The Sporting Season and An Important Sense of Place Part 3: The ‘Profumo Pool’ at Cliveden House, Buckinghamshire
Cliveden House is currently a National Trust-owned property, leased as a hotel and spa. The main house is an Italianate mansion and with an estate of 375 acres of gardens and woodland in Buckinghamshire, on the border with Berkshire. Close to the village of Taplow, near to the Thameside town of Maidenhead, Cliveden’s grounds slope down to the river and the current Grade 1 Listed property is the third house built on the site, completed in 1851 by the architect Charles Barry for George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, the Second Duke of Sutherland. Although linked with the social elite, particularly when owned by the Astor family, Cliveden is open to the public through the National Trust scheme there and the grounds are much used by a wide range of people in the Spring, Summer and Autumn.
Nancy Astor and ‘The Cliveden Set’ in the twentieth century
Although Cliveden had a long and distinguished history dating back to the seventeenth century, its reputation was cemented as a place for glamorous leisure when the American millionaire hotel owner William Waldorf Astor purchased the estate for $1.25 million in 1893. Astor’s first wife Marnie died at the age of just 36 one year later, and William focused much time on the house, redeveloping it and adding key features such as the mid eighteenth century wall panels in the French Dining Room from Chateaux d'Asnieres near Paris and the Fountain of Love Fountain carved by Thomas Waldo Story in marble and volcanic rock.
Although Nancy Langorne had been previously married to socialite Robert Gould Shaw, she divorced and moved to England in 1905 with her son, and became a celebrity almost overnight for her beauty and wit. Within a year Nancy had married Waldorf, son of William Waldorf Astor, who gifted the Cliveden estate to the young couple. By becoming a prominent hostess to the British elite, Nancy became one of the most famous women in the world while in her mid twenties. For instance, Nancy received an elaborate Cartier tiara as a wedding present containing the legendary Sancy diamond weighing 55 carats, which had previously been used in the coronation of Louis XV and Louis XVI, and is now kept in the Louvre in Paris.
A supporter of women’s rights, Nancy also encouraged her husband to become involved in politics. In 1910, Waldorf was elected as a member of parliament for Plymouth, later reconfigured as Plymouth Sutton, until 1919. That year, Waldorf’s father died and he inherited the title of Viscount Astor, therefore he succeeded to the House of Lords. This also made Nancy ‘Viscountess Astor’ and she stood as a Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton, and won. She became the first woman to ever sit in the House of Commons on 1 December 1919 and defended it until 1945.
Being wealthy, well connected and outspoken made Nancy Astor a controversial figure, although the couple fought for several causes in which they believed, including appeasement as a way of avoiding war in 1939. Public service also included turning Cliveden into a hospital during the First World War. When peace broke out again, President Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw were among the high profile guests that made Cliveden so famous as a leisure destination for the elite. There is a legend that Winston Churchill and Nancy did not get along, with the supposed aphorism that she told him: ‘If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea’ to which he replied, ‘Madam, if you were my wife, I'd drink it.’ Either way, this reflects the tone of the times.
On the death of Waldorf Astor in 1952, his eldest son William, or Bill, became the 3rd Viscount Astor and he was to install the outdoor swimming pool that would spark one of the biggest political scandals in recent British political history. Nancy would become increasingly reclusive in her later years and died in Lincolnshire in 1964, by which time the Cliveden swimming pool would become famous world-wide.
The Profumo Pool
During the summer of 1961, scandal enveloped Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government. John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, was the guest of Bill Astor at Cliveden and had a brief relationship with an aspiring model, Christine Keeler who was also involved with the Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov, allegedly a Russian Spy. Keeler was staying at the Cliveden cottage with ‘society osteopath' Stephen Ward, who had friendships with all concerned, and she had gone to the swimming pool to a party, where Profumo was entranced.
Ward was bought to trial on exaggerated allegations of living on immoral earnings, including those of Keeler who was obliged to appear as a witness. Ward would commit suicide before he was convicted of the guilty verdict and his was not the only casualty. In March 1963 Profumo stood before the House of Commons and denied improprieties with Keeler. It was also alleged that Bill Astor had an affair with Mandy Rice-Davies, a friend and flatmate of Christine Keeller. Rice-Davies became the star of the show when Lord Astor denied having slept with her, by responding ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’. The response entered the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and has been repeated ever since. The case embarrassed the government and generally discredited those involved, all but for Rice-Davies who maintained a high profile and wealthy lifestyle of which Nancy Astor might have approved.
Cliveden House, now has a twenty first century spa alongside one of the most historic grade II listed swimming pools in Britain. The Profumo affair was really about old and new attitudes to sexual freedom as the Sixties began to swing. But the legacy and heritage of the scandal have been mixed and contested. No security risk was ever proven but Profumo had lied and had to resign.
Interestingly, Lord Denning’s report into the Profumo affair in 1963 revealed publicly for the first time details of the British Secret Service's role and increased interest in espionage at the height of the Cold War. The iconic photograph of Christine Keller taken by Lewis Morley in 1963, posing naked and sitting on an iconic plywood chair, was intended to promote a film The Keeler Affair that was never made.
In a separate court case in 1963, Keeler admitted to perjury and was sent to prison for nine months. She has published several accounts of her life including most successfully Scandal in 1989. In the film Scandal, actress Joanne Whalley portrayed Keeler. Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a stage musical Stephen Ward the Musical in 2013, and there have been many other references in popular culture. Finally, John Profumo lived quietly after his resignation and dedicated himself to charity, having been able to live off inherited wealth. Unlike Keeler, who was not able to sustain a comfortable lifestyle subsequently, he was later considered redeemed and awarded a CBE in 1975 and received at Buckingham Palace.
As you will be aware from previous jjheritage blogs, this made the venue an iconic sporting landscape and one in which Jean just had to go and swim. Thankfully, no scandal whatsoever ensued and my dip a very respectable affair!