Christine Keeler has now presumably made front page news for the last time, although one would not necessarily bet on it.
The scandalous one-time party girl, part-time prostitute, and one-time scourge of Mayfair society, died yesterday, apparently destitute, but well remembered by anyone over the age of seventy. She herself was seventy-five.
For a while in the 1960s she was on the front page of every newspaper, every day, after being revealed as a casual girlfriend of the then War Minister John Profumo, who lied to the House of Commons about the sexual nature of their relationship and had to resign from the government of Harold MacMillan. The government itself, whose leader can now in retrospect be seen as the last Edwardian prime minister, followed Profumo into oblivion soon afterwards.
A brief fling might not alone have been enough to bring down Profumo, least of all a government, but during the time that she was going to bed with the minister – which happened, they both claimed, no more than half a dozen times – she was also sharing her favours with a London-based Russian diplomat named Ivanov. The security aspects of this situation hardly needed spelling out, but spelled out they were, in some detail and with understandable if not commendable relish, by the opposition Labour Party. Fleet Street, needless to say, went bananas on the story, digging up so much ancillary dirt on the decadent state of Britain’s ruling class that the scandal was prolonged beyond its natural shelf-life by months. In some respects, it resonated for years.
The decadence was manifested in many ways, including orgies attended by the great and the good of Mayfair and Belgravia, in weekend parties at Cliveden, the country seat of Lord and Lady Astor, and in the sundry alleged affairs of men of respectable public prominence with Keeler and another soon to be notorious good-time girl, Mandy Rice-Davies. These assignations were arranged by a practitioner of osteopathy – not then recognised by the medical profession – named Stephen Ward, whose telephone book contained a great many names of prominent people, many of them not in it because they might from time to time require Ward’s assistance in straightening out their backs.
Lord Astor was in the book, and is said to have had an affair with Mandy. He denied it, and some would say convincingly, until Mandy herself, reminded by learned counsel that she had (at one of the many legal cases that ensued) uttered the immortal phrase, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he”. Astor’s reputation never recovered. Mandy’s retort went straight into the Oxford Book of Quotations, and others.
The Profumo-Keeler scandal was not the first of its kind, and will almost certainly not be the last, but in 1962, when the story broke, it opened a Pandora’s Box of seamy revelations that proved to be a watershed, turning deferential, polite, outwardly respectable, vaguely religious Britain into something that few of its citizens recognised at the time, but which later bestowed on the decade its defining epithet: the Swinging Sixties.
Skirts became shorter – to some disgustingly so – music became more raucous, books that had been banned were suddenly published – Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a case in point – with the approval of the courts. The Beatles sang songs that suddenly seemed to contain a subliminal message. Drug-taking became commonplace, and has remained so ever since. The poet laureate Philip Larkin wrote that 1963 was the year when sex was invented. That was not literally true, of course, but for a time it seemed to be, and for some of us still does.
Keeler herself was not responsible for what the older generation viewed as the onset of an incipient madness, a country suddenly taking leave of its senses, but somehow she endured as its catalyst and most telling symbol.
For that fact alone, she commands a place in the history of our time.