Involving sexual intrigue, political subterfuge, a Cabinet minister, a Soviet agent and a teenage prostitute, the Profumo Affair became the most explosive political scandal in Britain in post-war years and precipitated the fall of the Conservative government. To many it marked the end of the straight-laced fifties and the start of the sexually liberated sixties as the public lapped up each new sordid revelation and the press gleefully dished the dirt on John Profumo and cast serious doubts on the efficiency of the security services.
A seemingly respectful Tory minister, Profumo, a rising star in Harold Macmillan's government was educated at Harrow and Oxford before marrying the actress Valerie Hobson. By 1960 he had become Secretary of State for War, a non-cabinet post, and together he and his wife moved in sophisticated London circles frequently rubbing shoulders with both the aristocracy and the fashionable London jet-set.
Profumo first met Christine Keeler when she was bathing naked at Lord Astor's Cliveden country estate in Berkshire in July 1961. They were introduced by an artist and osteopath, Stephen Ward, who had a cottage there. Keeler had run away from home at the age of 16 and become a showgirl at Murray's cabaret club in Soho where she had befriended Ward who soon introduced her into a world of the rich and famous, where charming and powerful men were only too eager to take her out.
Keeler and Ward often spent weekends at his cottage and according to Keeler, she and Profumo had merely flirted around the swimming pool and jokingly tried on suits of armour in the rooms of the mansion. But the War Minister soon became smitten and the couple subsequently had a passionate affair.
Another girl in Ward's entourage, Mandy-Rice Davies, shared a flat with Keeler and had been the mistress of Eugene Ivanov, a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy who was a spy. According to Keeler, Ivanov received information and documents stolen by Ward and passed them onto his spy chiefs in Moscow. It was the height of the Cold War and the fact Keeler had also slept with Ivanov was nothing short of political dynamite. Knowing that Keeler often visited Profumo's home and his offices British Intelligence informed Profumo of the Russian's identity and he immediately ended the liaison. However, rumours of the affair began to circulate in March 1963 when Keeler was involved in an unrelated court case over an attempt to kill her. On March 22nd a 'pale and taut' Profumo informed the Commons that there had been 'no impropriety whatsoever' in his relations with Keeler. But in the meantime, she had admitted in a newspaper article to being his mistress. Stephen Ward then wrote to the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader Harold Wilson about 'certain facts' of Keeler and Profumo's relationship.
With pressure bearing down on him from both the press and the Opposition, Profumo finally admitted in a letter to the PM, dated June 5th, that he had lied to the Government about his affair with Keeler and he subsequently tendered his resignation.
Stephen Ward was charged with living off immoral earnings and was sent to trial in July. Called to the witness stand Mandy-Rice Davies made headlines when she responded to a statement that Lord Astor had denied her allegations of paying her money for sex by saying; "Well, he would, wouldn't he?" Before the trial ended Ward committed suicide.
In September, Lord Denning published his report on the affair, concluding that national security had not been affected but that the Government had been lax in responding to the issue. Denning also assured the public that a "man in the mask", a high-ranking member of the establishment, who served guests at Ward's dinner parties, naked, except for a mask and who ate his dinner from a dog bowl was not a Cabinet minister. He has never been identified.
Shortly after this, the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, resigned, his ill health exacerbated by the scandal. Keeler has since written her autobiography, 'The Truth At Last', where she alleged she was used as a cover for an Anglo-Soviet spy ring. She claimed Ward was a spy for the Soviet Union and asked her to get information from Profumo about the placing of nuclear warheads in West Germany. She also claimed Ward asked her to drop off letters at the Soviet Embassy and at one point tried to kill her while she was water-skiing because he feared she would blow the whistle on him. She also claimed that Ward and herself were used as a smokescreen by the establishment, who wanted the media to focus on the racier aspects of the story in order to cover up a serious breach of British security. Keeler was later found guilty on unrelated perjury charges - for not attending as a witness for the trial of a man who was shot at her home - and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison. A photograph of Keeler, naked across a chair has become an iconic image of the swinging sixties era.
John Profumo kept a low profile following the sensational events of the 1960s, and over the years built a new reputation for himself by way of charitable work which earned him a CBE in 1975. He passed away in 2006, aged 91 years. Ivanov was called back to Moscow and never heard from again. Keeler lived quietly in North London for many years and said she always felt "bewildered" by what happened. She passed away in 2017. Rice-Davies went to live in America, but eventually returned to England. She was closely involved in the development of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical 'Stephen Ward the Musical' about society osteopath Ward's involvement in the Profumo affair. She once described her life as "one slow descent into respectability." She passed away in 2014.