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Sex, Spies, and the 1960s

The John Profumo scandal made Britain modern.
Sex, Spies, and the 1960s

Shortly before 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 1962, a 36-year-old Soviet naval captain, gourmand, and priapic man-about-town named Yevgeni Ivanov entered a low-lit restaurant in London’s fashionable South Kensington. Although dressed in the standard boxy dark suit and gabardine raincoat, Ivanov cut a striking figure even in that free-swinging era. There was a certain bustle about him, and he moved through the restaurant with a simian lope, all flashing gray eyes, crinkly dark hair, tufted mustache, and abounding predatory energy. He looked like a Russian spy out of central casting, as interpreted by Groucho Marx.

Ivanov was there to talk about the Cuban missile crisis, which had entered an ominous new phase that morning when 19 destroyers of the U.S. Second Fleet took up stations in an arc around the island, with orders to turn back ships found to be carrying offensive weapons. The world held its breath: “we all sat with our hearts in our mouths to see whether any of the Russian ships did turn around,” recalled David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador to Washington. About the time Capt Ivanov walked into the restaurant, President Kennedy picked up the hotline to call Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in London. The two leaders discussed possible Soviet reactions to that day’s embargo. Then, “rather unexpectedly,” recorded Macmillan in his diary, “President asked me straight out the 64 thousand dollar question—‘Should we take out Cuba?’”

Ivanov’s guest that day was a 49-year-old osteopathic physician and portraitist named Stephen Ward. Permanently sun-tanned, a fastidious dresser, and with a harsh, high-spirited laugh, in one account Ward looked “like the sort of professional Englishman you might see on a Club Med holiday.”  A “man of pillow fights and romping,” as another friend described him, Ward shared Ivanov’s flair for collecting nubile young women. The two had met some years earlier when they had happened to find themselves sleeping (if not concurrently) with the same partner. Her name was Christine Keeler, a would-be actress, and in 1962 she informally shared Ward’s home with another free-spirited friend, Mandy Rice-Davies, a dancer and showgirl. Both women were, as the jargon of the time had it, of doubtful reputation.

In due course, Ivanov had become an associate member of their convivial ménage. These arrangements took on a new layer of complexity one night in July 1961, when Ward held a garden party at Cliveden, the English country estate owned by the Astors, where he rented a summer cottage. One of the other guests was 46-year-old John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War, whose wife—Valerie Hobson, an exotic society beauty with a skirt made from python skin—actually was an actress, starring in the original stage production of “The King and I.” Profumo was then a rising politician, half-Italian, slightly balding, with a “boyishly happy leer” customarily plastered on his face. He met Keeler for the first time when she emerged nude from the Cliveden swimming pool to demurely shake his hand. Perhaps not surprisingly, they, too, had entered into a relationship, which thus brought a national-security dimension to the proceedings.

Stephen Ward, the ringmaster of these various affairs, was a clergyman’s son who had emerged from the army medical corps with a growing osteopathy practice and an unfulfilled yearning to be a very important person. “I know a lot of major people, and am often received in some of the most famous homes in the country. Sir Winston Churchill and many leading politicians have been among my patients,” he later informed a court. This was the man who now sat down to lunch with the libidinous Soviet diplomat whom, he thought, might be preparing to defect to the West. For once, Ward recalled, Ivanov appeared to want to talk not about girls, but about great “issues.”

And talk he did. Brilliantly. At length. He had all the details. He knew the facts and figures. According to the American diplomatic correspondent Elie Abel, author of a bestselling book on the Cuban crisis,

Ivanov told Ward that the US had created a dangerous situation, they were on a collision course with the Russians, and neither side could afford to lose face by seeking a compromise. The British alone could save world peace by calling an immediate summit conference in London. There would be great credit for Britain, Ivanov added, in demonstrating that she was not merely a pawn of Washington but a power capable of independent action for peace. He said that he could guarantee Khrushchev’s acceptance of a British invitation to immediate talks, adding that Khrushchev had personally told him he was prepared to turn back all ships carrying arms to Cuba and to discuss the removal of the missiles already installed.

Whether Ivanov really was in the confidence of the Kremlin, or just another of those plausible fantasists who tend to accumulate on the fringes of an international crisis, remains uncertain. But Ward was flattered by his friend’s words, which seemed to take their relationship from “one based primarily around a mutual appreciation of sex, to one touching on the future survival of mankind,” as he put it with characteristic modesty. Following their lunch, Ward lost little time in communicating Ivanov’s remarks to his contacts in the British government. We know this from a statement Macmillan himself made to the House of Commons nine months later. “During that week” of the Cuban missile crisis “the strain was certainly very great,” he allowed,

Naturally the same was true of the Soviet government, who were doing all they could to further their policy and weaken the resolution of the West. Part of this Soviet activity was public, some of it private … Ivanov, with the assistance of Mr Ward, was perhaps rather more persistent than most. On 24th October, Ward telephoned the Resident Clerk at the Foreign Office and gave him an account of a conversation he had just had with Ivanov, this to be passed on to me …

Ivanov had told him, Ward said, that the Americans had created a situation in which there was no opportunity for either Americans or Russians to compromise, and that the Soviet government looked to the United Kingdom as their one hope of conciliation.

At the time he made this statement, Macmillan had no way of knowing that the names Ivanov, Ward, Keeler, and especially Profumo would within weeks bring about his own downfall.


Reinforcing the political insecurity of Britain in 1963—a country still in thrall to a class system essentially unchanged since Edwardian times, led by an apparently decrepit 69-year-old man known for his shuffling gait and grouse-moor plus-fours, yet where the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were now coming up—was a series of security scandals that set the table for what became known as the Profumo affair.

In January 1961, Scotland Yard rather belatedly rounded up the “Portland Spy Ring,” a cabal of two Englishmen, two Poles, and a Russian that for five years had used an impeccably respectable address in the London suburbs to supply Soviet intelligence with material from Britain’s highly secret Underwater Weapons Establishment. Some of the information was passed on in the form of microdots pasted into antique books that were mailed to Moscow. Even before the criminal trial and parliamentary investigating committee into that affair came about, there was the case of George Blake, who held the seemingly contradictory roles of being a senior officer of MI6 and an openly practicing Communist. Blake, too, was tried and found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR. He was given a 42-year sentence, said by the press to represent one year for each of the agents killed when he betrayed them. Five years later, Blake escaped from prison with the help of some anti-nuclear campaigners who admired him. He later resurfaced, to some fanfare, in Moscow, and as of early 2013 he is still living there, aged 90, on a KGB pension.

Next up was the tragicomic case of John Vassall—another vicar’s son and a cipher clerk at the British Embassy in Moscow—who had been lured into a homosexual trap and blackmailed into becoming a Soviet mole, “though without the least ideological conviction in the matter,” as he later put it. After his posting to Moscow, he had transferred to Naval Intelligence in London. Over the next five years, Vassall was able to abstract secret military documents and to photograph others until, in September 1962, he was arrested following a tip-off from the CIA and put on trial. As Macmillan remarked with notable self-composure to Roger Hollis, the head of MI5, who asked if he was “pleased” at Vassall’s capture:

No, I’m not. There will be a great public outcry. Then the security services will not be praised for how efficient they are but blamed for how hopeless they are. There will then be an enquiry… There will be a terrible row in the press, there will be a debate in the House of Commons, the Government will probably fall. No, I’m not pleased.

On October 22, the day the Cuban missile crisis erupted, Vassall was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment. He served ten of them and later lived under an assumed name as a lawyer’s clerk in London, where he died in 1996, aged 72.

The case had repercussions for Macmillan’s government because Vassall had for a time been employed by the socially well-connected Tam Galbraith, a Conservative MP and Civil Lord of the Admiralty. Had their relationship perhaps “had a whiff of impropriety?” the PM wondered in his diary. The press was not slow to seize on a story that had all the ingredients of a classic British political scandal—sex, espionage, and a possible connection to the highest rungs of the ruling establishment. “Fleet Street,” Macmillan wearily told the House of Commons during the Vassall debate, “has generated an atmosphere around this case worthy of Titus Oates or Senator McCarthy … a dark cloud of suspicion and innuendo.” Another official enquiry was launched, and two journalists called to testify, Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail and Reg Foster of the Daily Sketch, refused to disclose to the judges the sources on which they had based their stories. Since, in fact, there were no sources—they had simply made the stories up—they could hardly have done otherwise.

In March 1963, Mulholland and Foster were each sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for contempt of court. As Macmillan rightly remarked, “the Press will not forget or forgive the incident … they will be represented as martyrs for years to come.” In Britain that spring tawdry revelation was matched by vile animus; almost every morning, one awoke to headlines suggesting, if not shouting, that the government was in the hands of a bunch of doddering old fools deep in a mire of frivolity and corruption, with dubious sexual habits to boot; the Mirror’s PRINCE PHILIP AND THE PROFUMO SCANDAL—RUMOUR UTTERLY UNFOUNDED surely set a benchmark for mendacious innuendo. One need only think of the consensus media attitude to Richard Nixon in the final days of Watergate, with added prurience, to get the flavor.

“In all our later difficulties,” Macmillan noted in his diary,

the Press was still actuated by rancour at the mere suggestion that they could be held responsible for the statements they printed. I have never understood this position, which is, however, sincerely held by many editors and journalists. The Press, in demanding full protection for their ‘sources,’ have even claimed the privilege of the priesthood… . The whole [series of scandals] led to a spate of questions, involving every crude variety of wink and insinuation.

One way or another, it was all “sordidly distasteful” wrote the prime minister—born in 1894—and he professed little sympathy for its principal cast. “Everyone’s ‘darling,’” he complained in his diary.

Now all that remained after the hors d’oeuvres was the main dish of Profumo.

On March 21, 1963, the House of Commons debate on the two jailed journalists took an unexpected turn when a Labour MP, Colonel George Wigg—one of those both sinister and faintly comic figures who lurk on the edges of the “intelligence community,” with the hooded eyes and sagging jowls of a particularly dilapidated bloodhound—took the opportunity to refer publicly to Profumo’s widely known but still unreported involvement with Christine Keeler. “There is not an Honourable Member in the House,” he announced, “nor a journalist in the Press Gallery, nor do I believe that there is a person in the Public Gallery who, in the last few days, has not heard rumour upon rumour involving a member of the Government Front Bench.” Wigg then used the protection of parliamentary privilege against libel prosecution to refer to “the parties at the heart of the scandal … this deplorable breakdown of public morals” by name.

The next day, a heavily tranquillized Profumo got up in the House to assure the Honourable Members, “There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler.” He promised to sue for libel should any newspaper or individual publicly repeat the allegation. It was left only for the prime minister and the senior members of the cabinet to put on record their “unstinting” and “wholehearted” support for their colleague. In time, the “No impropriety” line would become as iconic in its way as Nixon’s “I’m not a crook.” Profumo’s lie was the one truly imperishable moment of the scandal, and with it the stage was set for the saga that eventually led the Secretary of State for War to admit he had been sharing a mistress with a possible Russian spy. “A laughingstock” was the way Macmillan accurately described himself as a result.

On April 4, Scotland Yard, apparently at the urging of Colonel Wigg, opened an investigation into Stephen Ward for living off immoral earnings—oddly enough, an offense in Britain only since 1956. Christine Keeler was also interviewed and eventually signed a statement confirming that she had been Profumo’s lover and that certain “considerations” for this arrangement had been passed to Ward. The Labour opposition seized its opportunity. On May 24, Wigg and his colleague Harold Wilson wrote to Macmillan, enclosing a long letter from Ward—now rightly concerned that he was about to stand trial for pimping—in which he, too, alleged that Profumo had not told the truth in his statement to the Commons. The PM’s response was to set off to the moors of Scotland on a shooting holiday. When he returned to London in June, he found events had moved at “a rather alarming” rate. Under continuing parliamentary pressure, Profumo admitted that perhaps he had slept with Christine Keeler after all. For his “inexcusable folly” in lying to the House, he was immediately resigning his cabinet appointment, his Privy Councillorship, and his seat in Parliament.

Meanwhile, a West Indian lover of Keeler’s had in a jealous rage shot at Stephen Ward’s house; another West Indian, this one named “Lucky” Gordon—brother of “Psycho” Gordon, a London jazz entrepreneur with alleged Mob connections—was on trial at the Old Bailey for wounding Keeler in the street. Ward himself had been arrested and charged with a variety of sexual offences, including keeping a brothel. The Sunday News of the World began the serialization of Keeler’s life story, and there was talk of her recording a pop song. And Captain Ivanov appeared in print as a “hairy chested Russian” who had shared pillow talk with this versatile woman. No wonder the British press, in one of its cyclical fits of morality, saw the whole thing as a gift with which to attack a tired and corrupt government.

“Eleven years of Conservative rule have brought the nation psychologically and spiritually to a low ebb,” The Times editorialized. There was even a transatlantic dimension to the affair. As a senator, President Kennedy had slept with one Suzy Chang, a New York prostitute who had moved to London and was part of the Ward vice—or “V-girl”—ring. In June 1963, Chang was said to be anxious to sell her story of nights with a “high-elected US official” to the New York Journal-American. According to the journalist Seymour Hersch, Robert Kennedy used his considerable influence with the Hearst family, who owned the Journal-American, to spike the story.

The scandal accelerated rapidly. With Profumo now disgraced and an object of public mirth, Macmillan was obliged to make an emergency statement in the House on June 17. He made it clear that he saw himself as a victim of events. “On me,” Macmillan said, “as Head of the Administration, what has happened has inflicted a deep, bitter and lasting wound … I find it difficult to tell the House what a blow this has been to me, for it seems to have undermined one of the very foundations on which political life must be conducted.” When the final vote of confidence came to be taken, there were 27 abstentions among the Conservative back-benches.

Macmillan had won, but with his reputation for unflappable dignity in ruins. On his irregular “meet the people” tours, hecklers—hitherto unknown on formal occasions—shouted ribald remarks at him about call-girls and spies. Rumors were rife about Macmillan’s own home life. A Gallup Poll in July 1963 showed him at the nadir of his popularity, with a 35 percent approval rating, the lowest for a Prime Minister since Neville Chamberlain at the time of Munich.

It was left for Macmillan to announce that a Judicial Enquiry under Lord Denning would report on the security aspects of the affair, which the press had built into a cause célèbre that linked not only the Tory government but the ruling establishment as a whole to an underworld of prostitutes, pimps, spies, topless go-go dancers, and exotic household practices. One widely circulated story was said to involve an eminent politician who had waited at table at a fashionable London dinner party naked and masked, wearing a placard that read, “If my services don’t please you, whip me.” If true, a sorry lapse from the late-Victorian public etiquette Macmillan himself seemed to embody.

On July 22, Stephen Ward appeared on trial at the Old Bailey on a variety of morals charges. Over the next nine days, the proceedings saw a series of colorful witnesses give evidence against the accused— whom The Times thought a “wretched” and “visibly shrunken” figure—including an ‘intimate model’ named Vickie Barrett and a “masseuse and interpretative dancer” sworn in as Ronna Ricardo. (None of Ward’s society friends, by contrast, came forward to testify to his good character.) Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies also appeared, the latter providing the scandal’s second immortal aphorism. When the prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones pointed out that Lord Astor, owner of the Cliveden estate, denied having met her, Rice-Davies replied, “Well he would, wouldn’t he?” The line quickly entered the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Following a harsh attack on his character in Griffith-Jones’s closing speech, Ward went home to his flat and took an overdose of sleeping pills. The next morning, while the defendant lay comatose in a hospital bed, the jury at the Old Bailey found him guilty of living on the immoral earnings of Keeler and Rice-Davies. The judge deferred sentencing “until such time as the criminal may be fit to return to court,” which in the event meant never. Three days later, Ward died without having regained consciousness. He was 50. His suicide note read, “I am sorry to disappoint the vultures.”

On September 26, Macmillan’s cabinet received the Denning Report, which like Kenneth Starr’s 35 years later would go on to become one of those rare government publications to be a public bestseller. People lined up the streets for it. 125,000 copies were sold—6,000 in the first hour. With chapter titles like “The Slashing and the Shooting,” “Christine tells Her Story,” “He’s a Liar,” “The Man Without a Head,” and “The Man in the Mask,” the 70,000-word narrative perhaps promised more than it delivered. Much as with Kenneth Starr, some felt that Denning’s innate Puritanism—at one point he referred to Ward’s preference for the sexual ménage a trois as “this practice of a revolting nature”—rendered him unfit for an investigation that even touched upon, as it were, the dimension of a Cabinet minister’s genitals and the “outstanding upholstery of Miss Keeler.”

The report laid blame squarely on Profumo for lying to his colleagues about the nature of his association with Keeler, though Macmillan and his cabinet were criticized for failing to respond adequately to “glaring proof” of the war minister’s adultery. There was no evidence “for believing [the] national security has been or will be endangered,” Denning concluded.

That was, in effect, the end of the Profumo scandal, though its longer-term consequences included a disinclination among the British public ever to take politicians quite so seriously again. As a result, newspapers were free to abandon any vestiges of deference to the patrician establishment and quickly substituted the cocktail of sexual gossip and topless photographs that readers of British tabloids enjoy today. For this reason, it’s been called the ignition-point of Britain’s “modernization crisis.” Macmillan himself resigned on grounds of ill health less than a month after publication of Denning’s report, the victim of a misdiagnosed prostate problem that the doctors had told him might be fatal. He lived until December 1986, a few weeks short of his 93rd birthday.

May/June 2013 issueChristine Keeler served nine months in jail for perjury relating to the “Lucky” Gordon case and later achieved a sort of immortality when she was photographed straddling a chair with nothing on—voted one of the Sixties’ “iconic images” in a BBC poll. Now 70, she continues to publish a series of articles and books insisting that she wishes to be left alone. Mandy Rice-Davies converted to Judaism and opened a chain of successful nightclubs and restaurants in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. She has described her life as “one slow descent into respectability.” Captain Ivanov was recalled to Moscow, where in short order he found himself abandoned by his wife and out of favor with the Kremlin. An alcoholic, he died insane in January 1994, aged 68.

But perhaps the most poignant post-scandal afterlife was that of John Profumo himself. Following his resignation, he simply disappeared from public life. One morning in December 1963, Profumo knocked on the door of Toynbee Hall, a welfare center for down-and-outs in the east end of London, and asked if he could help in any way. He would remain there as a full-time volunteer, doing everything from cleaning the toilets to raising large sums of money for the disadvantaged, over the next 40 years. His wife Valerie, the once glamorous actress, also devoted herself to the charity until her death in 1998. Profumo never publicly spoke about the scandal, preferring to take the flagrantly unfashionable view that it was all a private matter between him and his family. Most commentators came to agree with the verdict of the Daily Mail that he should be remembered “as much for his contribution to society after his fall from political grace as for the folly which caused that fall.” His award of the CBE in 1975, for services to Toynbee Hall, signaled a partial return to respectability. John Profumo died in March 2006, at the age of 91.

Christopher Sandford is a Seattle-based writer and the author, most recently, of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.