Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christine Keeler: 1942-2017 an obituary by John Lawton

With the death earlier this month of Christine Keeler, fellow author John Lawton asked for the chance to write an obituary. As well as being acquainted with some of the players in the infamous Profumo Affair, Lawton wrote a fictionalised account of the scandal as the subject of his Inspector Troy novel, A LITTLE WHITE DEATH.

I am about to write an obituary (sort of) for someone I never met. Tricky, but here goes.

Christine Keeler: 1942-2017

She was a tragic figure.
Notoriety can be transmuted into fame, and, as Mandy Rice-Davies proved either one can be turned into success. Christine Keeler’s life after ‘the scandal’ strikes me as little short of wasted, and on a Channel 4 talk show in the late 1980s she herself described her life in the 1970s as ‘more existing than living’. She came across as the perpetual victim, and no amount of verbiage (she co-wrote seven books on the Profumo Affair) could create the sense of triumph that might have lifted her out of that condition.
At roughly that time I was writing a history of the year 1963. A more diligent historian might have sought Christine out … perhaps I wasn’t diligent at all — offered the chance to interview David Frost I declined for no better reason than that his onscreen persona had always struck me as obnoxious. Willie Rushton advised me to at least make the approach as ‘he’ll get annoyed if he hears you’re writing about the satire boom without talking to him’ which only reinforced my wish to work around Frost rather than with him. Instead I talked to Peter Cook who told me that the one thing he regretted in life was saving Frost from drowning — not a remark anyone need take seriously. Frost was also ‘the bubonic plagiarist’ to Peter — a remark you can take seriously.
I did not pursue Christine Keeler for very simple reasons. What in seven books (although it was probably only about five in 1990) had she not said already? And I could only see myself as causing pain by asking questions. I left her alone. I’m not sure anyone could have left her in peace.
Mandy Rice-Davies on the cover of Private Eye magazine

Mandy … Mandy I had known for several years before Hodders commisioned my book. I had no qualms about ringing her up.
“OK. But it’s the last time I ever give an interview on that subject.”
I doubt mine was the last interview (the Cook certainly was) but I’ve no doubt she meant it to be.
Notoriety to fame to success? Of course but the degree of success never ceased to amaze me. I once blotted my copy book by asking if the Picasso on the wall of her Knightsbridge flat was real.
“You think I’d have a fake Picasso?”
The Kandinsky was real too.
Mandy was the only person ever to serve me caviar as a mid-morning ‘snack’ … and if lunch beckoned she’d whisk me to Langan’s and order Veuve Cliquot. I’ve never cared for either, but that’s by the bye, they’re milestones on the journey from notoriety to fame.
Christine, meanwhile, was living in a council flat in Pimlico. Her greatest asset, her looks (Daily Herald reporter Diana Norman described her to me as ‘the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen’), fading fast. Poverty grinds. Mandy never lost her looks. If anything she was more attractive at fifty that she’d been at seventeen. She was the matured version of the girl in the gigantic poster my thirteen-year-old girlfriend (I was fifteen) had pinned to the back of her bedroom door in 1964. The girlfriend even took to calling herself Mandy … signing letters as Mandy (that’s a sign of the times ... she sent brief, intense love letters on blue Basildon Bond paper folded over many times … so bollox to Twitter).
That iconic status worked for both Mandy and Christine. They became instant heroes to us adolescents … Mandy very much for her quick wit and utter refusal to let court and cops intimidate her. (She admitted to me she had felt intimidated, but was good at putting on her brave face.) I think Christine was terrified. She had no ready wit in her defences. Interviewed by the charmless plods of Scotland Yard seventeen times and eventually serving a prison term. The system grinds.
The ‘scandal’ became instant mythology. I suspect one of the reasons Christine wrote seven books was that every few years some tabloid hack would come along and say ‘dig up a couple of new facts and we can re-package the whole thing all over again’, and, forever skint, she would agree. The last book, published in the wake of Profumo’s death some ten years ago, had this as title and sub-title :

‘Secrets & Lies : Now Profumo is dead I can finally reveal the truth about the most shocking scandal in British Politics.’

Early on in the book she warns the reader off the 1989 film ‘Scandal’, in which she was played by Joanne Whalley — it wasn’t like that. But if you watch the film she is credited in the ‘thanks to’ and at least one of her books is listed as a source. If Michael Caton-Jones got it wrong she had only herself to blame. Mandy told me she would give the film-makers the rights to her memoir, but would do nothing further to assist in the promotion of the film. As I recall she stuck to that. Christine accepted £5000 to attend the premiere. Mandy had moved on. Christine was never in a position to move on. 
One day in Knightsbridge, Mandy remarked that it had been a trying day.
“I nipped out for lunch at my local restaurant, where the maitre d’ has known me for years. I’d just sat down when he approached me and said ‘I hope this isn’t a problem, but Mr and Mrs Profumo have reserved a table at the same time as you.’ Where’s the back door? I said.”
“I suppose the last thing you’d want is a Sun reporter catching you and Profumo together again?”
“Again? I’ve never met the man!”

John Profumo

I felt like an idiot. What this showed me is that I’d bought the all-pervading myth that had been hashed and rehashed for the best part of thirty years. That the Ward-Profumo affair had been some kind of social circle in which all the players knew one another … an idea which fosters some ill-conceived notion of equality … and that loosely brings me to the point … to the nature of the tragedy: to the victims.
John Profumo, Baron of the Two Sicilies, Oxford graduate, former member of the Bullingdon Club – that cradle of upper class twits – was not a victim. The victims were people who might have thought they were his friends — Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward.
The first book on the Profumo Affair, predictably, was an instant bestseller — 4000 copies sold in the first hour (I should be so lucky). What’s odd is that this was the Denning Report, written by Lord Denning, Britain’s senior judge, Master of the Rolls, in the summer of 1963 at the behest of the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Lord Denning

When it appeared on September 23rd, Ward had been dead almost two months and Christine had been charged with perjury, for which she received a nine month sentence in December. Profumo had already retired from public life and begun his work for charities.
What charity did he show to Ward and Keeler? I’ll come back to that.
The Denning Report into ‘The Profumo Affair’ has no interview with Profumo. Denning did not call him. A curious omission.
The report reads like a novel. Strangely prurient, with sub-headings such as The Darling Letter, The Slashing, The Shooting and The Man Without a Head, more reminiscent of pulp fiction than HMSO. Above all it reads as though Denning was enjoying every minute.
Andrew Roth, the journalist who first broke the story, confirmed this to me: “The story [Denning] asked me about concerned a well known man who took Christine Keeler for a ride in his open car and she’d performed fellatio. Denning said ‘What’s that?’ I looked at the verbatim reporter, a middle aged, very spinsterly lady ... and for the life of me I couldn’t think of anything but ‘cocksucking’. I said he’d have to look it up in a dictionary. I was so surprised he’d asked me that question I went and looked up his record – he’d been in the divorce courts for a long period.  It was all just judge’s technique.”
It was all just Denning cranking up the tabloid content to create what in the end was a whitewash — no one in the establishment, no politician could possibly to blame. Certainly not Jack Profumo, and I rather think that to Profumo his real offence, his only offence, had been lying to those complacent bastards, the House of Commons.
Denning’s own verdict on his report is bluntly put at the end of his introduction to the 1992 reissue: “The report did good.” Yeah, right.
But … Profumo was allowed to withdraw from public life, and with the award of a CBE some ten years later was held to be ‘redeemed’, invited to Thatcher’s seventieth and seated next to the Queen. The ranks had not so much closed around Profumo as warmly embraced him.
Meanwhile, Stephen Ward, ‘society’ osteopath, was hounded to death. He did, after all, work for a living and so was not ‘one of us’— and Christine Keeler, once the desirable lover was written off as a tart. She could never be ‘one of us.’
What charity did Profumo show to Ward and Keeler? None that I know of. Not a single word uttered in their defence, yet he must have known that Ward was innocent of the charges brought against him and that Keeler had been harassed and bullied into the perjury that led to her conviction and in the long run to a sad and tragic life.

Christine Keeler

I find that unforgivable. He threw them to the wolves and the society, the ‘us’ to which he belonged, devoured them.
On the matter of the great English ‘us’ I find, however much out of left field, that the oft-uttered, oft-sung words of Grace Slick come to mind :

“Up against the wall motherfuckers.”


  1. And I think it's forgotten how young Christine and Mandy were at the time, how easily manipulated they could be. No osteopathic pun intended.

  2. Wow, I knew a bit about this scandal, but nothing like this. So, the awful truth comes out and the victims explained. How terrible for the two young women to be exploited this way.

  3. Masterful, as usual, John. It seems like forever and universal that girls get used in this way and then discarded and vilified. I have hope though. In the US anyway, as of late, men accused of using and abusing the female young are losing their positions of power. Hopefully, the movement started here will also have an effect on the smarmier aspects of British life.

  4. Agree with Annamaria, no need to restate the matter.

  5. There was no greater "Them and Us" than that period of clubs and the "Astor Set". Christine was a babe in arms. The USSR took as much advantage as possible. Ward was a "wanna be" and paid for it. A sad period.

  6. Quite a tale you have to tell, John, and I love your inside take on it all, even if you've written only one, not seven, about the way things were...and remain.