There were many victims of the Profumo affair, the sex and spying scandal that dominated the headlines in 1963, contributed to the resignation of the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, soon afterwards, and still looms disproportionately large in the history of modern Britain. High on any list of those who suffered, and arguably at the very top, was Christine Keeler, who has died aged 75.
She was the showgirl – she preferred to call herself a model, while others labelled her a prostitute – whose simultaneous sexual liaisons in July 1961 with the British secretary for war, John Profumo, and the Soviet attaché Yevgeny Ivanov, lay at the heart of the scandal. A photograph taken at the time, of a young, alluring, but vulnerable Keeler, posing naked on a back-to-front Arne Jacobsen chair, has become one of the enduring symbols of the era.
She spent much of the rest of her life after 1963 bemoaning – in countless interviews and several volumes of autobiography, each more lurid than the last – her inability to escape the shadow of the affair. “It’s been a misery for me, living with Christine Keeler,” she said when her “definitive account” was published in 2001 (the volume was revised in 2012, with the claim, “Now Profumo is dead I can finally reveal the truth”). Yet she never appeared to really want to put it behind her. She would approach journalists and publishers repeatedly, offering to sell them another new angle on the story.
The 2001 book, for example, contained new allegations that she had been pregnant with Profumo’s child but had been pushed into having an abortion. These were dismissed by those close to the disgraced minister who, in contrast to Keeler, sought rehabilitation by public silence and good works in the East End of London before his death in 2006. He was, of course, a wealthy man who could afford such a stance. Keeler was habitually short of cash and could not manage the luxury of just lying low.
She made a second major claim in the 2001 book. Stephen Ward, the osteopath who introduced her and other girls from the wrong side of the tracks to aristocrats and leading figures in the late 1950s and early 60s, had been, she revealed, a Soviet agent who had tried to murder her. “I don’t know,” she said, “if he was the fourth man, or the fifth … but he was certainly in the top 10.”
By then only the keenest conspiracy theorist paid her any attention. Most had long since concluded that Keeler was simply making it up to produce a good headline. A kinder assessment might have been that she was struggling – and failing – to sort out in her own mind the sequence of events that overwhelmed her between 1961 and 1963.
Her continuing interest in the limelight could leave her in apparently contradictory situations. In 1989, she attended the premiere of the film Scandal, which purported to be an accurate picture of the whole affair. Her presence was taken as her endorsement, but later she said she turned up only because she needed the £5,000 attendance fee and said the script had misrepresented and abused her.
Keeler was born in Uxbridge, Middlesex; her father had been based at RAF Uxbridge. He disappeared from her life early and she moved with her mother, Julie, and her mother’s new partner, Ted Huish, to live in a converted railway carriage near a gravel pit at Wraysbury in Berkshire. She said afterwards that she was always frightened to be left alone with Huish, though no sexual abuse took place. She was pregnant at 17, but the father of her child, an American serviceman, returned to the US. Her mother made Christine conceal the pregnancy and she gave birth at home and virtually unaided. Her son, whom she called Peter, died after six days.
The experience made her all the more determined to escape home and, through a friend, Maureen O’Connor, and her own striking looks, she was introduced to the seedy life of Soho, London, in the late 50s. She got a job at Murray’s Cabaret Club, a favoured venue for wealthy and aristocratic middle-aged men who wanted to meet topless showgirls. Among those she befriended at Murray’s was Peter Rachman, the property racketeer, and his then girlfriend, Mandy Rice-Davies.
The two women became close and spent increasing amounts of time together in the company of Ward at his mews house in Mayfair. Keeler said that her relationship with Ward was never sexual. He was well-connected and had the use of a cottage on the Cliveden estate of his patient, Lord (Bill) Astor. Keeler and Rice-Davies would go there with Ward, but Ward was banned from Cliveden itself by Astor’s wife, the former model Bronwen Pugh.
On the weekend of 8-9 July 1961, Keeler and Ward were using the Cliveden swimming pool when the Astors brought over their guests, who included Profumo and his wife, the actor Valerie Hobson. Keeler had “lost” her swimming costume and caught Profumo’s eye. An affair between them followed, though she was also seeing Ivanov. It was later suggested that she had been extracting and passing military secrets in her pillow talk, though her chronic inability to stick to any set of facts for long makes the claim today look ludicrous.
It was other ill-judged attachments of Keeler’s that eventually transformed the scandal from rumours in the corridors of power to front-page news. Her links with a cafe owner, Lucky Gordon, and a petty criminal called Johnny Edgecombe led to shots being fired outside Ward’s house in December 1962. The police were called and, in an attempt to extricate herself from the threat of prosecution as an accomplice to a crime, Keeler began talking about the Cliveden weekend and her affairs with Profumo and Ivanov. At the end of 1963 she was sentenced to nine months in prison for perjury in the case brought against Gordon, and served six months in Holloway.
Her fears led her then to try to sell her story to the papers, precipitating the public revelation of the scandal. Profumo resigned from parliament, but not before he had lied to the house in his attempts to stifle the scandal; Ward was tried for living off immoral earnings, but killed himself before a verdict was reached; and Astor was ostracised from society and died in 1966. Keeler felt that the official inquiry into the affair, conducted by Lord Denning, was a cover-up. She repeatedly accused Denning of betraying her by ignoring her account of the wider ramifications of events.
When questioned about why she constantly altered her version of events, she said that for many years she had lived in fear of her life and therefore had kept the most controversial parts to herself. It was, however, mainly her own ghosts that were stalking her.
She married twice, both times briefly and unsuccessfully. Her son, Jimmy, from the first marriage, to Jimmy Levermore, a builder, was brought up by Keeler’s mother. Seymour, the child of her second marriage, in 1971, to Anthony Platt, the director of a metal factory, remained close to her, even when family and friends had abandoned her. She also had a granddaughter.
Her face marked by her sufferings, she worked variously in later years as a dinner lady, telesales agent and in a dry cleaner’s shop, but claimed that as soon as employers discovered her real identity – she took to using the surname Sloane in an attempt to cover her tracks – they sacked her. It was all, she said, part of a conspiracy to keep her quiet. If such a thing existed, it failed.
Both marriages ended in divorce.
• Christine Keeler, model, born 22 February 1942; died 4 December 2017