Archive for March 9th, 2012

What are whores about?  –  Nigel Birch

Six years ago today Brigadier John Dennis Profumo, 5th Baron Profumo, CBE, died at the age of 91.  To most outside the Commonwealth, his name is probably somewhat obscure; but older British readers and those familiar with the history of the Cold War will remember him as the central figure in the Profumo Affair, a sex scandal which broke 49 years ago this month and played a large part in toppling the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.  The affair was for over three decades (at least until Monica Lewinsky) practically the definition of a political scandal, and inspired a number of books, plays and movies, most recently the 1989 film Scandal (in which Profumo was portrayed by Ian McKellen).

Despite his Italian name and title, “Jack” Profumo was wholly English (his family immigrated in the mid-19th century and his father was born in London).  He received his commission in July of 1939 and distinguished himself in North Africa, Italy and Normandy, winning an OBE and the American Bronze Star and eventually retiring with the rank of Brigadier.  From 1940-1945 he was also the Tory MP for Kettering, and after the war became active in politics, rising through a number of posts throughout the 1950s to the position of Secretary of State for War in 1960.  He was married (in 1954) to actress Valerie Hobson, who was quite devoted and had even left the stage for him.  To all appearances, he was destined for great things…until he unwisely became involved with a call girl named Christine Keeler.

He met her in July of 1961 at a house party given by Lord Astor; also in attendance were his wife and Dr. Stephen Ward, a prominent osteopath who treated many powerful politicians.  Ward also had a sideline; he was, to put it bluntly, a pimp.  Oh, not the sort who thinks he owns girls and takes their money, but rather the more genteel type who charges otherwise-independent girls “finder’s fees” for arranging dates for them with his wealthy and important clients.  Keeler, needless to say, was one of the girls he worked with, and when he saw how Profumo looked at her he wasted no time in introducing them.  Had Keeler been a true professional we might never have heard more, but she wasn’t; she was really more of a swinging ‘60s party girl who took money to finance her lifestyle, and she had no qualms about getting emotionally involved with her clients and other men.  Her relationship with Profumo soon grew from a professional one into an actual affair, and for the first four months of 1962 she was his mistress; in a ghostwritten 2001 autobiography she claimed to have had an abortion after becoming pregnant by him.  Even that probably wouldn’t have mattered had the attention of MI5 not been attracted by the fact that another of her regular clients was the Soviet naval attaché, Evegeny Ivanov.

Though Profumo was disliked by several highly-placed individuals in the spy organization, it was not in the best interests of national security to reveal anything yet…especially since the Secretary was also a personal friend of the young Queen Elizabeth II.  But the chaos that was Keeler’s life eventually dictated otherwise; in December of 1962, her current boyfriend  (a Jamaican drug dealer named “Lucky” Gordon) got into a knife-fight with her former boyfriend Johnny Edgecombe, and despite the fact that it seems Keeler was the one who drew Edgecombe into the altercation she refused to help him combat an assault charge resulting from his wounding Gordon.  All this drama obviously attracted the attention of the press, and though the rumor of Profumo’s involvement with her quickly spread nobody could yet prove anything.

Meanwhile, John Lewis (the Labour MP for Bolton) suspected that Dr. Ward had seduced his wife, and so had him investigated; he discovered he was wrong on that account, but in the process found out about Profumo’s fling with Keeler.  A few weeks after the press took interest in her sordid affairs, Lewis shared his information with at least two other politicians; by February Bob Kerby (Tory MP for Arundel and Shoreham and a former MI6 man) got ahold of a copy of a letter Profumo had indiscreetly written Keeler a year before, and which she was now trying to sell in Fleet Street to raise money for her legal difficulties.  Kerby passed that letter to veteran journalist Andrew Roth, who published it in his Westminster Confidential newsletter in March of 1963…at which point the crumpet hit the fan.  The Prime Minister demanded Roth be deprived of his press pass, Profumo threatened him with a libel suit and (as Roth put it) a “whitewash concocted overnight” by highly-placed Conservatives was read aloud in the House of Commons.  Profumo famously stated that “There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler,” prompting outspoken MP Nigel Birch to respond with the question which forms my epigram.

Portrait of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley, May 1963

The djinni, however, was out of the bottle; controversy raged in the press all through the spring and the Lord Chancellor threatened Profumo with an investigation.  Finally the embattled politician confessed everything to his wife while they were on holiday in Venice, and she immediately affirmed her loyalty to him and insisted they return at once to face the music.  On June 5th Profumo admitted his lies and resigned all his positions; an enraged Macmillan wanted to humiliate and punish him, but Her Majesty intervened and asked he be allowed to resign.  Ward was arrested soon afterward and prosecuted for “living on the avails”, and during the trial received numerous death-threats from powerful men who feared he would expose them.  When he knew he would be convicted he committed suicide via overdose of sleeping pills on July 30th, slipping into a coma and dying on August 3rd, 1963.  The government’s official report on the Profumo Affair was released on September 25th, and Macmillan (who had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer) resigned immediately afterward.  A year later, the Tories lost the general election to Labour under Harold Wilson.

Christine Keeler soon vanished into obscurity, emerging almost 20 years later to author a number of accounts of the affair throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, each slightly different from the one before.  Profumo was independently wealthy due to his family’s insurance business, but a few months after his resignation he started volunteering at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End, initially by washing dishes (not cleaning toilets as Wikipedia claims) and later as a fund-raiser.  The support of his wife Valerie never wavered, and eventually he redeemed himself in the eyes of others as well; in 1975 he received a CBE for his decade of unremitting effort on behalf of Toynbee Hall, and in 1982 he became the charity’s chairman (and later its president).  In 1995 he was seated at Her Majesty’s right hand for Margaret Thatcher’s 70th birthday party, signaling that he had at last been wholly absolved of his sins.  Valerie died on November 13th, 1998 and Profumo followed her a little over seven years later, never having truly forgiven himself; as his friend Jim Thomson, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, once said, “No one judges Jack Profumo more harshly than he does himself…he says he has never known a day since it happened when he has not felt real shame”.  But perhaps a more fitting epitaph was once provided by his wife: “It isn’t what happens to a man, it’s what he does with it that matters.”

One Year Ago Today

March Updates” reports on efforts in New York to ban the use of condoms as evidence, Gail Dines’ ludicrous porn alarmism, the expansion of CNN’s war on whores, and Russian news agencies using the claims of trafficking fetishists in anti-US propaganda.

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