The Profumo Affair: The Secretary of State for War & the Famous Model

The Profumo Affair, a dalliance between the UK’s middle-aged Secretary of State for War and a 19-year-old model, led to a Cold War-era political and national security scandal.

Mar 19, 2022By Stephanie Jelks, MPhil History, MA History, BA Political Science
john profumo arrives house of commons
John Profumo arrives at the House of Commons, 1962

 

Amid heightened international security at the height of the Cold War, the British Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, had a brief affair with Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old model, that would prove to have lasting repercussions. The Profumo Affair, full of political scandal and a mingling of social classes that sated the voracious appetites of the 1960s British press and public, led to a ministerial resignation and questions about how the government of the day handled the entire affair.

 

The Cold War Backdrop to the Profumo Affair

christine keeler and john profumo affair
Photographs of Christine Keeler and John Profumo

 

John Profumo’s affair with young aspiring model Christine Keeler was relatively short-lived. Still, the repercussions for Profumo, high society-connected osteopath Dr. Stephen Ward, and even the British government endured long after the affair ended. The timing of the affair was particularly unfortunate for all involved. The early 1960s was the height of the Cold War.

 

In the UK, in early 1961, the Portland Spy Ring was broken. The Portland Spy Ring consisted of five Soviet spies, three of whom were living in London at the time. MI5, the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, played a key role in breaking up the ring, which resulted in the spies being sentenced to prison. In the same year, George Blake was discovered to be a double agent working for both MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligent Service, and the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to 42 years in prison.

 

In 1962, a homosexual civil servant at the Admiralty, John Vassall, was found to have been blackmailed into spying for the Soviet Union. The information he provided the Soviets with helped them modernize the Soviet Navy. Against this backdrop, even the merest hint of a connection between a government minister, particularly the Secretary of State for War, and the Soviet Union was dangerous.

 

Who Was Christine Keeler?

christine keeler at beach profumo affair
Christine Keeler, January 1963, prior to the Profumo scandal, via TheTimes

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Christine Keeler was born in 1942 in an unhappy and impoverished home. Neither her biological father nor her mother played significant roles in her life. She left school aged 15 without any qualifications. Already accustomed to being used by men, she decided to use her looks to seek her fortune in London. Starting as a waitress, she was introduced to the owner of a cabaret club in Soho, London, where she became a topless dancer. At Murray’s Cabaret Club, aged just 17 years old, she met Dr. Stephen Ward, an osteopath and artist.

 

Ward came from a middle-class background – his father was a vicar – and enjoyed moving in aristocratic circles while also enjoying the company of working-class girls like Christine Keeler. One of Ward’s friends was Lord Astor, a Conservative politician and ally of John Profumo. As an artist, Ward had been commissioned to create portraits of national and international figures, including the Royal family’s Prince Philip and Princess Margaret. Ward wanted to visit the Soviet Union to draw portraits of Russian leaders. To this end, one of his osteopathic patients, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, introduced him to a married Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov. Ivanov was targeted by MI5, who believed that he could become a defector and a double agent also working for the British. Before the Profumo Affair broke, Ivanov was recalled to Moscow.

 

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Society osteopath Stephen Ward, via The Guardian

 

Christine Keeler In High Society

 

Over the weekend of July 8-9, 1961, Christine Keeler was a guest of Ward’s at Spring Cottage, Cliveden. Cliveden is an English country house and estate that belonged to the aristocratic Astor family (and had previously been home to a Prince of Wales, two Dukes, and an Earl). At the same time, Lord Astor was entertaining guests in the main house. Astor’s guests included the president of Pakistan as well as the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo (himself a baron), and his actress wife, Valerie.

 

On Saturday evening, Ward had asked Astor’s permission to use the swimming pool while his guests were indoors in the main house. Hearing the noise, some of Astor’s guests came out to see what was happening. Christine Keeler had been swimming in the pool naked, and according to Lord Astor’s son, it was Valerie Profumo who tried to cover Keeler up with a towel before more guests arrived. By this time, Profumo had seen Keeler.

 

Keeler did not initially know who John Profumo was, but she was impressed that he was the husband of a famous film star. Ivanov had arrived at the party by the following afternoon, and both Ward’s and Astor’s groups reconvened at the pool. Nothing untoward occurred during this Sunday meeting, but Profumo was smitten and told Keeler he would stay in touch with her. At the end of the weekend, Ward asked Ivanov to accompany Keeler back to London. Although Keeler’s testimony was later found to be questionable, she claimed that she then had sex with Ivanov.

 

south terrace cliveden
The South Terrace at Cliveden, via the (UK) National Trust

 

On July 12, Ward informed MI5 of what had happened that weekend. Despite hearing that Ivanov and Profumo had met and that Profumo had shown interest in Keeler, MI5 was not overly concerned. Ward told MI5 that Ivanov had asked for information about arming West Germany with nuclear weapons in the future, but MI5 had expected this kind of inquiry. MI5 had been hoping to use Keeler in a honey trap operation against Ivanov to help secure his defection, and Profumo’s interest in her was an unwanted complication.

 

The Profumo Affair

 

The affair between Profumo and Keeler didn’t last long (between weeks and a few months), but while it did last, they often met at Stephen Ward’s house where Christine was living. Once, when his wife was away, Profumo invited Christine to his marital home. Profumo bought Keeler gifts, took her for a drive in a borrowed Bentley, and even took her for a drink with an aristocratic friend who was a former Secretary of State for Air. Keeler denied that she asked Profumo for information about the deployment of nuclear weapons at Ward’s behest, and Profumo also denied that any such discussions took place.

 

On August 9, the British Cabinet Secretary informally interviewed Profumo and warned him against mixing with anyone from Ward’s circle because Ward wasn’t dependable. That very day Profumo wrote Keeler a letter breaking off a meeting they had planned for the following day. Some believe that this was the end of the Profumo Affair, but Keeler insisted that the affair ended later after she continued to refuse to stop living with Ward. There are doubts that Keeler was still having an affair with Ivanov at this time, but he was known to still be in Ward’s circle of friends.

 

christine keeler profumo affair modeling
Christine Keeler modeling, 1963, via the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

“Lucky” Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe

 

In October 1961, after her affair with John Profumo ended, Keeler accompanied Ward to Notting Hill. Notting Hill was then a run-down district of London containing several West Indian music clubs and marijuana dealers. There, she met Aloysius “Lucky” Gordon, a Jamaican jazz singer with a criminal history. They began a tumultuous relationship. Soon after they met, Christine had moved into her own apartment.  At one point during their relationship, Gordon was arrested and charged with assault. Keeler agreed to drop the charges.

 

By July 1962, the first whispers of a Profumo-Keeler-Ivanov love triangle reached the gossip column of a society magazine. Keeler was in New York City at the time with her young friend Mandy Rice-Davies, where they both tried and failed to embark on modeling careers. On her return, Keeler started a relationship with Johnny Edgecombe, an ex-merchant seaman from Antigua. They lived together for a while. Edgecombe became just as possessive as Gordon had been, and on October 27, 1962, Edgecombe slashed his rival Gordon’s face with a knife. Keeler broke up with Edgecombe soon after this incident.

 

On December 14, Edgecombe arrived at Ward’s house in Wimpole Mews, London, where Keeler was with her friend Rice-Davies. When Keeler would not let him in, Edgecombe pulled out a gun and shot up the door. No one was hurt, and Edgecombe was arrested, but this was the opportunity Fleet Street had been waiting for. Edgecombe’s appearance in court made the front page of The Telegraph, and Keeler and Rice-Davies were briefly mentioned in the press reports. Fleet Street used this as an opportunity to investigate the Profumo-Keeler-Ivanov rumors further.

 

wards house wimpole mews
Ward’s mews house at Wimpole Mews, 1963, via The Daily Mail

 

After the shooting incident, Keeler began to talk about Ward, Profumo, Ivanov, and the shooting. One person she spoke to was a former Labour MP whom she’d met in a nightclub. This former MP, John Lewis, who was also an enemy of Ward’s, told sitting Labour MP George Wigg about Keeler’s connection to Profumo.

 

John Profumo Under Pressure

 

In January 1963, Ivanov was recalled to Moscow after the Soviets sensed a brewing scandal. Christine Keeler tried to sell her story about the Profumo Affair to the newspapers, and although she received payment at this time, they didn’t publish the story. However, Ward and Astor were warned by the News of the World, and they, in turn, warned Profumo that Keeler was talking. Profumo’s lawyers tried to persuade Keeler not to publish, but the amount of money she demanded was so high that it practically amounted to extortion. Ward told another newspaper that Keeler’s story was mostly false and would sue if it was published.

 

Keeler told her story to a police officer who did not pass the information on to the MI5 or the legal authorities. By this time, rumors were rife among Profumo’s political colleagues. Profumo’s denials were publicly accepted by his colleagues even though they were privately skeptical. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan took no action at this time.

 

Edgecombe’s trial took place on March 14, but one of the Crown’s key witnesses was nowhere to be found. Keeler was in Spain at the time, and her absence caused a press sensation. It was widely speculated that her connection to Profumo was the reason for her absence, and the press was champing at the bit to report the full story. Edgecombe was found guilty of the lesser charge of possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

 

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Johnny Edgecombe under police escort, 1963, via The New York Times

 

A week after Edgecombe’s trial, George Wigg used parliamentary privilege during a House of Commons debate to ask the Home Secretary to categorically deny rumors connecting “a minister” to Keeler, Rice-Davies, and the Edgecombe shooting. Profumo was not present and not mentioned by name.

 

Profumo’s Denial Led to His Resignation

 

In the early hours of the following day, March 22, John Profumo met with his lawyers, and they decided on the wording of a personal statement that Profumo would give to the House. He admitted that he had had friendships, now ended, with Keeler and Ward, and that he had met Ivanov twice. He declared, “There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler…. I shall not hesitate to issue writs for libel and slander if scandalous allegations are made or repeated outside the House.” He denied the Profumo Affair in the House of Commons.

 

Ward appeared on television news supporting Profumo’s statement, but by this time, Ward himself was the object of investigation by the Metropolitan Police. The investigation contributed to ruining his reputation and the demise of his osteopathy practice. Ward then met with the Prime Minister’s private secretary to ask that the police investigation into him be halted and that he had, in fact, been covering for Profumo. Ward also wrote to the Home Secretary, who said he had no power to interfere with a police investigation. Ward went to the press, but no newspaper would print his story. Word got back to the Prime Minister, who at this point was concerned about Ward’s activities and possible security breaches.

 

profumo quits headline
“Profumo Quits” newspaper headline, via tarahanks.com

 

On May 31, John Profumo flew to Venice for a short holiday with his wife. When they arrived at their hotel, they received a message asking Profumo to return to the UK as soon as possible. Thinking that the whole truth about the Profumo Affair had been discovered, Profumo confessed to his wife, and they agreed to return to the UK. On June 4, Profumo confessed the truth to the Prime Minister’s private secretary (the Prime Minister himself was on holiday), confirming that he had lied, and he resigned from the government the same day. Because MPs are not allowed to resign, Profumo asked to be given the position of Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds so that he could surrender his seat in the House of Commons. His resignation was made official on June 5.

 

The Aftermath of the Profumo Affair

 

Christine Keeler’s ex-boyfriend, Lucky Gordon, went to trial for an attack on her on the same day as Profumo’s resignation was made public. Gordon was found guilty, and the following day Ward was arrested and charged with immorality offenses. With Profumo no longer able to threaten libel charges, the News of the World published “Confessions of Christine,” which depicted Ward as a sexual predator and likely tool of the Soviets. Another newspaper printed a letter Profumo had written to Keeler in which he called her “Darling.”

 

confessions of christine news of the world
“Confessions of Christine” in the News of the World, via alchetron.com

 

As Prime Minister, questions were asked of Macmillan as to why he had not done more to identify a potential security risk. Even more salacious stories emerged in the press in the coming weeks. Stephen Ward went to trial at the Old Bailey on July 28 on charges of living off the earnings of Keeler, Rice-Davies, and two others, as well as procuring women under 21 to have sex. Ward was found guilty of the charges relating to Keeler and Rice-Davies, but he was acquitted of all others. However, the previous night, he overdosed on sleeping pills and never regained consciousness.

 

Lord Denning, one of the country’s highest-ranked judges, was tasked with issuing a report into the Profumo Affair. Denning’s report concluded that there had been no security leaks in the affair and that the security services and government ministers had acted appropriately. He placed much of the blame on Ward. Many called the report a whitewash.

 

lord dennings report
Lord Denning’s Report, via Wildy & Sons Ltd.

 

Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister the following month, and the following year his Conservative Party was voted out of power. It has been claimed that the Profumo Affair was the catalyst for a new, less aristocratic and more meritocratic Conservative Party that Margaret Thatcher would eventually lead. In 1964, John Profumo started to work in a menial position at a charity where he fared so well that within eleven years, he was president of the charity and awarded a CBE. Margaret Thatcher later described him as a national hero. Keeler continued to live a checkered life and published several conflicting accounts of her life before her death in 2014. In the same year, the Criminal Cases Review Commission considered reviewing Stephen Ward’s case as a miscarriage of justice.



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By Stephanie JelksMPhil History, MA History, BA Political ScienceStephanie is currently a writer based in Montevideo. She earned her MPhil and MA in History from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, as well as a BA in Political Science (with a minor in International Studies) from Truman State University in the US. In her free time she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with friends.