Too close to the sun
[ people - february 06 ]
One evening, around five thirty, I had a call from Christine Keeler. She sounded panicky and insisted I meet her “at once” in the pub she was calling from. Take a cab, I’ll pay for it, you must come immediately, she said. I stalled, I was busy. I was not being churlish to the lady but I knew that Christine could be very off-the-wall. I hadn’t known her for all that long, and hadn’t seen her for a while, to deserve the call, though she had been to a few dinner parties in our flat, and I had been to a few parties which she had been at.
I had first met her when I was commissioned to write something up on her for Penthouse magazine, which I was reluctant to do and never did. Christine Keeler was passée. She had been the most notorious woman in England, having brought down the Harold Macmillan government in 1963. She had been the mistress of his Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, and at the same time sleeping with a Russian naval attaché. She had been “introduced” to both by a Dr Stephen Ward, who ran a call girl service. The domino theory came into play - Profumo denied the affair, the newspapers found out and therefore he had lied in Parliament. Profumo resigned. Down came the government. Ward committed suicide before his trial. And Christine was bundled off to jail for prostitution as the fall guy.
She was just 21-years-old at the time but her “fame”, if we could call it that, would outlast that of any celebrity, actor or singer. Their fame is limited to the present mostly and would soon flame out. Christine was linked firmly to history, even if a small footnote, but the link to history is more durable than any celebrity fame. A century from this day, when the celebrities are forgotten, Christine Keeler will remain embedded in those books as the “infamous woman”. Certainly, everyone involved in that scandal paid a dear price but Christine paid much more only because she was a woman. The men she slept with were rich and powerful and slipped back into their manors and castles. All she was left with was her de-flowered name, and her misdeed. She came from a poor family and there was no such escape for her.
I guess we could call her the Monica Lewinsky of her day - another woman whose life became entangled with a powerful man, and her life falling tattered by the wayside. She too nearly, very nearly, unseated the most powerful man in the world. If Clinton’s impeachment, by a biased Senate, had succeeded, Lewinsky too would have made history. Now, I’m not sure about a footnote even. Her blemished celebrity hood will pass one day into obscurity. Both the women were very young, Lewinsky an ambitious intern, and were totally ignorant that it could be very dangerous to get too close to powerful men. But is must have been too tempting. It was Henry Kissinger who pronounced that “power is an aphrodisiac” and, tragically, women succumb to this magic potion.
But Christine’s liaison dangereuse had taken place 10 years ago and Christine was still living off her notoriety, selling and re-selling her story to various down-market newspapers, when we met. She was a pretty girl with regular features, a good body, worth a second glance on a street corner (to be chauvinistic), and I certainly wouldn’t have called her beautiful. And she certainly wasn’t a nuclear scientist! She was a simple girl, with a simple mind, enough to get by on in an average life but not enough to skirt the dangers that befell her and would continue to pursue her life.
I wasn’t sure why I was “urgently” needed as I wasn’t her lover. She had once announced to me at a dinner party for others to hear too that “I wouldn’t sleep with you as you’re coloured”. I hadn’t made a pass, which would have ruined my relationship with my then girlfriend, and I knew it was Christine’s way of telling a joke. She had a skewered sense of humour, especially as we knew whom she slept with and colour wasn’t a criterion in her choice. At another dinner she was boasting to us that she had had her breasts lifted. And to prove it, she lifted up her blouse to show us. They were indeed perfectly formed and very firm. I wasn’t aroused but felt a sense of melancholy that this was all she had to offer the world.
She was naturally a magnet for men, the rich, the celebrity and the also-rans, who wanted to boast they had slept with Christine Keeler. At some point in our friendship (not a relationship), if I could call it that, she suddenly married a very wealthy man whose family was in the steel business in Birmingham or Manchester. She brought him over to dinner one night. He was possibly younger than her, charming and friendly, none too bright either, but came from such a different background that I wondered how long it would last. What did he expect from Christine in this marriage - a housewife? A doting mother? (She had a child already, parked with her mother in a council flat somewhere) Fidelity? She moved into his townhouse in Chelsea and now played the hostess for us. His house had all the accoutrements of the rich, including a cook who made the dinners, while he served expensive wines.
I didn’t see her in marital bliss for a few months until I had a call from her. She was weepy and wanted me to help her move her belongings out of the townhouse. If I wasn’t surprised by the break-up, I was by her call for assistance. I wandered around to the townhouse, helped her carry her cases down to the waiting car and carried them up to the flat she was going to crash in for a few weeks until she found her own home.
So that evening when Christine began to sniffle and weep, my resistance broke down. I caught a cab to the pub which was just off Sloane Street. It was a gloomy place, almost deserted, and I had to peer through the shadows to find Christine. She was sitting alone in a booth, quite elegantly dressed, but all huddled up and looking very nervous. She waved me over like a drowning swimmer and I slid into the booth next to her. She grabbed me by the arm, as if I were a long-waited lover late for a date. What’s up? I asked, getting slightly worried. I just wanted you to be here, she said and her eyes flicked across the room towards three men at the far end of the bar. They were staring at us, and at me particularly. The one in the middle wants to sleep with me, she said, and I don’t want to. What gave him that idea? I joked. He called me for a date to meet him here and, as I’ve changed my mind, he’s getting aggressive so I told him I was waiting for my boy friend. Which meant me.
I didn’t like the look of the men - they were white, hard-looking, two in leather jackets, her date was in a sleek suit. I peered harder and knew I was in deep shit. I recognized him. He was one of the Kray brothers. The Krays were East End gangsters who were into armed robbery, extortion, drugs and killing people. And she had made a date with him. I glanced to the barman, assiduously polishing glasses, avoiding my look. I unhooked Christine’s arm and slid quickly out of the booth. You can’t leave me, she wailed. Just watch me, I said and then, against my better instincts, added chivalrously: you coming?, hoping we’d make the door fast. She shook her head and I slipped out of the pub, avoiding eye contact with Kray and his hoods. The worst that could happen to Christine would be to sleep with Kray; the worst that could have happened to me was a broken arm or jaw. I resented being drawn into what I saw as the magnetic attractions of two notorious characters. Gangsters too are an aphrodisiac for some people, their dangerous power only fractionally more amoral than some politicians. Christine and Kray could boast they had slept with each other. (The Krays ended up in prison for life).
That wasn’t the last time I saw Christine. A couple of years back I was standing in a bar with a friend. He looked over my shoulder, stared at someone and said “isn’t that Christine Keeler?” Eventually, I did turn and barely recognized the worn and faded woman sitting alone. That prettiness had seeped out through drink and disillusion, leaving a sad shell. I thought of saying “hi”, then doubted she would remember me after all these years and left the bar.