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Byline: Paul Rees

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo Richard Davenpor t-Hines (Harper Press, PS20) It is the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair, a minor scandal that riveted the media, hastened the end of 13 years of Conservative rule and presaged the permissive era.

Richard Davenport-Hines has written an exhaustive book on a tempest that blew the roof off the Establishment, but his description of it as an English affair, as distinct from a British one, is contentious.

One of the leading characters caught up in the scandal was Bronwen Astor, the daughter of a Welsh judge, who in 1960, aged 30, became the third wife of Viscount Astor, the son of Nancy Astor whose family pile was Cliveden, near Maidenhead.

It was at Cliveden where the chief protagonists met in 1961: Profumo, the Minister for War in Harold Macmillan's government, Stephen Ward, an osteopath, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, good-time girls who were friends of Ward's, and Yevgeny Ivanov, an assistant naval attache at the Russian embassy.

Parties were later described as orgies; Keeler claimed to have slept with Profumo and Ivanov which, at the height of the Cold War, raised fears and speculation that she may have passed on secrets to the Russians.

Bronwen Astor was five months' pregnant in July 1961 when she and her husband hosted the President of Pakistan, Profumo, Lord Mountbatten and other worthies. At the same time Ward, who lived in a cottage in the grounds of Cliveden, was entertaining Keeler, a hitch-hiker he had picked up and a law student. They were joined on the Sunday by Ivanov. What happened next is a mix of fact and fantasy.

Decades before Lord Leveson was asked the examine the excesses of the Fourth Estate, the News of the World paid Keeler to say that Astor and Profumo chased her naked around the swimming pool at Cliveden, that Bronwen Astor had arrived wearing a tiara and that Ward's group had been invited to the main house.

It was Ward who brought the link between Profumo and Ivanov to the intelligence services and over the months, various stories leaked out involving a motley cast of minor characters, including the slum landlord Peter Rachman, a Pole, and a West Indian drug dealer and pimp, not so quintessentially English.

By the time a Labour MP made allegations in the House of Commons against Profumo in 1963, attempts at denial were only ever going to succeed in the short-term. Profumo lied to the House and was eventually forced to resign.

Davenport-Hines sets the scene in the first half of the book, examining not just the government and the Astors, but the way women were treated in Britain and the media. The conclusion was hypocrisy in all its ugliness.

The scandal ruined Lord Astor who suffered a heart attack in 1964 and died two years later, leaving Bronwen with two young children. She moved out of Cliveden in 1968 and retired from public life, a Welsh victim of a not-so English affair.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Apr 6, 2013
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