Everyone in the Profumo scandal got redemption – except Christine Keeler | Tanya Gold

Christine Keeler in 1963
‘Keeler’s beauty made her exceptional. It was, potentially, an escape route from poverty, and it might have made her happy. But it ruined her.’ Photograph: stf/AP

Christine Keeler is dead, and I hope the obituaries will not dwell too long or too excitably on the strange beauty of her face and the slenderness of her figure, nude astride the chair in the famous photograph of 1963. Her beauty, by itself, gilded a myth that was never true for her: that the 1960s were swinging in London, and it was an era of hope.

If powerful men were happy to exploit a 19-year-old – Keeler’s age when she slept with 46-year-old John Profumo, the secretary of state for war, and Yevgeny Ivanov, a Russian spy – then, says this myth, the misery of rationing and of war was over. That is a media construct, and it is stupider than most.

Christine Keeler

A former model who was introduced to society figures by the osteopath Stephen Ward. In June 1961, when Keeler was 19, Ward introduced Keeler to John Profumo at a party at the Buckinghamshire stately home, Cliveden.

Stephen Ward

In 1963, Ward was tried for living off “immoral earnings” after claims that he introduced women including Mandy Rice-Davies and Keeler to rich clients. The case ended with Ward’s suicide.

Mandy Rice-Davies

The British model made a headline-grabbing appearance at Ward’s trial, claiming that her lovers included Viscount “Bill” Astor, the owner of Cliveden. Told that her alleged former lover denied her allegations, she answered: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” Rice-Davies died of cancer aged 70 in 2014.

Yevgeny Ivanov

The Soviet naval attaché had an affair with Keeler at the same time as Profumo. The romantic triangle led to Profumo, then secretary of state for war, resigning.

John Profumo

The affair nearly destroyed Harold Macmillan’s government. Profumo spent the rest of his life volunteering at Toynbee Hall, a charity in east London. He died in 2006, aged 91.

Written by Holly Watt

This is not a story about Britain emerging from the dark of the 1950s to the light of the 1960s, with Keeler as evidence of change and sexual freedom; the way she was treated – exploited – was as conservative as might have been expected in the 1860s.

Essentially, she was used by men who survived, while she did not. The exception was her enabler Stephen Ward, who killed himself during his trial for living off the immoral earning of prostitutes.

What kind of girl danced topless at a Soho cabaret club in the late 1950s, visited by aristocrats seeking a thrill, even if their own daughters did not work there? A poor girl, of course, in this case from Uxbridge, abandoned by her real father. According to her memoir Secrets and Lies, her stepfather touched her when she was 12 and asked her to run away with him, because he did not love her mother. He beat her mother too, and he drowned the puppies.

At one point in her childhood, it was noted by authorities that she was malnourished, and she was sent away. Keeler’s physical beauty made her exceptional. It was, potentially, an escape route from poverty, and it might have made her happy, had she been less credulous. But it ruined her. Men would not leave her alone; babysitting was perilous as the fathers attempted to assault her. When she was 17, she tried to abort her baby with a pen. She failed, and the child died at six days old.

Essentially, she was used by men who survived, while she did not. The exception was her enabler Stephen Ward

In London she met Stephen Ward, osteopath to the stars. He was not interested in her sexually but he used her to court the powerful men whose friendship he was emotionally and professionally dependent on. He called her “his little baby”, took her to orgies, and eased her into an affair with the married Profumo. Keeler expected little from men after the horror of her childhood, and her testimony about the affair is telling. “I enjoyed it,” she wrote, “for he was kind and loving afterwards.” This is the gratitude of the abused child; mere affection satisfied her. When another lover – Aloysius “Lucky” Gordon – abducted and raped her, she continued to see him. After she withdrew an accusation of assault she was imprisoned for perjury.

There was no understanding of her victimhood then, and barely any now; Keeler is still the naked photograph that embodied an era. Harold Macmillan, whose government fell after the Profumo affair, called her a tart, and, in the public mind, she remained one.

There was redemption for everyone involved in the Profumo scandal eventually: but not for Keeler, who knew she “took on the sins of everybody, of a generation, really …”

Profumo worked unpaid at Toynbee Hall in the East End and was given the CBE in 1975; he became a tragic hero. Lord Longford said he “felt more admiration [for Profumo] than [for] all the men I’ve known in my lifetime”. When Profumo died in 2006, the Daily Telegraph called him: “a man who made one terrible mistake but sought his own redemption in a way which has no precedent in public life either before or since”. Ward, meanwhile, was exonerated by Geoffrey Robertson’s 2013 book Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK, and was also the subject of a short-running musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, again in 2013, called Stephen Ward.

But for Keeler there was no legacy but shame; guilt clings to the victim, then as now. Her marriages failed, her money was lost, and she was fired from a menial job when her identity was exposed. She was mocked for losing the beauty that defined her; Christine Keeler looking rough became a tabloid staple, for what else was she for? She was mocked, too, for seeking to profit from the scandal with her memoirs; but if men can benefit from her story, why not she? The answer is simple, and eternal. She was the woman, and the woman bears the guilt.

• Tanya Gold is a freelance writer