How A 19-Year-Old Showgirl Accidentally Destroyed An Entire British Political Party

Skinny-dipping. A Russian spy. The British government. The Profumo affair had it all, which is probably why it toppled the Conservative party in Great Britain. And yet, outside of Britain, most have never heard the story of the scandalous affair between Secretary of War John Profumo and 19-year-old showgirl Christine Keeler. 

The Profumo affair started in 1961, when Britain's Secretary of War spotted a nude Keeler at a pool party. From there, things really spiraled, culminating in one of Keeler's other lovers shooting at her door and Profumo lying to the House of Commons about their relationship. The affair was bad enough – after all, politicians caught with prostitutes don't usually fair well – but the Profumo scandal was worse than that, because Keeler was also sleeping with a Soviet intelligence officer. 

Somewhat miraculously, the royal family was forgiving of Profumo, maybe because of the royal family's own history of scandals. However, Keeler took most of the fall, and her images were plastered across Britain, including a famous nude portrait. But was the media storm about actual national security threats, or was it really a reaction to the provocative changes that were happening with sexual norms in the 1960s?

  • Christine Keeler Was A Showgirl Who Admitted To Having "Sex For Money" Out Of "Desperation"
    Photo: Lewis Morley / Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use

    Christine Keeler Was A Showgirl Who Admitted To Having "Sex For Money" Out Of "Desperation"

    Christine Keeler was 19 years old when she met John Profumo. She was an aspiring model and topless showgirl who worked at Murray's Cabaret Club in Soho, London. She also took money from the men she dated. Keeler once admitted, “It’s true that I have had sex for money... but only out of desperation, and that is still something that I hate to have to admit even to myself. Ironically, it has been sex for love or lust rather than for money that has always caused me more problems.”

    Keeler came from difficult circumstances, having grown up in poverty with a single mother. Moreover, as she reported in her autobiography, she was also sexually abused as a child by several male adults in her life, including her mother's live-in boyfriend. In the end, Keeler was scapegoated by many for the entire Profumo affair; few at the time placed her situation and her choices in the context of her larger life. She was merely the siren who wrecked a good man's life.

  • Keeler Was Frolicking Naked By A Pool When She Met Profumo
    Photo: Herry Lawford / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0

    Keeler Was Frolicking Naked By A Pool When She Met Profumo

    On the July 1961 day that John Profumo and Christine Keeler met, both were at a pool party at Cliveden House. Keeler was skinny dipping. As Keeler wrote later, she was swimming nude "with Profumo watching approvingly." 

    Eventually, Keeler put on a towel, and the two began to talk. She didn't know that Profumo was the Secretary of State for War, but she was impressed when he mentioned his wife – the film star Valerie Hobson. Keeler decided to have "a bit of fun" with Profumo. “He knew the technique, what to say and when to brush his hand on your arm or accidentally touch your breast,” Keeler later wrote. Profumo was “a man with a wandering eye — and hands to match.”

    But Keeler was also having an affair with another man that was at the same pool party: Yevgeny Ivanov, a Russian intelligence officer.

  • John Profumo Was Considered A Handsome Up-And-Coming Politician With High Aspirations

    In 1961, when he met Christine Keeler, John Profumo was at the top of his professional career. He was handsome, married to actress Valerie Hobson, and a close friend of Queen Elizabeth II. He'd served in the British Army during World War II, including landing in Normandy on D-Day. He was first elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament in 1940, the youngest person serving in the House of Commons at the time. And after the war, he quickly rose through the ranks of government, ascending to Secretary of State for War in 1960. His future looked bright, and Profumo was considered a good candidate for promotion.

  • Stephen Ward Committed Suicide During His Trial For Pimping Keeler
    Photo: Stephen Daglish / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

    Stephen Ward Committed Suicide During His Trial For Pimping Keeler

    Christine Keeler had known osteopath and socialite Stephen Ward, the man that she was visiting the day she met John Profumo, for years. She was staying at his London flat when one of her ex-lovers, Johnny Edgecombe, fired shots at the door, and she was staying at Ward's rented cottage in Cliveden (pictured) when she met Profumo at the pool party. After Profumo publically denied his relationship with Keeler in 1963, investigators began to suspect Ward of being a pimp. He was put on trial in the summer of 1963 and convicted on two counts of living off immoral earnings. 

    Before the verdict, Ward overdosed on sleeping pills. He never recovered and died three days later. His suicide note read, "I'm sorry to disappoint the vulture... I feel the day is lost. The ritual sacrifice is demanded and I cannot face it."

  • The Profumo Affair Was Only Exposed Because A Scorned Lover Fired Shots At Keeler's Door

    The affair between John Profumo and Christine Keeler was over by the end of 1961. And it might have never become public, had it not been for another of Keeler's lovers flying into a jealous rage. In December of 1962, Johnny Edgecombe, a jazz promoter and hustler, banged on the door of the flat where Keeler was staying with her friend Stephen Ward. When he wasn't allowed in – and ramming wouldn't work – Edgecombe fired a gun at the door. 

    Edgecombe was arrested and put on trial. During the court proceedings, details about the affair between Keeler and Profumo began to emerge because police questioned Keeler about the shooting. She told them about her many lovers, including Profumo and Yevgeny Ivanov, the Soviet officer. After these admissions, rumors began swirling around Parliament. 

  • The Affair Was A Problem Because Keeler Was Also Sleeping With A Soviet Intelligence Officer
    Photo: Open Media Ltd / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Affair Was A Problem Because Keeler Was Also Sleeping With A Soviet Intelligence Officer

    An extramarital affair between a teenage showgirl and a Member of Parliament who was also a Cabinet Minister would have been scandalous enough, but the Profumo affair had the added layer of potentially compromised national security. At the same time Christine Keeler was sleeping with John Profumo, she was also having relations with Yevgeny Ivanov. He was a Soviet Embassy naval attaché with a background in intelligence. 

    During the affair, Profumo actually befriended Ivanov, and according to a 2015 book by Cambridge historian Professor Jonathan Haslam, Ivanov used the friendship to steal top secret documents. The stolen intelligence included plans for an experimental US spy plane. When the Profumo affair broke in 1963, the Soviets recalled Ivanov to cover their tracks.