June 5, 1963—With Fleet Street baying like wolves and Labour Party M.P.’s turning up the heat, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, resigned under pressure when statements about his role in a sex scandal involving a call girl and a Soviet naval attaché proved to be less than honest.
The resignation did not end the fallout from what remains the most consequential English sex scandal, however: Four months later, his boss, Harold Macmillan, resigned because of ill health, a condition only worsened by the crisis besieging his government; within a year, the Conservative Party had lost its grip on power; and the osteopath Stephen Ward, the man at the center of this sexual circus, had committed suicide on the last day of his trial for living off immoral earnings.
Americans who are not aging baby boomers (isn’t that last phrase redundant?) or students of British politics are most likely to know about Profumo, his topless dancer/party-girl/call-girl/ mistress Christine Keeler, and her showgirl/call-girl friend Mandy Rice-Davies from the 1989 film Scandal, starring Ian McKellan, Joanne Whalley, Bridget Fonda, and John Hurt.
Amid the welter of sex scandals that have burst out into the open on both sides of the Atlantic since then, it helps to remember why this one convulsed the British public: the possibility that Profumo engaged in pillow talk that might have divulged state secrets, all the time that Keeler was sleeping with Soviet intelligence officer Yevgeny Ivanov. (Such a connection was never proven, though by the turn of the century Keeler—with two marriages behind her and a flood of bills needing to be taken care of—claimed in an autobiography that Ward was a Soviet spy and had asked her to elicit information from Profumo about nuclear warheads in West Germany.)
Like Hugh Grant two decades later, Profumo occasioned considerable astonishment by consorting with a prostitute when he was already involved with a glamorous actress. The minister’s marriage to Valerie Hobson (remembered fondly for movie lovers as the adult Estella in David Lean’s magnificent adaptation of Great Expectations), along with his own talents and charm, made him a rising star within his party, making his fall all the more stunning.
Despite my longstanding reverence for his genius, I don’t hold with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Our political history alone is filled with examples to the contrary, encompassing, while not being limited to, the following who made unlikely comebacks after their careers were considered over: John Quincy Adams, Sam Houston, Abraham Lincoln, William Howard Taft, and Jimmy Carter. In Europe, the parliamentary system enables leaders to rise from the electoral dead again and again.
Profumo’s second act, different in kind in not degree from most of such cases, fills me with a kind of awe. Never returning to electoral politics, he began devoting himself unstintingly, quietly, and with who knows how much self-abnegation for someone of his class and ambitions, to Toynbee Hall, a charity in East London.
The news of Ted Kennedy’s brain cancer has led to the publication of a number of retrospectives that read, in essence, like obituaries in the making. Generally, Chappaquiddick has been mentioned, but pretty far into the pieces, and 99% of the time with the statement that the Massachusetts senator has spent much of the rest of his life atoning for the accident.
Without denying Kennedy’s considerable legislative acumen nor a humor, warmth and personal kindness that has won him friends on both sides of the isle, I don’t think that the his post-Chappaquiddick history compares with Profumo’s post-Keeler philanthropy. Not only did Kennedy never go to jail for leaving the scene of an accident, but he never had to give up electoral office and even his statements about the event didn't exhibit truth. In other words, the penance was incomplete.