She was embroiled in one of the UK’s most infamous sex scandals when she was just 19 years old, and she spent the rest of her life in its shadow. Now, with the BBC miniseries The Trial Of Christine Keeler hitting television, we look at the heartbreaking true story of Keeler’s life.
For three years in the early 60s, Establishment was one of the hottest nightclubs in London.
It had a reputation for hosting comedians and satirists and was part-owned by Peter Cook, of Private Eye fame. Cook loved Australians, and Australians loved him. Barry Humphries and Clive James were always passing through Establishment for some event or comedy night. (Lest the Americans feel left out, let the record reflect that Lenny Bruce was a frequent fixture, too.) In fact, for a few years in the early 60s, Australian photographer Lewis Morley worked out of a set of airy rooms in the floors above Establishment on Greek Street in Soho.
It was there, in 1963, that Morley opened the doors of his studio to Christine Keeler. The model was there in her capacity as the star of The Keeler Affair, a film documentation of her involvement in the political scandal known as the Profumo affair. The movie, which filmed over the course of six weeks in Denmark, starred Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, also implicated in the affair, as themselves. Keeler had been dispatched to those rooms above the Establishment to take some promotional images for the movie. She was 21 years old.
Morley snapped away, working through three rolls of film. The first two featured images of Keeler sitting on a copy of an Arne Jacobsen chair and on the floor. Keeler, wearing a mini dress, crossed her bare legs and stared down the barrel of the camera.
Then, the film’s producers – who had been lurking in the studio – demanded that Keeler take off her clothes. “Christine was reluctant to do so, but the producers insisted,” Morley recalled, in an interview with the V&A, “saying that it was written in her contract. The situation became rather tense and reached an impasse.”
Morley ordered everyone from the room so that he and Keeler were alone. He switched the chair so that its back was to the camera, and told Keeler that she could sit astride the piece of furniture, Spice Girls 2 Become 1 style, so that she could be both nude and “at the same time hidden”. Keeler acquiesced, and Morley shot 11 more images of his subject, one of which became the most famous image of Keeler and now hangs in the V&A. Morley recalled: “The nude session had taken less than five minutes to complete.”
In the post-#MeToo era, it’s difficult to imagine a troupe of film producers demanding that their young starlet remove her clothes for the promotional photoshoot for a movie. (It’s also unconscionable to imagine that an actor’s contract would include a clause requiring her to pose nude to promote the film.)
But in 1963? It’s not only possible but plausible, especially when it comes to Keeler. Those film producers weren’t the first to take advantage of the young woman, using her sexuality as a weapon against her.
This was something Keeler had to contend with almost her entire life.
What was Christine Keeler’s involvement in the Profumo affair?
Keeler was just 19 when she became embroiled in the Profumo affair, still one of the most controversial and headline-grabbing sex scandals in the history of English politics. She was just 19, but she had already survived a childhood marked by sexual abuse and the death of her premature son at the age of 17.
She moved to London in the 60s, just as it began to swing. Keeler worked as a model and as a waitress at Murray’s Cabaret Club on Beak Street – around the corner from Establishment – and it was there that she met a man by the name of Stephen Ward.
An osteopath and artist, Ward was “a spymaster who befriended hosts of prominent and powerful people in the British government, aristocracy and even members of the royal family,” Keeler had said. He had a mews house in Mayfair, ran in high circles and kept the keys to a cottage on the grounds of Cliveden, the stately home in Berkshire owned by Lord Astor. It was there, in July 1961, that Keeler first met John Profumo, “a man with a wandering eye — and hands to match,” Keeler wrote in 2012.
“He knew the technique, what to say and when to brush his hand on your arm or accidentally touch your breast,” she added.
Profumo, then the Secretary of State for War, was at Cliveden to see Lord Astor, and passing the house’s pool he spotted Keeler bathing in it. The pair were introduced and began a relationship. They met at Ward’s house, had cocktails with Profumo’s pals, including Viscount Ward, Secretary of State for Air, and went for drives around London. At the time, Keeler was also seeing Yevgeny Ivanov, the Soviet Union’s naval attaché and an agent of espionage based in London. Keeler and Ivanov had met through Ward, who had befriended the Russian, hoping that it might lead to a portrait painting trip to Moscow. To complicate matters even further, Ward was being groomed by MI5 to be an unofficial diplomat of sorts courtesy of his ties to Russia. As such, MI5 were keeping a close eye on just how chummy Ward and Ivanov really were.
Still, this complicated web would have only ever been just that, if one of Keeler’s ex-boyfriends – a man by the name of Johnny Edgecombe – had not been driven to fire shots in a jealous rage outside Ward’s mews house in 1962. His display of aggression led to an arrest and thrust Ward, Keeler and Rice-Davies, Keeler’s model friend with whom she occasionally lived, into the spotlight.
Soon, bits and pieces of the story began leaking out. Profumo had not been that careful in concealing the relationship – all those drinks with his political pals, all those dates in London – so it was only a matter of time. The whole thing came to a head in 1963 when, during Edgecombe’s trial in March, Keeler missed her appointment with the court to give a statement. The press, whipped into a frenzy by the whiff of a scandal, reported on her absence in roundabout ways, hinting that it might have something to do with Profumo. (She was, in fact, in Spain.)
In an official statement, Profumo said that “there was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintance with Miss Keeler”. At first, both Keeler and Ward confirmed his words. As did Lord Astor. (“He would say that, wouldn’t he?” Rice-Davies would later say, damningly, about Astor’s denial.) But by April 1963, with an official investigation pending into Ward’s own ties with Russia, police hauled Keeler in for questioning and she revealed the truth. Yes, she had been in a sexual relationship with Profumo. Yes, she had also been in a relationship with Ivanov. Yes, she had met them both through Ward.
The fallout was swift. Profumo, who had brazenly lied about his relationship with Keeler, resigned. Ward was arrested, charged with living off the proceeds of prostituting Keeler, Rice-Davies and two other women. Interest in Ward’s network of friends – which was rumoured to include Prince Philip – and their penchant for raucous pool parties, skyrocketed. Had Ward been trading English secrets to the Russians? Had Keeler been soliciting information from Profumo and passing it onto Ivanov? How many members of London high society were involved in Ward’s scandalous circles?
Ward’s trial took place in July and August 1963, but before it could be officially concluded Ward killed himself while imprisoned. He died 3 August, 1963. Profumo disappeared from political life but began charitable work, earning a CBE in 1975. He lived until he was 90, dying in March 2006. After his exit from politics, the conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan became ill and stepped down. He was succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who led the Conservative Party to the next general election in October 1964, when they were narrowly defeated by Labour, led by Harold Wilson.
Keeler was charged with perjury, having lied under oath about her relationship with Profumo, and served six months in Holloway prison. After her release, she spent the remainder of her life in London, penning three autobiographies and consulting on a 1989 film called Scandal about the affair. Joanne Whalley played Keeler, Bridget Fonda Rice-Davies and Ian Mckellen Profumo. A BBC miniseries, called The Trial Of Christine Keeler, is slated for release in December. Sophie Cookson will play Keeler and co-star Ellie Bamber as Rice-Davies and James Norton as Ward. Keeler died in 2017 at the age of 75.
What was the tabloid reaction to the Profumo affair?
“Sexpionage: behind the Profumo scandal!”
“Confessions of Christine: by the girl who is rocking government!”
“The tart who really blew the whistle in THAT London sex scandal!”
“Goodtime girl sets off new row with story of her life”
If you thought tabloid culture was bad today, take a look at how the mainstream media reported on the Profumo affair back in the early 60s. Keeler, interchangeably described as “the showgirl”, the “goodtime girl” and “the tart”, was reduced to the sum of her parts. Profumo, on the other hand, was dubbed a “playboy” minister and given a wink-wink-nudge-nudge slap on the wrist by the media.
In truth, Keeler’s only crime was that she was young and beautiful and unapologetic about her wants and desires. In 2012, Keeler wrote: “I enjoyed sex and I indulged in it when I fancied the men. But I was no hypocrite. It was others who were disguising their peccadilloes in dinner jackets, diamonds and evening dresses, indulging in weird fantasies.”
It was the men around her who took advantage of her, dating back to her abusive stepfather and the men she babysat for as a teenager who couldn’t keep their eyes off her, to, later, Ward himself. “I was used to men liking me,” Keeler had said. “But there was always a subtext which involved me taking my clothes off. The difference with Stephen was that he enjoyed me sleeping with other people… powerful people.”
Keeler was hyper-sexualised by the press as a beautiful woman with a string of lovers, and she never recovered from the scandal. Though her friend Rice-Davies went on to become a successful novelist, Keeler was criticised for deigning to write autobiographies and tell her story in her own words.
Later in her life, Keeler tried to use her maiden name to procure work, losing each job periodically when her employers found out her true identity. Her relationship with her family suffered. “My children don’t want to be associated with ‘that bloody whore’, it’s awful but that’s the way it is,” she said. A few years before her death, images of her “unrecognisable” on the streets of London were splashed all over the Daily Mail.
“Every few months the press called me a vice queen,” she had said. “I didn’t want to be called a vice queen as I was bringing up my family. I was getting all the shame and all the blame.”
When Keeler died, obituaries slavishly raked over her old interviews and portraiture, using all the old sexist language as they described her life, dubbing her the “showgirl” and “the prostitute” when charting her story. (In 2013, an article described Keeler as possessing “a flawless body of leonine gracefulness… and a vulnerability about her demeanour which was very attractive to men”.) Profumo’s obituaries, on the other hand, called him “a man who made one terrible mistake but sought his own redemption in a way which has no precedent in public life either before or since.”
Men are the heroes and women are the wily temptresses who lead them astray. Twas ever thus, and ever thus shall be.
The BBC’s new miniseries The Trial Of Christine Keeler, starring Cookson, Bamber and Norton, seeks to reframe the narrative and tell Keeler’s story. Written and directed by an all-female team, the television series will zero in on Keeler and Rice-Davies, giving voice to the women the tabloid media dismissed as nothing more than ‘trumped-up tarts’.
In the miniseries, Cookson has said that ”[Keeler has] finally been given an opportunity to speak with her own voice. She is so complicated. She’s this wonderfully flawed heroine and she’s feisty and has opinions and doesn’t want to be defined by male society.”
It’s a timely series, and one that is worth watching. But there’s another source who, over the years, has tirelessly strived to tell Keeler’s story – Keeler herself. She wrote three autobiographies, gave countless interviews, consulted on the 1989 film adaptation of her life and spoken out as often and vocally as she could about being the victim of a sexist culture that sought to punish women for the crimes of men.
“I was a beautiful young girl, who was sometimes a bit naughty,” Keeler said in one interview. “In the end, what does it matter? I was a young fool, used by old men. Silly me. All I ever wanted was a bit of fun.”
The Trial Of Christine Keeler airs on BBC One from 29 December.
Images: Getty, BBC