An affair, a lie, and a Conservative government came tumbling down

Christine Keeler, the woman at the heart of a 1963 scandal that helped oust the dominant Conservative Party, died on Dec. 4 at age 75.

She was just 19 when, working as a model and night club dancer, she took lovers from opposite sides of the Cold War: British War Minister John Profumo and Soviet Embassy attaché Yevgeny Ivanov.

Questioned about the affair by a Parliamentary foe who suspected there were Russian spies around every corner, Profumo lied and said nothing inappropriate had taken place between them. Later in life, he claimed he lied to protect his wife, stage and screen actress Valerie Hobson.

But that didn't buy him a pass. He was forced to resign, and his mentor Prime Minister Harold Macmillan barely survived a vote of no confidence. He announced his resignation months later, and the following election ended a 13-year run for Britain's Conservatives.

The Hobson-Profumo marriage is one of the nine I wrote about in Why They Stay. Here's an excerpt from my book, along with my wish that Ms. Keeler will rest in peace.

First, though, a word of explanation about the first line, which references the White Queen. In Why They Stay, I proposed that today's political marriages are not so different from centuries-old sovereign unions, such as that of medieval queen Elizabeth Woodville, grandmother to King Henry VIII. She's known today as the White Queen, and her loyalty to the Tudor dynasty surmounted her desire for a faithful marriage. In Why They Stay, I argued that contemporary political couples make the same sorts of compromises because of the unique set of standards and pressures they face.

Valerie and Jack are the first of our modern White Queen couples to face live press scrutiny. Unlike the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, whose infidelities were revealed many years after their time in office, the Profumos suffered their downfall and humiliation in real time. They struggled with the glare of publicity on political couples. First, Valerie and Jack retreated into the bunker of the private space they had constructed together. The day after Jack’s resignation, hundreds of reporters around the world were looking for him. In an attempt to stay ahead of and away from the press, he moved around the English countryside to the homes of various relatives and friends, with Valerie and their sons David, 7, and Mark, 12. They stayed at the Suffolk home of Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, who referred to the Profumos’ visit as “operation sanctuary.” Back in London, Jack’s secretary Pam Plumb fended off the media. Journalists posed as private detectives hired by the Profumos to get her to reveal their whereabouts. The editor of the Daily Telegraph invited Plumb to lunch.
During this time, one imagines that Valerie and Jack were in urgent discussion about how to choose their moment and method for a public resurfacing. Future couples would call press conferences to declare their positions, but the Profumos didn’t have role models to steer by. Instead, true to Valerie’s training on stage, they planned an elaborate pantomime of marital support. Nearly two weeks after Jack’s resignation, the couple returned home to their high-ceilinged town house in the tony neighborhood of Chester Terrace, overlooking the tranquil grandeur of London’s Regent’s Park. A police escort led Valerie and Jack through the cluster of news reporters. Looking composed, Valerie wore a headscarf and white gloves. They made their way through the silent crowd. Soon the mob jostled and called out. Valerie turned, looked at her husband, and clasped his hand in hers as they made their way to their front door. It was an image of solidarity inspiring both sympathy and admiration.
Looking back from our era of regular public revelations of adultery by political leaders, it’s hard to understand how incendiary the Profumo scandal was to the western world. Just a month earlier, in May 1963, sexy starlet Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” at Madison Square Garden to President John Kennedy, marking what we now know was a yearslong series of liaisons between the two—but that relationship was relegated to whispers among press reporters, not scolding editorials published in the country’s leading newspapers.
The Profumo Affair profoundly altered British society, emboldening the press and rocking people’s faith in their leaders. It gave lie to the belief that those born into the ruling class were inherently superior and destined to lead, making room for lower-born folks to rise through the political ranks on merit. Sixteen years later, a grocer’s daughter, Margaret Thatcher, became Prime Minister. David Profumo, the only biological son of John and Valerie, wrote that it has become an article of faith that “my father’s behaviour was instrumental in changing the heartbeat of our society.”