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Ex-UK minister, tainted in sex scandal, is dead

John Profumo, an ex-British Cabinet minister whose liaison with a prostitute nearly brought down a government, died after suffering a stroke. He was 91.
John Profumo
Former British War Minister John Profumo, who died Thursday night, is shown in 1985.Hulton Archive / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

John Profumo, a former British Cabinet minister whose liaison with a prostitute nearly brought down a government, died after suffering a stroke, an official said Friday. He was 91.

Profumo died late Thursday night, surrounded by his family at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, said its spokesman, Mark Purcell. Profumo had been admitted there two days earlier.

Profumo, who spent more than 40 years redeeming himself with charity work for London’s poor, was Britain’s secretary of state for war when he was involved with Christine Keeler in 1963. At the same time, she was seeing a Soviet naval attache and intelligence agent.

Profumo first denied the affair, but after the publication of a letter he wrote her, he resigned on June 5, 1963.

Government rattled
Although there proved to be no breach of security, the scandal rattled the government to its foundations, made a celebrity of Keeler, and transfixed newspaper readers around the world.

The scandal was a severe blow to the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who resigned in November 1963 for health reasons. His Conservative Party went on to lose the national elections in 1964.

The scandal ended Profumo’s promising political career when he 48.

Far more damaging than a tawdry association with Keeler was the fact that she was sharing her favors with Soviet agent Yevgeny Ivanov. In an official report on the affair, eminent Court of Appeal judge Lord Denning concluded that security had not been breached.

He said Ivanov and Profumo “did no doubt narrowly miss one another on occasions,” something that afforded Keeler with “much amusement.”

In 1961, Ivanov told Stephen Ward, an osteopath in whose apartment Profumo and Keeler frequently met, that the Soviets knew the United States was about to supply atomic weapons to West Germany, Denning said. The Soviet agent asked Ward to find out through his friends when that decision was to be implemented, Denning said.

But Denning said he believed Ward’s denials that Keeler had been asked to get this information from Profumo.

“Mr. Profumo was also clear that she never asked him, and I am quite sure that he would not have told her if she had asked him,” Denning concluded.

In a sensational trial, Ward was convicted of living off the immoral earnings of Keeler and another call girl, Mandy Rice-Davies. He took a drug overdose during the trial and died after the verdicts were announced.

In search of redemption
Profumo retreated from the public eye and looked for something to do with his life. His wife, actress Valerie Hobson, whom he married in 1954, stood by him throughout the scandal. She died in 1998.

Profumo was a wealthy man, the Oxford-educated son of a prominent lawyer descended from an Italian aristocrat who settled in England in 1880. He owned a large stake in the Provident Life Association, and a Swiss takeover of the insurance firm in 1981 yielded Profumo more than $12 million.

He served in North Africa during World War II, and was made an Officer of the Order of British Empire for his service. He was elected to Parliament in 1940.

About a year after his public disgrace, Profumo found work as an unpaid helper at Toynbee Hall, a charity for the poor in London’s East End. He began as a dishwasher, became a fundraiser for the charity, then its chairman, and eventually its president. He also worked in a social club for alcoholics.

In 1975, Queen Elizabeth II made Profumo a Commander of the Order of British Empire, or CBE for his charity work.

A friend, the late Bishop Jim Thompson, said in 1993 that Profumo “says he has never known a day since it happened when he has not felt shame.”

In 1989, Thompson appealed to filmmakers to give up plans to make the movie “Scandal” about the Profumo affair. He said it was unjust to make the Profumos live through it again. The movie was eventually released that year.