Friday, December 26, 2014

The Scandalous Woman Who Descended Into Respectability

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

As a witness at the 1963 trial of osteopath Stephen Ward on charges of “living off immoral earnings,” Mandy Rice-Davies, a nightclub dancer and model, had just been told that the 3rd Viscount Astor, William (known as Bill), had denied sleeping with her. All at once, it seems, centuries of privilege had finally been checkmated with her saucy response.

Ms. Rice-Davies was not the principal figure in the Profumo sex scandal that rocked British politics, society and culture to their foundations, but she was the one who made the definitive remark about the case. The age of deference had collapsed in America with the election of Andrew Jackson to the Presidency; now, in the U.K., 135 years later, it had been given the insolent, funny jolt it deserved with her crack.

Ms. Rice-Davies, who died last week at age 70 after a short battle with cancer, might have been the most fascinating figure associated with what Sunday Herald reporter Barry Didcock called "the yardstick against which all other political scandals are measured." She did not experience a vertiginous fall from power like John Profumo, the government minister who had shared a mistress with a Soviet naval attache (i.e., KGB intelligence officer); she did not die in disgrace and legal jeopardy, as did Stephen Ward, who used his connection to attractive young women to cement his ties with high government officials and celebrities; and, by living abroad, away from incessant media attention, she did not flounder in confusion, dismay, penury and alienation after her life came under scrutiny, as did her more vulnerable fellow cabaret dancer, Christine Keeler, Profumo’s mistress.

Instead, she is reported to have said, cheekily, in later years, “My life has been one long descent into respectability.”

The former teenaged goodtime girl achieved, after three husbands and countless headlines, something like the life she wanted. Successively, after the first feeding frenzy of the scandal abated, she became a cabaret singer; founder of a string of nightclubs and restaurants; and an actress and writer. Her last spouse, observed columnist Mark Steyn, was a businessman friend of Margaret Thatcher’s husband Denis. Thus, in the 1980s, was this woman who helped upend one Conservative government in the curious position of entertaining the Prime Minister of another. People who met her reported surprise that this high-school dropout and onetime department store clerk could speak knowledgeably about subjects as diverse as Henry VIII’s Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, and the artist Lucian Freud.

In one sense, she was a tabloid forebear of Monica Lewinsky—first the plaything of a powerful man, then the scapegoat for that man’s hypocrisy and lies. Unlike “that woman” (Bill Clinton’s phrase) who inadvertently instigated the 1998 impeachment drama, however, Ms. Rice-Davies remained proudly defiant, noting, “In those days, there were good girls and there were bad girls. Good girls didn’t have any sex at all, and bad girls had a bit.” 

For a long while, I’ve been interested in how the scandal erupted and its disastrous fallout for the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, as seen in this prior post of mine. But the death of Rice-Davies led me to review and re-think the case, which continues to fascinate me.

For instance, Ms. Rice-Davies had not heard from Ms. Keeler in three decades before her death. It might have been because the latter was already psychologically damaged goods even before the scandal, having been molested by several older men (including her stepfather) and aborted a baby. Perhaps, as a result, she resented Ms. Rice-Davies’ ability to distance herself, psychically and even physically (living in Spain, Germany, Israel, Florida and the Caribbean at various times), from her notoriety.

Second, though Rice-Davies was involved with Astor, she never met Profumo himself.

Third, though I saw the 1989 cinema account of the affair, Scandal, starring Bridget Fonda as Ms. Rice-Davies and Joanne Whalley as Ms. Keeler, the last quarter-century softened in my memory some of the details of the affair. I was taken aback all over again, then, when I read that the imbroglio grew out of a chance 1961 meeting at Cliveden, the country estate of Lord Astor, between Keeler, Profumo and Astor.

What brought me up short in re-reading all this was that location, a cushy estate that played host to every British sovereign since George I. Nearly a quarter-century before Profumo and Astor laid eyes on Keeler, Cliveden had been the epicenter of a group of aristocrats who wanted to appease Adolf Hitler, a cadre that gave rise to the derisive nickname “Cliveden Set.” You would think that someone like Lord Astor would have thought twice about allowing his landed estate to become an object of national scorn all over again.

But once Profumo—as lucky in marriage (his spouse was actress Valerie Hobson) as in politics—absorbed the charms of Ms. Keeler, emerging topless from Lord Astor’s pool, it was too late. He and Lord Astor promptly chased the young woman around the pool; Profumo embarked on a three-month affair that Keeler would expose in a newspaper interview in early 1963; and Astor took up with Rice-Davies. Profumo would be forced to resign his office and Astor would die several years later, largely, it was agreed, due to the stress created by his appearance in the tabloids.

Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott cites the Profumo imbroglio as an example of the superiority of British over American political sex scandals. While both are “often rooted in a dolor of middle-aged malaise,” he observed eight years ago after the Mark Foley (remember him?) scandal, those on the other side of the Atlantic are “also animated by spite, spicy details, vanity, revenge, bitter comedy, and bawdy excess—the complete Jacobean pantry.”

The Profumo scandal was more than the biggest sensation to hit Fleet Street in the 1960s. Its repercussions extended beyond the political into the cultural sphere, and beyond its own moment into our time.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Macmillan government’s disastrous fall from the electorate’s favor registered with an Irish-American U.S. President with anglophile tendencies and considerable affection for the Prime Minister. As I discussed in this post, John F. Kennedy had his own version of the Profumo scandal in the form of Ellen Rometsch, wife of an West German soldier—and, the FBI informed him, a likely spy for East Germany. JFK and brother Robert, immediately recognizing the peril of impeachment, had her deported immediately afterward—then let it be known to Congressional leaders that they needed to be careful about disclosure of their own peccadilloes, lest they be tempted to make political hay out of anything further that might come out about this woman.

Nearly a quarter century before Presidential candidate Gary Hart’s mad fling with Donna Rice opened the floodgates to greater scrutiny of U.S. candidates’ sex lives by the press, Britain’s Fleet Street had gotten there first—and then some. In a retrospective on the Profumo scandal published on its 50th anniversary a year ago in the British publication The Guardian, Richard Davenport-Hines noted that the real offense in the affair lay in how British police intimidated witnesses and suborned perjury in their attempt to get Ward; and that the British press was in no mood to complain about such slippery investigatory methods because they themselves paid for stories.

On the culture front, those with comparatively short memories will recall that the saga of Rice-Davies, Astor, Keeler and Profumo gave birth not only to the 1989 film Scandal directed by Michael Caton-Jones, but also, a couple of years ago, to an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, Stephen Ward, whose run in London’s West End lasted only a few months. But this whole affair also made its presence felt in another subtler, but longer lasting, manner.

In his 2011 biography, Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music - The Definitive Life, NPR critic Tim Riley underscored just how prepared the scandal left the British public for the Beatles: “The hypocrisy of the ruling class had reached such heights that the Beatles seemed not just a necessary tonic but an all-conquering elixir. With their winning comic charisma and clear disdain for show business as usual, it was almost as if the Beatles led the way out of a public crisis, relegating Profumo to the tawdry clichés of political potboilers, with an unmistakable subtext: ‘What do you expect from a bunch of…stuffed shirts?’"

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