Features

William Astor: My father, his swimming pool and the Profumo scandal

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

Christine Keeler and Jack Profumo might never have met in the swimming pool at Cliveden if it had not been for a filly called Ambiguity. As children, growing up at Cliveden, we all swam in the Thames. In the summer, the river was cold, dark and full of sludge, but my grandmother Nancy Astor, a devout Christian Scientist, thought it good for us. Then Ambiguity, my father’s filly, won the Oaks and with the prize money a heated swimming pool was built — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatrical version of history, as I had to keep reminding myself when I entered the Aldwych Theatre to see the new musical Stephen Ward, about the Profumo affair. The musical isn’t exactly true to life, but it is based on what happened. Musicals need heroes and villains, so my father, Bill Astor, was somewhat typecast. It was unnerving and cringe-making to watch him being parodied as a typical upper-class buffoon, when in fact he was quite shy and impeccably well mannered. Anthony Calf played him like a character from a Carry On… film. But I was well prepared sitting next to Dame Vivien Duffield, whose father Sir Charles Clore also featured, so we could both cringe together.

In fact, we laughed much more than we cringed and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The musical has some very funny lines; the lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black are brilliant. Only Lloyd Webber could write a score to make a rhyme out of ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ and ‘Belgravia’ and make it work. But I am perhaps least qualified to review the music, so this is less of a review and more of a reminiscence.

That infamous night when it all began featured an extraordinary cast of characters, most of whom had never met before or been to Cliveden before and most of whom never came again. It was a warm summer evening in July 1961 as my father Bill, Jack Profumo, his wife Valerie and other guests gathered for a dinner party at Cliveden. At the same time, Stephen Ward, who lived in one of the estate’s cottages a mile along the Thames from the house, had asked if he could use the pool after the family and guests had gone in to dinner.

After a very grand evening that also included the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster with his wife and, even more surprisingly, my future housemaster at Eton, Francis Gardiner, laughter was heard coming from the pool and some of the dinner guests drifted across the garden to see what the commotion was about. There, two worlds collided. First into the walled garden was Valerie Profumo, who anxiously covered up a topless Christine Keeler with a towel before the other guests arrived. But Christine had already been spotted by Jack Profumo and for the next couple of months Profumo and Christine embarked on an affair.

What a musical cannot do is really delve into the characters. It is merely a quick pastiche. I remember Ward well and can see him now, roaring up the drive of Cliveden in his white Jaguar. As children we were all slightly frightened of him. Even my over–friendly spaniel, Shandy, hid under a chair when he came into the house. Ward as played by Alexander Hanson catches the charm, the smooth talking, but not the dark side of his character. I remember the afternoons by the pool when Ward and his girlfriends came to swim, with other families from cottages on the estate, usually when my father and stepmother were away. One of the girls taught me how to do backflips from the diving board, but sadly I don’t remember who she was. All were well-behaved because Nanny Greene, large and in full uniform, presided over the pool sternly. No bad behaviour got past her.


The musical tries to portray Ward as a victim of the establishment. He was certainly innocent of the charges of living off immoral earnings, but he was not necessarily a victim. Stephen Ward was an arch-manipulator. As an osteopath, he manipulated his patients physically. He equally manipulated young, often vulnerable girls psychologically. Few who remember him speak with any genuine affection for him. He had charm and was a gifted artist but he used these talents to wield a sinister hold over his victims. He was the ultimate voyeur and was once described as ‘a perverted Professor Higgins’.

My father suffered from crippling migraines and neuritis. He met Ward in 1949 and Ward’s treatments worked wonders. My father fell under his spell and offered him the cottage in 1956. It suited him to be treated after hunting on Saturdays. I remember my stepmother Bronwen, long before the scandal broke, pleading with my father to take back the cottage from Ward, as she always disliked him. She found him manoeuvring and slightly depraved. She always said she felt the hair stand up on her neck when he was in the room.

They were not great friends, he and my father. It was much more a doctor-and-patient relationship. Ward only came to four meals at Cliveden in the three years before he left the cottage. In January 1963, 18 months after the infamous evening, Ward told my father that Christine was going to write a series of articles giving an exaggerated account of what took place at Cliveden. In April, Ward offered to give up the cottage, which delighted my father as he had been trying to summon up the courage to ask him to leave.

Looking back, it was an extraordinary time with some incredibly eclectic characters. The girls, young and working-class, whom Ward picked up in Oxford Street or in clubs, must have been overawed by the surroundings. So too the Russian naval attaché whom Ward was trying to set up for MI5. Ward brought Ivanov to lunch at Cliveden. It was a disaster and my father wrote to the under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office reporting the conversation, asking never to be used again as a conduit from or to the Russians.

There is a wonderful scene in the musical where the News of the World tries to force Christine Keeler to embellish her story — nothing changes. But she says she can’t exaggerate any more than she has. My one complaint is that my father is accused of deserting Ward and not being prepared to testify at his trial. In fact it was Ward’s own counsel who decided not to call him, and he paid all Ward’s legal fees. As for the other characters, Profumo is well portrayed by Daniel Flynn. The disgraced minister still sets an example, never surpassed by any subsequent politician, of how to behave with courage and dignity following a scandal.

Christine is a difficult character to portray but Charlotte Spencer is convincing. Charlotte Blackledge is a hoot as Mandy Rice-Davies. She looks like her, sounds like her and her character really comes to life. The nightclub scene at Murray’s is fun and catches the atmosphere of the 1960s. The scenes where Ward woos Keeler at his riverside cottage at Cliveden are beautifully done. The sets are clever and imaginative. The only let-down is a rather camp orgy scene based in a house in London, where the music and lyrics bear a passing resemblance to a Christmas pantomime.

However, that can be forgiven, as the swimming pool scene featuring Keeler, Profumo and my father is brilliantly done. The musical is funny, with great pace, and I hope people will come away with a greater understanding, although not necessarily with totally accurate knowledge, of this extraordinary affair that transfixed a nation.

It was a scandal that exposed the hypocrisy of the establishment that Ward so offended, exposed the dishonesty of the police and prosecuting authorities and of the security service. But I don’t think there were the real villains or heroes that a musical requires. This is because, in the end, the characters in the Profumo scandal were all victims: victims of a maelstrom that none could escape. Few survived unscathed.

Ward killed himself as the jury delivered their guilty verdict. My father never recovered his health and died a couple of years later. Some in society turned their backs on my father, but most rallied round and it actually brought us closer together as a family. Christine does not seem to have a happy life, and I am sure that there are others scarred by their association with Stephen Ward. Mandy Rice-Davies, who had accused my father in court of sleeping with her, seems to have come through, although she did admit that she was as nervous as I was watching the musical.

Yes, she was there too, and we spoke to each other. In fact, the one great plus of the evening was that I finally got to meet her. When my father’s counsel told her that he flatly denied her claims, she uttered the immortal line ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ She was absolutely charming — and had very kind words to say about my father. It was a most unexpected moment, a reconciliation of sorts and an uplifting footnote after all these years. And what of the accusation? Well, any girl of 19 who can get into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, whether with something true or not true, has to be rather admired.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Liya Ladizinsky

    “There is a wonderful scene in the musical where the News of the World tries to force Christine Keeler to embellish her story — nothing changes. But she says she can’t exaggerate any more than she has.”…She never cxaggerate about the sex she had with Ivanov. She always said she had sex with the Russian naval attaché, but only once.

    • jazmayeli

      She actually never said so at the time. And she was not coy about saying who she went to bed with. But she never mentioned having had sex with Ivanov to anyone until she was interviewed by the Sunday Pictorial.

      • Liya Ladizinsky

        No! before she interviewed by the Sunday Pictorial, she told to Michael Eddowes about the sex with Ivanov. it was a short time after Johnnie Edgecombe shots at Stephen Ward’s front door.

        • jazmayeli

          Both Michael Eddowes and John Lewis put words in Christine’s mouth, or simply made them up. Lewis hated Ward because Ward had given Lewis’s wife, Joy, a roof over her head when she ran away from Lewis.. Eddowes was a conspiracy theorist par excellence and was convinced that Ward was a communist spy who ran call girl rackets on both sides of the Atlantic. He also tried to prove Ward was involved in the Kennedy assassination.

          She lied persistently at the Edgecombe and Ward trials saying that it was Lucky Gordon who had assaulted her. This, despite the fact that there were at least two witnesses who knew that it was John Hamilton-Marshall who assaulted her and caused her injuries. The police told her to say it was Gordon.

          • Liya Ladizinsky

            She had a row with John Hamilton-Marshall before Fenton and Commachio arrived. John left and after that they arrived, and when they arrived Lucky Gordon appeared and violently attacked her. they were eyewitnesses to the attack and they didn’t want to get involved with the police and the trial because they were black. so they asked CK, PHM and the housekeeper Olive Brooker to deny on Gordon’s trial that they know them and that they were present at the scene. So you saying that Fenton and Commachio denied that Gordon attacked her and claimed it was Paula’s brother? are you absolutely sure they both said Lucky didn’t attacked her on that day? Keeler say’s today (and said it at least more than 20 years ago on the late 80’s) that Gordon attacked her that day (and on previous occasions) and he was rightly jailed.

            and about Ivanov, i don’t believe that the sex with him was a fiction made by the press or by Eddowes and Lewis. Ivanov himself admitted in 1992 that he had sex with Keeler in Ward’s flat at Wimpole Mews. and Keeler always said that it happaned only once. the press turn the one time sex with Ivanov into an affair with the Russian spy In parallel with the Profumo affair.

          • jazmayeli

            I’m sorry, you are wrong on this. The Lucky Gordon Appeal found in Lucky’s favour because the two witnesses, Fenton & Cammachio who had not been called at his trial, were eventually “found” by the police and gave evidence to the Appeal that Lucky did not assault Christine. (He assaulted her on other occasions and was punished but on this occasion he did not.) Christine was jailed for perjury because she admitted she had lied under oath at the Gordon trial. (And she repeated the same lie at the Ward trial.) At her trial for perjury she admitted she had lied under oath at the Gordon trial and that it was John Hamilton-Marshall, not Lucky Gordon, that assaulted her. She was jailed for 9 months for perjury.

          • Liya Ladizinsky

            “…(He assaulted her on other occasions and was punished…)” – what do you mean when you say he “was punished”? do you mean that he was punished about his assaults on Keeler on other occasions or he was punished on other crimes he commited Regardless to CK? as far as i know, Lucky was never punished on other occasions when he assaulted Keeler!

          • jazmayeli

            Liya, I am impressed with your knowledge, maybe you should have written “the best history of the life and trial of Stephen Ward”, “arguably the very best book on this subject” and “the definitive book on the Profumo Scandal and the Framing of Stephen Ward’ (reviews from my 2 books on the subject). FYI Lucky Gordon was picked up several times by the police for his erratic and violent behaviour. I got to know him pretty well and learned his whole story, much of which is irrelevant to the narrative of the book and the Profumo Affair and so is not included.
            There is little point continuing this discussion. I understand your sympathy for Christine Keeler. She was definitely a victim in many ways. But, on the other hand, her many affairs and her love of alcohol and drugs were also instruments of her downfall and her inability to get her life back on track. She could have survived and prospered, as Mandy did.

          • Liya Ladizinsky

            “Lucky Gordon was picked up several times by the police for his erratic and violent behaviour.” – I would not call it a punishment. when i say punish, i mean to be in jail for a few months at least, serving the entire sentence period or most of it, not to be picked up by the police and a few days later released on bail. Lucky Gordon never punished on his violent behaviour against Keeler! maybe on his violent against other people, but not on his assaults of CK.

            “There is little point continuing this discussion.” – I do not agree.

            “her love of alcohol and drugs were also instruments of her downfall and her inability to get her life back on track. She could have survived and prospered, as Mandy did.” – She has never been an alcoholic, and “her love of alcohol and drugs” was not the reason of “her inability to get her life back on track”.

          • Liya Ladizinsky

            Although the discussion was over, i still have somthing to say to you. You said i’m wrong about Lucky Gordon’s trail and appeal, but you didn’t say on which sources you are basing when you said that “Fenton & Cammachio…gave evidence to the Appeal that Lucky did not assault Christine”, and that CK at her trial for perjury said that “it was John Hamilton-Marshall, not Lucky Gordon, that assaulted her”.
            I’m basing on CK books, and also on what she said on television in June 1988 on After dark. As long as you did not say what your sources are, what you wrote here is not considered by my to be more true and reliable than Christine Keeler’s words!

  • James Lynch

    Astor Snr. was a sexual degenerate. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course! But let’s call a spade a spade.

  • WBC

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz … rich whoremongers … zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz yadda yadda …zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

  • rob232

    It says in the Wikipedia that Stephen Ward was murdered by the British Secret Service. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Ward

    • jazmayeli

      Rubbish. Besides Stephen Ward, only two people were in Noel Howard-Jones’s flat the night that Stephen Ward committed suicide – Noel Howard-Jones and Ward’s then girlfriend, Julie Gulliver, neither of whom worked for MI5 or any other British Intelligence Service. Edward, “Teddy” Sugden gave the Nembutal prescription to Ward when he was suffering from insomnia while on remand during the committal proceedings. Sugden had his own motives for prescribing the pills. You can read it all in my book, “How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward”.

      • rob232

        This is all before my time of course and I have only just begun reading about this case. I was intrigued by this interview with Ruth Ellis’s sister who insists her sister had also been recruited by Stepehen Ward.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wo1tVpaNxmw

        • jazmayeli

          Interesting, Rob, thanks for this. I had heard rumours of this story but the fact is the only real connection between Ruth Ellis and Stephen Ward was a girl called Valerie Mewes who met on Oxford Street by chance. Playing Professor Higgins, Ward successfully transformed her into a film starlet, changing her name to Vickie Martin. Valerie had been sharing a flat with Ruth Ellis before she met Ward but the two girls had been evicted because they couldn’t pay the rent. Ruth had already gone her separate way so didn’t even meet Ward with Valerie.

      • Paul Matthews

        You are forgetting Tom Mangold.

        • jazmayeli

          Thanks Paul. I am not forgetting Tom Mangold. Tom was with Stephen Ward briefly early that evening but had to go home to his wife. He was not in the flat later in the evening as Noel Howard-Jones, who owned the flat in which Stephen Ward was staying, would have seen him, or at least heard him. It was a tiny flat and, as Noel says, even if “I wasn’t in the room at the time, I could hear everything going on in the other room, including Stephen striking matches to light his cigarettes.” He would most definitely have heard voices if there were any. And the only voices he heard that evening were Stephen’s and his then girlfriend, Julie Gulliver. And if he had heard Tom’s voice he probably would have come out of his bedroom to say hello as he was a friend of Tom’s too.

          • Paul Matthews

            Many thanks.

  • jazmayeli

    As co-author of two books about Stephen Ward and the Profumo scandal I would like to refute William Astor’s article where he was (perhaps, understandably) trying to protect his father’s name and reputation, William was only 13 years old at the time of the scandal and I’m sure was insulated from the scandalous events going on around him. However, his uncle, David Astor, was very close to the action. Not only was he the brother of Bill Astor (William’s father), he was also the publisher of the Observer. He told me quite categorically that Bill Astor did not offer to give evidence on StephenWard’s behalf. The reason for this, he explained, was foolish advice given to Bill by their family friend, a lawyer. This friend also wrongly advised Bill Astor to behave like nothing was happening. David Astor tried to convince his brother not to take the advice but, according to him, “My brother acted like a rabbit caught in the headlights. He went about as though nothing was happening while his best friend was in the dock. It was appalling.” This was all confirmed by several of Astor’s friends who I also interviewed. They said that when they found out that Bill Astor, Ward’s best friend, was not going to give evidence in support of Ward then they, too, wouldn’t volunteer. Most of them admitted they found it very hard to live with this decision.

    Bill Astor’s second wife, Philippa, confirmed to me too that, contrary to what William Astor says in this article, Bill Astor was Stephen Ward’s best friend. She was around when the friendship between Ward and Astor blossomed.

  • G21

    Since we have many goals to consider pursuing, the basis for deciding which efforts are worth the risk must be estimates of useful value rather than useless merit.

  • Thanks to Dr Brave for bringing back my wife,and brought great joy to my family?

    Hello to every one out here, am here to share the unexpected miracle that happened to me three days ago, My name is Jeffrey Dowling,i live in TEXAS,USA.and I`m happily married to a lovely and caring wife,with two kids A very big problem occurred in my family seven months ago,between me and my wife so terrible that she took the case to court for a divorce she said that she never wanted to stay with me again,and that she did not love me anymore So she packed out of my house and made me and my children passed through severe pain. I tried all my possible means to get her back,after much begging,but all to no avail and she confirmed it that she has made her decision,and she never wanted to see me again. So on one evening,as i was coming back from work,i met an old friend of mine who asked of my wife So i explained every thing to her,so she told me that the only way i can get my wife back,is to visit a spell caster,because it has really worked for her too So i never believed in spell,but i had no other choice,than to follow her advice. Then she gave me the email address of the spell caster whom she visited.(bravespellcaster@gmail.com}, So the next morning,i sent a mail to the address she gave to me,and the spell caster assured me that i will get my wife back the next day what an amazing statement!! I never believed,so he spoke with me,and told me everything that i need to do. Then the next morning, So surprisingly, my wife who did not call me for the past seven {7}months,gave me a call to inform me that she was coming back So Amazing!! So that was how she came back that same day,with lots of love and joy,and she apologized for her mistake,and for the pain she caused me and my children. Then from that day,our relationship was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster . So, was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster . So, i will advice you out there to kindly visit the same website http://bravespellcaster.yolasite.com,if you are in any condition like this,or you have any problem related to “bringing your ex back. So thanks to Dr Brave for bringing back my wife,and brought great joy to my family once again.{bravespellcaster@gmail.com} , Thanks.

    Are you passing through any of these problems,

    DO YOU NEED YOUR EX BACK VERY FAST

    DON YOU WANT YOUR LOVER TO LOVE YOU AS NEVER LIKE BEFORE

    ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM A LONG TIME SICKNESS

    ARE YOU FACING FINANCIAL PROBLEMS

    ARE YOU SEEKING FOR A GOOD JOB

    DO YOU WANT TO BECOME A HOUSE OWNER

    ARE YOU LOOKING FOR A FIRST CLASS GRADE

    DO YOU WANT TO COME OUT FIRST IN YOUR EXAMS

    ARE YOU A STAR AND YOU WANT TO BE SO POPULAR TO THE WHOLE WORLD

    DO YOU WANT TO BE RICH

    DO YOU WANT YOUR BUSINESS TO KEEP MOVING

    DO YOU HAVE A COMPANY OF ANY KIND AND YOU WANT IT TO EXPAND

    DO YOU WANT YOUR HUSBAND OR WIFE TO KEEP TO YOUR WORLD

    ARE YOU FACING ANY MARITAL PROBLEMS

    ARE YOU FINDING IT DIFFICULT TO GET PREGNANT FOR YOUR HUSBAND

    ARE YOU EXPERIENCING MISCARRIAGES ANY TIME YOU TAKE IN

    DO YOU WANT TO COMPETE IN ANY LOTTERY GAME

    ARE YOU FACING HARDSHIP

    HAVE YOU BEEN THREATENED BY SOMEONE

    DO YOU WANT TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN ANY THING YOU LAY YOUR HANDS ON

    IS YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER BEHAVING STRANGELY

    ARE YOU FACING WITCH CRAFT MANIPULATIONS

    DO YOU WANT TO CAST A STRONG LOVE SPELL ON YOUR GIRL OR BOY FRIEND

    DO YOU NEED MAGIC POWERS TO DO ANY THING YOU WANT

    ARE YOU FINDING IT DIFFICULT TO CHOOSE A LIFE PARTNER

    DO YOU WANT YOUR PARENTS TO BE PROUD OF YOU

    ARE YOU EXPERIENCING FAILURE AND DISAPPOINTMENT IN ANY THING YOU DO.(ETC)

    If you are facing any of these problems all you just need do is to contact him immediately email ( bravespellcaster@gmail.com )…………………..

Close