It is fifty years since Britain’s Profumo Affair climaxed; an apt description because it was the sex scandal of the century. On 5 June 1963 forty-eight year-old John Profumo resigned as Secretary of State for War and from parliament after being forced to admit that he’d lied in an earlier statement denying an improper relationship with Christine Keeler. She was a beautiful twenty-one year old woman who made a living by combining erotic dancing with occasional modelling, TV work and casual sex. Profumo had commenced a brief affair with her a couple of years before, having encountering a semi-naked Keeler one summer evening beside the swimming pool on the Cliveden estate of Lord Astor where Keeler’s companion, society osteopath Stephen Ward, occupied a cottage. At a time of continuing cold war tension, a suggestion that Profumo was sharing Keeler’s sexual favours with a Russian diplomat raised security fears, but an enquiry by the eminent judge Lord Denning would later dismiss these as baseless.
The scandal produced one of the century’s most famous photos, as well as one of its more memorable quips. The Lewis Morley picture of Keeler sitting naked, but strategically obscured behind the back of a chair whose lines are almost – but not quite – as sensual and alluring as her own, hints at the coming sexual revolution that would soon transform the lives of millions, and especially of young single women like Keeler. The memorable quip was provided by Mandy Rice-Davies, a companion of Keeler who was also entangled in the affair. Her indignant reply in court to the news that Astor denied having sex with her – “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” – has been recycled endlessly.
The Profumo Affair helped bring down a government but it was also an international scandal, reported fully in the Australian press, even stimulating the creativity of Australian school children: ‘Half a pound of Mandy Rice/Half of Christine Keeler,/Mix it up and what do you get?/A very sexy sheila.’ Australian models complained about the name of their honourable profession being attached to ‘that tramp’. All of this came at a time when Britain was turning her back on her old empire. One commentator remarked on ‘a strong feeling’ among Australians that ‘the British are far down the slippery slope to decadence and decay’ at the same time as their own country was the repository ‘of the virtues that once were British’. But Australians, he thought, should not flatter themselves that they would ‘play Rome to Britain’s Greece in decline. A Mandy to Britain’s Christine may be more like it’.
Frank Bongiorno is the author of The Sex Lives of Australians: A History (Black Inc. 2012) and he wrote on the Profumo Affair for the May issue of the Monthly.