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Keeler, woman at the centre of UK’s biggest scandal, dies

December 07, 2017
A file photo of Christine Keeler.—Reuters
A file photo of Christine Keeler.—Reuters

LONDON: Christine Keeler, a model and dancer whose liaisons with a British minister and a Soviet diplomat at the height of the Cold War shocked Britain and brought down the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in a notorious political sex scandal in 1963, has died aged 75.

Keeler’s relationship with married Minister of War John Profumo, whom she met in 1961, aged 19, while swimming naked at the grand Buckinghamshire estate of his colleague William Astor, shocked socially conservative Britain in the early 1960s.

Front-page revelations that she was also having an affair with a Soviet naval attache, Yevgeny Ivanov, titillated the public and shone a light on the social and sexual mores of Britain’s secretive ruling establishment.

Profumo eventually resigned in disgrace after lying to the House of Commons about his relationship with Keeler. He threatened at the time to sue anyone who suggested there had been any inappropriate behaviour with her.

The “Profumo affair” is still seen as a watershed mo­ment that changed British attitudes to sex and class.

Keeler’s son, Seymour Platt, told The Guardian newspaper she had died on Tuesday night after suffering for months from a form of lung disease. She had led a humble lifestyle after the scandal, but never escaped the notoriety it brought her.

“There was a lot of good around Chris’s rather tragic life, because there was a family around her that loved her,” Platt was quoted as saying. “I think what happened to her back in the day was quite damaging.

“As many of you know my mother, Christine Keeler, fought many fights in her eventful life, some fights she lost but some she won,” he said. “She earned her place in British history but at a huge personal price. We are all very proud of who she was.”

The black-and-white photograph of a naked Keeler sitting astride an Arne Jacobsen chair remains the defining image of the lurid scandal that has been retold several times on screen and stage, including as a musical.

It even added an expression to the British lexicon.

Born in 1942, Keeler left school at 15 and shortly after started working as a showgirl on Greek Street in the heart of London’s Soho district, known at the time for its strip clubs and sleazy entertainment.

Keeler met men like Profumo after befriending a high-society osteopath, Dr Stephen Ward, who introduced her to a number of powerful figures.

Ward was put on trial and took a fatal overdose the night before he was convicted of living off immoral earnings.

At the trial, a fellow showgirl was told that another establishment figure denied having sex with Keeler.

“Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” responded Mandy Rice-Davies.

Keeler was imprisoned for nine months after admitting perjury and conspiring to obstruct justice.

More than two decades later, she expressed regret: “I was just a 19-year-old girl having a good time. I loved every minute of it. But if I had known then what was going to happen, I’d have run off and not stopped until I had reached my mum.”

Keeler moved on after the scandal. She was married twice and had two sons, even as pop culture breathed new life into the Profumo affair.

In 2013, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical “Stephen Ward” in which Keeler was portrayed by Charlotte Spencer premiered in London.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2017