Karen (aswanargent) wrote,

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Remembering John Profumo

The first time I remember reading the newspaper for the news and not just the comics was when I was 12.  There was a scandal going on in Britain involving a government minister, a teenage girl, and a Russian attaché at the Soviet embassy.  It was a big enough story that it even made headlines in the major American papers; in today's much more jaded world it probably wouldn't have gotten more than a passing mention here.  Back then, though, I was young and impressionable, and I found the whole thing quite fascinating.  The Russian's name never stayed with me, but John Profumo, Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies ... hearing or seeing any one of those names over the years always put me back at a moment in time just as sharply as the mention of the JFK assassination does.  So when I saw Profumo's obituary in the Financial Times this weekend, it was an odd feeling.

For the people on my flist who are old enough (or interested enough) to know about the Profumo Affair, I've put the FT obituary behind the cut.

"There are errors of judgment in all walks of life and some are fortunate in not having the spotlight turned on them."  John Profumo, the man whose conduct shocked an entire generation and who has died at the age of 91, was Britain's secretary of state for war when he made this observation in 1960 about a trivial dispute involving the heavy-handedness of an officer at a provincial barracks.

Less than three years later his words acquired a bitter irony as he found himself at the heart of one of the great, imperishable scandals of modern British history.  The Profumo Affair centred on his liaison with a 19-year-old called Christine Keeler and played a key part in undermining the government of Harold Macmillan, prime minister, and ending 13 years of Conservative rule.

It also fueled public disillusionment with a hypocritical, class-ridden Establishment and signalled an end to deferential attitudes.  Mr. Profumo himself spent the rest of his life trying to expiate his shame through good works.

It had all begun on a hot Saturday evening in July 1961.  A guest at Lord Astor's country house, Cliveden, John Profumo encountered Christine Keeler swimming naked in the outdoor pool.  Within days they had become lovers.

"He had a way with hem and he clearly liked women," she would later recall.  "The sex was furtive at first and increasingly pleasant.  It was no grand romance."

The affair that begat the Affair was short-lived.  It ended when Profumo was informed that British intelligence was on the trail of Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, an attaché at the Soviet embassy who was allegedly also Miss Keeler's lover.

Capt. Ivanov had also been at Cliveden that fateful summer weekend.  Given that Profumo was war secretary, and that "attaché" usually meant spy, the possible security implications were alarmingly obvious.  Rumours started to spread, eventually reaching the House of Commons, where in a late-night sitting opposition MPs raised concerns about a relationship between Miss Keeler and an unnamed minister.  Profumo was woken from a heavy sleep, summoned to parliament, and told he must either resign or make a public denial.

He chose to lie, telling parliament the next morning:  "There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler."  That afternoon he and his wife attended the races at Sandown Park, where they were photographed with the Queen Mother.  The episode appeared to be closed.  Britain was still run by gentlemen, and gentlemen did not lie, least of all in parliament.

Sadly for this gentleman, however, things did not end there.  Amid continuing press speculation and with a second investigation looming, Profumo resigned.  The following weeks of blanket media coverage and photographs of Miss Keeler that would become iconic were extraordinary.  "What the hell is going on in this country?" the Daily Mirror asked.

The Affair did not destryo Macmillan's government, though its parlous state was undoubtedly further undermined by it.  
A judicial inquiry found that the Profumo/Keeler/Ivanov nexus had involved no significant security risk, but specifically blamed the government for failing to deal more promptly and effectively with the situation.

Within weeks a psychologically weakened Macmillan, mistakenly believing he had cancer, resigned.  A year later the Conservatives were voted out of office.

The social consequences of the Affair are harder to call.  For many, it exposed the hypocrisy and double standards of Britain's ruling class.  For others it was sordid testimony to the need to return to a more moral age.  It was no accident that the Affair coincided with a boom in satire.  It also marked the changing role of an increasingly invasive press keen to expose sleaze.

Little in Profumo's earlier life suggested that he would ever be at the eye of such a storm.

John Dennis Profumo was born in 1915, the elder son of Baron Albert Profumo, who owned much of the Provident Life Association of London.  After Harrow and Oxford, he joined the army and went on to have an excellent war record.  In 1940, going to the hustings in uniform, he won a by-election, becoming the UK's youngest MP.

During the long years after 1963, he wrote no memoirs and gave no interviews.  Instead he worked at Toynbee Hall, a charitable foundation in London's East End, where he began doing such menial tasks as washing the dishes.  He later became chairman.

Over 30 years after the Affair at a dinner at Claridge's to mark Baroness Thatcher's 70th birthday, Profumo was seated next to the Queen.  An almost Tolstoyan story of hobris, punishment and redemption seemed complete.

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