The Profumo Affair has been described by former editor of the News of the World, Stafford Somerfield, as the scandal that “had everything.” With a “cast of aristocrats, politicians, good-time girls and spies,” it is unsurprising that study of the Profumo Affair crosses a wide range of society. It is perhaps this ability to cross into multiple areas of historical study that has enabled the affair to have the staying power that it does, as evidenced through the multiple reinterpretations – most recently in Netflix’s The Crown or the BBC’s The Trial of Christine Keeler. The Profumo Affair has managed to capture the public imagination for nearly 70 years, becoming, according to Historian Richard Davenport-Hines, “as much a London story as Jack the Ripper or the Blitz.” In 1961, a 19-year-old girl, Christine Keeler, reportedly had an affair with both a Russian spy named Eugene Ivanov, and the British Minister for War – John Profumo, facilitated by society osteopath Stephen Ward. It is the scandal that has “something for everyone” according to Farmer, with “each generation [able to] assess it afresh and read into it what it wants.” It is these different themes that the affair covers and its reinterpretability that I am going to explore within this article.
The topic of sleaze and scandal is the one most obviously linked to the Profumo affair. Study of the Profumo affair seems to come in waves with peaks centring around times of national sleaze, such as the 1994 scandals under Majors government, or more current studies of such as the 2019 BBC series The Trial of Christine Keeler, the affair has even been termed by Peter Hennessey as the “Locus Classicus [classic example]” for political historians. Cliveden, the ancestral home of the Astor family and the geographical epicentre of the affair, was no stranger to scandal. Named by Andrew Marr as a “place of cliques and plotters,” Cliveden had seen scandal before – including the rumour perpetuated by left-wing journalist Claude Cockburn that the Astor’s had previously plotted with the editor of The Times Geoffrey Dawson to undermine Churchill and to make a deal with Hitler. However, in contrast to the wartime scandal, the Profumo Affair would be controversial for its involvement with the left, through soviet Russia.
Whilst the Profumo Affair was highly politically charged and representative of governmental sleaze, it appears to have initially been the subject of satire rather than outrage. According to the former presenter of That was the Week that Was,David Frost, “the Profumo Affair was not a national disaster waiting to happen, it was a national joke waiting to happen.” The irreverence of the affair is further corroborated by contemporary satirists, and through the limerick on the topic of the affair:
Whilst the limerick may be using the affair as a form of entertainment, it does highlight the main issue, of deceit, as Profumo lied about the affair in the House of Commons. It was perhaps this issue that meant that the affair has transgressed from being a national laughingstock to being an affair that would become, according to Farmer, a “cultural phenomenon.”
According to John B. Thompson it was the abuse of parliamentary privileges and his lying to parliament that caused his, and arguably later the government’s, downfall. When asked if he was responsible for the Profumo Affair, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan answered, “of course it was my responsibility. But we failed because we were deceived.” The Profumo Affair, although beginning as a national joke, later became one of the reasons attributed to a loss of trust in the Conservatives and the loss of the 1964 national election. The Profumo Affair characterised political sleaze and a loss of trust of government, but it also characterised the loss of trust in the aristocracy and gentlemen’s club form of government. All this distrust is summarised by Mandy Rice-Davies who, when confronted with the fact that Bill Astor denied his affair with her commented “Well he would say that wouldn’t he,” thus exposing the implicit contemporary distrust of the aristocracy and politicians.
One of the many aspects of society that the Profumo Affair, and its subsequent retellings, shed light on is the issue of gender. The 1960s is well known for being a time of women’s liberation – by the end of the decade women could both have abortions and wear miniskirts, and feminist literature such as the 1963 Betty Friedan book The Feminine Mystique, was starting to take off. Despite this increase in liberation, both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies experienced a level of sexism that we like to think would not be tolerated today. Described by Ludovico Kennedy, as “a sort of bin for the worlds refuge,” with “Russians, West Indians, politicians and peers, all ha[ving] been grist to her mill,” and by Macmillan as “that tart,” who he would not be brought down by, Keeler certainly took her fair share of sexist commentary. However, more recent programmes such as the 2019 BBC series The Trial of Christine Keeler have attempted to tell the story of the affair through a more sympathetic and post-Me-Too lens. On her role in the series, actress Ellie Bamber, who played Mandy, stated that “it is time to tell the story of the Profumo Affair from a woman’s point of view.”
In this post-Me-Too age there has also been a greater emphasis placed upon the vulnerability of the girls. Bamber goes further to argue that, despite contemporary commentary, “they weren’t whores, they were just two very, very young girls who were manipulated.” Mandy was just 17 years of age during the Profumo Affair in 1961 and only 19 when the story of the affair broke. Keeler, who had left home at 15 and been found by Ward in a night club at 17, shares this feeling of vulnerability through her own interview with Vanity Fair in 2001. In the article, told wholly in her own words, Keeler retrospectively explains that “you have to remember that [she] was only 19, and he was a government minister.” In the same interview she also later notes that “Jack [John Profumo] never gave [her] a chance to think about rejecting him.” These complaints ring alarm bells in the ears of anyone aware of the instances described in current events such as the Weinstein or Epstein scandals, and one would hope that the narrative around the case would be different now, considering new conversations surrounding both power relations and consent in the twenty-first century.
However, as important as those conversations are, they often lead to the characterisation of Keeler and Rice-Davies as victims, ignoring these young women’s agency and ability to control both their own lives and the media. According to Frank Mory, Keeler used the press from the affair to “turn herself into a multi-media event.” To gain the rights to her story, The News of the World offered to pay Keeler £23,000 which is equivalent to almost half a million today. Keeler was so well known for her commerciality that then leader of the opposition Harold Macmillan asked, if he should “refer to her as Miss Christine Keeler Ltd.” Keeler’s agency however is not just evidenced through her commerciality but also, and more vitally, in her ability to change the status quo. According to historian Davenport-Hines “every young woman in London who has a sex-life, that has not been decided by her father or the clergy, owes debt of gratitude to Christine and Mandy.” Whilst it may have been unintentional, the collision of the Profumo Affair with other cultural phenomena, such as the pill being made available on the NHS, although only for married women, or the publishing of Lady Chatterley’s Lover a year later. According to Caroline Kennedy, “we were able to screw around, and I am afraid we did. We felt that we had the same rights as men.” However, women still did not have the same rights as men, as is evidenced through the actors’ comebacks post-Profumo. Whilst Keeler’s name will still be synonymous with scandal, Profumo, despite having a scandal named after him, was able to fully reintegrate within society, being awarded a CBE in 1975 and even sitting next to the Queen at Margaret Thatcher’s 60th birthday dinner in 1995. However even though Profumo was able to reintegrate within society, he was arguably not able to progress to the same heights that he would have had the affair not been revealed. Before the affair he was seen as a future Prime Minister, and it is possible that this could have come to fruition if not for the events of the early 1960s.
The Profumo affair says a great deal about gender relations at the time and how British society, particularly elite society in government, interacted with the changes in gender relations that would come to define the 1960s. Subsequent reinterpretations of the Profumo Affair have focused more upon the vulnerability of the young women within the affair, although, this is often to the detriment of their character integrity. Perhaps future reinterpretations will be able to explore these dichotomies, in order to create more rounded and authentic characters.
The Profumo Affair can also provide insight on the issue of abortion, highlighting various opinions held throughout government and the country during the 1960s. As was common knowledge during the trial, Keeler had attempted an abortion when she fell pregnant at 17. However, in her interview with Vanity Fair, she later revealed that she had “bec[ome] pregnant. [but she] didn’t tell Jack [John Profumo] about the baby.” Keeler would go on to have an abortion at the cost of £25, after which she almost fell into a coma and had to be sent to Chelsea Hospital for Women. Abortions of this manner were by no means uncommon in the 1960s. Despite the pill being placed onto the NHS in 1961, it would not be made available for unmarried women until 1967 and abortion would not be legalised until that same year. It was estimated by the Birkett Committee set up in 1939 that between 110,000 and 150,000 abortions were occurring annually in England and Wales. Keeler’s illness after the abortion was also not unique, with the Confidential Inquiry into Maternal Deaths in England and Wales finding that there were 139 cases of death after an abortion had been procured between 1961 and 1963. Whilst the BBC series does explore Keeler’s first abortion, it does not touch upon her second. Future interpretations of the Profumo Affair could benefit from exploring Keeler’s abortion, as it provides an opportunity to look further into this aspect of 1960s society.
The Profumo affair also allows for an insight into race relations within 1960s society. The story that initially broke the Profumo Affair was the trial of Christine Keeler’s ex-lover and Antiguan-born member of the jazz scene Johnny Edgecombe, arrested after he slashed the face of another of Keeler’s lovers, Jamaican musician ‘Lucky’ Gordon. In what Peter Hoggart has described as the “era of volatile race relations in Britain,” the affair also shines a light onto reactions toward interracial couples. In her article with Vanity Fair, Keeler highlights that having a sexual relationship with a Black man invoked a huge amount of stigma in the early 1960s. Swandon has also argued that part of the distain for the Profumo affair amongst colleagues and wider political society relied on the fact that “Profumo had shared a woman not only with a soviet agent but also with black men.” The BBC series does dedicate a great deal of time on the relationships between Keller and both ‘Lucky’ and Johnny Edgecombe – however, the aspect of the negativity received by Profumo because of Keller’s prior relationships is barely touched upon. An increasing emphasis would help to reveal racist narratives endemic within the aristocracy and political sphere in the 1960s.
Anyone who has watched The Crown will be aware of the Profumo affair due to Prince Phillips relationship to the scandal. However, as with many scandals explored within The Crown, the Duke of Edinburgh’s involvement within the Profumo affair has been blown completely out of proportion. The Prince, along with eight other members of the royal family including Princess Margaret, did sit for Ward, who was a celebrated artist, amongst other things. The exploration of the Prince’s role in the affair, however, is not new. In 1963, the Daily Mirror focused upon the Prince’s role in a salacious article, “Prince Phillip and the Profumo Scandal – Rumour utterly unfounded,” in what might be considered a masterclass in how to lay out a headline in order to sell a story with no evidence. Whilst the royal role within the Profumo affair is “utterly unfounded,” the exploration of their role does evidence the idea that the royal family are not exempt from salacious gossip.
Described by Marr as a “tangled connection of minister, spy, call-girl, peer and masseur,” the Profumo Affair came at an important time in international relations where, according to Keeler, “Moscow and Washington were playing chess with nuclear weapons.” Just a year prior to the affair, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis had occurred, as well as the Vassall affair in the same year. Arguably the most controversial aspect of the Profumo Affair was the involvement of soviet naval attaché Eugene Ivanov, particularly when considering that Profumo was the Minister for War. When interviewed Ward digresses that “you have no idea how amusing it was to have a Russian and the British War Minister in the swimming pool together.” In his book, Andrew Marr also uses the anecdote of the “childish swimming race” between Ivanov and Profumo to further illustrate the unexpected and overly friendly relationship between the two, as well as the undertone of both personal and political competition.
However, despite these anecdotes, and the allegations that Ward had tried to get nuclear weapons from Keeler, the 1963 Denning report found no evidence that there was a failure on the part of MI5, or that there was a security aspect, or even that Keeler was having an affair with both Ivanov and Profumo. Similarly, Davenport-Hines also argues that the story that “looked like dynamite…was drivel,” and that it was highly unlikely that Keeler was having an affair with Ivanov. However, others, such as Tom Mangold, have argued that the security risk did not stop with Keeler’s affair with Ivanov but instead Ward was so intrenched that he was murdered by MI5 to silence him. Whilst the idea perpetuated by Mangold is highly fanciful, it does have some elements of truth as revealed in Keeler’s 2001 article, which it is necessary to read with a degree of scepticism. In the tell-all article Keeler revels that not only did Ward ask her to gather information from Profumo, but he also stole papers from Bill Astor which he handed over to Ivanov. On the Denning’s report Keeler also states it was a case of “lets blame Christine Keeler for everything. Stephen Ward a spy? Never. The man was a pimp.”
Perhaps it was the universal nature that led to the longevity of the Profumo Affair or perhaps it was the unsolved elements that allowed the scandal to be constantly reimagined and interpreted. However, the case could soon move closer to being solved. In 2046, the sealed government documents on the affair will be reopened – and that will provide more official detail on the affair. Despite the FBI declassifying the files on the Profumo Affair, code name Bowtie, in 1987 hundreds of pages remain redacted. However, perhaps when the British governments documents are released, the Bowtie files with be unredacted. If the interpretations of the Profumo Affair appear to centre on the contemporary cultural mood it will be interesting to see how they will change 25 years down the line and how much of an influence these declassified documents will have. The Profumo Affair is one that has captured the social mood time and time again and I have no doubt that it will continue to draw parrels to life in the future.
Written by Sophie Whitehead
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