Christine Keeler, an achingly beautiful 17-year-old, came to work at Murray’s Club in Soho in the summer of 1959. Four years later her name was famous: a British government staggered under scandal and a notorious trial blazed her name across world headlines.
She was to be defined, and scarred, for the rest of her life by the events of those few late-adolescent years.
Inadvertently, she was also the catalyst of a great change in British political and social attitudes, a crumbling of respect and deference.
Against that canvas, the sadness of her own life — which ended yesterday as she died of lung disease at the age of 75 — is easy to forget.
Her beginnings had not been easy. Growing up in a Berkshire village in a home made of converted railway carriages, she was by her own account ill-treated and abused by her stepfather as a child. ‘He tried to kiss me and rubbed Vicks into my chest when I had a cold,’ she said.
She left school at 15 with no qualifications. Her striking looks found her some dress-shop modelling work, but pregnancy at 17 and a botched abortion led to a premature birth and a baby who lived only six days.
Picking herself up after that and leaving for London, Christine rapidly fell in with a fast, excitingly louche set around Murray’s Club where she worked as a topless dancer. The clients, according to the rules, could ‘look but not touch’.
Most fatefully, at Murray’s she met and was taken up by Stephen Ward, 30 years her senior and a respected high-flying osteopath and portrait artist.
His clients included Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Gandhi, Danny Kaye, and Elizabeth Taylor; his acquaintance and the club’s clientele spanned both the political and social aristocracy and the dangerous world of Notting Hill gangs, notably the brutal slum landlord Peter Rachman.
Her relationship with Ward was platonic — Christine later said he was ‘a father figure’ who ruled her life and guided her. But this was a father-figure with dubious and sleazy ways: he particularly enjoyed introducing — almost gifting — young beautiful protegees such as Christine Keeler and another of Murray’s showgirls, Mandy Rice-Davies, to rich and influential middle-aged men.
‘I was used to men liking me,’ she said, ‘but there was always a subtext which involved me taking my clothes off. The difference with Stephen was that he enjoyed me sleeping with other people . . . powerful people.’
Ward’s flat in Marylebone became Christine’s home. He enjoyed hearing about her affairs: Christine later recounted that he wanted to know details, and when in one shocking revelation she mentioned that she was raped by one of his lowlife ‘heavies’, shrugged it off with the comment ‘no bruises’, and told her not to report it.
Ward’s own reputation has been much rehabilitated in recent years, with the lawyer Geoffrey Robertson and others forensically demonstrating that his eventual trial for living off ‘immoral earnings’ was a flawed case, motivated by Establishment revenge.
Rules were manipulated, evidence twisted, the jury misled. As to living off prostitution, if anything, it was the older man who gave the girls money when they were broke. Stephen Ward finally paid for his lifestyle with his own life, killing himself the night before the trial verdict, and in recent years legal historians — and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Stephen Ward — have put emphasis on the unfairness of his trial.
But there was danger for the girls, too, in his company and what he represented — the new, cool, Sixties attitude to sexual freedom, a freedom of which the higher social echelons were enthusiastic early converts. The sexual ‘liberation’ welcomed by the pretty party girls did not, in truth, involve any relaxation of the established authoritative, patriarchal, judgmental structures around and above them.
Christine and Mandy were never prostitutes, nor even paid escorts. They got presents, but in modern terms they would be simply seen as good-time girls, glamorous showgirls with a taste for rich boyfriends. Today, they’d be girls at lapdance clubs, celebrity models, eventually even football WAGs if lucky.
At worst, the kind of girls who might resort to kiss-and-tell celebrity exposés.
But at the dawn of the Sixties any power they may have felt they had was illusory: they were viewed, not least by the men who used them, as pretty much disposable. Looking back on the case today it is their vulnerability which strikes you.
During her time with Stephen Ward, Christine Keeler had a string of affairs, notably with Peter Rachman. For a while she ‘ran away’ to move in with him and she later explained how he bought her ‘perfumes, nightgowns and jewels’ and would come round to the flat every afternoon and undress her.
‘Then we would have sex,’ she said. ‘He could have been keeping a dental appointment. There was no romance.’
But the sensation which marked her for life was the revelation, after months of Press hints and society rumours, that after introductions made by Ward at the Cliveden mansion of Lord Astor, in Buckinghamshire, the young woman had two particular and pretty much simultaneous affairs.
One was with John Profumo, Secretary of State for War; the other with the Russian naval attaché, and spy, Yevgeni Ivanov.
Ward had rented a cottage at Cliveden, then the country estate of Lord Astor but now a luxury hotel. Christine happened to be swimming naked in the pool one balmy summer evening in 1961 when Astor and John Profumo — known to friends as Jack — strolled by. The sight of her was catnip to Profumo and the affair began.
They slept together in Ward’s Bayswater flat, as well as the master bedroom of Profumo’s large house in Regent’s Park. The venue was more memorable than the act, she recalled. ‘I don’t remember the sex with Jack that much, other than it was furtive at first, increasingly pleasant and all over before I knew it.
‘It seems incredible, looking back, that it could have resulted in so much tragedy and damage. All that Swinging Sixties, it didn’t do much good did it?’
The combination of sex and national security, given Ivanov’s involvement, was explosive. These were the Cold War years; it was, indeed, in 1963 that John le Carré began his years of chronicling that paranoia and dread of the Soviet empire in his first major success, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
And apart from that political frisson — ‘what Naval secrets might have crossed that sinful pillow?’ — the nation was faced with the shocking, if not entirely surprising, fact that men of distinction and power felt free to sleep with working-class girls half their age, and expected to get away with it.
In conversation 20 years later Profumo reportedly described Keeler as someone who ‘seem[ed] to like sexual intercourse’, but who was ‘completely uneducated, with no conversation beyond make-up, hair and gramophone records’. Yet however insouciantly the upper classes brushed aside infidelity, however liberated the post-Pill generation and the fast London set felt about swinging parties, Britain at large was still profoundly conservative, prudish even.
The public and the Press were hungry for scandal; quite apart from the Russian-spy element, a disgrace involving the seemingly staid, aristocratic Macmillan Conservative government was irresistible.
The habit of deference was eroding: the exposure of irresponsible sleaze in high places was curiously welcome to a nation emerging into a new prosperity and individualism after the straitened years of war and rationing.
When the storm broke, Christine panicked, fled to Spain, was chased there by the Press and finally admitted the affair. Profumo made matters worse by lying to Parliament and personally to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan — who at first found it impossible to believe that a minister would do such a thing.
Friends said that his health never recovered; his premiership ended later that year as a result of the fall-out. When Profumo eventually confessed to the affair and resigned, Christine Keeler’s name was everywhere.
The photo of her by Lewis Morley, astride an iconic (though cut-price lookalike) Arne Jacobsen chair, became world famous: a symbol of a new shame-free sexual generation which seemed to many people to threaten the established order and the post-war restoration of staid family values. In my own early teens, I was suddenly barred from going to visit my aunt in London alone, as I had before. Middle-class parents were terrified that no girl was safe there.
The trial of Stephen Ward, legally flawed and — as is now accepted — vindictive, made Christine a highly visible witness: though it was her younger, more confident friend Mandy Rice-Davies who delivered the immortal, shrugging line about Lord Astor’s denial of an affair — ‘He would say that, wouldn’t he?’
Keeler was less cheeky and more damaged. Fifty years later she remembered vividly the moment she came out after the trial: ‘Rushed out of the court, people saw me crying and everyone starts screaming at me . . .’
Later she said hopelessly: ‘I regretted the betrayal . . . we each betrayed the other. I betrayed Stephen because I felt he was responsible for me having to go to court.
‘I regret that when the Press caught up with me in Spain and he had denied the affair, that I denied it, too — then I did admit it . . . a betrayal.’
To cap it all, in the same year she was also a prosecution witness in the trial of the West Indian ‘Lucky’ Gordon, one of her lovers from the lowlife end of Stephen Ward’s social world.
Gordon, a knife-wielding thug who Keeler claimed beat and raped her, was found guilty and sentenced to three years for grievous bodily harm.
But when his conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal and new witnesses emerged, it became clear that she had given false evidence.
Pleading guilty to perjury, Christine was sentenced to nine months in jail. She was just 20.
Released from prison in 1964, her very name, as she once bitterly said, was by now ‘a dirty joke’. She did not find more modelling work, nor stability in her subsequent life.
‘Every few months the Press called me a vice queen,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want to be called a vice queen as I was bringing up my family. I was getting all the shame and all the blame.’ Her two marriages were brief; she had two children, Jimmy and Seymour, and sold her story several times (often with different accounts and new claims). The money she made from interviews and several autobiographies dried up in the Seventies, leaving her next to destitute.
She had, she claimed, helped her mother and stepfather financially but had little thanks.
For the rest of her life she lived mainly alone, and reportedly estranged from her elder son and her mother. She said once to an interviewer: ‘My children don’t want to be associated with that “bloody whore” . . . it’s awful, but that’s the way it is.’
One job, as a dinner lady in a school, was promptly terminated when the headteacher discovered her identity. She collaborated in the film Scandal, and later in a stage play.
In 1989 — still available online — there was a painfully awkward interview with Sue Lawley, alongside John Hurt who had been playing Ward in the Scandal movie. In contrast with her later decline and reclusive life, Keeler in this interview looks well-groomed, stylish, seemingly in control of her life.
She had written her third autobiography, with extreme and improbable claims that the ‘truth’ was that Ward was a Russian spy, which is why he was prosecuted on a sham charge.
In fact, it seems clear that his role was the opposite: to report on his friend Ivanov to the British security services, as a minor useful source.
She ended up in a South London council block, and was photographed carrying shopping bags across the road, a shockingly far cry from the glamour of her youth.
For Mandy Rice-Davies, the girl with whom as a teenager she used to have a ‘lark’ racketing around London, and who went on to prosper, Keeler had nothing but vitriol. ‘She was vindictive, a nasty piece of work . . . she was a true tart. She might as well have carried a placard saying: “I want to marry a millionaire.” ’
Asked whether she had loved anybody, she said baldly: ‘I have married a couple of times and I have lived with a few chaps. But I was probably too insecure emotionally to love anybody.’
She added: ‘If Stephen Ward was alive I’d be with him. But it wasn’t a physical relationship.’
There is a terrible irony in the thought that a woman so prized for her glorious physical beauty and so disregarded as an individual should have spent long decades wishing for the one man she never slept with.
For the father-figure who gave her the illusion of safety and care, even as his vanity and social ambition guaranteed her downfall.
So what became of the others?
THE good-time girl who provided the most memorable quote of the whole Profumo scandal was Christine Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies.
She did so as she was being quizzed in the witness box of the Old Bailey. Told that Viscount Astor had denied her claim he had sex with her, she coolly replied: ‘Well he would, wouldn’t he?’
Rice-Davies, a model and nightclub dancer, grew up in Solihull in the West Midlands, the daughter of a former policeman who set up a tyre business.
But aged 16, she set off for London to make her fortune. While working as a nightclub hostess, she met infamous slum landlord Peter Rachman, then 41, and became his mistress.
After his death a few years later, she moved in with her friend, Christine Keeler, to a flat owned by ‘society osteopath’ Stephen Ward. Just weeks later, the Profumo scandal blew up.
It was at Ward’s trial for allegedly pimping the two girls that she produced her immortal quote — and, despite the scale of the scandal, Rice-Davies managed to prosper for the rest of her life. She sang professionally, starred in an X-rated film at the age of 38 and married three times.
‘As far as I’m concerned, the Profumo affair was just a pimple,’ she once said. ‘My life has been one long descent into respectability.’
Rice-Davies, who had one daughter, died in December 2014 aged 70, soon after being diagnosed with cancer.
He was the politician at the centre of the scandal that bore his name — and the man who lied in the House of Commons in a bid to deny having had an affair with Christine Keeler.
John Profumo never managed to rebuild his career.
But he did go on to attempt to make amends for his behaviour by committing to long years of charity work. His quiet labours helped ensure the remarkable loyalty of his wife Valerie, despite his infidelity.
Asked about the scandal in 1987, he replied: ‘I have remained silent for 22 years. I intend to continue doing so.’
Educated at Harrow and Oxford, Profumo became Britain’s youngest MP at 25 in 1940, and by 1960, was Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. He was being tipped to become Foreign Secretary when his affair became public after Labour’s Barbara Castle asked in the House of Commons whether he was involved with Keeler.
His reply that there had been ‘no impropriety whatsoever’ led to his downfall three months later.
He confessed to his wife — who forgave him — then resigned days later.
For a year, he did nothing, but in 1964 suddenly volunteered to work unpaid, three days a week, at Toynbee Hall in East London, where the old, homeless and alcoholic were cared for.
Soon, he was president of the charity, the Queen opened a new home he established for children, and he was given a CBE in 1975. He died from a stroke in 2006, at 91, leaving a son.
But Viscount ‘Bill’ Astor destroyed his gilded life by allegedly having sex with nightclub dancer Mandy Rice-Davies, and helping introduce her friend Christine Keeler to John Profumo.
The latter event famously took place at Astor’s magnificent ancestral Thames-side stately home, Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, which he shared with his third wife, Bronwen.
Astor was said to have acceded to a request by his osteopath, alleged pimp Stephen Ward, to bring Rice-Davies to Cliveden to see if she knew how to use her cutlery in the right order.
Apparently, a one-night stand ensued — and his later denial of it was widely ridiculed, thanks to Rice-Davies’ sharp performance at the Old Bailey.
The Astor’s society friends began dropping them — and police even considered charging him with allowing a brothel to operate on his estate.
He died soon after the scandal, aged 58, in 1966. The Astor’s son, the current Lord Astor, is the stepfather of Samantha Cameron. – Mailonline
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