Modern Britain’s splashiest sex-and-politics scandal led to the persecution of an innocent—or at least not especially guilty—man according to this yeasty exposé of the Profumo Affair, reissued for the 50th anniversary of the debacle.
When it came to light in 1963, the affair between British defense secretary John Profumo and party girl and sometime prostitute Christine Keeler sparked concerns that Keeler could have passed military secrets from Profumo to Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet diplomat and spy who was said to be her lover. Investigative journalists Knightley (The First Casualty, 2004, etc.) and Kennedy discount the espionage angle—Keeler, they argue, was a naïf with no head for worming intelligence out of people and probably had never slept with Ivanov—and instead treat the ruckus as a stew of lust, greed, Cold War fears, political vendettas and moral panic. At the center of the story is Stephen Ward, a London osteopath and artist who died of a drug overdose after he was put on trial for pimping Keeler and other women, charges that the authors dismantle in a meticulous recap of the courtroom drama. A friend of everyone who was anyone in Britain—patients and pals included Elizabeth Taylor and Prince Philip—Ward is a fascinating figure in the book. He was a bohemian and roué and, the authors demonstrate, indeed a spy for Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency; but he was also a kind, sincere soul undone by upper crust scheming and hypocrisy. Originally published under the title An Affair of State (1987), the book recounts facts that may be mostly old news to students of the Profumo Affair, but it’s still a well-paced, engrossing narrative of the scandal and its political and other tendrils; it’s replete with vivid sketches of the participants and their antics, including many kinky toffs. (Sample date night: “She used to tie me to a chair in my leather suit, whip me and then make me watch while she screwed someone in front of me.”) More than that, it’s a revealing portrait of the dawn of swinging London, obsessed with new sexual freedoms—and anxieties that needed a scapegoat.
A fine investigation of a legal injustice and the cultural upheaval that conjured it.