John Profumo, 91; Politician In 1960s British Sex Scandal

John Profumo, shown in 1960, was Britain's minister of state for war when he began an affair with a prostitute.
John Profumo, shown in 1960, was Britain's minister of state for war when he began an affair with a prostitute. (By Jimmy Sime -- Getty Images)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

John Profumo, a rising British political leader who fell into disrepute when his affair with a young prostitute was exposed in the 1960s in one of the country's most notorious government scandals, died at a London hospital March 9, after a stroke. He was 91.

Mr. Profumo was Great Britain's minister of state for war in 1961, when he began his fateful affair with 19-year-old call girl Christine Keeler. After he reluctantly admitted his involvement with Keeler two years later, his name became synonymous with political disgrace and shame.

With elements of sex, politics, espionage and suicide, the Profumo affair has reverberated through the decades in books, documentaries and a feature film. It helped end the Conservative Party's 13-year control of the British government and heralded a turning point in journalism, as the private lives of public figures came under greater scrutiny. It also placed sex boldly on the front pages and, for better or worse, helped create the climate for a more sexually graphic era to come.

John Dennis Profumo, born Jan. 30, 1915, was a baron descended from an Italian aristocrat who settled in England in 1880. The family owned an insurance company and a large estate, and Mr. Profumo was educated at Harrow, one of Britain's most prestigious schools, and at Oxford University.

In 1940, at age 25, he became the youngest member of Parliament when he won election as a Conservative. He cast a key vote that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and to Winston Churchill's rise as Britain's wartime leader.

Mr. Profumo served in the British army during World War II, then became chief of staff of the British military and diplomatic mission in postwar Japan. After losing an election in 1945, he won another seat in the House of Commons in 1950.

He rose through the ministerial ranks in the 1950s and was named minister of foreign affairs in 1959. The following year, he was appointed secretary of war in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and was seen as a leading candidate for foreign secretary or even prime minister.

In 1954, Mr. Profumo married actress Valerie Hobson, who had starred in the films "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and "Great Expectations." He had enviable connections throughout British society.

It was at a party at the home of newspaper magnate Lord Astor that Mr. Profumo met the red-haired Keeler, who was swimming naked in the pool at the time. They soon began an affair, conducted mostly at an apartment Keeler shared with another young call girl, Mandy Rice-Davies.

Unbeknown to Mr. Profumo, however, Keeler was carrying on a simultaneous affair with Yevgeny Ivanov, a spy from the Soviet Embassy. Keeler later told a British court, in titillating detail, that Mr. Profumo and Ivanov narrowly missed each other several times in their assignations with her.

In March 1963, a Labor Party member of Parliament directly asked about the affair, which Mr. Profumo denied at first. But three months later, he admitted the truth and resigned. A judge cleared him of charges of passing state secrets to the Soviets through Keeler.

Many salacious particulars of the scandal emerged during the 1963 trial of Stephen Ward, a socially adept osteopath who had introduced Keeler to the British elite. He had been charged with living off the "immoral earnings" of Keeler and her roommate, Rice-Davies.

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