Sex, lies and spies: the real history of the Profumo Affair

It was perhaps the biggest scandal in British political history, leading to jail sentences, suicide and the fall of a government. Anna Harris delves beneath the headlines for BBC History Revealed

John Profumo in October 1962

Amongst the stack of black-and-white press photos that document the Profumo Affair – the sex and spies scandal that shook up the 1960s – there are lots of well-thumbed shots of the affair’s ‘It’ girls, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. With their bouffant hairdos, neat twin-sets and feline-flicked eyes, they make the whole thing seem unutterably glamorous. Then there are the snaps of disgraced minister, John Profumo, once a rising star of the Conservative government, looking suitably humiliated as he drives away from Parliament and out of politics.

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There is also a haunting image of Stephen Ward – the man at the centre of it all and the only person who didn’t survive it – that reveals both the scale of his personal downfall and the really dark heart of this scandal. The gifted osteopath, who once counted the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra amongst his glittering clientele, lies comatose on a stretcher. Ward was the scapegoat for everyone’s bad behaviour and he paid for it with his life. Three days after the picture was taken, he was dead.

Who was Christine Keeler?

Rewind two years. It’s 1961 and National Service has been abolished, John F Kennedy has been sworn in as the youngest-ever elected president of the United States, betting shops are legal, and Elvis and the Everly Brothers top the charts. The British are finally stepping out of the shadow of World War II – life is for living, opportunities are there for the taking and things are on the up.

London is a hub for happening people, and glamour, quick wits and sheer pluck can get you far. Creative types and chancers are descending on the capital, post-war migration from the Commonwealth is lighting up popular culture, and the ‘in crowd’ is an eclectic blend of the well-heeled and working-class movers and shakers.

In an upstairs flat at 17 Wimpole Mews in Marylebone, Stephen Ward is with his latest protégée – 19-year-old Christine Keeler. Ward had ‘discovered’ her two years earlier, working as a showgirl in Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho. Soon she was living with him and – revealing an unseemly delight for setting up liaisons between ‘alley cats’ and ‘aristos’ – Ward introduced her to his party-loving chums. Ward knew everyone and where the action could be found. His nickname was ‘The Fixer’.

Yet while London’s social scene was hotting up, the Cold War – an international power struggle of capitalism versus communism – was sending a chill through British politics. In May 1961, ten years after the defection of suspected spies Burgess and Maclean to Russia, MI6 mole George Blake was charged with passing top-secret documents to Moscow and sentenced to 42 years in prison. Politics was awash with intelligence and counter-intelligence, nobody was above suspicion and anyone could be a spy.

Who’s who in the Profumo scandal

John ‘Jack’ Profumo

The Secretary of State for War at the time of the scandal that took his name, John Profumo resigned from the cabinet in June 1963. He subsequently devoted himself to Toynbee Hall, a charitable organisation in the East End of London that supports communities in poverty. He began by washing dishes, helping with the playgroup and collecting rents. Later, he served with the charity’s council, then eventually president. His reputation redeemed in the eyes of many, he was awarded the CBE in 1975 and sat next to the Queen at Margaret Thatcher’s 70th birthday party. He continued as a volunteer at Toynbee Hall until his death, aged 91, in 2006.

Stephen Ward

Ward’s successful osteopathy practice and sideline as a portrait artist made him many important friends, including Lord Astor, Yevgeny Ivanov and John Profumo. The security services MI5 and MI6 used Ward to supply information on his society contacts and he knew of their attempt to persuade Russian naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov to become a double agent.

Christine Keeler

Keeler grew up in a converted railway carriage in Berkshire. In her teens she moved to London where she was ‘discovered’ by Stephen Ward. Her relationships with a Tory minister and a Soviet diplomat made her a household name. Just months after Profumo’s resignation, Keeler was jailed for lying under oath at the trial of Lucky Gordon. After her release in 1964, she bought a house in Marylebone with money she received from the now-defunct News of the Worldnewspaper.

Mandy Rice-Davies

Solihull-raised Rice-Davies was just 16 when she met Keeler at Murray’s Cabaret Club. Keeler introduced her to Ward and Ward introduced her to his friends. She never met John Profumo, but was called as a witness at Ward’s trial. In 2013, along with two of Britain’s most senior lawyers, Rice-Davies called for the guilty verdict of Stephen Ward to be overturned.

Lord Astor

It was at Lord ‘Bill’ Astor’s family estate, Cliveden, that Profumo and Keeler first met. During Ward’s trial, when Astor denied a liaison with Mandy Rice-Davies, she famously quipped: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

Yevgeny Ivanov

Russian naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov regularly met up with Keeler at the same time as she was seeing Profumo. He was targeted by MI5, who wanted to persuade him to become a double agent. Before the scandal broke, he was recalled to Moscow.

Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon

Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon, a British-based Jamaican jazz singer, was involved with Keeler while she was seeing Johnny Edgecombe. In June 1963, Gordon was jailed for assaulting Keeler. She was later charged with perjury.

Johnny Edgecombe

Antiguan-born dope-dealer Johnny Edgecombe fired the gunshots at Stephen Ward’s home, which led to the scandalous revelations that became known as the Profumo Affair.

What was the Profumo Affair?

The portentous event took place at Cliveden House, an ostentatious country pile in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, owned by Lord ‘Bill’ Astor. Those present included Stephen Ward, osteopath to the wealthy and well connected, Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché and, most notably, Conservative cabinet minister John ‘Jack’ Profumo and teenage showgirl Christine Keeler.

Whether anybody thought to remember that one sultry summer’s evening in July 1961 is a matter of supposition. Was it by accident or design that the politician and the party girl first came across each other? Could anyone have predicted that this brief encounter would have such far-reaching repercussions that would shake the establishment to its core?

Mandy Rice-Davies (left) and Christine Keeler
Mandy Rice-Davies (left) and Christine Keeler, the two teenagers who found themselves caught up in the 1960s Profumo scandal. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In The Spectator in 2014, Lord Astor’s son, William, recalled the fateful meeting at Cliveden following a dinner party.

“Laughter was heard coming from the pool and some of the dinner guests drifted across the garden to see what the commotion was about,” he writes, adding that it was there that “two worlds collided”.

“First into the walled garden was Valerie Profumo, who anxiously covered up a topless Christine Keeler with a towel before the other guests arrived,” he continued. “But Christine had already been spotted by Jack Profumo.”

That Keeler was at Cliveden was down to Ward, who lived in one of the estate’s cottages and had asked to make use of the pool after all the dinner guests had headed inside. Profumo was smitten and, spurred on by Ward, he and Keeler embarked on a short-lived affair until he ended it. And that was that. However, what prevented this tawdry tale from being brushed under the carpet was the fact that Profumo was the Secretary of State for War and Keeler was also involved with Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov.

There were whispers of pillow talk – had Keeler extracted secrets from the Secretary of State for War and passed them on to a Russian spy? The rumours reached Fleet Street but, thanks to the (then) British tradition of respecting the private lives of British politicians, the affair didn’t make the papers. All was well until an incident at Stephen Ward’s flat five months later blew any hopes of a cover-up out the water.

How was John Profumo caught?

Post-Profumo, Keeler hooked up with several men including Jamaican singer Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon and Antiguan-born Johnny Edgecombe. While neither of these men had any direct connection to the scandal their involvement with Keeler – which included Gordon holding her hostage for two days while wielding an axe, and Edgecombe then slashing Gordon’s face with a knife – led to the affair becoming public knowledge.

Following the knife incident, Edgecombe asked Keeler to get him a solicitor so he could hand himself in to police before Gordon sought revenge. Keeler, allegedly jealous that Edgecombe had taken another lover, refused to help him and even said she planned to give evidence against him in court.

Edgecombe was incandescent and Keeler sought sanctuary at Ward’s flat in Wimpole Mews. At lunchtime on 14 December 1962, Edgecombe leapt out of a minicab clutching a pistol, shouting for Christine. When Keeler, who was holed up with her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, refused to let him in, he fired a volley of shots at the front door.

No one was hurt and Edgecombe was arrested, which was hardly stop-the-press news. However, this was what the papers had been waiting for. The incident provided an opportunity for Fleet Street’s finest to dig deeper into those Profumo-Keeler-Ivanov rumours and, the following day, Edgecombe’s appearance in court made the front page of The Telegraph. At his Old Bailey trial three months later, Edgecombe was acquitted of assaulting Gordon, but jailed for seven years for possessing a firearm. Keeler didn’t show up, stoking press interest anew.

Over in the House of Commons, Labour MP George Wigg, in an obvious swipe at the Tories, forced Profumo’s hand. He raised the issue of the rumours surrounding Profumo’s relationship with Keeler. Not, he claimed, to embarrass the Secretary of State for War, but because the Ivanov connection was a matter of national security. Profumo told Parliament that he knew Keeler but vehemently denied that there was any “impropriety” in their relationship.

His convincing denial diffused the situation – for a while, but the press refused to let it lie. Reporters dusted off their wallets and people started talking. Mandy Rice-Davies let slip that Keeler had had sexual relationships with Profumo and Ivanov, prompting Keeler to confess that she had indeed dated both men. What had been cocktail-party gossip had grown into a scandal of mammoth proportions.

When did Profumo resign?

Profumo was forced to admit to Parliament that Keeler had been his mistress and that he had lied to the Commons. Sex, lies and Soviets? This was the stuff that could topple a government. He had to resign, which he did on 4 June 1963.

The pressure was now on the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. He refused to quit but, realising he had to do something, he called on respected English lawyer and judge Lord Denning to lead an inquiry into the “circumstances leading to the resignation of the former Secretary of State for War, Mr J D Profumo”.

Denning concluded that there had been no breaches of security arising from the Ivanov connection and the primary responsibility for the scandal was with Profumo for giving a false statement in the House of Commons. The report, published in September 1963, was criticised as a ‘whitewash’, but it enabled Macmillan to hang on as Prime Minister.

What happened to Stephen Ward?

The biggest scandal of the whole affair was Stephen Ward’s trial. Arrested days after Profumo’s resignation, he was brought before the Old Bailey on charges of procuring women and living off immoral earnings.

The son of a vicar and former tea salesman may have been a social climber and sexual voyeur, but he wasn’t a pimp. Keeler and Rice-Davies were party girls who wouldn’t turn down a gift from a grateful admirer, but they weren’t prostitutes. The premise of the trial was a farce, but it didn’t bother the prosecution.

Society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward, a leading figure in the Profumo affair.
Society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward, a leading figure in the Profumo affair. (Photo by George Freston/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In court, Keeler affirmed she had sex with John Profumo and two other men, who had each given her money and gifts. During cross-examination she confessed that some of this cash was paid to Ward for rent, electricity and food while living at his flat. Rice-Davies (who’d been arrested by a corrupt Scotland Yard officer and was told she’d only be let out of Holloway prison if she agreed to testify) also admitted receiving gifts and money – some of which she gave to Ward for unpaid rent.

This ‘evidence’ was all the prosecution needed and Ward’s defence lawyer – a jovial man called James Burge, who was one of Ward’s patients – was out of his league. Prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones had established that Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies had taken money after having sex and had both given some of it to Ward. It was enough for a conviction.

Ward’s high society ‘friends’ stayed well away, fearful of being tainted by the scandal. Not one of them came to testify in his favour – something that the judge, Archie Pellow Marshall, picked up on. In his summing up he said: “If Stephen Ward was telling the truth in the witness box, there are in this city many witnesses of high estate and low who could have come and testified in support of his evidence.”

Ward returned to a friend’s flat, took some sleeping pills, and wrote notes to his closest friends. In one he penned: “It is really more than I can stand – the horror, day after day at the court and in the streets. It is not only fear, it is a wish not to let them get me. I would rather get myself. I do hope I have not let people down too much.”

He was in a coma when the court found him guilty, and he died in hospital before the sentence could be passed. Ward, once a favourite of London’s fashionable society, had only six mourners at his funeral. By his grave lay a wreath of one hundred white carnations. A card, signed by the critic and writer Kenneth Tynan, simply said: “To Stephen Ward, Victim of Hypocrisy”.

The political fallout of Profumo

Prior to the Profumo Affair, the Conservative Party had been steadily declining in popularity. Between 1957 and 1963, Harold Macmillan transformed from a confident premier, running a country where Britons had “never had it so good”, to a prime minister under pressure.

In July 1962, Macmillan sacked seven ministers, in what became known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. This ploy to boost the party’s popularity didn’t work and there was more bad news when Britain’s application to join the Common Market was rejected by France, dashing hopes for economic growth.

For the Macmillan regime, the timing of the Profumo affair couldn’t have been worse. Sleaze delivered the final blow for a government seen as outdated, incompetent and out of step with the public mood. In October 1963, Macmillan, who had hoped to lead the Tories into the next election, resigned due to ill health.

He was replaced by the aristocratic Alec Douglas-Home, which was a gift for the opposition. The Labour Party pitched Harold Wilson as a ‘man of the people’ and in the 1964 General Election the old order was out, Wilson was in Number 10 and a new era of politics had begun.

Anna Harris is a freelance journalist

For more history behind the drama, visit our page on the Profumo Affair

The Trial of Christine Keeler begins on BBC One on Sunday 29 December

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This content first appeared in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed