November 15, 2012

“Give me that man that is not passion's slave, …

...and I will wear him in my heart's core…”
― William Shakespeare, Hamlet

As I reflected on this week’s revelations out of Washington, D.C. and earlier in the month from Paris, France, I recalled a trip on the river Thames and visit to Cliveden, and I ask myself, who does political sex scandal better than the British? 

Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, Jeffrey Archer, but the biggest sex scandal ever in Britain was the Profumo Affair. By the time the dust cleared, the Prime Minister had resigned due to 'ill-health' and the Labor party was swept into office with Harold Wilson as its leader and new Prime Minister.

It was before the swinging 60's before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones launched a British invasion.  1960 was the year that the publisher Penguin was prosecuted for publishing D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. Penguin won the case and was able to publish 200,000 copies.  People raced to get theirs.  Ian Fleming's spy novels hit the screen starring sexy Sean Connery as 007. The newest actors in Britain were not Hollywoodized versions of British men, but actors like Albert Finney and Michael Caine.  New magazines like Private Eye which poked fun at everyone and everything was established. Beyond the Fringe starring Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller hit the West End. And David Frost became a national celebrity hosting the hit TV show That Was the Week that Was.

Politically however, things were much less progressive. Although Harold Macmillan had swept into office in 1959 with a majority in the House of Commons, discontent ruled the country. The British economy was stagnant there was inflation and labor unrest. Unlike America, with its young, vibrant president the politicians in office reflected a by-gone era, the era of Churchill and Lloyd-George, old school politicians.

It also was the height of the Cold War, and Britain was reeling from the revelations that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were Soviet spies.  In 1963, Kim Philby would be revealed as the Third Man in their spy ring and would also defect to the Soviet Union and the idea that a British politician was not only cheating on his wife, but sharing her with a Soviet diplomat did not sit well.

The chief players in the drama:
John Profumo - Secretary of State for War
Harold Macmillan aka Supermac - Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Christine Keeler - goodtime girl and model
Mandy Rice-Davies - fellow goodtime girl and model
Stephen Ward - osteopath and panderer
Lord Astor - owner of Cliveden, the estate where the shenanigans took place
Yevgeny "Eugene" Ivanov - senior naval attache at the Soviet Embassy

In the summer of 1961, Ward held a pool party at Cliveden.  

At this party Christine Keeler met John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War. He was highly regarded in the Conservative party having won his first election in 1945, becoming the youngest MP.

Profumo and Christine started having an affair, but what he didn't know at the time was that Christine was also sharing her favors with Yevgeny Ivanov, among many others. But it was Ivanov who was the problem. It turned out that Ward was involved in helping MI-5 to entrap Ivanov. Sir Norman Wood warned Profumo about his affair with Keeler, and to warn him to be careful around Ward who was known to be indiscreet. When MI-5 tried to recruit Profumo to help them trap Ivanov by compromising him sexually, so that Ivanov would be encouraged to either defect or pass secrets, and informed him that Keeler was also involved with Ivanov, Profumo refused. Instead he dropped her but the damage was done.

The affair came to light when Christine Keeler was involved in a shooting incident at the home of Mandy Rice-Davies. Hearing the commotion, someone called the police, and soon the flat was crawling with police and reporters.

The press began to investigate Keeler, and soon found out about her simultaneous affairs with Profumo and Ivanov. Because of Ivanov's connection to the Soviet Embassy, a simple sexual affair took on a National Security Dimension.

Things might have turned out differently if Profumo hadn't made the fatal mistake of lying to the House of Commons. Instead in March of 1963, Profumo told the House that there was "no impropriety whatever" (sounds familiar?) in his relationship with Keeler and to make matters worse he said that writs would be issued for libel and slander if the allegations were repeated outside of the House.

Profumo's denials didn't stop the press from continuing with their stories. On June 5th, Profumo finally admitted that he had lied to the House, which was an unforgivable sin in British politics. He not only resigned from office but also from the House as well. Before his public confession, Profumo told his wife.  In spite of the scandal, it was never proven that his relationship with Keeler had led to a breach in national security (presumably Profumo was too busy doing other things to whisper state secrets to his lover). Profumo never talked about the scandal for the rest of his life, even when the movie Scandal came out in 1989, and when Keeler published her memoir of the affair. He died in 2006 at the age of 91, after receiving the OBE from the Queen. Like so many disgraced politician he learned that career rehabilitation was entirely possible.

The biggest fallout of the scandal was not Profumo, but Stephen Ward, who was prosecuted for living on immoral earnings. To make matters worse MI-5 denied that Ward had informed them of Keeler's affair with Profumo and Ivanov. On the last day of his trial, he took an overdose of sleeping pills. He was in a coma when the jury reached its verdict, that he was guilty. He died a few days later from the overdose. Harold Macmillan resigned in September of 1963 due to ill health. He was replaced by the foreign secretary, Sir Alec Douglas Home.

An official report was released 2 months after Stephen Ward's death. Hundreds of people queued up for copies.  But like the Warren commission or the Starr Report, or…there was no dirt to be had, just a lot of criticism for the government failing to deal with the affair quickly.

The Profumo Affair opened the door in Britain to the type of tabloid journalism it would become infamous for. No more were public persons coddled, their foibles covered up by the press. It was open season. Ah well, the more things change…


Anonymous said...

Heh. Same S**t, different era. :) Well writ!

Betty Boop said...

Ooh. I read about this scandal when I was reading about Cliveden. I never truly understood the implications of it until your post. Wow.

Charles said...

Your mentioning of the furor surrounding the publication of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" shows how recent our contemporary "permissive" society is. 1960, after all, seems like yesterday to us baby boomers.
Very interesting posting, by the way.

Mona said...

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple."

frenchtoast said...

Confidants and sharp-suited aides appearing on television with one story and then another and then a new version—it makes me shudder. Sincerity? The truth? Sorry, we've heard and seen it ALL before.
Thanks for the post, leave it to you to make this interesting connection. I too have enjoyed a trip 'up'? the Thames and a stay at Cliveden, priceless.

Dr. Bunsen and gaggle of fans said...

- Frailty, thy name is woman? NO man! ...

Alistair (from the land of Calvin oatcakes and sulphur) said...

That's civilization for you-let's blame the Romans.
Here's to all the faded flowers.
Like her youth, Keeler's naïveté is used up her hopes winnowed down.

Interesting boat ride Ms Edna, thanks.

Beata (floating above the fray) said...

No keen observer ever believes governments and their Pollyanna versions of events. When did special services become paragons of honesty and transparency? When did governments become conduits for the telling of truth?
Ironically in Britain triangulation leads to the loss of public office and rotten publicity in the tabloids for footballers, pop stars, and royalty. Sex, even to the British, is supposedly life enhancing, but it got Bill Clinton into trouble, although being Clinton, he got away with it. Infidelity is not something society approves of, but that depends on which society.
My father always said that there are only two ways to judge a man: by his women and by the kind of boat he sailed. He would have disliked Bill Clinton.
According to Shelley, “Love withers under constraints: its very essence is liberty….”
The French have their own poets, but Shelley came to mind when Hollande defended himself and his mistress against charges of depravity. Hollande is an unpleasant man and all the people in his little circle are just like him.
I once asked a good friend if he'd ever have a man, or woman, in his cabinet that had cheated on their spouse. He responded no, he would not, because if they couldn't trust him, then how could he?

Michelle said...

Women who aren't inelegant, (or) publicity seeking, would, and have not, speaking for myself, succumbed to that slick brand of contrived charm.

Anonymous said...

John Profumo did what was the decent thing and resigned (now THAT was a beautiful woman).
President Clinton made a wager. He called America's bluff and bet that the American people would lower their standards.
And he was right.

Anon said...

The subject of the week. And how odd.
Just days after an election that saw voters endorse women’s reproductive rights, gay marriage and legal weed, it turns out that the one sure way to get fired is to put Tab A in Slot B when Slot B belongs to a woman who’s not your wife.
Drones that kill civilians? A surge that saw America collaborate with the worst elements of Iraqi thuggery? A second surge in Afghanistan, the country where Western nations historically go to spill treasure and blood? None of that counts. Only adultery.