The anatomy of John Profumo’s big lie

BLAIR FRASER August 10 1963

The anatomy of John Profumo’s big lie

BLAIR FRASER August 10 1963

The anatomy of John Profumo’s big lie


Maclean’s overseas editor

IF HAROLD MACMILLAN’S doctors decide, as many people think they soon will, that age and health will no longer permit him to carry on as prime minister of Britain, they will know with unusual precision the very moment his health began to deteriorate. It was at a quarter past ten of a cool Monday evening in June when the prime minister, shoulders sagging and face like death, shuffled out of the House of Commons a beaten man. The House was in a deafening uproar. Labor MPs were shouting “resign, resign“ and a few loyal Tories were countering with halfhearted cheers for their leader. But most of the Conservatives were ominously silent as they filed out. Twenty-seven of them had just abstained from a critical vote of confidence in Macmillan, and thus put the mark of political doom upon him.

Nobody who witnessed that scene will ever forget it. It was the climax though not the end of the greatest scandal in British political history, the only one that ever threatened to bring down a prime minister. It was also a study in tragic irony, for the prime minister had had nothing to do with the Profumo scandal itself — he was being ruined and reduced to absurdity by the very fact that he knew nothing about it.

In all the excitement of this high drama and in the millions of words written about the Profumo affair, it's hardly surprising that one interesting point has been obscured: the Macmillan government has been rocked in the past year by not one scandal but two, and the two are strangely related. If it had not been for the Vassall spy case and its aftermath, in which the government won a clear acquittal at the expense of the British press, the Profumo case would probably not have risen to anything like the proportions it did. John Profumo himself could have resigned from the government with a minimum of fuss, perhaps without even giving up his seat in parliament — another junior minister did precisely that last winter, after involvement in another dingy

affair, and attracted almost no public notice.

What makes Profumo a Satanic figure is the lie he told to parliament, and what makes Macmillan look a fool is having believed him. The younger man would hardly have been so brazen and foolhardy, nor the elder so credulous, if Profumo’s accuser had not been the British “popular” press, and if the British press had not just been dragged through a valley of humiliation by the Vassall tribunal’s inquiry, and held up to scorn as a purveyor of lies and ugly fantasy.

The facts in the two cases were strikingly similar. Two service ministers of junior rank were smeared by rumor and innuendo. Thomas Galbraith, former civil lord of the admiralty, had been accused of improper intimacy with John Vassall, his sometime clerk, a confessed and convicted homosexual spy for Soviet Russia. Now John Profumo, secretary of state for war, was accused of improper intimacy with a call girl whose favors he shared, perhaps unwittingly, with the Soviet naval attache. Both ministers were happily married men and both indignantly denied the charges. The evidence against each man was the same — letters, bought for cash by a popular newspaper, which were warm enough in tone to lead to sinister inferences.

Galbraith resigned from the government at once, but has since rejoined it. A tribunal inquiry found him completely innocent, his letters mere amiable civilities to a humbly admiring subordinate, his accusers evil merchants of libelous fiction. Prime Minister Macmillan was sharply criticized, not in the tribunal report but in many quarters, for having accepted Galbraith’s resignation at all on such spindly evidence, and for leaving him so long exposed to public suspicion. That’s what gave John Profumo the courage or hardihood to tell his historic lie, and Harold Macmillan the willingness to accept it without much question.

These were the major themes in what became the dirge of the Mac-

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Fleet St. had the story of the century, but dared not print it

millan government. There was also a minor theme, scarcely audible in the crashing chords of the finale but important in its time and place. Among John Profumo’s many mistakes was one that no doubt he had quite forgotten. Four months before he had told another lie, a policy lie on a different subject, to an honest, earnest, industrious ex-soldier named George Edward Cecil Wigg, Labor MP for Dudley.

I George Wigg became a colonel during World War Two, but for eighteen years between the wars, he had served in the ranks of the regular peacetime army, rising to be a stern ¡hut devoted sergeant major. The British army is the abiding passion of his life, his only hobby and his dearest love, and though he sometimes bores his colleagues on the subject they respect his sincerity and his expert knowledge. They also know he’s nonpartisan in army matters, as quick to blame a Labor as a Tory government for any failings of military policy.

The man who brought Profumo down

Last Nov. 23. a quiet Friday with only a handful of MPs in the House of Commons, Wigg tackled Profumo about the conduct of the British expedition to Kuwait in 1961. Wigg's criticism, which he delivered in great detail after exhaustive preparation, was that green troops flown out from Britain had not been adequately trained, briefed or equipped for tropical duty, and that a number of avoidable casualties from heat stroke had resulted. It was not a trivial matter but neither was it massively serious, certainly not the kind of issue on which ministers arc brought down. Profumo could have admitted the charge with little harm to himself and none to the government. Instead he chose to deny it. He produced a couple of letters from unit commanders who said their troops had not suffered in any such fashion, and he brushed aside Wigg’s objection that these were troops who had already been posted to the tropics and hence were acclimatized. The Kuwait expedition, he said, had been a fully successful operation, admirably prepared and executed.

The visible effect of the brief debate was to make George Wigg seem an ill-informed sniper who had gone off at half cock, and Profumo seem an efficient minister who had done well by the British soldier. The invisible effect was rather different. Wigg knew his facts were correct, though he could not reveal their sources. Therefore he knew Profumo was a liar, a man who would rather lie than admit even a minor fault. Wigg was also furiously angry both on his own account and on behalf of his beloved army. All these things contributed to the fact that it was George Wigg almost single-handed who brought Profumo down in the end.

Not that he had any idea in that

drear-nighted November just how or why Profumo would be brought down. True, some vague rumors were already afloat, but in a very restricted circle. Eighteen months before, in the summer of 1961. British security authorities learned that the secretary of war had made the acquaintance of the Soviet naval attaché Eugene Ivanov. They met through a mutual friend, the society osteopath and portrait artist Stephen Ward.

Security officers had no notion at that time that Ward, Ivanov and Profumo had other mutual friends of the opposite sex, or indeed that there was anything strange about their being acquainted. But they were suspicious of Ivanov on general principles and they thought it worthwhile to pass a warning to the minister through Sir Norman Brook, then secretary of the cabinet and thus in charge of security under the prime minister. Brook gave the warning to Profumo on Aug. 9. 1961, though he unaccountably failed to tell the prime minister he had done so.

Ivanov and Ward also made themselves rather conspicuous during the Cuba crisis last October by trying, through several of Ward's eminent acquaintances, to get a “message” through to Prime Minister Macmillan supposedly from Premier Khrushchov. Macmillan never received it, though his office did. Ward and Ivanov were expertly and deservedly snubbed. But none of these events showed any connection with Profumo except that he. Ward and Ivanov moved in roughly the same set. Whatever darker rumors then existed were circulating within that set and around its fringes.

That was how matters stood last Dec. 14, when police were called to a flat in Wimpole Mews, not far from Cavendish Square in London’s West End, and arrested a sullen West Indian Negro named John Arthur Edgecombe, thirty years old. He had apparently tried to shoot a white girl named Christine Keeler who he said had been his mistress. Edgecombe talked a great deal and Miss Keeler talked at even greater length. She seemed to have a number of highly respectable friends, as well as some who were less respectable. The police were extremely interested.

Just how-freely and how often she mentioned John Profumo's name at this juncture is uncertain. But on somebody’s advice she went to see the Sunday Pictorial, now the Sunday Mirror. and sold that newspaper her story for a handsome sum — handsomer than any paper would be likely to pay a girl who was no more than the chief witness in an attempted assault case. Among the documents she showed to the Sunday Pictorial was a letter in John Profumo’s handwriting: “Darling . . . alas something’s blown up tomorrow night and I can't therefore make it. I'm terribly sorry especially as I leave the next day for various trips and won't be able to see you again until some time in September. Blast it. Please take great care of yourself and don’t run away. Love J.”

This was the letter Profumo later described as a message of final farewell. Reading it. the Pictorial editors knew they were sitting on the story of the century. Unfortunately they had

got the story at a uniquely embarrassing moment. They had no real doubt what the letter meant, but as the Sunday Mirror said in an editorial months later it was “effusive but not conclusive.” It was not proof positive of adultery, merely grounds for a reasonable inference. And the Mirror's inferences from junior ministers’ letters had already landed it and the whole of Fleet Street in their hottest water ever.

It was the Mirror group of newspapers that bought John Vassall’s “own story” for a reputed seven thousand pounds four months before, when Vassall was convicted and sentenced to eighteen years for espionage. He had been first blackmailed into spying, when Russian “friends” in Moscow had him photographed in homosexual practices there, and was then hired at fairly high pay when the Russians discovered he would spy for them willingly and zealously for money. Vassall had never been a communist but he did have expensive tastes.

Like Christine Keeler, Vassall, too. had a letter from a junior minister among his effects. It didn’t begin “darling” but it did begin “My dear Vassall,” which is uncommonly matey language from a British junior minister to a mere clerk. Moreover, in Vassall’s elegantly furnished flat a framed photographic portrait of the Hon. Thomas Galbraith was prominently displayed — it wasn’t actually autographed but looked as if it should be. How was Fleet Street to know that Vassall, an inveterate social climber and name-dropper, had taken the photograph home from a file of publicity prints in Galbraith’s office?

The popular newspapers drew every imaginable inference from these facts, and then began drawing inferences from the inferences. They also bid against each other for whatever information could still be bought. The Mirror group had got Vassall's memoirs, so competitors had to buy other people’s stories — people like Vassall’s charwomen, who quickly realized that the more sensational their recollections were the more they might hope to get. Later, under oath, they admitted that much of this material was wholly imaginary.

All this was fresh in the public mind when the Mirror group got Profumo’s letter to Christine Keeler. Exactly a month before John Edgecombe fired the shot that was to be heard around the world, Prime Minister Macmillan had appointed a tribunal of inquiry into the scandalous stories that were printed and the still more scandalous rumors about Vassall and Thomas Galbraith. The tribunal was headed by a distinguished judge, Lord Radcliffe, and there was no doubt of its purpose — it was to expose the methods of the British popular press. Squirming reporters, crossexamined under oath, revealed that many of their most sensational stories had been based upon guesswork, inference. and in a few cases pure fiction.

These exposures obscured the fact, even from Lord Radcliffe and his fellow judges, that in truth some very strange, things had happened in the Vassall case, and that hard-digging reporters for responsible papers had

dug some of them up. They had learned, for example, that some at least of Vassall’s colleagues in Moscow had suspected he was homosexual, that these misgivings were reported to naval intelligence in London, and that unaccountably nothing was done about them. They also became aware of a curious apathy in the security checks that Vassall had undergone. It turned out later, for instance, that when security officers were doing a routine check on Vassall they were told that Captain Bennett, Vassall’s superior officer in Moscow, could not be interviewed because he was on his way to the Far East. Bennett was the man who spotted Vassall as a homosexual and reported his suspicion to naval intelligence. He was not on his way to the Far East at all. he was in Portsmouth, little more than an hour by train from London. Lord Radcliffe mentibus this odd incident in his report, but apparently did not even inquire \Vho .had misinformed the security officëxs or why or how. It is difficult to avoid the impression, from the Radcliffe report, that the noble lord accepted testimony without question from officers and gentlemen while taking for granted that the Fleet Street cads were all liars.

At any rate this was certainly the impression that the public was getting from his Vassall tribunal at the time. Two reporters were sent to jail for protecting their sources, and got remarkably little public sympathy. Fleet Street’s reputation had never been lower. It was no time to risk a libel suit by publishing an inferential story, so the Mirror newspapers sat on their information about Profumo.

Of course it began to leak out. Not only did the Mirror group have its dossier from Christine Keeler, but the police were also hearing things from her which police reporters in turn began to hear from friends in Scotland Yard.

By the end of January, friends of the government were seriously alarmed. Mark Chapman Walker, now general manager of the weekly scandal sheet News oj the World, but formerly chief publicity officer at Conservative central headquarters, went to sec the prime minister's principal secretary T. J. Bligh and told him what rumor was saying about Profumo, Keeler, Ivanov and .Stephen Ward.

Bügln passed on the information to the prime minister, who asked Martin Redmavne. chief Conservative whip, and the law officers of the crown to investigate. They questioned Profumo. He admitted Christine Keeler was a friend but otherwise he denied everythin;» vehemently and his denial was accepted.

What sort of man was this secretary of war. whose word was taken for what seems in retrospect a rather improbable story?

He is Italian by origin, as Conservative clubwomen now insistently recall. He is in fact an Italian noble, fifth Baron Profumo of the United Kingdom of Italy, and his father practised law in Britain as Baron Albert Profumo. K.C. The younger Profumo has never used his title, but he does list it in Who's Who alongside the OBE he got for distinguished service in Italy during the war. He himself is a native Englishman who grew up in Warwickshire. went to Harrow and Brasenose College. Oxford, served through the war with a good infantry regiment and was mentioned in dispatches. He is a lean, handsome man who, despite a receding hairline, looks younger than his forty-eight years, and is said by those who know him to have a most engaging personality.

Uiter. with the wisdom of hindsight, many sneers were cast on the credulity of those who took his word. Liberal leader Jo Grimond inquired acidly "for what purpose did they think he was seeing Miss Keeler? Did they think it was merely to make conversation?" And rebel Conservative Nigel Birch was even more devastating;

"We all know a deal more about Profumo now than we did at the time, but we had all known him pretty well for a number of years in this House. I must say he never struck me as a man at all like a cloistered monk, and Miss Keeler was a professional prostitute ... On his own admission Profumo had a number of meetings with her, and if we are to judge by the published statements (Keeler's ghostwritten memoirs were then running in News of the World) she is not a woman who would be intellectually stimulating. There seems to me to be a certain basic improbability about the proposition that their relationship was purely Platonic. What are whores about? Yet Profumo's word was accepted. Would that word have been accepted if Profumo had not been a colleague or even if he had been a political opponent? . . . He was not a man who was ever likely to tell the absolute truth in a tight corner, and at the time the statement was made he was in a very tight corner indeed."

I wo of the men who questioned Profumo for the prime minister had been at Harrow with him. Whether that should have made them more or less willing to believe him is a matter of opinion, or to some extent of social theory. In any case, they did take his word and so did the prime minister. All admitted later that they were swayed in part by the Vassall-Galbraith case. Galbraith's letters had been proven mnocent, and the inferences based upon them false; why should this not. also be true of Profu mo?

1 rue. they hadn't seen Profumo's letter to Keeler, and didn't know how

affectionate were its terms. They did know it began with the word "darling" but they accepted Profumo's explanation that "in the circles in which he and his wife moved it was a term of no great significance." Recounting this to the House four months later, the prime minister added, rather pathetically. "I do not live among young people fairly widely.”

They did however stipulate that Profumo must sue for libel or slander the moment anyone accused him pub-

licly. and they were reassured by his instant readiness to do so. As the prime minister said. "1 could not believe a man would be so foolish, even it so wicked," as to sue for a libel he knew to be true. Nobody seems to have remembered that Oscar Wilde did exactly that when he sued the Marquis of Queensberry and thus arranged his own ruin.

But Profumo was in a vastly stronger position than poor Wilde. With the Vassall tribunal still in the public eye.

newspapers had never been so humbled and jurymen never so stern. It was generally expected that Galbraith and Lord Carrington, First Lord of the Admiralty, would sue various popular newspapers and collect enough in damages to keep them in comfort for life. (In fact, they settled for their legal expenses plus an apology, but most people still assume they could have got a lot more.) So Profumo denied all impropriety with great earnestness — he said to his solicitor. "I

implore you to believe me because I know how difficult it is going to be to persuade you.” Tbe solicitor did believe him, accepted the case, and made ready to sue any slanderer who dared raise his voice.

What they got was not slander but attempted blackmail. As early as Feb. 4, Profumo's solicitor called on the attorney-general to inform him that “an approach has been made which appeared to indicate a demand for money.” Meanwhile Christine Keeler had told the police that her mentor, Stephen Ward, had told her to ask Profumo for information about the delivery of nuclear weapons to West Germany. He thought, she said, that there would be "big money” in the information. At the end of January the Soviet naval attaché had quietly returned to Moscow. None of these facts, for some reason, went to the prime minister at the time.

Another month went by. John Edgecombe was awaiting trial on charges of trying to shoot Christine Keeler. Suddenly, a week before Edgecombe’s trial was to begin, Christine Keeler vanished.

So far as the general public was concerned, Keeler was still a name that meant nothing at all. To insiders of the gossip circuit, though, it already meant a great deal. By no coincidence, the Daily Express ran a story on its front page predicting John Profumo’s resignation, right beside a two-column picture of Keeler and the story of her disappearance. But there was no overt suggestion of any link between them, therefore no libel. Profumo denied he had any intention of resigning, and that was the end of the affair — for another week.

But one forum protected against action for libel is the House of Commons, and one member of that House, who had heard the rumors, checked them as best he could, and believed them implicitly, was the aggrieved MP for Dudley, Col. George Wigg.

Wigg was not merely nursing an old grudge, he was brooding about his beloved army. He had already accused Profumo, who denied it, of lowering standards of admission in order to reach his recruiting target, and events seemed to be proving the charge all too well founded. Soldiers were doing unheard-of things — going on strike for trivial reasons, like workers in an auto factory, and generally bringing shame on the army’s name. Wigg blamed Profumo, and regarded his denial as just another lie.

Late in the evening of Thursday, March 21, the House was debating the imprisonment of the two journalists held in contempt of court for refusing to name their sources. Wigg has little admiration for the press — “It has shown itself willing to wound but afraid to strike,” he said contemptuously — but he did challenge the government to put an end to “rumors involving a member of the government front bench." They should either be denied or investigated, he said.

Profumo had gone home, but lain Macleod, the leader of the House, telephoned his home, got him out of bed and told him to come down to Westminster. Profumo came, bringing his solicitor. He went into an all-night session with Macleod, the two law officers of the crown and, curiously,

the minister in charge of information, an ex-newspaperman named William Deedcs. It also seemed odd in retrospect that one man who was not present was Henry Brooke, the Home Secretary, the man in charge of the metropolitan police. By this time the police knew a lot about the case.

The five ministers and the lawyer conferred from half past one until five in the morning. Their conference was later described as a searching crossexamination, but it seems to have been more like a drafting session to prepare the statement that Profumo made to parliament the same morning. At one point Profumo asked a strange question: was it really necessary for him to say in the statement that he was on friendly terms with Miss Keeler — because, he said, "this sounded so awful”? His colleagues told him yes, it was indeed necessary, since this was an important part of the truth. But the question itself didn't seem as odd to them then as it did later on.

“With black rage in my heart”

Finally the "personal” statement was finished and the six men went home just as dawn was breaking. At 9.30 the statment was shown to the prime minister. At I 1 Profumo, with Macmillan at his side, read it to the House of Commons: he and his wife had met Christine Keeler at Viscount Astor's country house two years ago, and occasionally thereafter at their friend Stephen Ward’s flat. There was no impropriety whatever in the acquaintance, and he had no knowledge of her present whereabouts or of her absence from a trial at the Old Bailey. Allegations had been made under protection of the House of Commons but if repeated outside would bring instant action for libel.

Profumo went out with the cheers of Tory colleagues in his ears and the prime minister's hand on his shoulder, and went off to accompany the Queen Mother to the races. George Wigg went out, as he said later, “with black rage in my heart, because 1 knew what the facts were. I knew the truth and 1 knew that, just as over the Kuwait operation, J had been trussed up and done again.”

Wigg was wrong. It was not he but Profumo who was trussed up and done by that incredibly bold statement. Solicitor-General Sir Peter Rawlinson had warned Profumo during their all-night session, “If there is any truth whatsoever in any of these allegations. you will be submitting yourself to blackmail for the rest of your life.” And even then quite a large number of people knew that there was indeed some truth in them.

It has not yet been explained just why Christine Keeler left England before Edgecombe’s trial, but one report says she was persuaded to go by a friend who had blackmail in mind. He thought that if she as a witness failed to appear, this would stir things up and there might be money in it. She certainly stirred things up. anyway.

Soon British reporters located her in Spain. For another handsome sum she gave interviews to another newspaper, and also to a television reporter. In the TV interview she said she had indeed been Profumo’s mistress, and though fear of a slander action kept this interview off the air it was pretty widely known. Scepticism about Profumo's personal statement was general from the outset —the very night after he made it, Milliccnt Martin opened the BBC’s leading satirical show by singing the third verse of She was poor hut she was honest: “Sec him in the House of Commons making laws to put down crime.” etc. As the weeks went by in silence it began to look as if Profumo’s gamble had succeeded and the story would be permanently suppressed, but events were still in motion behind the scenes.

All this time the police were looking into the activities of Dr. Stephen Ward, the well-connected osteopath, whom they suspected and eventually accused of running a stable of cal! girls for people of quality. Ward in turn began dropping strong hints in ail directions that if the authorities made things uncomfortable for him he could and would make things uncomfortable for the authorities. The week after Profumo's statement. Ward had a long conversation with George Wigg, in which he did not tell everything he knew but apparently told quite a lot.

It was enough to prompt Opposition Leader Harold Wilson to write a letter to the prime minister, who said he would send on the information to "the appropriate authorities.”

But a curious apathy persisted. Early in May, Stephen Ward, who by now seems to have been really frightened. called to see the prime minister's principal secretary and told him John Profumo had been lying. “It seems fairly clear." the prime minister said later, "that he was hoping the police inquiries would be discontinued” as a result of this disclosure. They were not discontinued, but nothing else happened either. A week later, in answer to another letter from Harold Wilson, the prime minister said, "There seems to be nothing in the papers you sent which requires me to take any action.”

Having failed at Admiralty House, Stephen Ward now began to tell his story to the newspapers. So did Christine Keeler, who sold her life story to News of the World for fifteen thousand pounds. Other people made similar deals. As Marilyn Rice - Davies cheerfully told the judge at Stephen Ward's trial, “Every person connected with this case is under contract to some newspaper." None dared publish any of the stories yet, but the break was obviously coming fairly soon. It came on June 4 when Profumo returned from a European holiday to make his confession to Chief Whip Redmayne (the prime minister was in Scotland) and tender his resignation. The debate and the critical confidence vote took place the day parliament reconvened after the Whitsun recess.

What's to come is still unsure. Heroic efforts and devious stratagems by Conservative whips prevented the full flood of discontent among Tory MPs from finding expression, but they made no great secret of it. The conservative Daily Telepraph polled a hundred and fifty Tory backbenchers, almost half the government's total strength: only ten of them wanted Macmillan to stay as leader. Gallup polls showed seventy percent of the populace thought he should either retire or call an immediate general election. Macmillan did neither. Instead he gave a television interview in which he said he hoped still to lead the party in the next election, which presumably will not come until next year.

When he made the same statement in almost the same words last April, it was published and accepted without question and it stopped the current rumors of a leadership change. This time it didn't. This time newspapers headlined the qualifying phrases he had used on both occasions: "All being well, and if I keep my health and strength."

Macmillan performed a miracle once before, when he led the party back to strength and victory after the debacle of Suez. But he had two and a half years to do it in. and he himself was a new man brought in to clean up after the predecessor who had caused the disaster. This time he has only sixteen months at the very outside, and it is his own regime that he is repairing. It will he surprising if the party lets him try it. and even more surprising if he succeeds. ★