I was 13 when it all happened. Parents in those days wished their children
wouldn’t read scandals, with the predictable result that, for the first time
in our lives, we read the papers avidly. Christine Keeler and Mandy
Rice-Davies, the girls involved in the Profumo scandal of 1963, were of
elder-sister age: the beehive hair, short shift-dresses and heavy eyeliner
were the look we aspired to. Even the petal hat Mandy wore to court had
But for a generation of scandalised post-war parents, the world was tumbling
onward too fast. They were shocked enough that John Profumo, the war
minister, had lied to Parliament and to Harold Macmillan, the prime minister
(who reputedly refused to believe such a chap would ever lie). But equally
unnerving to them was the lifestyle of the teenage good-time girls – out on
the town, having ritzy affairs, but not conforming to any comfortably
alienating image of tartiness (they were never on the game, despite the
vicious attempts of Stephen Ward’s prosecutors to brand him as a pimp).
When I first met Mandy years later, I was able to tell her that she was
responsible for my being banned from going to stay again with my Auntie
Dorothy in Highgate. London, to my mum, had become alarming: a place where
girls ended up in bed with Cabinet ministers (me at 13, dumpy and
bespectacled – chance would be a fine thing!). After all, Mandy, from a
respectable upbringing in Solihull and academically bright, had run away to
London aged 16 to become a dancer at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho, where
she met Christine.
My first meeting with the real Mandy, 26 years after the scandal, was through
her acting, on stage and screen (she played Colin MacInnes’s mum in the 1986
film Absolute Beginners, and toured in Tom Stoppard’s play Dirty Linen). We
rather took to each other. There was plenty to talk about aside from 1963.
She was jailed and deported from Turkey by the early-Sixties military
government for singing Let’s Do It in a cabaret. With her first husband in
Israel, she ran nightclubs including Mandy’s Candies and signed up with the
Israeli army entertainments section in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars (“Got
to do your bit – I modelled swimsuits”). She came back to England in 1980
for her daughter’s education and began acting. Her life since was, in her
second most famous phrase, “a slow descent into respectability”.
Glossy, scandalous celebrity blondes tend to be typecast as “men’s women”. But
Mandy was good girlfriend material: friendly, forthright, witty,
mischievous, confident enough not to bitch. It was, after all, her
friendship with poor Keeler that drew her into the circle of the society
osteopath Ward, the slum landlord Peter Rachman, Lord Astor and that louche,
nightclubby Sixties world where Establishment met lowlife, assuming it could
get away with anything under a code of patriarchal discretion because it
always had before.
A few weeks after I met her, Alan Coren of Punch magazine commissioned me to
spend a weekend recreating Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat with women:
we were to row an antique double-sculling skiff from Cookham to Henley, and
camp overnight. I would be the writer, cartoonist Merrily Harpur the
illustrator. “Who else would you like to take?” he asked. Off the top of my
head, I said: “Mandy Rice-Davies. That’s a girl to go up the Amazon with.”
“She’ll never do it!” he scoffed. I hadn’t been in contact since the
interview, but asked her. She replied: “What a ridiculous idea. Of course
And so she did. At the time, I described her appeal as “combining the
serpentine wisdom of 40 years’ ritzy survival with the effortless,
unpretending charm of the Worst Girl In The School”. She was starting
another theatre run, and there were reporters on the bank. When one asked
her plans, she deadpanned: “I’ll be in A Bedfull of Foreigners in
Wolverhampton on Monday.” Not a smirk, not a scowl.
It was a dark, shivery Spring Bank Holiday, and Coren wrung his hands
worriedly on the bank as he loaded the fragile and tippy wooden boat with a
lavish hamper, a tent, a stuffed alsatian to represent Montmorency the dog,
and some rancid sleeping bags. Mandy dumped her Gucci holdall and glanced
downstream towards Cliveden, scene of the scandalous Astor parties, laughing
at the vagaries of life’s river. We set off upstream against a headwind with
the boatyard man putting his hands over his face and muttering “Christ!”.
Water slopped around Mandy’s white golfing shoes.
But I remember at the time seeing her on the steering lines and thinking that
this woman had pulled herself out of tight corners by frailer strings than
these. She was good on the oars, too: fit, neat, timely. We stopped for
lunch. Sitting on a damp goose turd as she delicately spread Fortnum’s
chèvre on a wafer, Mandy observed: “It’s a good thing we’re English.” We
drank two bottles of pink champagne and searched for discreet bushes to go
behind. By the time we crashed into Marlow lock (having mislaid our river
licence), I fear we were all well away. Mandy charmed us past the
lock-keeper, but nobody thought to warn us about Marlow weir, and we nearly
went over. Grabbing the nearest – private – bank, we were roared at by some
rowing-club oaf, and Mandy snapped: “We have had a brush with death.
Shuddup.” He, too, was charmed, and ended up helping us tie up and rearrange
the chaotic cargo.
We found a camping spot. A heifer trod on our Prue Leith lobster mayonnaise.
“I always knew I wouldn’t like camping,” said Mandy. “I have this innate
instinct not to be unhappy. Back to nature, huh! Did you know Rousseau used
to send his laundry home to his mum?”
I had been ordered by the editor to sleep in the boat, as Jerome did, so spent
the night fighting off curious Canada geese in a pelting thunderstorm. In
the morning, Merrily was alone in the pup-tent and for a shameful moment we
thought Mandy had “done a runner”. But no, there she was under a tree,
tranquilly spraying her face with Evian and doing her face-cream routine.
Slowly the sun came out, and we headed up to Henley. Mandy successfully
cadged fags from a stranger on the towpath after hers were soaked, but, ever
the lady, shocked herself as she inhaled. “I have never smoked in the street
in my life. Never!” We had a good lunch at Henley and were happy.
And that is how I remember her. Meeting again last year over her collaboration
in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward musical, she looked little different:
bandbox smart, smiling, unrufflable. We fell into one another’s arms in
enthusiastic reminiscence about the river. She came back to my programme,
Midweek, on Radio 4, and equably related the effect on her of the revival of
the 1963 scandal. Ward, she said, was many things, but not a pimp: his
introducing of pretty teenagers to powerful middle-aged married men she
drily dismissed as “he just liked to share”.
Her ferocious, cheekily brave reply in court when Lord Astor denied their
affair – “He would, wouldn’t he?” – was fuelled by anger at the
Establishment stitch-up. “It was an age of deference. People still doffed
their caps. I’m afraid I had no deference.” And she was streetwise enough to
have noticed the absurdity of a red judge “in all his regalia” prosecuting a
simple – and unsupported – charge of pimping. “I was just angry.”
She was not afraid, as other girls her age might have been; nor did she become
reclusive like Keeler. Some core of self-belief, a deeper and better thing
than vanity, was always with her. She didn’t do self-pity. And the coda –
characteristic of this bold, friendly, adventurous, decent woman – is that,
at the premiere of the musical, she met Viscount Astor, Lord Astor’s son.
And they got on fine. “Charming. And his father was a very kind, very nice
chap, too. It’s just a pity that things turned out as they did. So now we
are happy acquaintances.”
We’d hoped to meet again soon for lunch. Sadly, she died last Thursday, aged
70, after a short battle with cancer. Now it cannot be. But I salute her
memory, and feel greatly for her husband and daughter.
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