Scandalous behaviour – The Profumo affair

Keeler and Profumo

Christine Keeler’s death closes a seedy story

The death on 4 December 2017 of Christine Keeler was the final act in a political scandal that engulfed British politics in the 1960s. She had been the last survivor in a drama that rocked – and captivated – the nation.

Christine Keeler was born in Uxbridge, in west London, in February 1942 and raised by her mother and stepfather.

She was pregnant at 17, but the father of her child, an American serviceman, returned to the US. She gave birth at home in secret and her son, whom she named Peter, died after six days.

She found a job at Murray’s Cabaret Club, a venue frequented by wealthy and aristocratic middle-aged men who wanted to meet topless showgirls. Among those she befriended at Murray’s was Peter Rachman, a property racketeer, and his then girlfriend, Mandy Rice-Davies who worked at the club as a dancer.

The two women became friends and often spent time together with celebrity osteopath and painter Stephen Ward at his mews house in Mayfair.

At this time Keeler was a 19-year-old model and showgirl. It was at a party at Cliveden estate that she was introduced to Tory cabinet minister John Profumo. Their affair began soon after, in 1963.

The affair with Profumo – and with a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London at the same time – rocked the conservative establishment at the height of the Cold War.

Profumo, who was married to actress Valerie Hobson, did not know that Keeler was also sleeping with Captain Yevgeny (Eugene) Mikhailovich Ivanov.

In March 1963 Profumo told the House of Commons that rumours of his affair were untrue, but three months later he was forced to resign, conceding he had lied to parliament about the affair.

With that, Christine Keeler became one of the most famous women in the world in 1963.

Honey trap

There have been suggestions that British counter-espionage agency MI5 hoped to use Keeler as a “honey trap” to persuade Ivanov to defect, and were alarmed when they found out she was also seeing Profumo.

Agents are said to have warned Profumo off associating with Ward’s seedy circle, and he ended the affair which remained hidden from the public until 1963.

But Keeler was destined to become a controversial figure and future events were to blow open the seedy scandal.

Keeler claimed a boyfriend, Lucky (Aloysius) Gordon assaulted her in the street and held her hostage for two days. Gordon was a British-based Jamaican jazz singer who arrived in Scotland in 1948 and moved to London soon after.

Keeler sought the protection of another lover, Johnny Edgecombe, which culminated in a fight between Edgecombe and Gordon at the Flamingo Club in Wardour Street in October 1962. Gordon required 17 stitches after Edgecombe slit his face with a knife. He later posted the 17 used stitches to Keeler and warned her that for each stitch he had sent she would get two on her face in return.

It was a subsequent shooting at Stephen Ward’s house in December 1962 that set-in motion events that brought to light the infamous Profumo Affair.

Edgecombe, a 30-year-old hustler from Antigua, took a taxi to Ward’s house at 17 Wimpole Mews in Marylebone, central London, where Christine Keeler was holed-up.

He rang the doorbell and called up at her to come down. She refused and threw a pound out of the window for his cab fare. We he couldn’t force open the door, he fired five shots at the lock from a handgun Keeler had given him earlier for protection from Lucky Gordon.

Mandy (Marilyn) Rice-Davies often visited Keeler at the house she shared with Ward at Wimpole Mews and, after Keeler had moved elsewhere, lived there herself, between September and December 1962. Keeler was visiting Rice-Davies at Wimpole Mews on 14 December 1962 when Edgecombe fired at the door.

The investigation of the shooting eventually led to Ward being charged with living off immoral earnings. He took a drug overdose the day before his trial ended and died on August 3, 1963. The case also led to rumours about Keeler and Profumo.

Rice-Davies became a central witness in Ward’s trial that brought attention to the girls’ involvement with Ward’s social set, and affairs with many powerful people, including the then Viscount Astor.

The scandal that unravelled eventually saw Prime Minister Harold McMillan resign in 1963 and Harold Wilson’s Labour Party defeated the Conservatives in an ensuing general election on 15 October 1964.

After her relationship with Gordon ended, Keeler was assaulted at a friend’s home in April 1963. She accused Gordon of the attack, and on June 7, mainly on her evidence, he was found guilty in June 1963 and sentenced to three years’ jail. In June 1963, Gordon was jailed for three years for assaulting Keeler.

Guilty to perjury

His conviction was later overturned by the Court of Appeal when two witnesses were found who were able to refute Keeler’s accusations.  She pleaded guilty to perjury in December 1963 and received a nine-month jail sentence, which she served at Hill Hall women’s prison in Essex.

Many years later, papers released by MI5 revealed Profumo had previously had a long-running relationship with a glamorous Nazi spy who may have tried to blackmail him.

Gisela Winegard, a German-born fashion and photographer’s model, met Profumo in Oxford in 1936 and maintained contact with him for at least 20 years during which time she ran a Nazi secret information service in occupied Paris, had a child with a high-ranking German officer, and was jailed for espionage on the liberation of Paris in 1944.

Christine Keeler, who lived under the name of Sloane for many years and always denied she was a prostitute, was briefly married twice after the Profumo Affair; both marriages ended in divorce. She had two sons, James from her first marriage and Seymour from her second, and a granddaughter.

Her son, Seymour Platt, who lives in Ireland, said he, his wife and their daughter had last seen his mother a week before her death. “There was a lot of good around Chris’s rather tragic life, because there was a family around her that loved her,” he said. “I think what happened to her back in the day was quite damaging.”

A BBC series revisiting the Profumo scandal is to start filming in 2018.

Mandy Rice-Davies died in 2014 aged 70. Johnny Edgecombe died in 2010. Lucky Gordon died in March 2017. Peter Rachman died in 1972.

John Profumo died in London on 9 March 2006 without ever having spoken publicly about the scandal that ended his political career.

  • SIDELIGHTS: At the height of the scandal, the first prime minister of independent Malaya (now Malaysia) Tunku Abdul Rahman arrived in London for a visit. At a reception at Heathrow Airport when asked what he wanted to do first, he replied “I want Mandi” which shocked the reception party which wasn’t aware that “Mandi” means “take a bath” in Malay.
  • Christine Keeler sold her story to newspapers around the world and was the subject of a proposed film, the Keeler Affair, which was never released in the UK. To promote the film, she agreed to pose naked for Australian photographer Lewis Morley in a studio in Peter Cook’s Establishment Club. Most of her body was covered by the curved back of a bent plywood chair – a copy of the iconic Model 3107 by Danish designer Arne Jacobsen. Sales of the Jacobsen chairs reportedly surged. The chair is an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

SOURCES: Various media reports on the death of Christine Keeler.

 

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