British scandal sheets
revisit Profumo affair

Mar 14, 2006 4:25 AM

The call girls of the world should unite this week in solemn requiem for John Profumo, who died in London last Thursday at 91.

Ladies of that profession normally care little for 91-year-old men, and none working today remember John Profumo or who he was, but he put their game on the world map.

It was Profumo, headed for political heights in England in the 1960s and regarded as a potential prime minister, who gave the oldest profession a lasting world image by cavorting with Christine Keeler, one of the very brightest of the ladies of the night.

Until the Profumo-Keeler dalliance became front-page news around the globe, few prostitutes made headlines, and no men in line for the highest political plum in Great Britain, and his government, were brought crashing down because of them.

Christine and her pay-for-play pal named Mandy Rice-Davies became instant world celebrities after the British press — the toughest in the world — turned over their front pages to them. Last week, when Profumo died, London’s Evening Standard printed a picture of him, and a much larger 1960s shot of Christine, unencumbered by clothes, sitting astride a chair.

At the time of Profumo’s downfall, he was a model of the English gentry, a graduate of Harrow and Oxford, dignified, the respected Secretary of State for War in the government of Harold Macmillan, married to the glamorous actress Valerie Hobson. It should be noted that she remained married to him, and at his side, loyal and loving, until she died in 1998, 35 years after he was disgraced and forced to resign. She loved the man, and forgave his fancy flings.

The Profumo Affair, as it was known worldwide, came to light in unusual fashion.

Miss Keeler’s steady beau, or at least the guy she returned home to after working the night shift, was a lowlife named Johnny Edgecombe. Christine apparently had told Johnny, in pillow talk, of the wild goings-on at the country estate of Lord Astor, where some of Britain’s biggest names — Profumo leading the list — were engaging in wild parties with some very wild women.

Edgecombe was angry, and showed up, not at the Astor mansion but at the home of Stephen Ward, an osteopath who London’s newsmen said ran a high level vice ring. Ward set up parties for the pols, and he apparently had introduced John Profumo to Christine Keeler after Profumo had seen her climb out, nude, from Lord Astor’s swimming pool. Profumo was in his 40s, Christine in her teens.

Unhappy about his roommate romping with the upper crust, Edgecombe fired multiple shots at Stephen Ward’s house. Unsympathetic police took him in tow, and he sang salty songs for them. It was not long before the jackals of the London press heard the melodies and set upon him. He told them everything he knew, and the rest they quickly found out by themselves.

Lord Astor, it seemed, loved to entertain. His guests would dress for the occasions, but not necessarily in tux or tails. One of them, a cabinet minister, reportedly dressed as a French housemaid, with a frilly black apron and a mask, and nothing else.

There is another reason beyond publicity why the ladies of the night should celebrate John Profumo’s life. Humiliated after the Christine Keeler affair, he retreated into obscurity and led a life of public service, working with the downtrodden and addicted and the poor of London’s East End slums. He did everything from washing dishes to counseling to caring for desperate drunks. That kind of dedication to his fellow man deserves respect.

Prime minister Tony Blair thought so too, knowing how Profumo atoned for his mistakes. Blair said he hoped Profumo would be "remembered not just for the events that brought his political career to an end, but also with a lot of gratitude and respect for what he achieved in his later life."

It was a vain hope. The Evening Standard’s banner headline last Friday read, "Profumo the sex scandal minister is dead." It’s a tough world.