands. And with that guidance, the jury decides, preposterously, that Ward had lived off the earnings of Keeler and Rice-Davies.

Irving-fe0214profumo-tease5 Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty

Ward doesn’t wait for sentencing. He is staying at a friend’s house and returns there each day in a taxi. On July 31, with the jury still deliberating, he stops off on the way at Harrods in Knightsbridge to pick up a prescription for a sedative from the store’s pharmacy. Later that night he takes 35 grains of Nembutal (a year earlier it had been Marilyn Monroe’s pill of choice), enough to kill a horse, and he dies in the hospital three days later.

Conspiracy theorists have Ward targeted by a professional MI5 hit man. In truth, there is no need for a hit man. It is a psychological assassination, the cleanest kind.

The effect on us of covering the trial is a combination of lost innocence (our belief in the judicial system) and fury—the latter not helpful to the supposed objective discipline of our craft. We have discovered that Ward made repeated attempts to warn the prime minister’s office that Profumo was lying—long before Profumo confessed. This leads us to the crux: what did Macmillan know, and when did he know it? Little do we realize the consequences of pressing home these questions.

First, however, comes the case of Prince Philip and MI5, which pulls a few more scales from our eyes.

Few people know in 1963 that Ward, relishing and boasting of his wide connections, has been working for the spy catchers at MI5, setting up a honey trap aimed at Ivanov. In its Cold War engagement, MI5 is not a hyped-up, TV-worthy terrorist-chasing body. U.S. intelligence agencies are in despair over the incompetence of their British “cousins.” Three high-level moles have already defected to Moscow, and a fourth, yet to be unmasked, is working at Buckingham Palace. MI5 seems like a combination of leaders of dubious loyalty and a supporting cast of itinerant amateurs like Ward whose value was the position they held in society rather than any professional acumen for espionage. Amid Cold War paranoia, it also operates deep in the shadows, ungoverned by scruple or laws. If it has hit men, nobody can tell. But it certainly bugs phones, and apparently bugged ours.

As we delve into Ward’s demimonde we find Felix Topolski, a professional portrait artist far defter than Ward. Topolski is happy to brag to us about his access to the mighty and famous—with one exception. “I can’t discuss Prince Philip,” he says. Naturally, we get interested in Prince Philip.

Before his marriage to the queen, Philip was a familiar carouser at some of the more salubrious nightclubs. (Vetting Philip, the palace’s sniffy courtiers had advised George VI that Philip “was unlikely to be faithful.”) We hunt, but we find no sources who can put Philip and Ward in the same crowd, and we soon drop that line of inquiry.

Then I get a phone call from a “Mr. Shaw.” He explains that he’s an MI5 official. He would be obliged if, together with my colleagues Jeremy Wallington and Ron Hall, I could meet him the next day at a hotel near the St. James’s Park tube station. There is nothing to be alarmed about; it is just a matter of courtesy.

Irving-fe0214profumo-tease6 A Poster advertising the The Christine Keeler Story,a film that opened in Denmark in December 1963 AP

Alarming or not, it’s pretty unusual. We go to the appointed room on the third floor. Shaw, a man I estimate to be in his mid-50s, is flanked by two much younger and more sharply dressed men. It’s clear that they know about more or less every interview we have conducted in our wide-ranging investigation. The one that concerns them is with Topolski. Shaw is uncomfortable. His accent and economy of language are those of a mandarin, patronizing and unused to insubordination. With effort, he gets to the point. What has Topolski told us about Prince Philip? I tell him that we no longer have any interest in Prince Philip, that he’s irrelevant to our story. “Irrelevant?” pipes up one of the other men, startled—it’s hard for them to believe that we’re not chasing this particular scalp. The meeting ends, but we are, truth be told, a bit spooked. That was the idea, probably, and I wonder if they know where our next interview is to be: 10 Downing Street.

MI5 was worrying more about Buckingham Palace than about Downing Street. As we head there, this is what we know: Harold Macmillan knew about the Profumo-Keeler allegations since late January. But for some reason the MI5 report that Ivanov was sharing Keeler and had asked her to pump Profumo about the ballistic missiles had taken 123 days to get to Downing Street. Even more curious, never once had Macmillan interviewed Profumo himself. We have put together a timeline including every encounter between Profumo and his interrogators, every attempt to reach Macmillan with convincing evidence, including Ward’s, and the timing of evidence passed on by both Scotland Yard and MI5.

I call Macmillan’s press officer, Harold Evans (in this era the prime minister has no spinmeisters; Evans—not the illustrious namesake who later became editor of The Sunday Times—is a career civil servant, avowedly apolitical). I ask if I can submit a list of questions. Evans invites me to call and present them in person.

I take Wallington with me—his legwork is the reason our timeline has the goods. It’s obvious that Evans is well briefed on where we’ve been, who has talked, and how deep our knowledge is. He goes through the timeline and ticks every box, adding some details about who has been present during interrogations, but denying nothing. The final question then asserts itself: why did Macmillan leave the interrogation of Profumo to others?

Evans asks that we go off the record. Nothing he says can be explicitly used. We have to understand what kind of man the prime minister is—his life, his values, his scars. He sees himself as a statesman. Profumo’s behavior was beneath contempt: members of Macmillan’s clubs don’t lie. That was the shock—not the squalor of the scandal, but the total absence of honor.

I realize as I listen that there is probably only one door between us and the subject of our conversation. Macmillan is working in his study.

But Evans isn’t finished. There is more, he says, and this is absolutely unpublishable. Macmillan had been cuckolded. For 30 years his wife, Lady Dorothy, had been having an affair with a famous bad boy of the Tory party, the bisexual Robert Boothby, and there had been a daughter from the union. Evans is surprised we don’t know—it’s a mark of how wet behind the ears we still are. (Unpublishable but not unknown to older colleagues at the paper, as it turns out.) The prime minister just could not confront a sexual scandal and wished that it would go away—which it very nearly had.

At the time, this revelation had the desired effect on our final judgment on Macmillan in the book we published, that he had shown “willful amnesia.” On reflection, as bizarre as the Macmillan ménage was, its use as an alibi now appears to me to be weak. Double lives like Profumo’s (and other members of the Macmillan cabinet) were a commonplace—whether in domestic arrangements or espionage. As long as it seemed that Profumo could get away with his lie, Macmillan was not disposed to deal with it. “I will not be brought down by that tart” expresses the vast gulf between two positions in society, the contemptible weakness of one and the invincible security of the other. Macmillan and his political class used falsehood as a privilege. Stephen Ward, not enjoying the protection of this class, could be cast to the wolves without a flicker of remorse—and Profumo could be left, as he was, free while doing social work among the poor, a wholly Victorian concept of redemption.

There are clues to Macmillan’s state of mind at the time. The American ambassador to London, David Bruce, was himself a fully assimilated clubbable Tory. When he heard, early in 1963, rumors of Profumo’s affair, he sent an aide to have lunch with Ward, who held nothing back. Bruce then, as he did regularly, dined with Macmillan at his club and passed on the account. Macmillan did nothing as a result. His perspective was that of a man in a far larger world. He was enjoying a new mantle bestowed on him by a cartoonist: Supermac. He was on the verge of brokering a historic agreement with Moscow to limit nuclear tests; he had shown himself better able than President Kennedy to handle the volatile Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. This was to be the triumph of his premiership and his legacy. Who could see that a bedroom farce would, in the end, overshadow the statesmanship? By October, Macmillan was gone, rejected by his own party as a liability.

Meanwhile, MI5’s preoccupation with the interests of the royal family continued. Shortly after Ward’s death, his portrait work was put up for sale at a London gallery. Nine members of the royal family had sat for him. Every drawing of them, including those of Prince Philip and Princess Margaret, was bought by a man who refused to give his name. Some believe he was Anthony Blunt, curator of the royal art collection at Buckingham Palace. In Washington, at around the same time, MI5 was interviewing Michael Straight, a former editor of The New Republic. In order to get a government job, Straight had volunteered for a security vetting and confessed that in his youth, while studying at Cambridge, he had been recruited into a Soviet spy ring by none other than Blunt. Thus is revealed the fourth man—his other three companion moles, including the deadliest, Kim Philby, are now in Moscow. MI5 interrogates Blunt, but he is left in his royal post after spilling all his beans until ousted by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Hoover, however, had less success. By the end of July, his agents had not been able to trace any link from Ward and his network of women to President Kennedy. The FBI files on the Profumo affair, code-named Bowtie, were declassified in 1987—sort of. Many of the hundreds of pages of documents were heavily redacted, and many others deleted altogether. The majority of messages winging between the London embassy and Washington cover a short time—from early June, after Profumo’s confession, to Ward’s death at the end of July. Eleven of the documents that can be read at least partially went to Kenneth P. O’Donnell, special assistant to the president—the most trusted consigliere to the Kennedy brothers, longtime member of the so-called Boston Irish mafia, and curator of all the skeletons in the Kennedy cupboard. A June 30 cable to Hoover from the London embassy notes that O’Donnell “expressed his appreciation” on being told that nobody connected with the White House had shown up in the investigation.

Clive Irving is the author, with Ron Hall and Jeremy Wallington, of Anatomy of a Scandal (Morrow, 1963), published in Britain as Scandal ’63 (Heinemann). He is working with Forward Films of London on a screenplay in which the scandal is retold through the viewpoint of the Sunday Times Insight team.

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