A family affair

Memoir: The son of John Profumo gives his perspective on the most famous transgression of the 1960s

Memoir: The son of John Profumo gives his perspective on the most famous transgression of the 1960s

Anyone looking in this book for juicy and heretofore unguessed-at secrets of the Profumo Affair will be disappointed. True, the author does offer much arcane and interesting information, of a general nature. For instance, we are told Donald Duck's middle name, and that friction welding was invented, along with much else, in 1963. Otherwise, though, the book is exactly what its subtitle says it is, a family memoir. David Profumo's jaunty and entirely unrevisionist account of the Affair, "perennially the little black dress of scandals", as he wittily writes, represents no more than an episode, albeit a fraught one, in the saga of the Profumo family.

Profumo is the son of the man whose liaison with the call-girl, Christine Keeler, contributed to - some would say brought about - the fall of Harold Macmillan's government in, yes, 1963, that annus mirabilis. He is a loving and loyal son, and his portrait of his parents - his mother, the actress Valerie Hobson, occupies as large a part in the narrative as does her peccant husband - shows them to have been, with one notable lapse, an unexceptional, well-heeled and well-placed Tory couple, remarkable only in the depth of their devotion to each other, which survived infidelity, lies and public disgrace, and which ended only with their deaths.

The Profumos had their origins in Sardinia, and made their money in the perfume trade, as the name implies, though profumo, as David of that ilk gleefully admits, may also be a pejorative term, as in, one supposes, stinker. The third Baron Profumo had settled in London in the 1880s and started a highly successful insurance company, and his son, the fourth baron, became a barrister. John Profumo, the fourth baron's boy, was born at the family home in Basil Street, near Harrods, in 1915. His mother was from Edinburgh. "She was an actress and a dancer," David Profumo writes, "and they were introduced by [ the baron's] younger brother Charlie, the chancer, black sheep, and stage-door Johnny of the family." Showbiz, then, was in the blood.


Valerie Hobson, the woman John Profumo was to marry, was from a naval family originally from Co Waterford. Stage-struck at an early age, she was not yet 11 when she entered RADA to study acting and dancing, and by the time she was 15 she had played her first part onstage - like Humphrey Bogart, her career began with the immortal line, "Who's for tennis?" - and was offered film work at Shepperton Studios. In London she was spotted one day by Oscar Hammerstein II, who gave her a part in the chorus of his musical Ball at the Savoy, which was showing in the city. Next came an invitation to Hollywood, and on the eve of her 17th birthday she signed a contract with Universal Studios.

Although she played in a number of films, including Bride of Frankenstein, real Hollywood success eluded her, and she returned to London, where she continued plugging away at her career. Her most memorable film part was that of the grown-up Estella in David Lean's masterpiece, Great Expectations. Valerie by then was possessed of a wonderfully fine-skinned, pale and somewhat glacial beauty; as Lean assured her, "you are exactly right for the part. Estella is a woman without a heart, dead, unable to feel". However cool she may have looked, though, Valerie Hobson did have a heart, and a tender and feeling one, at that, and John Profumo, rascal though he may have been, loved her for it.

Was a time when every schoolboy knew and sniggered over the details of the Profumo scandal, but the generations march on, so for the children here are the facts, such as they are. Profumo, a middle-ranking politician in Macmillan's government - he was secretary of state for war, which did not even give him a seat at the Cabinet table - had a brief dalliance with the 19-year-old, gorgeous, but already somewhat debauched Keeler, whom he met one weekend at Cliveden, the great house in Berkshire owned by Bill Astor, son of Nancy, the first woman MP to sit at Westminster.

Cliveden already had a reputation for power-mongering, dubious social mixing and general low-jinks. Early in the century the Cliveden Set, including Lloyd George, Shaw, Charlie Chaplin and FD Roosevelt, was a highly influential clique, though in the late 1930s the Set was accused of wanting to appease Hitler. By the 1960s the place had become distinctly louche, with, as Philip Larkin would write in another context, "a cast of crooks and tarts".

At the beginning of July 1962 the secretary of state for war and his wife were invited to Cliveden for the weekend. Living in a cottage on the estate - later, after a mysterious death there, Spring Cottage was exorcised, the priest who performed the rite describing it as one of the most evil places he had ever visited - was Stephen Ward, an osteopath and amateur pimp, who that weekend had a bevy of girls staying, including Christine Keeler. As Profumo wrote in his submission to Lord Denning, who was preparing the official report on the frightful vista of the Profumo scandal,

All the girls were very young, and very pretty, and very common, and I remember that subsequently my sister, Lady Balfour of Inchrye, who was there with her husband a week or so before, had said that she and her husband were absolutely scandalized that Bill [ Astor] should allow this man Ward to go up to the pool [at the main house] with all these common tarts.

In fact, Profumo had already met Keeler at a nightclub in London, and had remembered her. Keen to see her again, he consulted Astor, who in turn advised him to consult Ward. From such casual beginnings come the great disasters.

The Profumo Affair was very mild, compared with for example our own dear scandals of recent years, but at the time it caused an uproar - described by our own, as they say, Patrick Skene Catling, so David Profumo tells us, as "the western world's favourite twentieth-century bedtime story".

Keeler was notoriously talkative, especially to the press, and it was not long before rumours of her liaison with Profumo began to circulate. Eventually the Sunday Pictorial bought her story for £1,000, an appreciable sum in those days, and Profumo was interviewed by various representatives of the great and the good, including the director-general of MI5, Roger Hollis. Profumo, probably more afraid of his wife than of his prime minister, stoutly denied having had a sexual affair with Keeler. He was not believed, but his word was accepted, as is often the case when the Establishment comes unwillingly up against awkward truths.

Indeed, Profumo might have got away with his peccadillo had it not been for the fact that among Stephen Ward's circle was Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, the assistant naval attaché - in other words, a spook - at the Soviet embassy in London. Ivanov was a party animal, whose nickname was "The Playboy of the Eastern World". He and Ward had been introduced over lunch at the Garrick Club by, of all people, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Stephen Coote, whom Ward had treated for lumbago. Ivanov was also highly appreciative of the charms of Christine Keeler. Naturally, when the story broke of Profumo's doings with the same young woman, the accusation was that he had been sharing her favours with a Soviet spy - the joke going the rounds was that the Red had been not under the bed but in it.

The Ivanov connection, tenuous though it had been, was disastrous for Profumo. Harold Wilson's Labour opposition went in for the kill, led by George Wigg, one of Wilson's heavy gang, who later became paymaster general and then Lord Wigg - it was the righteous Lord who in 1976 was charged with kerb-crawling, accosting women and disturbing the peace; as David Profumo remarks, "I just thought I would mention it".

Though Profumo continued for a long time to lie to his political masters and to threaten newspapers with libel writs, the story would not go away nor the allegations abate. The man would simply have to go. And go he did, resigning in June 1963, a year after meeting Keeler, and not long afterwards Macmillan's government went too. Tory rage knew no bounds.

Profumo had always been viewed with distrust and even distaste by the knights of the shires - his nickname in some quarters of clubland was The Head Waiter - although there were one or two dissenting voices, such as that of one eccentric Tory MP who suggested in the House of Commons that given Christine Keeler's youth and beauty, Profumo should be congratulated rather than reviled for his success with her. But the general reaction was one of outrage and wounded piety.

David Profumo wisely refrains from speculating too deeply on what effect the scandal had on his mother. He reports one wag remarking on "How Green Was My Valerie", but it is likely that she had a fair idea all along that Jack the Lad was a bit of a boyo. There is no doubt that she suffered a great deal of pain, but she bore the disgrace and public contumely with dignity, patience and fortitude. She loved her husband and knew that he was fundamentally a decent man, as he showed himself to be by devoting the rest of his working life to charity, becoming a volunteer at Toynbee Hall, which cared for the poor and the lost in London's East End. His duties there included taking in washing and working in the kitchens, and sometimes dancing with old ladies during tea parties.

Describing his father's long struggle to redeem himself and be reaccepted by the Tory Establishment - eventually Queen Elizabeth would sit him on her right hand at a dinner party - David Profumo relates that oft-repeated but splendid anecdote told by John Aubrey of Edward de Vere: "This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, 'My Lord, I had Forgott the Fart'." Profumo's sins were never to be forgotten, but he was forgiven, more or less. Not the least of the tributes to this sinning but not wicked man is his son's lively, funny, stylish and unfailingly fond memoir. Any errant father would be glad of such a forgiving son.

And Donald Duck's middle name? Fauntleroy.

Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black, John Banville's crime fiction debut under a nom-de-plume, is published by Picador

Bringing the House Down By David Profumo John Murray, 291pp. £20