1963: A Year of Secrets and Scandals
In today’s world, the idea of our politicians having extra marital affairs is everyday and humdrum and at best ignored. However, there were times when the dangerous cocktail of sex and politics was exciting and heady. There was intrigue, exhilaration and sometimes a sense of sadness as those who literally loved and lost. History, and the streets of London are littered with tattered careers, torn relationships and shame.
Today we visit the lives, and disgrace of three very public British figures. A Duchess diminished, a politician disgraced and a member of the British Embassy, turned spy in a lurid tale of sex and espionage.
THE DUCHESS OF ARGYLL
The recent television series, ‘ A Great British Scandal’, tells the story of The Duchess of Argyll and her very public humiliation.
Born on the 1st December 1912, to a wealthy businessman, Margaret Whigham enjoyed a life of idle luxury and glamour. Schooled in the US, she returned to the UK, and was declared a sought-after debutant with many dashing hopefuls asking for her hand in marriage. Her engagement to Charles Greville, the 7th Earl of Warwick was short lived when her affections were turned by a wealthy American, Charles Sweeney.
Image courtesy of the Daily Mail
The great society wedding was witnessed by scores of enthusiasts lining the streets to the Brompton Oratory in 1933, hoping to glimpse the ethereal bride in her Norman Hartnell dress. The fairly tale marriage, it seemed, produced three children, yet ended in divorce in 1947. Margaret became engaged to banker Joseph Thomas soon after, though never married him.
In 1951 Margaret married her second husband, Ian Douglas Campell, 11th Duke of Argyll. The union would give her a title and for the Duke, a source of income to maintain his country seat in Scotland, Inveraray Castle. It was his third marriage and it wouldn’t be his last.
Later in her life she wrote:
‘I had wealth, I had good looks. As a young woman I had been constantly photographed, written about, flattered, admired, included in the Ten Best-Dressed Women in the World list, and mentioned by Cole Porter in the words of his hit song "You're the Top". The top was what I was supposed to be. I had become a duchess and mistress of a historic castle. My daughter had married a duke. Life was apparently roses all the way.’
The reality came crashing in soon after. The Duke was a difficult man, prone to aggression, addicted to pills and alcohol. His time spent as a prisoner of war in a German camp had inflicted deep psychological wounds. Prone to emotional and physical cruelty, the marriage soon crumbled into loathing each other.
Whilst on a trip to New York, the Duke, who suspected his wife of having many affairs, hired a locksmith to break into her home in Mayfair. In her private drawers, he discovered compromising Polaroid photographs of her with two naked men, and the Duchess engaging in a sexual act, only her customary triple sting of pearls, draped around her neck. Even by today’s standards this was shocking.
The court case, in 1963, had the Duke sue his wife for divorce. It became a national drama, lining the papers, holding the nation captive with intimate accusations and scandalous details. The Duchess had tried to convince the Duke that his legitimate children were not his own and he in turn, accused her of having up to 88 lovers, producing a list that included cabinet ministers and members of the Royal Household. Most damning of all, were the photographs of the Duchess, fellating a ‘headless man’. The public cry demanding the identity of this man hit fever pitch, though the Duchess never revealed his name.
Things would be very different today, but back in the sixties, women were still considered the property of their husbands, and adultery, cause for divorce. Margaret was vilified by the public, the press and the judge presiding over the case.
The Duchess, he said: ‘was a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men. Her attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call ‘enlightened’ but which in plain sight was wholly ‘immoral.’
Her husband’s character was untouched, though the writer Norman Mailer called him ‘one of the coldest, nastiest men I’ve ever known.’
The Duchess of Argyll never recovered her reputation in London society. She tried her hand at writing a book which was ill received and resorted to opening her house in Grosvenor Square to the public for funds. Eventually forced to leave her home, she took a suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel, though unpaid bills saw her evicted and she moved into an apartment, supported financially by her family, friends and first husband.
The Duke married again and died of a stroke at the age of sixty-nine.
The Duchess died penniless in a nursing home in Pimlico in 1993.
About that ‘headless man’. The one subtle hint the Duchess did drop concerned the Polaroid camera. She claimed the only Polaroid camera in the country at the time, was loaned to the Ministry of Defence. Oh the intrigue!
Ordered to investigate another scandal, the Profumo affair, Lord Denning was also instructed to look into the issue of ‘the headless man.’ His findings revealed Cabinet Minister, and son-in-law of Winston Churchill, Duncan Sandys, who worked in the Ministry of Defence. The other man proved to be Hollywood legend Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.
Sandys confessed to ‘perhaps’ being the ‘headless man’ and offered to resign but was persuaded to remain - guess the outfall of the Profumo scandal was enough to deal with in the same year. One resignation would be quite enough, thank you!
THE PROFUMO AFFAIR
Image courtesy of Daily Express
A Cabinet Minister, a Russian and a showgirl - this is how the Profumo Affair will go down in history. Sex, politics and double agents, how delicious.
The year was 1963, and there were two very distinct themes running through Post War Britain. On the one hand, the Cold War was of serious concern to the government. The Russians were recruiting British spies, such as the ‘Cambridge Five’, and two of them had already defected to Moscow. The British were trying to do the same.
On the other hand, there was ‘The Swinging Sixties.’ A time of possibilities, of living it up, challenging convention and having fun. Mary Quant, Cliff Richard and other young artists making it in the world. Young people moving to the hub that is London, filled with dreams and career opportunities. Sexual liberation.
Onto the stage stepped four main characters; the scene set in 17 Wimpole Mews in Marylebone.
The main protagonist was Stephen Ward, successful osteopath, artist and close friend to many successful and influential individuals, including John Profumo, Lord Astor and Yevgeny Ivanov. MI5 and MI6 kept close to him, aware of his influence on persons of interest and tried to get Ward to recruit Yevgeny as a double agent. He loved the attention, loved the grandeur of it all and loved nothing more than to ‘fix’ people together, hence his nickname ‘The Fixer.’ Introducing men of importance to young, good-time girls was his affinity, the thrill of being part of a world of his own making.
John Profumo was The Secretary of War in the British Cabinet and a close personal friend of Ward’s. Through Ward, he was introduced to Christine Keeler at the Astor home of Cliveden. The man was besotted with 17 year old Keeler and began an affair with her, though it was short lived and he ended it. Thought nothing more of it, hoped it was the last of it, but months later the affair would come to haunt him.
Christine Keeler came from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, literally growing up in a railway carriage and longed to flee to London to become an actress. She found work as a dancer at Murray's Cabaret Club in Soho. This was where she met Stephen Ward and became his protege. He in turn introduced her to Profumo and the Russian attache, Yvegeny Ivanov. Swept up in the glamour and thrill of it all, she was ill equipped to realise the danger of her relationship with both men.
Other characters in the tragedy about to happen are Lord Astor, who was having an affair with Mandy Rice-Davies (which he will deny), also a client and good friend of Stephen Ward. Mandy was another protege of Ward and Christine’s friend. Both will at some point live with Ward, giving him money for rent, which they earned from their relationships with the men they slept with.
Then there was Ivanov, and the two men Christine was also involved with - Aloysuis ‘Lucky’ Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe.
Rumours of pillow talk between a senior Cabinet Minister and a club dancer began to circulate on Fleet Street, but journalists were reluctant to publish without proof and out of respect for the stature of the man involved. It took an unrelated incident to throw the spotlight on the affair. Though not in any way linked to the affair, Ward or any of the activities going on in Wimpole mews, the actions of Edgecombe and Gorden drew attention to the situation.
The two men fought and Edgecombe slashed Gorden with a knife. Afraid of revenge, he sought help from Christine to obtain legal counsel. Jealous of his new lover, she refused and threatened to testify against him in court. On the 14th December 1962, a desperate Edgecombe arrived at the mews where Keeler had taken refuge. She was with Mandy Rice-Davies. When she refused him entry, he fired a volley of shots at the door and was arrested. The incident offered the press a juicy lead to investigate the real events happening behind closed doors and began digging deeper into the relationship between Keeler, Profumo and Ivanov.
The rumours reached Parliament - Labour MP George Whigg, confronted Profumo with the allegations of his affair and her relationship with Ivanov. Admitting to having met Christine, he denied there was any ‘impropriety’ in their friendship.
Sparks ignited, the press were determined to unearth more evidence of their affair, paying individuals to share their knowledge and what they know about the relationship between the three principle players in the story - gladly supplied by Rice-Davies who claimed that Christine has in fact, slept with both Profumo and Ivanov. Rather than deny the obvious, Christine admitted to the truth and a scandal of epic proportions found itself in the homes and headlines of sixties Britain. The masses were braying for more. Cold war concerns met the swinging sixties.
In June 1963, John Profumo, fully disgraced, resigned from Parliament. He spent the rest of his life working for charity.
Committing perjury in court during a case against Lucky Gordon, Christine Keeler was sentenced for lying under oath. She served four months and went on to marry twice and divorce twice. With the funds for her story to the now defunct ‘News of the World’ newspaper, she bought a house in Marylebone and died at the age of 75 in 2017.
Yvegeny Ivanov was recalled to Moscow before the affair became public.
Mandy Rice-Davies went on to marry three times, and appeared in a number of films and television shows. When Lord Astor denied his sexual relations with her, she was famously quipped as saying; ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?’ She died at the age of 70 in 2014.
Johnny Edgecome died in 2020 and Gordon in 1985. Lord Astor died in 1966.
And Stephen Ward. What happened to the catalyst, the protagonist in this play?
Many believed him to be deviant, manipulative and a pimp. Of using his status and contacts to further his own ambitions. Was he that evil, or simply a mixed up individual? Stephen Ward supported Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies when they had nowhere to live, introducing them to powerful men. He felt like Peter Pan in Neverland. He was a sexual voyeur and ambitious social climber but never a pimp and when he was brought to the Old Bailey two days after Profumo’s resignation, he hoped his close friends and associates would testify on his behalf. All deserted him. The charges of procuring women and living off their earnings was laid against him. His own lawyer was out of his depth and the prosecution too strong, leading both Keeler and Rice-Davies to give damning evidence against him. Ward spent his last night at a friend’s flat, writing letters and taking sleeping pills. He was discovered in a coma but died in hospital before being sentenced.
Kenneth Tynan, critic and writer, wrote ‘To Stephen Ward, Victim of Hypocrisy.’
His drawing of Christine Keeler was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery.
One of the biggest political sex scandals in British History is still remembered throughout the years. Innocent individuals who just wanted to have fun, unprepared for the consequences of timing and fate.
The Macmillan Government was a time of spies, spies and more spies. Spies and sex scandals. The early sixties revealed the Profumo affair, The Cambridge spies, The Duchess of Argyll affairs … and John Vassal, British government employee and Russian spy, who happened to be gay.
Born 20th September 1924 to a clergyman and a nurse, John left school at 16 to begin work in a bank. His dream was to join the RAF but his rejected application led him to volunteer in the RAF Reserve, where he trained as a photographer, specialising in developing and processing techniques. These skills proved to be vital in the work he would carry out for the KGB in the future.
Post war, he returned to London and joined the civil service.
He wrote: ‘I was, however, keen to travel, and a senior official in the Admiralty, whom I used to see occasionally, suggested that I might like to apply for one of the posts abroad which comes up from time to time.’
With travel in mind, he applied for a post, still as a clerical clerk, to the office of the Naval Attache in the British Embassy in Moscow. His arrival in Moscow in 1954 was both exciting and lonely. Feeling isolated, Vassal spent most of his time alone and it did not help that he was homosexual in a very conservative environment, proving more difficult to make friends. Over time however, he came into contact with a fellow staffer, a Polish man named Mikhailsky. They both shared a love of theatre, opera and ballet, and Miklhailsy was able to secure tickets for him. Little did Vassal know that his new friend was in fact a member of the Russian Secret Service, ordered to befriend the Englishman and set him up as an agent for Russia.
Vassal was oblivious. In April 1955, Mikhailsky invited Vassal to dine with him at a restaurant frequented by young men. Delighted, he remarked on one in particular and on introduction was told his name was simply ‘The Skier.’ Vassal was hugely attracted to the beautiful skier and continued to call him by this name. Soon he was being invited to parties, hosted by the Skier - his social circle was increasing and without reserve he happily engaged, attending on a regular basis.
The Skier introduced him to a friend, a ‘fur clad, mystery man’. This stranger then invited him to dinner with friends at the posh Hotel Berlin. A private room had been prepared for drinks and dining, filled with young men. Feeling rather in the mood for a party, John had no idea that his drink may have been spiked, or that he had been drugged, but the ‘honeytrap’ was about to play out with dire consequences.
He remembered only being led to a bed, undressing and lying down with others joining him and a photographer taking pictures.
‘Not until 1963, nine years later, was it suggested to me that the wine I have been given must have been drugged.’
Faint memories of being a little out of control and staggering, as well as being helped to dress and his hosts ordering a taxi to return him home, was all he could recall, but more embarrassed than frightened as what had happened, he hoped it would be forgotten and resumed his daily life. The Skier then introduced him to a military officer who lured him to a flat in Moscow where they ended up in bed together. A sudden knock on the door produced four figures, dressed in dark coats, ordering him to the next room. The Secret Service had business to attend to. The other man disappeared in a hurry.
Shown the photographs from the fateful night at The Berlin Hotel, Vassal could not believe his eyes. Compromising photographs, his life and career were compromised. He was told that he had committed a crime, was guilty of a criminal offence and would be tried, jailed and never see his country again.
Part of the ‘honeytrap’ is to frighten, then counsel and befriend, and mentor one’s victim to the point that they feel their captors are their only friends, or those who can help. This happened with Vassal. He would be allowed to return to his flat, on condition he would meet with a member of Russian intelligence the following day. Then again on a regular basis, or he would be exposed to the Ambassador and be responsible for an international scandal. Vassal did as he was told. At first they demanded little from him, and his life seemed normal, attending functions and going to work, but soon they began to press him for more vital, military intel. When his term at the embassy came to an end, he believed his nightmare to be over, but he belonged to the Russians. He had to meet a KGB agent, named Gregory, in London, and this was a regular occurrence - meeting, swapping information, receiving money in return.
After a year with Naval Intelligence, Vassal began to work for the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, Thomas Galbraith, as his assistant personal secretary. His ‘James Bond’ life was firmly entrenched and he continued to spy for the Russians until 1962, when on a September evening, he was accosted by two men as he left work.
The defection of a senior KGB officer, Anatoli Golitsyn seemed to trigger their investigation of Vassal as a spy. Vassal confessed to everything and was charged and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. He served ten. Thomas Galbraith was forced to resign, another politician caught in a scandal.
His autobiography, entitled ‘Vassal: the autobiography of a spy.’ was published in 1975. On his release he changed his name to Phillips, moved to St. John’s Wood and continued his working life in the British Records Association and a firm of solicitors in Grays Inn. He died of a heart attack on a bus in November 1996.
Pawn or pariah?
These are but three of the many British scandals involving people in power and their crazy, messed up sex lives. It is a messy world indeed, some just falling into more swamps than others, trapped by lust, greed, insecurities and wanting to be different, or special, or just loved? What do you think?
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.