3rd Viscount Astor

William Astor, 3rd Viscount Astor (1907-1966) was a Conservative politician and businessman dubiously famed for his role in the Profumo Scandal of 1963 that brought down Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government. His American-born parents were political and social lions of the inter-war years. The 2nd Viscount, Waldorf Astor, owned The Observer newspaper and was elevated to the House of Lords when he inherited his title in 1919. Nancy Astor contested her husband’s seat and became the first female MP to sit in the House of Commons. William Astor was born the heir to the magnificent Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire given to his parents as a wedding present in 1906 and a London townhouse at No 4 St. James’s Square.

Like his father, William ‘Bill’ Astor was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford. He was first elected as an MP in 1935 and the following year served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty. The Cliveden Set that surrounded his parents in the 1930s was controversially pro appeasement of the Nazi regime which is perhaps why Bill Astor left politics, only returning as MP for Wycombe in 1951 a year before he inherited the title. Henry Poole’s ledgers for 1962 record the new Viscount ordering a wardrobe fit for the master of Cliveden: a blue Venetian double-breasted jacket, a white single-breasted Worsted dining jacket, a brown Velveteen single-breasted smoking jacket and trousers, a white thin Barathea single-breasted dining jacket and a midnight blue Barathea double-breasted dining jacket and trousers.

Lord Astor was twice divorced by 1960 when he met and married Bronwen Pugh, the model and muse of couturier Pierre Balmain. According to Lady Astor, her husband was ‘a little boy lost dominated by his possessive mother who never cut himself loose from the questionable pleasures of Mayfair and Belgravia’. Astor and his glamorous wife invited an exotic cocktail of guests to Cliveden. On a summer’s night in 1961 the host and his houseguest John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, encountered a naked young woman in the outdoor swimming pool in the walled garden at Cliveden. Christine Keeler was a good time girl who was staying in a cottage on the estate leased by society osteopath and sometime pimp Dr Stephen Ward who was also a Henry Poole customer.

As Keeler later told Vanity Fair, ‘they had obviously had a few drinks and with Stephen’s encouragement started trying to whip the tiny towel away from me. I ran around the pool with Lord Astor and John Profumo chasing me…Poor Bill never suspected Stephen in the years he had known him of being a traitor’. It transpired that Ward, whose patients included Winston Churchill, Ava Gardner, Lord Astor and Anthony Blunt, not only procured young women for influential friends but also dabbled in espionage.

Profumo commenced a short-lived affair with Keeler who had also been sleeping with another guest of Ward’s at Cliveden: Senior Naval Attaché to the Soviet Embassy Yevgeny Ivanov. The scandal erupted in March 1963 when Profumo’s name was linked with Ivanov via Keeler. He told the House of Commons that ‘no impropriety whatsoever’ had occurred between he and Keeler. By June Profumo confessed that he had misled the House and resigned from the cabinet. In September Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigned citing ill health that was doubtless exacerbated by the Profumo Scandal.

Lord Astor’s name was dragged into the scandal when Stephen Ward was charged with procuring and living off immoral earnings in 1963. When told that Lord Astor denied having an affair her, one of Ward’s girls, Mandy Rice Davis, famously declared from the witness box ‘he would, wouldn’t he’. Ward died of a self-administered fatal overdose before a verdict was reached. Lord Astor never recovered from the scandal and died of a heart attack in the Bahamas in 1966. His last rather forlorn entry in the Poole ledgers dated 1965 was ‘for preserving Parliamentary robe, Coronation robe and coronet’.

Thanks to the Profumo Affair, Lord Astor has enjoyed posthumous fame on stage and screen. In the 1989 film Scandal based on Anthony Summers’ book Honeytrap, Astor is played by cad incarnate Leslie Phillips with Ian McKellen as Profumo, John Hurt as Stephen Ward and Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler. In 2013, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical Stephen Ward opened in London’s West End with character actor Anthony Calf playing Lord Astor.

Stephen Ward enjoyed only modest success but it did introduce Mandy Rice-Davies to the present Lord Astor. As he recalled, ‘she was absolutely charming and had very kind words to say about my father. It was a most unexpected moment – a reconciliation of sorts and an uplifting footnote after all these years’. Lord Astor’s verdict on the scandal that ruined his father’s health was this: ‘it was a scandal that exposed the hypocrisy of the establishment that Ward so offended (and) exposed the dishonesty of the police, prosecuting authorities and security service…In the end, the characters in the Profumo scandal were all victims. Few survive unscathed’.

(c) James Sherwood


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