|( From top) John Profumo, Christine Keeler (File pictures)
London, Dec. 13: John Profumo, the Tory cabinet minister whose relationship with call girl Christine Keeler shook Harold Macmillan’s government in 1963, has emerged into the daylight after 40 years to attend an Indian play — and that, too, about dangerous sex.
A ripple of excitement went through people when they learnt the identity of the white-haired, bowed man of 88 who had turned up to see A Taste for Mangoes, the new Tara Arts play based on Sir David Ochterlony’s relationship with Indian women.
“That’s Profumo!” some whispered to each other.
A member of the theatre company who gave Profumo a lift back home at the end of the evening said he was “charming”, characteristically immaculate in his manners and had said he had found the play “delightful”.
The cast of the play includes Mumbai-based actress Soni Razdan, who plays Ochterlony’s main bibi and helps recreate the period in early 19th-century India when British men were encouraged to take Indian wives.
Since 1963, when the “Profumo scandal” shook Macmillan, there have been many politicians whose affairs have been exposed by newspapers. However, the one involving Keeler holds a special place in the history of British sex scandals.
Profumo’s sin was not that he had an affair with a call girl but that he “misled” the House of Commons. He was a typical high-flying, upper-middle class Tory.
Born in 1915, he was educated at Harrow and Brasenose College, Oxford. In 1940, he became the Conservative MP for Kettering, and a bright future appeared his for the asking when Macmillan, the Prime Minister, inducted him into the cabinet as his secretary of state for war.
In 1961, a Harley Street osteopath and society figure, Stephen Ward, who later committed suicide, introduced the Tory politician to Keeler, an exceptionally vivacious call girl, and the two began an affair.
The problem was that Keeler, with characteristic generosity, was also sleeping with Eugene Ivanov, a naval attaché at the Soviet embassy.
Although there was never any suggestion that Profumo passed on any secrets to her, the whole situation was fraught with risk at the height of the Cold War.
The scandal broke when George Wigg, a Labour Party MP, made a speech in which he referred to rumours that Profumo was having an affair with Keeler.
In response, Profumo made a personal statement in which he told the Commons: “My wife (actress Valerie Dobson) and I first met Miss Keeler at a house party in July, 1961, at Cliveden (a country residence). Between July and December 1961, I met Miss Keeler on about half-a-dozen occasions. There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler. I shall not hesitate to issue writs for libel and slander if scandalous allegations are made or repeated outside the House.”
Cliveden was a manor in the Berkshire countryside owned by Lord Astor, an English aristocrat, who made it possible for powerful men to meet attractive women in his swimming pool where it was the custom to swim naked. There was even a “chance meeting” between Keeler and one of Astor’s guests, Ayub Khan, the President of Pakistan.
In June 1963, Profumo resigned from the government and the Commons after admitting he had lied in a letter to Macmillan.
“You will recall that on 22 March, following certain allegations made in Parliament, I made a personal statement,” he told the Prime Minister. “In my statement I said that there had been no impropriety in this association. To my very deep regret I have to admit that this was not true, and that I misled you, and my colleagues, and the House. I cannot tell you of my deep remorse for the embarrassment I have caused to you, to my colleagues in the government, to my constituents, and to the party which I have served for the past twenty-five years.”
A devastated Macmillan wrote back: “This is a great tragedy for you, your family, and your friends.”
From that day to this, Profumo has been quietly working away for Toynbee Hall, a charity for the disadvantaged in the East End of London.
There have been many sex scandals in the past four decades but they lack the class of the Profumo affair. Last year, former Tory minister Edwina Currie wrote a kiss and tell book in which she revealed her four-year affair with John Major before he became Prime Minister.
This affair was considered shabby. Major said it had been “the most shameful” episode in his life but his wife Norma had forgiven him.