Philip Larkin began one of his better-known poems with the arresting observation that Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me)— / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP. Larkin was born in 1922, and so would have been in the middle of middle age in 1963: too old, probably, to benefit from the evolving public morality of the era; too young to have known the douceur de vivre that the pre-1914 generation liked to talk about.
Most Americans might make the same rough calculation, perhaps mentioning the Kennedy assassination (November 1963) as a signpost of the times, along with the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (February 1964). But The Scrapbook would push things back a few months to the summer of 1963 and the Pro-fumo Affair, which very nearly brought down the British government of the day and was the first British political scandal to be avidly chronicled in the American press.
By today’s standards, the scandal was comparatively tame. A rising politician, Minister of Defense John Profumo, had engaged in an extramarital affair with a showgirl named Christine Keeler, who counted among her lovers the Russian naval attaché in London. It was the Soviet connection that raised red flags, as it were. Speaking to the House of Commons, Profumo denied any “impropriety” in his relationship to Keeler. But his deception was exposed a few months later, and he resigned in disgrace: partly for the indiscretion of sharing a mistress with a Soviet diplomat, but largely for lying to Parliament. In politics, then as now, it’s not the crime but the cover-up that gets you into trouble.
What made the Profumo Affair unique in its time, and probably appealed to its American audience, was the extent to which it was counter-intuitive: It revealed that underneath the staid exterior of old England was a swinging new England of randy politicians, loosened standards, and high society hijinks. But of course, as with all such symbols of an era, the Profumo Affair was both more and less than it seemed: Society did undergo a revolution of sorts in the 1960s, but not everything changed.
The Scrapbook was reminded of all this the other day by the news that Mandy Rice-Davies had died, age 70. Rice-Davies was one of the secondary figures in the Profumo Affair: She had been the London roommate of her fellow showgirl Christine -Keeler, and was reportedly the mistress of Viscount Astor, at whose stately home the various Profumo-Keeler-Ivanov-etc. assignations had taken place. When, as a trial witness, she was told that Lord Astor had denied their affair, she famously responded: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”
In contrast to her old roommate’s, Mandy Rice-Davies’s subsequent life was comparatively happy and prosperous. The first of her three rich husbands was an Israeli businessman, with whom she opened a series of clubs and restaurants in Tel Aviv. She acted in movies with the likes of Lou Ferrigno; she sang and recorded songs; she published a novel; at her homes in the Caribbean, she was always available for interviews.
One comment late in life, however, struck The Scrapbook as poignant—and revealing, too. “If I could live my life over,” she once explained, “I would wish 1963 had not existed.” She was always at pains to point out that she and Keeler had been -dancers and good-time girls—precursors of Philip Larkin’s Swinging London, to be sure, but nothing more: “I have to fight the misconception that I was a prostitute, and I don’t want that passed on to my grandchildren. There is still a stigma.”