John “Jack” Profumo, the high British official who is credited with bringing down a government, as well as launching the 60’s era of swinging London, died on March 9th.
Coming from a privileged background, and having a distinguished military career, Profumo was hardly anyone’s concept of the man who would be behind one of the greatest scandals in contemporary British history. Still, you can’t help wonder if he was tempting fate with his 1960 remark in the House of Commons…
“There are errors of judgment in all walks of life and some are fortunate in not having the spotlight turned on them.”
He was referring to the small matter of particular TV show being banned from viewing in an Army barracks by a certain officer, and the resulting outcry. Grabbing a page from famed British understatement, three years later, his own misdeeds would somewhat overshadow this little business. The Profumo Affair, as it would be called, had everything: sex, lies, spies, movie stars, wealthy Lords, and even its own limerick.
It all started in July, 1961, when Profumo was a guest at a cottage on Lord Astor’s Berkshire estate, rented by osteopath Stephen Ward, who had friends in both low and high places. John notices the nude 19-year-old Christine Keeler, a “model,” getting out of the swimming pool. Actually, her bathing suit was pulled off by the frisky Dr. Ward.
Just one look was all it took, and within days, Jack and the young Christine are having a steamy affair. Messing around with a girl 27 years his junior is one thing, but Profumo is married to Valerie Hobson, an actress who starred in the dry comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Even worse for Jackie-boy, the secretary of state for war, Christine is also servicing suspected Soviet agent Eugene Ivanov.
According to some accounts, this is all part of an MI5 plot to turn Ivanov, and Ward is the source of the female bait. Indeed, Ward is eventually brought up on charges of living off the immoral earnings of Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies. This, the unending rumors regarding Profumo, and finally the flat-out question by Labour MP Barbara Castle, on March 20, 1963, whether Profumo had been involved with Keeler bring the affair into the open.
Only a few hours later, in the middle of the night, Profumo is summoned to an urgent meeting, and then, a day later, he issues a statement in the House of Commons, asserting that there had been “no impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with young Christine. Jack keeps up the denial for three months, but the dogged determination of Labour MP’s, taped confessions by Keeler, Ward’s trial testimony, and Dear Valerie’s urgings finally force him to come clean. He resigns from Parliament and government duties on June 5th, with “deep remorse.”
Harold Macmillan’s government is to fall the following year, although barely, but no one can deny the schadenfreude being felt, not just by Labourites, but by anyone who resented the upper classes. After all, since gentlemen were in government, it was truly believed by many Brits that a gentleman would never lie in the House of Commons—no kidding.
More than that, the specter of a middle-aged upper-cruster frolicking with a teen-aged prostitute would rip through their supercilious airs, once and for all. Even though Ward was to commit suicide just before his guilty verdict came out, the most memorable line from his trial was uttered by Rice-Davies, when told that Lord Astor denied that he ever had sex with her. She remarked, “He would, wouldn’t he?”
Some accounts say that Profumo was forced by Macmillan to fall on his sword and issue the original denial. This may not be as far-fetched as it seems in light of the midnight Star Chamber proceedings whereby Profumo was literally dragged out of bed to be confronted by his peers. Never mind that this thing had been brewing for several weeks, and there was no special reason for such urgency.
After this nasty business, Profumo would throw himself into charity work, spending the rest of his life doing penance for either his sins or getting caught, it’s impossible to say. He certainly did not withdraw from society, hanging out with the Queen Mother, among many other notables. He was named Commander of the British Empire in 1975, in recognition of his philanthropic work, and probably also as a tribute to his wife, who stood by her man.
Oh what have you done, said Christine
You’ve disrupted the Party machine
To lie in the nude is not very rude
But to lie in the House is obscene
Of course, times would change, and 34 years later, an American president could have a tawdry affair (with an intern whose looks were light years removed from Keeler’s), he could lie about it, stave off an impeachment conviction, and end his term with some very questionable presidential pardons. So far, whatever penance he’s doing is quite invisible.
But, then, his wife stood by her man—just like Jack Profumo’s.