Review: Peter Salmonon The Profumo affair

A threat then, a threat now: Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK

On the night of Tuesday July 30, 1963, Dr Stephen Ward, sat down in the Chelsea flat of his friend Noel Howard-Jones and wrote a series of suicide notes, apologising for what he was about to do. He then took 94 Nembutal sleeping pills and lay down to die on the divan in the front room.

The following day Ward was due to receive his verdict from a jury at the Old Bailey. He was facing five charges, including living off the earnings of the alleged ‘prostitutes’ Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler, the teenage lover of junior defence minister John Profumo, who gave his name to the instantly famous ‘affair’. On the day of Ward’s suicide attempt, the judge, Sir Archie Marshall, forswearing impartiality, had delivered a damning indictment, which left Ward despairing. Despite weaknesses in the case for the prosecution, it seemed obvious to Ward that the state was going to get its man.

Ward was found hours after overdosing and died in hospital four days later. His trial became a defining moment in the passage to that fabled thing known as the sixties, part of a memory-kaleidoscope of the Lady Chatterley trial, the Beatles, Soho coffee bars, and all the rest. The whole routine has become so familiar with repetition (does anyone really need to see Lewis Morley’s shot of Keeler naked in that chair ever again?) that our sense of the distinctiveness of the events has been dulled. We think we know about the Profumo affair, an event so iconic that it is now the subject of an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, currently running in London’s West End: the eponymous Stephen Ward.

To recover anything from the Profumo affair requires not so much re-examination as exhumation, and that is the task that expatriate Australian lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has set himself. He is well suited to the case – he was junior counsel to John Mortimer when Mortimer defended Richard Neville and fellow editors in the Oz trial in 1971. The latter was a stitch-up, and Robertson’s argument is that the same can be said about the Ward trial. In re-examining the case with forensic precision, he revives a sense of outrage at the casual injustice of the ruling elite when they are confronted with a challenge to their cultural power. Robertson proceeds with a lawyer’s clarity and sense of barely concealed rage about proceedings that were as close to a show trial as the British Justice system has ever performed.

The Profumo affair had started two years before the suicide of Stephen Ward. On July 8, 1961, a group of guests gathered at the Cliveden house of Lord William Astor, the son of Nancy Astor, for what would become, in Robertson’s words, ‘an iconic moment in British political and sexual history’. Among the guests were Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the President of Pakistan, who was en route to meet President Kennedy; also there were John Profumo, his wife – the actress Valerie Hobson – Lord Mountbatten and Stephen Ward.

Ward was an osteopath whose clients included Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Thomas Beecham. Astor was also a patient and had gifted Ward a cottage on the estate for a peppercorn rent. Ward was a skilled portraitist – Peter Sellers, Sophia Loren and Prince Phillip all sat for him. He drove a jaguar, wore sunglasses, went to jazz clubs and saw the occasional street walker. He was, in short, a representative of the new bohemianism, a ‘gay bachelor’ in the lingo of the time.

Accompanying Ward were his new girlfriend, Sally Norie, and his roommate, Christine Keeler. Keeler had been living with Ward for a month. Theirs was a platonic relationship – like brother and sister, in Keeler’s words. They had met when she was working in Murray’s Cabaret in Soho as a topless showgirl. (Robertson notes that the laws at the time specified that while she was bare breasted she had to remain motionless. So no provocation there.)

If Keeler is now famous for the iconic Lewis Morley photograph, she was first famous for wearing a towel. She had spent the day swimming in the river on the estate. When the main guests took a stroll after dinner, it was in this towel that she first met John Profumo. He described her as ‘a very pretty girl and very sweet’. The morning after they met, he took Keeler for a tour of the mansion, and asked Ward for her phone number. Accounts vary as to how long their affair lasted, from a few weeks to a few months. They usually met in Ward’s Wimpole Mews flat, although they met once at Profumo’s own house in his wife’s absence. At no stage did he pay her for sex, although there were occasional gifts, and on one occasion he gave her £20 to ‘get a little something for her mother’.

Profumo was unaware that he had not been the only man enamoured of Keeler that weekend. Yengeny Ivanov was a naval attaché with the Soviet Embassy, whom MI5 knew to be an intelligence officer with the Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate. MI5 believed he was a potential defector, and wanted to use Ward’s friendship with him – they had met when Ward was attempting to visit the Soviet Union to sketch Russian leaders – to turn him. Ivanov was a frequent visitor to Cliveden. On the day after Profumo and Keeler met, he arrived, and spent the day at the pool with the assembled group, including Profumo. That night Keeler and Ivanov left Ward at the cottage and returned to Wimpole Mews, where they drank vodka and may or may not have had sex.

That the Secretary of State for War was sharing a bed with a woman who was sharing a bed with a Soviet spy was crucial to the unfolding of the scandal. Ward, as he always did, had reported back to his MI5 handler ‘Woods’ on the Cliveden weekend, including the attraction of Profumo to Keeler. This was an unnecessary complication because MI5 had hoped to use Keeler as a honey-trap. But it meant that the government needed to be informed of Profumo’s behaviour.

On August 9, a month after the Cliveden weekend, Profumo was interviewed informally by Sir Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary, who warned him away from Ward’s group. The next day, Profumo cancelled a planned liaison with Keeler, in a letter that started with the word ‘Darling…’.  Profumo later claimed that he had used the term platonically, as they had been spending time with theatrical types, who always said ‘Darling’. It was a statement viewed with some scepticism. Whether their affair ended then or later is disputed – Keeler claimed it continued for several months.

In February 1962, Keeler moved out of Wimpole Mews, and in September her friend, Mandy Rice-Davies moved in. They had met at Murray’s Cabaret. The older Keeler had taken Rice-Davies, the daughter of a Birmingham policeman, under her wing. They often shared lodgings during the period. Rice-Davies met Ward, they had sex once, and became friends. Ward also introduced her to ‘an Indian doctor’ whose name was suppressed at the trial, but who was in fact a Ceylonese con-man called Emil Savudra, who met her twice a week at Ward’s flat, paying her £25 a week for ‘drama lessons’, and left her money whether or not they had sex. This was to become a crucial plank in the prosecution’s argument that Ward was living, in part, off the earnings of prostitutes.

Most of the pieces of the scandal were now in place, but there was to be a final complication – in mid-December 1962, Keeler sought refuge with Rice-Davies at Wimpole Mews to hide from Johnny Edgecombe. Keeler had been attending Notting Hill jazz cafes, ‘the haunt of West Indian musicians and cannabis smokers’. She had been buying marijuana from the singer Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon and sleeping with him and, later, his great rival Edgecombe. Edgecombe knifed Gordon, and when Keeler left him, he chased her to the Mews and pumped five bullets into the door. Edgecombe’s trial for attacking Gordon was to become a crucial element in what unfolded, yet another exotic underground element that would shock mainstream Britain.

Rumours about Profumo’s liaison with Keeler were now rife, with Keeler herself stoking the fire, selling the ‘Darling’ letter to the Sunday Pictorial, which paid her a badly needed £200. She then sold her entire story to the News of the World for £23 000, the equivalent of £400 000 in today’s money. All the newspapers knew about the scandal, but were afraid to publish, scared off by what Robertson calls ‘draconian libel laws’, and threats of legal action by Profumo, who was also attempting to buy off Keeler.

On March 21, Private Eye broke ranks, publishing a ‘scoop’ by their political correspondent ‘Lunchtime O’Booze’, about Cabinet Minster ‘James Montesi’, his mistress ‘Miss Gaye Funloving’, a Soviet spy named ‘Vladimir Bolokshov’ and a Harley Street doctor dubbed ‘Dr Spook’. That evening, Labour MP Colonel Wigg used Parliamentary privilege to ask the Home Secretary to deny rumours about Profumo, Keeler, Rice-Davies and a West Indian. During the debate Labour MP Reginald Paget produced one of the first great quotes of the affair, noting that ‘These rumours amount to the fact that a minister is said to be acquainted with an extremely pretty girl … I should have thought that was a matter for congratulation rather than enquiry’. This was, of course, later topped by Rice-Davies’ response to being told that Lord Astor had said he had never met her: ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’

At two in the morning, the party whip summoned Profumo from his bed to sign a personal statement to be read in parliament the next morning. The statement denied all the allegations. He declared that he had only ever met Keeler in the company of his wife, with Ward’s other friends also present. The Prime Minister Harold MacMillan weighed in to support Profumo. A scapegoat was needed. That scapegoat was to be Stephen Ward.

On March 26, the Home Secretary met with the head of MI5, Roger Hollis, and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Joseph Simpson, in what was, in Robertson’s words, ‘a curious, and constitutionally improper meeting’.  Although no transcript has ever been released, the message was clear – get Ward. An initial idea of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act was dismissed, as there was little chance of conviction. A second idea was that Ward could be prosecuted for ‘immoral earnings’ – that is, living off the earnings of prostitutes. Investigations were to begin, and charges laid. Ward would either be cowed and cover up what he knew, or he would be prosecuted and thus discredited. By early May, Ward’s Wimpole Mews flat was under 24 hour surveillance and the police had interrogated 140 potential witnesses.

The prosecution of Stephen Ward was not just a travesty of justice it was also, politically, a terrible mistake. Ward initially supported Profumo’s story. It was only when the threat of legal action became apparent, and the likely case known, that Ward spoke out. If he was going down, he was taking Profumo with him. Ward wrote to the Home Secretary and sent a copy of the letter to all newspaper editors. The letter detailed everything he knew about the liaison between Profumo and Keeler, and Keeler and Ivanov. Profumo arrived back from a holiday in Venice to a jostling crowd of reporters. His resignation was tendered on June 4.

On June 8, Ward was arrested and, contrary to all legal precedent in similar cases, refused bail, spending a month behind bars. Keeler’s side of the story was finally published in the News of the World, which painted a scandalous picture of her bohemian lifestyle. In Parliament, Labour’s new leader Harold Wilson attacked MacMillan for the cover up, and Keeler was described as a ‘harlot’, a ‘whore’ and ‘a poor little slut’. Ward was charged with ‘living, in part, off the earnings of prostitutes’. This meant that the case had to prove both that Keeler and Rice-Davies were prostitutes, and that Ward lived off their earnings. As Robertson shows, in forensic detail, the case was not only absurd, the trial also involved deeply troubling miscarriages of justice, which showed an established order seeking retribution against a threat in a way that is chilling in its disregard for due process.

The Profumo affair remains important symbolically because it occurred at a historical moment when the values of the old established order were coming into conflict with those of the burgeoning permissive society. The far-reaching cultural changes that were already underway were part of a wider post-war social transformation that was not confined to Britain, but they were brought into sharp focus by that nation’s class divisions. Britain in 1963 remained a country dominated by, in George Orwell’s phrase, ‘striped trousered ones who ruled’. But a significant liberal underground had begun to raise questions about the legitimacy of that rule and the validity of the established moral order. The Profumo affair provided an almost too perfect battleground for the ‘clash of cultures’ – a clash that would bring down the government, and transform the relationship between public and personal freedom, public and personal morality. Such a clash also required a bloodletting, a sacrificial lamb, and Stephen Ward was chosen for the role.

The first fissures had appeared seven years earlier in 1956 with the Suez Crisis, which called into question not only the rule of a specific government – that of Anthony Eden – but a system predicated on the idea that certain people were ‘born to rule’. The same year saw the first staging of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. With its ironing board and general sense of personal desperation, it dragged the dispossessed, those who stood outside the system, to centre stage. It also identified the underlying generational conflict. As Alison says in the play to her father, Colonel Redfern: ‘You’re hurt because everything’s changed, and Jimmy’s hurt because everything’s stayed the same.’

The liberal underground was beginning to assert itself, but for the most part it had remained hidden from the mainstream, a second moral economy. The Profumo affair changed all of that. The nascent ‘Swinging Sixties’ were suddenly being played out in the court rooms, on the front pages of the newspapers, and in the highest echelons of government. That ‘the kids’ were beginning to enjoy their new freedoms was hard enough; that one of their own – a government Minister no less – had joined in the fun exposed hypocrisy at the heart of the elite. The ‘trousered ones who rule’ were forced to speak about ‘harlots’ and ‘sluts’ to their learned friends.  Events that no paper would dare publish at the start of the affair were splashed across the front page by the end. Sex and drugs and rock and roll had arrived, but the establishment wasn’t going down without a fight, even if it cost it its dignity.

In the trial itself Ward was described by the prosecuting counsel as ‘filth’ and representative of ‘the very depths of lechery and depravity’. That he had single women living in his flat was evidence of his lack of morals, his unmarried state further evidence. The lifestyles of the main actors, mildly anti-establishment to our own eyes, were painted as utterly depraved at the time, which, by the standards of the moral order they were running against, they were. Middle England was gripped and repulsed at the same time. That there was a race element – Gordon and Edgecombe being black musicians, the mysterious doctor being Indian – only heightened the sense of exoticism. It made the case more challenging to the middle class morality that was already under threat from the permissiveness that was seeping into society, fuelled from within as much as without.

Keeler and Rice-Davies, in particular, were morally incomprehensible. As Robertson touches on briefly, the trial never accepted the proposition that the women could have had sex for pleasure. That both had a number of lovers (very few in contemporary terms), that they enjoyed these brief dalliances and could make up their own minds about when to end the relationships (as, in all cases relevant to the affair, they did), was unthinkable to mainstream Britain. Both denied being prostitutes, and no compelling evidence was presented that they were. Both had received small gifts from lovers, but the idea that these gifts could help support a man earning £5000 a year as a respected osteopath was absurd and never proved.

Robertson’s argument that Ward’s conviction should be quashed is deliberately legalistic, as he is advocating an appeal and a pardon. He notes that the jury was not presented, as it should have been, with the information that Keeler – whose evidence against Ward was confused but, in describing their ‘louche’ lifestyle in detail, damning for a man who was required to be damned – had recently been found guilty of perjury in the Gordon versus Edgecombe case. He also notes that the judge’s summing up was deeply prejudicial: Sir Archie Marshall included an inadmissible statement noting that none of Stephen Ward’s friends had spoken on his behalf. ‘This is clear,’ he said, ‘if Stephen Ward was telling the truth in the witness box there are in this city many witnesses of high estate and low who could have come and testified in support of his evidence.’ This was a sinister intervention, legally inadmissible, and one that led directly to Ward’s suicide.

The judge also failed to draw the jury’s attention to Ward’s lack of previous convictions, and the lack of corroborative evidence that Keeler or Rice-Davies were prostitutes. Robertson points out that both the beginning of the case and its end were unconstitutional. The Home Secretary is, by law, not allowed to ask the police to investigate an individual, and certainly not to suggest a legal case to be brought. From the outset, the case should not have been pursued.

When Ward took 94 Nembutal, and was rushed to hospital to have his stomach pumped, the judge had the discretion to adjourn the trial until Ward had recovered. Both counsel requested this adjournment. The judge refused. As Robertson notes, it is the right of a defendant not only to have a fair trial but to attend it. There was no legal hurry. But, one senses, there was a moral hurry. The establishment needed its revenge, and they had no intention of serving it cold.

On Wednesday July 31, as he lay dying in hospital, Stephen Ward was convicted on two counts of living on the earnings of prostitutes. Sentence was postponed until his recovery, but on August 3 he died, without regaining consciousness. His final letter was to Noel Howard-Jones: ‘I am sorry I had to do it here! It is really more than I can stand – the horror day after day at the courts and in the streets … Incidentally it was surprisingly easy and required no guts. I am sorry to disappoint the vultures. I only hope this has done the job. Delay resuscitation as long as possible. Stephen.’

The death of Stephen Ward stands as an iconic moment in British history, when the establishment, confronted by a new liberalism, had its hypocrisy exposed by a heady cocktail of female sexuality (a threat then, a threat now), race and politics. As Robertson argues, it is time for the current establishment and the rule of law to acknowledge that a great injustice was done in the name of propping up a system already in a terminal state of decay. Robertson has referred the case to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and his book is a compelling case for appeal.