Showgirl and central figure in the Profumo affair

Born: February 22 1942;

Died: December 4 2017

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CHRISTINE Keeler, who has died aged 75, became notorious in 1963 when revelations about her personal relationships sparked off the Profumo affair, which destroyed the credibility of Harold Macmillan’s government and, many thought, ushered in the anti-establishment mores of Britain’s Swinging Sixties.

At the centre of the scandal was the fact that in 1961 Christine Keeler had for a time been sleeping with both the Conservative politician John Profumo, then Minister of War, and a Soviet naval attaché called Yevgeny Ivanov.

Keeler had met both men through Stephen Ward, an osteopath and socialite whose patients and acquaintances included establishment grandees, aristocrats and film stars, as well as more dubious figures from the fringes of bohemia and the criminal world. She was – much later – to argue that he had been an important figure in British Intelligence (though most who investigated the matter, including her own ghost-writer, dismissed her claims).

But Ward was certainly well-connected; he and Christine often spent weekends at a cottage on the Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire, owned by Lord [Bill] Astor, a former government minister whose brother David owned and edited The Observer; Ward was also an accomplished artist and produced drawings of his acquaintances, including Prince Philip and Princess Margaret.

Friends were drawn from the bohemian set in Soho and others not so much louche as criminal, such as the slum landlord Peter Rachman. At Ward’s parties, market-traders might rub shoulders with barristers, politicians, jazz musicians and dukes, but a common feature was a string of pretty young women.

Though the intelligence services were aware of, and may have encouraged, the relationship between Christine Keeler and Ivanov (whom they hoped to blackmail into defection), her relationship with Profumo, whom she met while swimming in the pool at Cliveden, complicated matters. Profumo ended the affair, after being told that Ward’s circle was regarded as potentially compromising.

The matter might have remained unknown had it not been for Christine Keeler’s subsequent relationships, which included two West Indian boyfriends, “Lucky” Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe. The latter, a jazz promoter and part-time pimp who ran a shebeen, was violently jealous and once attacked Gordon with a knife, after Christine Keeler told him that he had imprisoned and raped her. At the end of December 1962, Edgecombe went round to Ward’s mews house in central London, to which Christine Keeler had returned seeking refuge, and fired several shots at the door.

During Edgecombe’s trial, details of Ward’s circle began to leak out; when Christine Keeler failed to turn up to provide testimony at court, the newspapers had their chance to report some of the details. A fuller, more sensational, account followed in Private Eye, with the lead characters thinly disguised.

Lucky Gordon was charged with assault and sentenced to three years, but Christine Keeler later retracted her evidence, and was subsequently given an 18-month jail sentence for perjury (Edgecombe, meanwhile, was acquitted of the assault on Gordon but served five years for firearms offences).

But the immediate result was the arrest of Ward on charges of living off immoral earnings and procurement. Profumo, who denied any impropriety when the rumours first began to circulate, eventually admitted that he had lied to the Commons, and resigned; the incident caused enormous embarrassment to Macmillan’s government.

Christine Keeler, meanwhile, was seldom out of the newspapers. Ward’s trial in July 1963 has since been regarded by many accounts – notably the 1989 film Scandal, in which John Hurt played Ward and Christine Keeler was played by Joanne Whalley – as a fit-up by the establishment as revenge for the embarrassment he had caused. He denied (as did Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, who was also living with Ward at the time of the shooting) that actual prostitution was involved. This was probably true; his income from his practice and his drawings was sizeable, and his own relationships with the girls he introduced to his friends was, by all accounts, platonic, though he encouraged their liaisons with other men.

But the judge’s summing-up was hostile; before the jury returned with their guilty verdict, Ward took an overdose. He died three days later. In the closing days of the trial, Christine Keeler was charged with perjury over her testimony in the Lucky Gordon case and sentenced that December.

The newspapers signed Christine Keeler up to tell her story at once, and there were plans for a film (though nothing then came of them). As a result she was asked to pose nude for a photograph; she was reluctant, but got round it when the photographer, Lewis Morley, had her pose in a reversed plywood chair.

The picture became an iconic image of the 1960s and was subsequently much parodied. The original is now in the National Portrait Gallery; the Arne Jacobsen 3107 chair became a design classic – though the one actually used was an imitation; it is now in the Victoria & Albert museum.

Christine Margaret Keeler was born on February 22 1942 at Uxbridge in Middlesex, just north-west of London. Her father Colin, then in the Army, never returned to the family, and Christine grew up with her mother Julie and her new boyfriend, Edward Huish, in a pair of converted railway carriages next to a gravel pit in Wraysbury, Berkshire.

She grew up longing for her real father to return, and conscious of local disapproval of her mother and stepfather’s unmarried status. She was physically precocious, and when she began to babysit at 11 or 12 had to fend off approaches from the children’s fathers; she was also highly wary of Huish. She compensated by trying to keep her mother and him happy together; for many years, she sent much of the money she earned to her mother.

At 16, she became pregnant by an American serviceman serving locally; she concealed the pregnancy and attempted to end it with gin and hot baths. The child, a boy she called Peter, was eventually born at home, but died six days later. She then left home for London, working first as a waitress and soon afterwards as a showgirl at a topless cabaret club in Soho. There she met Ward, and they were soon living together as a couple, though without a sexual relationship.

After her release from prison in 1964, she sold her story for considerable sums several times over; from the 1980s she did the same again in several books. The accounts tended to vary substantially.

She had two brief marriages, the first to a man from her home town, the second, in the early 1970s, to a businessman. Neither lasted long, though both produced a son. The elder, Jimmy, was brought up by her mother, and subsequently had no contact with her; the second, Seymour, continued to live with her.

She spent most of her newspaper money on lawyers and in supporting her mother, and found that her notoriety made it difficult to obtain other work, or to restart her life as a single mother, even when she adopted the surname Sloane. She variously sold advertising space, worked in a dry-cleaners and, in the mid-1990s, as a school dinner lady. But whenever her identity became known, she would have to leave. She lived for a while in a tower block near the World’s End pub in Chelsea, and for a while on benefits in Brighton. She died in hospital in Bromley, south London, having been ill with pulmonary disease for some months.

ANDREW MCKIE