The Scandal Sliding Scale: Profumo to Client No. 9
The old rule was that we were always shocked by what fascinated us the most. While big British scandals were about sex, big American scandals were about power.
But the country that bought us the ultimate power scandal of Watergate has turned remarkably British. From Gennifer Flowers to Paula Jones to Monica Lewinsky and now to the $1000-an-hour Kristen, the great American scandal need now concern merely those familiar sins of lust and adultery.
Even the prurient Brits never lowered the bar that far — requiring some extra moral spice beyond humping and hypocrisy. And until New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer became indelibly known as Client No. 9, the British held the all-time gold standard of a prostitution scandal. (It should be noted in passing that whatever the rights or wrongs of President Bill Clinton’s serial dalliances, nobody ever suggested that he actually paid cash for it.)
The Profumo scandal of 1963 was named after the secretary of state for war, John Profumo (memorably played by Sir Ian McKellen in the 1989 movie, “Scandal”). Though married to one of the most desirable and stylish women in London, the actress Valerie Hobson (who stood by him), Profumo developed an infatuation with a young call girl, Christine Keeler.
Profumo first saw the teenage nymph clambering naked from the swimming pool at Cliveden, the country house of Lord Astor. She was staying at a cottage on the estate with her mentor and pimp Stephen Ward, a society osteopath and gifted artist who did portraits of upper crust Brits, including Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband.)
Pretty, sexy and somewhat common in her speech and manners, Keeler was a good-time girl from a caravan site, the British equivalent of a trailer park. Unknown to Profumo, he was sharing her favors with the debonair actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a Jamaican petty gangster called Johnny Edgecombe and the Soviet military attache, Capt. Yevgeny Ivanov.
Rumors spread and the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, called in his war minister to ask if he was consorting with a prostitute. Profumo denied it, and then went before the House of Commons to repeat his denial. It was almost true. Unlike Spitzer, he did not pay for services rendered, but rather gave Keeler jewelry and expensive presents.
It was the gangster who blew the story, drunkenly demanding entrance to Keeler’s apartment and firing off a revolver in the street. He was arrested and the story began to unravel, with the country agog at the tales of high jinks in high places, sex in swimming polls and speculation – was Prince Philip involved?
The tone was set by the famous photo of Keeler, sitting naked with her legs enticingly spread around the back of the chair that kept her decent. The pose was re-enacted by Sarah Miles in the brilliant Joseph Losey movie, “The Servant,” made the year of the scandal.
It came in that curious period when Britannia was loosening her corsets to the music of the Beatles, just after a great censorship trial allowed the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” As the poet Philip Larkin recalled, it was the year “when sexual intercourse began,” or at least began to be discussed in the respectable newspapers and on the BBC.
But in that interesting and deeply hypocritical space between Puritanism and prurience that Anglo-Saxon societies like Britain and America often find themselves, the sexual scandal was not deemed to be central. The leader of the Labor Party opposition and later prime minister Harold Wilson told Parliament “this is not a moral issue” and focused instead on the security threat posed by Ivanov.
“It is a Moral Issue” thundered The Times editorial on the following day.
They were both wrong. What brought down Profumo was neither the sex nor the security, but the plain fact that he had lied to the House of Commons. And that is the key to the British scandal, the need to be high-minded about being high-handed in moral judgment.
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/picture_60.pngSo poor soon-to-be ex-Gov. Spitzer, with no security threat and no public lie to justify his agony, has now been destroyed for the sheer tawdriness of his lusts — or, in the British vernacular, getting it in the neck after paying through the nose for having it away with a bit on the side.
Unlike Profumo, whose scandals endured for months, or Clinton, whose baiting continued for more than a year, Spitzer has given us but a couple of days to revel in the delicious glee of seeing the witchfinder-in-chief stripped bare in his own hypocrisy. Exposed on a Monday, resigned on a Wednesday, it all went too fast to be seriously relished. That was Spitzer’s ultimate sin, to be a spoilsport.