The scandal that shocked England half a century ago — and, let’s face it, fascinated and entertained England as well — is pretty much forgotten now. The names of John Profumo, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies ring no bells today, or if they do those bells are very faint. But the stories that unfolded in London in 1963 were the stuff of big front-page headlines, over here as well as over there, and the tempest they stirred has had lasting effects, as it set off profound cultural changes that by no means have been limited to the island nation that began it all.

So it is very good to have this terrific — actually, “delicious” is the word that leaps to mind — account of the Profumo scandal by Richard Davenport-Hines, who was only 9 years old in 1963 but who is fascinated by “the sexual oppression, guilt and bullying, the lack of irony and absurd confused anger of ‘Jack’ Profumo’s England.” The country was ruled then by the Tory administration of Harold Macmillan, who had been “seriously wounded in battle” in World War I, which gave him “compassion and fortitude,” but who was of a generation to which “conformity in clothes, deportment and opinions was the sign of trustworthiness.” England “was a country where the gravy served at main meals made everything taste alike. Dominated by the memory of two world wars, it was more drilled and regimented than at any time in its history, and more strictly regulated.” It was also a place of deep sexual repression, fear and bigotry:

“Although the Profumo Affair would be, exclusively, a tooth-and-claw heterosexual business, reactions to it were part of a continuum of sexual attitudes. The fears, insults and cant surrounding male homosexuality in this period were not restricted in their impact to the communities that were targeted. On the contrary, the obtuseness of intelligent people about sexual motives, the punitive urges, the notion that collective respectability was maintained by newspaper bullying and abasement of vulnerable individuals, the prudish lynch mobs, the deviousness behind the righteous wrath of the judiciary — all these defining traits of homophobia erupted nationwide during the summer of 1963.”

Ostensibly at the center of the affair was John Profumo, minister of war in the Macmillan cabinet, a smart, attractive fellow who had “learnt at school how to ape the fearful English version of good behaviour while bent on enjoying himself in his own way,” a man of “a dashing restless temperament” whose seemingly happy marriage to the beautiful actress Valerie Hobson did not prevent him from straying when the opportunity presented itself. That it did in the fetching shape of Christine Keeler, who was almost a year shy of 21 when they met in the summer of 1961, and he took a tumble as quickly as he could. She was what the upper-class English condescendingly called a “good-time girl,” risen from a troubled childhood to become a model of sorts in London; “model” was often used by the same upper-class twits as a synonym for “prostitute,” but though Keeler was liberal with her favors, she was not a whore, nor was her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, the flashier and cannier of the two.

Profumo, born in 1915, was more than twice as old as Keeler. Privileged men of his age and class often kept mistresses on the side or had passing flings with “girls” from the lower orders, so there was nothing unusual in his fleeting attachment to Keeler. Probably it would have gone unnoticed had not Yevgeny Ivanov, “assistant naval attaché at the Russian embassy in London,” been drawn into the affair. Stories began to circulate that Keeler had been sleeping with both “the Secretary of State for War and a Russian spy,” and though there was not a scintilla of truth to the accusation, Profumo was asked to explain himself to Macmillan and Parliament. He lied to both, insisting that he had never slept with Keeler. Soon enough, further disclosures left him no choice except to admit the truth and resign in disgrace.

Even that might have ended the matter had it not been for the yellow press: “The Profumo Affair was made in Fleet Street. . . . It was incited, publicized and exploited by journalists. . . . The Profumo Affair aroused a Fleet Street frenzy of ferocity. It managed to glorify what was shabby, and had an enduring influence on investigative journalism.” The principal malefactors were Lord Beaverbrook, of Express Newspapers, and Cecil King, of Mirror Group Newspapers. Each came into the affair with an agenda: Beaverbrook to disgrace Viscount William Astor, at whose estate, Cliveden, Profumo and Keeler had met, and King to mastermind “a campaign, with ruthlessly plotted tactics, to inflict mortal injuries not merely on the Macmillan government and the Establishment, but on ways of life which the Mirror chiefs . . . both envied and resented, even as they brashly emulated them.”

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.


Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo

By Richard Davenport-Hines

HarperCollins. 400 pp. Paperback, $14.99