The showgirl and the minister - Christine Keeler died on December 4th.
The woman who was once at the centre of Britain’s Profumo scandal was 75.
The Economist, December 19, 2017.
GROWING up in Wraysbury, Berks, she never thought she was beautiful. Young girls didn’t know such things. Her cheeks were too rosy, her teeth were too big, and she had a habit of chewing her lower lip when she was thinking. She hated her breasts, too. She would much rather be a tomboy, riding a bike without brakes and swimming with the local lads in the gravel pits. She couldn’t understand why her stepfather tried to kiss her and put vapour-rub on her chest when she had colds. But it didn’t take her long to realise that she, Christine Keeler, had a crazy effect on men.
She still insisted on hiding her bust when she posed for that photo, the one that for millions of people summed up the Swinging Sixties and sexual liberation in Britain. There she was, naked or near enough on a fake designer chair. Pouting, daring, glowing with sexual power. The woman whose simultaneous affairs with John Profumo, the war minister, and Yevgeni Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché, put her at the crux of cold-war politics. The woman the FBI spied on, codename “Bowtie”, and who brought down Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. Looking back, it was staggering to contemplate the role she had played in English history.
Not that it always seemed that way at the time. She was a showgirl of 17 at Murray’s in Soho when she met Stephen Ward, who introduced her to Profumo. For posing topless in a red-lit dingy room she got £8.50 a week, which just about fed the gas meter. But Stephen took her back to his flat in Bayswater, not to sleep with her, but to offer her round to rich patients of his osteopathy practice. Straight away she became his coffeemaker and let him set the rules of her life. He called her “little baby”, and liked to hear all the details of her affairs, though when she protested that one of his heavies had raped her he didn’t seem bothered, as long as she had no bruises.
Her beauty gave her such power in those days. She moved in for a while with Peter Rachman, the most notorious slum landlord in London, who showered her with diamonds. She was his possession, but why should she care? She was swanning through high society having mostly larks and a laugh, so it was no surprise that when she met Profumo, “Jack” to her, she happened to be swimming naked in Lord Astor’s pool at Cliveden. They had an affair for a month or so. Little did he know that the girl he so eagerly thrust to the sofa had also slept with a Soviet agent! Little did he know that Stephen was a spymaster, who probably used her as a decoy while he stole papers from Jack’s briefcase, and wanted her to winkle out from him exactly when Soviet nuclear warheads were being moved to Germany. She could do that, because she knew about East-West relations; and if she didn’t do it, it was only because she would not betray her country.
But no one in the Establishment believed her tales, the tall ones or even the true ones. So when Jack told the House of Commons he had no improper acquaintance with her, that was it. She was a bad girl, as all girls were bad who had a bit of sex in those days. She too felt she was really bad at 15 when she lost her virginity: damaged goods, and it was worse still later when she tried to abort her baby with a pen, but what could you do? It was impossible to speak up for yourself.
Lord Denning, who wrote the report on Jack’s case, told her to keep quiet and behave. His report said there had been no security risk, and called her a prostitute. She wasn’t, as she’d almost never slept with men for money. Then Jack told someone that she was completely uneducated and couldn’t talk about anything except makeup, hair and gramophone records. Well, she might have left school at 15, but she was addicted to cryptic crosswords. She had principles, too, as good as anybody else’s. And she might be a tart, as Macmillan called her, but she wasn’t a scrubber. She dressed well and always had style. Worst of all was the title the press fastened on her for ever and ever and ever, “vice queen”. All the shame and all the blame.
After the whole mess came out in 1963, and Stephen was charged with living off immoral earnings—but killed himself before the verdict—and Jack resigned, she lost all her protectors. For a while she hoped her fame might get her into films, but her nervous screen test went nowhere. Nor did modelling or journalism. She had always smoked, but now she smoked too much, and kept sliding down to grotty council flats and life on benefits. Rock bottom. Two marriages turned out badly, except for two sons, and even one of those grew up estranged from her. She supposed she was probably too insecure to love.
Her strength lay in reminding herself how powerful she had been. Over the years she produced, with help, four books, promoting each one as truer than the last and fuller of spy-details which only she knew. From her grey solitary life of cats and bird-feeding and slopping in shabby clothes to the shops she took herself back to her glory days of international importance. For sex was just a game, but spying was serious. Although she had to admit that the real Christine had disappeared somewhere along the way: perhaps around the time she had first realised she could turn men’s heads in the street, because she was so beautiful.
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline "A woman of no importance".