Updated: Nov 13, 2020
The Call girl, the Minister, The Spy & The Lover: When the swinging Sixties collided with Cold War politics
Christine Keeler died this week at the age of seventy five. Her name will forever be synonymous with the word "Scandal", for she was the call girl at the heart of the political sex scandal that set the benchmark for all other tabloid wet dreams ever after. A story that is as much a part of the sixties generation as winning the World Cup and the Beatles.
At the tender age of 15 Keeler had found work as a dress model in a London shop and before she was 18 was working as a topless dancing girl. It was through this work she met Stephen Ward, a successful osteopath who would be her route to high society.
Despite all the grand tawdry imaginings of the Profumo affair, when the anatomy of the scandal is dissected, it is a rather unspectacular affair. Keeler was introduced to John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War at a pool party hosted at Lord Astor's house in July 1961. There followed a brief sexual relationship before Profumo was warned of the security risks of the circle of rinds around Ward. One of whom was the Russian naval attaché and GRU officer, Yevgeny Ivanov. Keeler also claims to have enjoyed a brief relationship with Ivanov as well.
Keeler went on to have relationships with several other men, including singer Aloysius "Lucky" Gordon and jazz promoter Johnny Edgecombe. These men had an intense rivalry and it was this jealousy between them that proved to be the spark that started the fire of the Profumo Affair.
In December 1962, after Keeler had ended her relationship with Edgecombe, in a fit of rage he turned up at Ward's house adhere Keeler was seeking refuge and fired shots at the residence. It was the media and police investigations that followed this event that started to uncover the events tag had transpired previously. The accusation being that Profumo had jeopardised State security by sharing a bed with a woman who was also engaged in a liaison with a Soviet officer.
As with so many scandals before and since, it was not the original accusation or actions that was to prove to be the damaging factor, but the denial. Profumo denied any relationship with Keeler in a statement to the House. A few weeks later, he admitted to the affair and resigned. His actions rocked the government and eroded Macmillan's confidence. The Prime Minister resigned in October of 1963 on ill health grounds, the '64 election saw the labour party come to power.
The frenzy over the scandal led to the spotlight of attention being cast over Ward and his lifestyle. He would commit suicide before the conclusion of his trial for earning from immoral activity. The trial and conviction of Ward has been considered an act of "Establishment revenge". He was played by actor John Hurt in the 1989 film Scandal. At the height of the scandal, the infamous photo of Keeler sat astride a reversed chair was taken by the photographer Lewis Morely. The photo-shoot took place at Peter Cook's infamous Soho club with the intention to promote the proposed film "The Keeler affair", which never saw UK release. The photo has certainly had a longer standing cultural impact than the film. The chair used in the shoot is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Keeler herself went to prison for nine months for perjury in the trial of Gordon.
A subsequent enquiry by Lord Denning found there was no risk to State security although the enquiry came in for criticism as being something of a whitewash. The affair still attracts wild theories, exacerbated by the fact that the file is still a State secret. Keeler herself insisted years later that she and been pregnant with Profumo's child and pressured into having an abortion. Others suspect Wad was murdered by MI5 to spare further revelations. Further conjecture has suggested that Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh was involved with Keeler. This angle to the affair was reign tied recently in the TV series The Crown. The Profumo scandal has proved irresistible to TV and film and a new BBC drama is currently in production.
In later life Keeler would infer that the brief entanglement with Profumo was something he wanted to make more substantial, although Profumo's son stated that his father had described her as a someone who "seem[ed] to like sexual intercourse", but who was "completely uneducated", with no conversation beyond make-up, hair and gramophone records. The affair was to dominate her life and whilst she made a great deal of money from selling her story, most of it was eroded by legal fees. Profumo withdrew from public life and wired with a London charity for the rest of his life.