Historic meetings: When Christine Keeler met Stephen Ward

When model and showgirl Christine Keeler met society osteopath Stephen Ward at a cabaret club, it set in motion one of the biggest scandals to ever befall the British government.

The Profumo scandal dominated the headlines in 1963, after the chance meeting led to Keeler having an affair with a government minister.

© Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Ward introduced the then 17-year-old model to a whole new social circle. Their own relationship was platonic, but she later had an affair with the British secretary for war, John Profumo, leading to his resignation and great embarrassment for the government.

The incident became even more shocking when it was revealed Keeler also had an affair with the Soviet attaché Yevgeny Ivanov at a similar time. The British security service MI5 got involved and the revelations contributed to the fall of Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his government.

The person who suffered most was Ward, who committed suicide in 1963, while Keeler (who died in 2017) spent the rest of her life complaining she was never able to escape the shadow of the Profumo affair. However, her critics said she didn’t appear to want to escape, as she gave many newspaper interviews and wrote her autobiography.

Who was Christine Keeler?

Keeler was born in 1942 in Uxbridge and was brought up by her mother after her father abandoned them when she was three. She had a tough upbringing. A school health inspector said she was suffering from malnutrition at the age of nine and she was said to have been sexually abused as a teenager.

At 15, she started working as a model in a dress shop in Soho. After dating a US Air Force sergeant, who subsequently returned to America, Keeler found out she was pregnant – her mother made her conceal the pregnancy. She gave birth to a premature son, who sadly died after only 6 weeks.

After leaving home, she began working as a waitress in a Baker Street restaurant, where she was introduced to Percy Murray, the owner of Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho, by her friend, Maureen O’Connor. He was impressed by Keeler’s good looks and hired her as a showgirl.

How did she know Stephen Ward?

The club was a popular venue among wealthy, upper class, middle-aged men, who wanted to meet glamorous young women. Stephen Ward was a regular there and had many society friends.

Born in Lemsford, Hertfordshire, in 1912, the vicar’s son was one of five children. Educated at boarding school, he was described as an “under-achiever” and had few career options.

He moved to London and became a carpet salesman, but his uncle found him a more prestigious job in Hamburg, Germany, as a translator for Shell Oil. In 1934, when he was 22, his mother persuaded him to study as an osteopath. He successfully completed a four-year course and set up his private practice in Torquay.

Osteopathy became very popular after the second world war and Ward made many friends in high places, including Viscount William Astor, a Conservative politician and businessman. He moved in circles that included high-ranking politicians, businessmen and the British aristocracy.

At 47, he was a divorcee when he met 17-year-old Keeler in Murray’s Cabaret Club in 1959. He was captivated by her charm and began to look after her. She moved into his home, but both of them said their relationship was platonic. Keeler was soon introduced to Ward’s society friends.

How did Profumo get involved?

Ward introduced Profumo (who was his patient) to Keeler at Astor’s country house, on the Cliveden estate, in July 1961, when she was 19. Profumo was 46 and married to the actress Valerie Hobson. They had a six-year-old son, David.

Profumo and Keeler began a short-lived affair, that ended later in 1961. At the same time, she was also seeing Ivanov, a 35-year-old Russian naval attaché based at the Soviet Embassy in London. He had become friendly with Ward and this was how Keeler had met him too.

After Keeler and Profumo’s affair ended, it was publicly exposed, apparently because she tried to sell the story to the newspapers. None of them dared print it, but the rumours were so widespread that the satirical magazine, Private Eye, printed a spoof story, with the main characters’ identities barely disguised.

Labour declared it a national security issue and brought it up in Parliament, causing grave concerns for MI5 chiefs, as they feared Keeler may have passed information about Profumo to Ivanov.

Although Profumo publicly denied any impropriety had taken place, he was forced to make a U-turn and later admitted he had lied. He had to resign from the government.

What happened to those involved?

It was later claimed that Ward was made a scapegoat for what had happened. A BBC documentary, screened last year, claimed MI5 had been working with Ward to set a “honey trap” for Ivanov. The aim was to turn him into a double agent, but Ward became a genuine friend to the Russian.

After the scandal broke, it was claimed the government feared Ward could be a threat to national security, because he knew too much. He was arrested and sent to trial for living off the earnings of prostitutes in August 1963. It wasn’t mentioned that he had allegedly been working with MI5.

The documentary claimed a secret meeting took place between top government and police officials to discuss what could be done about Ward. The Metropolitan Police were said to have tapped his phone and watched his practice in a bid to unearth any misdemeanour. Ward’s high society friends soon deserted him.

It was claimed he tried to arrange an urgent meeting with the prime minister to exonerate himself of any wrong-doing. Ward was described as a “smoking gun” who had to be silenced. It was alleged that his trial was deliberately set up simply to discredit and silence him.

He didn’t live to hear the verdict. Leaving a note that read, “I feel the day is lost. The ritual sacrifice is demanded and I cannot face it,” Ward committed suicide by drugs overdose on 3rd August 1963.

Despite his political career ending in scandal, Profumo later worked as a volunteer for the London-based charity, Toynbee Hall, becoming its chief fundraiser. This went some way to restoring his reputation and he was awarded the CBE in 1975 for his services to charity. He remained married to Valerie until her death in 1998. Profumo died in March 2006, aged 91.

Ivanov’s wife left him when news of his affair with Keeler broke, and both the Russian and British governments deserted him. He kept a low profile for the rest of his life and assumed his naval career with the Black Sea Fleet. In 1994, he was found dead in his Moscow flat, at the age of 68.

Keeler married twice, but neither marriage lasted. She had two sons: Jimmy with her first husband Jimmy Levermore, and Seymour from her second marriage to Anthony Platt. She led a troubled life, reportedly using the name “Sloane” to hide her true identity and taking low-key jobs as a dinner lady and telesales agent. She claimed to have been fired from jobs when her employers realised her true identity. Only Seymour remained close to her until her death in December 2017, aged 75, from obstructive pulmonary disease.

British secrecy laws have stopped official papers about the Profumo affair from being made public. They can be published in 2046 and there has been speculation about what they might reveal. Today, 60 years after the scandal, there is still a great deal of interest and speculation about the truth.

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