The Profumo Scandal


Perhaps the biggest sex scandal ever to unfold in Britain was the Profumo Affair. In 1963, John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War had a brief relationship with a call girl named Christine Keeler, who also was seeing a known Russian spy Eugene Ivanov. Although Profumo denied under oath that he had ever slept with Christine Keeler, evidence — which included a letter obtained by a London paper — suggested otherwise.

Keeler was introduced to both men by a well-connected osteopath named Stephen Ward. Ward’s trial for charges ranging from running a brothel to arranging abortions was a Rabelaisian pageant, with a parade of vivacious hookers taking the stand and swapping stories of 2-way mirrors, bacchanales with whips and marijuana, and rumors about a naked, masked, and illustrious male “host” whose identity was never revealed. Ward remained defiant throughout the trial, sticking his tongue out at the press, but committed suicide just before the jury returned a verdict.

Ten weeks after his initial denial, Profumo confessed and resigned. A full investigation later revealed that Ivanov had indeed asked Keeler to find out from Profumo when nuclear warheads would be delivered to West Germany. He was recalled to Moscow, committed to a mental institution, and was never heard from again. The official report on the scandal, produced by Lord Denning, was highly anticipated, coming as it did just a few years after Lady Chatterley’s Lover itself went uncensored. However hundreds who queued to buy a copy when it was released at midnight (it was Harry Potter of its day) were disappointed — the report was, well, very judicious.

In the political world, the scandal sounded the death knell of patrician politics of country gentlemen with their salmon rivers, hunting parties, and above all, stiff-upper lips. However, the immediate political hay to be made out of the scandal was marginal, for the then opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell was also having an affair of his own and didn’t want to appear hypocritical. But after Profumo, anti-incumbent mode prevailed. Only a few years before, Harold Macmillan had won a near-landslide victory for the Tories, and the cartoonists dubbed him ‘Supermac’; a few months later, he would be out of office, resigning due to ‘ill health’, leaving the keys to the Downing Street in hands of squeaky-clean and modest, yet hapless Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Next year, the conservative government which had ruled Britain for 14 years lost the election by three seats. One editorial wrote, ”It was not remarkable that Alec lost. It was a miracle that he so nearly won.”

As for Ms. Keeler, she enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame. She posed famously for Lewis Morley at the height of the scandal in a torrid session where rolls of 120 film were shot for a film which never saw the light of day. The most famous photo was the very last one they took that day. Keeler had originally agreed to pose nude but was reluctant, so Morley persuaded Keeler to sit astride a chair so that she would be technically nude and not breach her contract (Keeler later did pose topless for another magazine). The chair, a thinly-masked Arne Jacobsen copy, has since become a symbol of sexual liberation; the original chair was signed by Morley and acquired by the V&A while the National Portrait Gallery bought all original photos. The photos would soon enter the popular culture, parodied by many ranging from David Frost to Dame Edna.

Liked it? Take a second to support Iconic Photos on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

0 thoughts on “The Profumo Scandal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *