The Profumo Affair: Sex, Scandal and Politics in Sixties London | History Hit

The Profumo Affair: Sex, Scandal and Politics in Sixties London

Chorus girls from the Theatre Royal, NSW
Image Credit: State Library of NSW / Public Domain

The Swinging Sixties changed the face of Britain in multiple ways. From rising hemlines, new music and a sexual revolution to the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government, it was a decade of change and modernisation for a variety of reasons.

One woman who above all embodied – and some might even argue caused – much of this change was Christine Keeler, a showgirl and model whose affair with Conservative politician John Profumo shocked the nation. But how did a topless showgirl from Middlesex end up in bed with the Secretary of State for War?

In 1963 the resignation of John Profumo rocked the government as his affair with Christine Keeler was exposed to the world. In the aftermath of the scandal, Lord Denning was tasked with investigating whether any breaches of national security had been caused by Profumo's tryst with Keeler.
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Murray’s Cabaret Club

Murray’s first opened in 1913 as a dancehall – one of its founders, Jack May, was deported for supplying his dancers with opium, and it was bought by Percival Murray in 1933 and transformed into a speakeasy style members-only club, often frequented by wealthy clientele.

With over 100 staff and up to three performances nightly, much of the club’s intimate atmosphere was generated by scantily-clad girls in glitzy costumes going through the crowds serving champagne. The club was not a brothel, but it was certainly a place that knew sex sold, and by all accounts it was possible to procure sex there.

It was at Murray’s that Christine Keeler, a fresh-faced teenager from Middlesex, got her break. Leaving home after a series of sexual abuses culminating in a botched abortion attempt and teenage pregnancy, Keeler did stints on the shop floor and as a waitress before landing the role at Murray’s. Whilst she was working there, she met Stephen Ward – a society osteopath and artist who gave her an introduction into high society.

Cliveden House

Cliveden was the Italianate home of the Astors, William and Janet. Whilst they moved in firmly upper class circles – Astor inherited the baronetcy on his father’s death and was a prominent Conservative member of the House of Lords. Stephen Ward was a friend – he rented a cottage on Cliveden’s grounds and made use of the swimming pool and gardens.

Cliveden House, which was then owned by the Astors.

Image Credit: GavinJA / CC

Christine Keeler accompanied him on trips down there regularly: famously, she was swimming naked in the pool when Profumo – staying with the Astors for the weekend – came across her and was instantly infatuated. The rest, so they say, is history.

During the subsequent trial, Lord Astor was also accused of having an affair with Mandy Rice-Davies, who also spent time at Cliveden as a guest of Ward. When questioned about Astor’s denial, Rice-Davies simply responded ‘Well he would [deny it], wouldn’t he?’

The Flamingo Club

The Flamingo Club was opened in 1952 by long-standing jazz fan Jeffrey Kruger – it attracted people from all walks of life, and ran ‘all-nighters’. There was often a high concentration of jazz musicians and black men, as well as prostitutes, illicit drugs and dubious alcohol licencing, all of which the police tended to turn a blind eye to. Nonetheless – and perhaps even because of its reputation – the Flamingo attracted some of the biggest and best names in jazz.

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Keeler also spent time dancing here as a showgirl: once her shift at Murray’s ended around 3am, she’d come down to Wardour Street and spend another 3 hours at the Flamingo’s All-Nighter. Keeler had already met ‘Lucky’ Gordon in early 1962, when she bought marijuana for Ward and his friend at the Rio café in Notting Hill, but it was here she ran into him again and again. Lucky became her lover, and it was also here that her jilted ex-boyfriend, Johnny Edgecombe, chased Keeler and Lucky through the club, eventually stabbing Lucky in a fit of jealous rage.

Wimpole Mews

Ward lived in 17 Wimpole Mews, Marylebone: Christine Keeler and her friend, Mandy Rice-Davies effectively lived here for several years in the early 1960s – it was the house where Keeler conducted several of her relationships, including those with the Soviet naval attaché and spy Yevgeny Ivanov and with the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo.

Profumo and Keeler had a short-lived sexual relationship, lasting somewhere between one and six months. It’s believed he was warned by his security detail that mixing with Ward’s circle could be a mistake. Keeler was just 19 at the time: Profumo was 45.

Wimpole Mews, Marylebone. Stephen Ward lived at No 17, with Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies staying there often.

Image Credit: Oxyman / CC

The whole affair began to unravel when one of Keeler’s former lovers, a jazz musician named Johnny Edgecombe, fired shots into the lock of the door of 17 Wimpole Mews in an attempt to get at Keeler (and Rice-Davies), who were inside. Keeler had left Edgecombe following the knife attack at the Flamingo, and he was desperate to get her back.

The police arrived on the scene, and their investigation into his attempted murder of Keeler revealed startling facts about the identity of her lovers. As revelations and accusations flew about concerning Keeler, her relationship with Profumo and Ivanov, and Ward’s role in the whole affair, high society became increasingly cold and distant. Abandoned by his friends and faced with a prison sentence having been found guilty of ‘living off immoral earnings’, Ward took his own life.

Marlborough Street Magistrates Court

Following Johnny Edgecombe’s arrest for attempted murder, Keeler was questioned: names quickly began to fly, and alarm bells rang when the Soviet Ivanov and British War Minister Profumo were mentioned in the same sentence: in the heightened political climate of the Cold War, a potential security breach as large as this one would have had major repercussions.

The Soviet embassy recalled Ivanov, and sensing interest in her story, Keeler began to look to sell it. Profumo categorically denied any ‘impropriety’ in his relationship with Christine, but press interest grew and grew – culminating with Keeler disappearing when she was due to be the Crown’s key witness in the trial against Johnny Edgecombe. Although Edgecombe was sentenced and the matter technically brought to an end, the police began to investigate Stephen Ward in greater depth.

In April 1963, Christine Keeler accused Lucky Gordon of attacking her: once again returning to the Marlborough Street Magistrates Court. On the day Gordon’s trial began, Profumo confessed he had lied previously in his statement to the House of Commons, and promptly resigned from office. With no libel threats facing them, the press printed headline grabbing material about Keeler, Ward and Profumo, and their respective sexual trysts. Keeler was branded as a prostitute, whilst Ward was painted as a Soviet sympathiser.

Christine Keeler outside Marlborough Street Magistrates Court, appearing on remand.

Image Credit: Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The Profumo Affair – as it became to be known – shook the establishment to the core. The Conservative party, tainted by Profumo’s lies, lost heavily to Labour in the 1964 General Election. The scandal marked one of the first times sex was openly discussed in national newspapers – after all, how could it not be? – but also a moment where the supposedly untouchable world of upper class politics collided, in public view, with the swinging Sixties of Soho, and all that that entailed.


Sarah Roller