“In my day, there was a sense of style about the whole thing, you know. Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies… Gorgeous little women who kept their mouths shut and just looked gorgeous, and gave the whole thing an air of dignity.” – Patsy Stone, Absolutely Fabulous
Patsy was half-right. They were gorgeous – but they didn’t keep their mouths shut. In 1963, Tory cabinet minister John Profumo was forced to resign after his affair with a young model, Christine Keeler, made headlines.
While acknowledging that both girls were denounced as ‘shameless tarts’ – by the same newspapers that spurred their notoriety – she argues that ‘both were capable of standing up for themselves, and refused to be silenced.’
Fifty years on, the Profumo Affair is still news – though the story has largely been told by men. Richard Davenport-Hines’s An English Affair is the latest study of a sex scandal which, it’s sometimes said, marked the end of an ‘age of deference’ and heralded the dawning of the tabloid culture that still prevails today (despite Lord Leveson’s best efforts.)
Profumo wasn’t the only victim, however. Keeler’s former friend, Dr Stephen Ward, became the scapegoat when he was falsely charged with living off the immoral earnings of various young women, including Mandy Rice-Davies.
Reporting on Ward’s trial, Rebecca West noted that Christine possessed ‘a terrified dignity’, while Sybille Bedford saw only ‘a blank absence of spirit.’ Both women, however, were struck by Keeler’s dark beauty, captured in an iconic nude portrait by photographer Lewis Morley.
‘In the early Sixties there were girls you touched and girls you didn’t, and the girls who could be touched were, and all the time,’ journalist Tanya Gold wrote in 2012. ‘Keeler was too early for robust feminism, and when the story broke she went down…’
The Profumo Affair has become a blueprint for scandal, and held its place in the public consciousness for half a century.Ward committed suicide, while Christine was convicted of perjury and packed off to Holloway Prison. By 1964, Harold Macmillan’s government had collapsed; later that year, Mandy Rice-Davies published a memoir, The Mandy Report, a cheeky riposte to Lord Denning’s report.
It’s often said that Mandy is the ‘true survivor’ of the debacle. In 1980, she wrote her autobiography, Mandy. A lover of romantic fiction, she has also penned two novels: Today and Tomorrow, and The Scarlet Thread.
In 1967, Christine Keeler sold her story to the News of the World, which had newly been acquired by Rupert Murdoch. Her full-length memoir, Nothing But…, was published in 1983. An updated version was released to tie in with the 1989 film, Scandal.
Sensationally, Keeler has claimed that Ward was a Soviet spy – and the rumour persists, though the available evidence is sketchy. ‘Her wish to retrieve her past is understandable,’ novelist Jenny Diski thought. ‘Much better for the amour propre to have been Mata Hari than a party girl…’
‘We have much to thank Christine Keeler for,’ Diski added. ‘The rumours at the time were delightful, confirming everything we’d always suspected about the sanctimonious, repressive establishment. Let’s remember the foolishness and arrogance of the privileged…’
In recent years, both women have participated in further dramatisations of their lives. Keeler, a stage play written by Gill Adams, is touring the UK, while Mandy Rice-Davies is reportedly a consultant on Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s forthcoming musical, Stephen Ward.
Earlier this year, Davies narrated a BBC radio play by Charlotte Williams. The title, Well He Would, Wouldn’t He?, refers to Mandy’s famous retort at Ward’s trial, now immortalised in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Profumo’s wife, Valerie Hobson, is remembered in Bringing the House Down, by her son, David Profumo; while Bronwen Astor, whose aristocratic husband was also caught up in the scandal, is the subject of a 2001 biography.
Sex scandals continue to titillate, at home and abroad – exposing men as diverse as Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange: and outspoken women, from White House intern Monica Lewinsky, to the Russian spy, Anna Chapman.
Nonetheless – and perhaps due to the sheer persistence of the women involved, or simply because it happened first – the Profumo Affair has become a blueprint for scandal, and held its place in the public consciousness for half a century.
Wicked Baby, my 2004 novella about the Profumo Affair, will shortly be reissued, with additional material, in ebook format.