The “popular” newspapers that these two men owned escalated the Profumo Affair into class warfare — warfare in which, as the saying goes, truth was the first casualty. Keeler, who loved to talk and whose memory was both inventive and selective, was paid to blab to scandal sheets that broadcast her dubious recollections with sensational headlines. All these sheets vied to heap the greatest and most damaging opprobrium on anyone with even the faintest establishment connections. These included Stephen Ward, an osteopath who had treated many famous patients — among them J. Paul Getty, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Elizabeth Taylor — and had become something of a society pet: “His preponderant extra-curricular activity was interfering in other people’s lives.” Astor gave him the use of a house on the Cliveden grounds, and it was at the Cliveden swimming pool that he introduced Profumo to Christine Keeler, who had been living at his London studio: “Vanity, flirting, impudence, fickleness, irresponsibility and indolence were traits that Ward found attractive in women,” though his relationship with Keeler, Rice-Davies et al. does not seem to have been sexual; indeed, he may have been homosexual, and in the homophobic climate of 1960s England, that cannot have helped him.
It was onto garrulous, irresponsible Ward that British law turned such majesty as it then possessed. Precisely from where the orders emanated to make him the scapegoat remains unclear, but the London police “amassed their rickety evidence [against him] by exploiting antipathies, flustering witnesses, treating loyalty as a sign of guilty affections, and threatening, framing and arresting both leading and bit-part players in the drama.” To wit: “The risks to Ward’s acquaintances in coming forward in his defence were real. Vasco Lazzolo, the portrait painter, who had known Ward since 1946, agreed to give evidence on his friend’s behalf. He was threatened by Chief Inspector [Samuel] Herbert that if he did so, the police might visit his studio, plant some pornography and arrest him.” Most of their trumped-up charges failed to survive in court, but Ward was convicted on three charges of “living off the earnings of prostitution” and three days later killed himself.
“The Profumo Affair was a drama in which the protagonists converged from varied directions,” Davenport-Hines writes. “The theme of the opera was the damage done by unintended consequences.” Macmillan was forced out of office, an honorable man who hardly deserved a dishonorable departure. Profumo reclaimed his life by doing good works and, so at least it seems, repairing his marriage; his son David, in his engaging and honest memoir “Bringing the House Down” (2006), writes about his father more in affection than in bitterness. Keeler went on to a rather unhappy life, while Rice-Davies landed on her feet. The newspaper empires of Beaverbrook and King sailed serenely on, delighting in the damage they had wreaked and the circulation they had gained.
It is a shabby and cautionary tale, and Davenport-Hines tells it uncommonly well. Some of the details are likely to mystify American readers, but just read through them; they don’t matter. He writes exceptionally well, and has a wicked sense of humor and a sharp eye for the telling quotation. This one, from Rebecca West, particularly struck my fancy: “While everybody knows that Englishmen are sent to public [i.e., private] schools because that is the only place where they can learn good manners, it unfortunately happens that the manners they learn there are recognised as good only by people who have been to the same sort of school, and often appear very bad indeed to everybody else.” A very good book indeed: I didn’t want it to end.