Penance In The Year Of Harvey

Penance: an act of self-abasement, mortification (see mortification) , or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin. He did charitable work as a penance. See,

In the year of Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, and a host of celebs being driven into at least temporary obscurity and humiliation, it seems the media and public can’t get enough. There is nowhere the stories don’t reverberate, from tabloids to dinner tables.

There are now reports (here, here, and here) that many of those laying low are plotting their “comebacks” – as if a few months’ absence (and perhaps abstinence) will numb the public’s collective memories, or at least soften the retribution. And perhaps it will.

Whether these miscreants are successful is of little consequence to me, as it pales by comparison to a singularly profound fall from grace known as “The Profumo Affair” that occurred nearly 60 years ago, and serves today as a story of remarkable penance that continued for forty years thereafter:

John Profumo was born in 1915 in London, England of Italian nobility. He served in North Africa during WWII; landed in Normandy on D-Day; and saw later combat in France.  He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) (military) “in recognition of gallant and distinguished service in Italy”, on December 21, 1944, and in 1947 was awarded the Bronze Star “in recognition of distinguished services in the cause of the Allies”.[1]

Obviously, then, as now, such military achievements often lead to politics. John Profumo was no exception; he was elected to the House of Commons:

Profumo was a well-connected politician with a good war record, and *** was highly regarded in the Conservative Party. These qualities helped him to rise steadily through the ranks of the Conservative government that came to power in 1951. He was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation in November 1952, Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation in November 1953, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in January 1957, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office in November 1958, and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in January 1959. In July 1960, he was appointed Secretary of State for War (outside of the Cabinet) and was sworn of the Privy Council.[2]

Profumo, at 48, was a well-respected member of Parliament; he was married to a beautiful movie star, had a young son, and was living the good life…until 1960 when he attended a party hosted by a society doctor. As Peggy Noonan told the story in 2013 (here):

…he met a young woman, 19-year-old Christine Keeler, who was either a dancer or a prostitute depending on the day and claimant. They commenced an affair. But Miss Keeler was also, she later said, romantically involved with the Soviet naval attaché assigned to London. Yevgeny Ivanov was there the day Profumo met her.


The affair lasted a few months and was over by 1962. But there was a letter. And there were rumors. They surfaced in Parliament, where the Labour Party smelled blood.

John Profumo’s fall from grace was swift and certain; the Profumo Affair quickly became an international story of  sex, spies, politics, royalty, money, and hubris. The short version is that he lied to Parliament about the affair, was caught, and at the urging of his wife, recanted and resigned from office. The fall had less to do with adultery, or even national security,[3] and more to do with the fact that he lied to his colleagues in the House of Commons.[4] The government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillon collapsed the following year. Neither Profumo, nor his wife, ever discussed the scandal in public for the rest of their lives.

Did John Profumo quietly disappear for a judicious period of time, huddle with his “crisis advisors” and plot a return – with the appropriate Mea Culpas – to public life? No. Never again. He volunteered at Toynbee Hall, established as a part of what was then known as the “Settlement Movement”[5] and remained there for the next forty years.  For a smattering of what John Profumo spent the rest of his life doing, see:

Jack came to Toynbee Hall as a volunteer in 1963. Initially undertaking fairly menial tasks, he then became involved in fundraising and succeeded in turning round the poor financial situation that Toynbee Hall was in at the time.

[Per the website, some of his accomplishments included]:

  • Work began on the new Gatehouse building to provide residential accommodation in July 1965. Harold Wilson turned the first sod. The building was completed in March 1967. Officially opened by Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey.
  • Child Poverty Action Group was established in 1965.
  • Setting up of Workers’ Education Centre in 1965 for Asian and African immigrants.
  • In 1967 started appeal for modernising the buildings on Toynbee Hall site.
  • It was John Profumo’s idea that Attlee House be built on the site of the old library as a memorial to Clement Attlee.
  • In 1968 John Profumo became a visitor at Grendon Psychiatric Prison, creating a link between Toynbee Hall and former inmates at Grendon.
  • The Special Families Centre for the Mentally Handicapped opened in Sunley House in 1974.
  • In 1975 John Profumo was awarded the CBE[6] for his charity work.
  • A Radio Appeal of 1978 brought in a phenomenal £35,000 for Toynbee Hall.
  • In late 1970s and early 1980s, John Profumo took on more responsibilities on Toynbee Hall Council. By 1981 he was Deputy Chair of Council; in 1982, following the death of Viscount Blakenham, he became Chairman.
  • John Profumo became Chairman of Toynbee Hall in 1982. In 1992 John Profumo was made President.

John Profumo’s wife, who stayed with him for the rest of her life[7], passed away in 1998; he died in 2006. In November 2003, to mark the 40th anniversary of his work, Profumo gave an interview to an old friend. “Jack,” said W.F. Deedes, “what have you learnt from this place [Toynbee Hall]?” After a pause for thought, Profumo said: “Humility.”[8]

Hmmm. I wonder if we’ll be seeing much humility over the next few months. Somehow, I rather doubt it. ~PCQ


[1] Source: Wikipedia “John Profumo” (here).

[2] Source: Wikipedia “John Profumo” (here).

[3] “It wasn’t immediately clear that this sexual entanglement posed any serious security risk. Indeed, Profumo noted to his friends that if in the course of their encounters had Keeler suddenly asked about military matters, his suspicions rather than his libido would have been aroused.” (Source)

[4] For the back story on the lie, see, “Notes on a Scandal” here.

[5] “The late nineteenth century settlement movement, which began in LondonEngland, with the founding of Toynbee Hall, emerged from a deep Victorian concern with urban poverty which gave rise to a subsequent movement whereby those connected to British universities sought to settle students within impoverished areas to live and work alongside local people. Through such efforts, settlement houses, or community centers, neighborhood houses, and social welfare agencies, were established to promote aspects of educationbusiness, recreation, and the arts amongst society’s most underprivileged populations. The widespread establishment of settlement houses and the eventual settlement movement gave rise to many social policy initiatives that aimed to improve the conditions of society’s most excluded members. The movement extended throughout Great Britain, the United States, parts of Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Japan. While numbers of volunteers have declined, many settlement houses continue to operate in the spirit of community-based efforts to serve the underprivileged. While great inequalities remain in human society, such efforts continue to make valuable and necessary contributions to the improvement of the lives of many.” (Source)

[6] “The CBE is an honour awarded to an individual by the Queen for a leading role at a regional level or a prominent but lesser role at a national level in any activity. The definition of CBE is Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.” (Source)

[7] See, “A love that survived scandal” UK Telegraph (here).

[8] Source: Peggy Noonan, WSJ “How to find grace after disgrace” July 12, 2013 (here).