Tag Archives: Christine Keeler

Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics by Rob Baker

For several years, Rob Baker has written one of London’s best blogs, Another Nickel In The Machine, which explores the cultural history of London’s 20th century in a unique way. Rather than focus on, say, a musical genre or a particular locale or an identifiable concept such as celebrities or architecture, Baker simply finds great stories and researches the shit out of them. And now he’s turned it into an excellent book: Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics.

As with his blog, Baker doesn’t pretend to find a unifying theme to artificially define the richness of his material, instead relying on his natural instincts to identify a good story and tell it for just the right amount of time. This is crucial. Some of these chapters cover some pretty big subjects – the Krays, Lord Haw-Haw, Christine Keeler, Pop Art – but Baker always manages to find a new angle without going on too long: for instance, his piece on Pop Art concentrates on Pauline Boty and the Anti-Ugly Movement while he looks at Blow-Up through a street in Stockwell that appears in the film. He’s brilliant at detail – clothes, weather, atmosphere, quotes – and tightly wound narrative (the section on the escape of spies Burgess and Maclean could come from a thriller), but he also loves exploring interesting tangents.

But his real skill is contextualising individuals within their era or locality. So his chapter on Benny Hill tells us much about the post-war comedy scene at the Windmill as well as Hill’s own rise and sad decline, the Profumo Scandal chapter is also about Soho and the Flamingo club in the early 1960s while the section of Winifred Atwell takes in Atwell’s strange career as a popular black performer but also the history of Brixton, where she lived.

This is essentially, the book of the blog, with several of the same stories, only expanded with new research. The blog also features great photography, just the right amount of which is reproduced here, including a cracking cover shot from the 100 Club, a venue that increases in importance with each year it avoids closure. Collectively, these photos and historical essays build a picture of London that captures some of the city’s chaotic sensibility far more truthfully than a conventional or even psychogeographical history, which will try and draw dry parallels between then and now, sometimes with lamentable results. Instead, Baker simply tells a story and then leaves you to think about what it means, if anything.

Some of these yarns I knew nothing about, such as the strange days James Earl Ray spent in Earl’s Court after assassinating Martin Luther King, or the spiv murder of Warren Street, or Charlie Chaplin’s wonderful return to Lambeth in 1921. Others I was familiar with, but still learnt more about, such as the plans to redevelop Covent Garden in the 1960s that was stopped by protesters – in the current climate, I wonder, would a similar protest have any success at all?  The net result is like being rattled round the London decades by a raconteur with a time machine, a sort of blue badge Doctor Who, who tells a story with wit and panache before whizzing you off to his next unpredictable destination.

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Norman Mailer and Christine Keeler’s bra

Jay Landesman was an American writer and eccentric entrepreneur who arrived in London in the mid-1960s and immediately flung himself headfirst into the emerging counterculture scene, largely because the first person he met when he arrived here was Peter Cook. Landesman later became best known as the male half of a famously open marriage, much to the shame of his son Cosmo, who gained revenge by marrying Julie Burchill. (‘She hated hippies, ex-hippies, food freaks, open marriages and old people,’ wrote Jay, ‘The only thing she liked about us, was that we were Jewish.’)

In his entertaining 1992 memoir Jaywalking, Landesman’s non-ideological dalliances on the fringes of the London scene make great reading, with walk-on roles for the likes of John Lennon (‘He was uptight about Wendy Cook’s insistence he sample her salade Nicoise, a dish he was highly suspicious of and couldn’t pronounce’), Tom Driberg (‘He took us to a pub whose entire clientele consisted of lesbians, transvestites, young Danish sailors, ageing pederasts and an assortment of amputees’) and Germaine Greer (‘I watched her challenge Jimi Hendrix to an arm-wrestling match, and win’). Although it’s never entirely clear what he did – bar run the disastrous UFO rip-off the Electric Garden for a couple of minutes – Landesman was clearly good company with a penchant for meeting interesting people, and at some point was asked by The Sunday Times to write about the art of giving a party. His ideal guest list is worth repeating in full:

Minimum of three potential celebrities; at least one real celebrity (any field); a foolish couple; a serious couple (straight feed for comics); an engineer or non-speaking Czech (to point out); six swinging teenagers (girls); a bitchy girl who can generate masochism in men; a gym instructress who drinks too much; an older woman who sits and smiles (who is she?); a rune beauty (who was she?); Christine Keeler; no fat people unless Peter Ustinov; nobody jet or Court Circular; no dogs; no Peter Hall, Jonathan Miller, David Frost (or equivalents); no crew cuts; a swinging accountant; a buff (a jazz-hair or gambling buff); two attractive lesbians (to get wrong); one international drug trafficker (to point out); a beautiful flawed couple; a gay MP; Tariq Ali (not Christopher Logue); an Irish showbusiness GP; a titled person (to show you’re not snobbish); no artists’ agents, editors or publishers; no children or headshrinkers (except RD Laing); an eccentric lawyer or priest (no respecters of confessionals); an articulate tradesman (electrician, cabinet maker, house painter, bank manager); a forgotten culture hero; a reliable loudmouth who’ll come early and leave early; the ex-wife of a world celebrity; a pop singer no one recognises; a girl with buck teeth, a corrective shoe, or both; an established figure who decides that night to drop out…

Landesman was fond of Christine Keeler. He met her soon after arriving in London at the Kismet, a Soho drinking club, and the pair became friends. He also knew Norman Mailer from the mid-1950s, Mailer having interviewed Landesman while researching his pioneering essay on hipsterdom, The White Negro. In London, Landesman had an opportunity to bring the two together.

The cause was Mailer’s decision to challenge for the Democrat candidacy as Mayor of New York under the slogan ‘Vote The Rascals In’. The sizeable US expat community in London – there were frequent baseball games in Hyde Park featuring the likes of Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes and Charles Bronson with Phil Silvers as umpire – decided to hold a fundraising event.

The Friends of Norman Mailer Committee was founded by charismatic rogue Harvey Matusow, and he put on a celebrity auction, featuring myriad bizarre offerings from Yoko Ono like ‘Dirt From Central Park’, ‘Air over Greenwich Village’, ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’ as well as bottles of Robert Lowell’s sweat and a slice of raw liver from Philip Roth’s fridge. The star exhibit, however, was supplied by Landesman: Christine Keeler’s bra.

Bidding began at £100. There were no takers. The auctioneer tried again, at £50. Nobody moved. Next he tried £10 for this ‘psychosexually historical’ item, but the opening bid was a measly 10 shillings. Landesman tried to get the bidding going and raised his own hand, but nobody followed suit and he ended up winning the item back for a mere 10s 6d. Later, he discovered it wasn’t even Keeler’s. ‘Christine doesn’t wear a bra,’ a mutual friend confessed, ‘But the deception was justified in a good cause.’ The mayoral election was just as successful – Mailer came fourth, in a field of five.

London, JFK and Profumo

As fans of conspiracy theories know, there is always a connection if you look hard enough, and the one between JFK and the Profumo Scandal is particularly intriguing.

The connection is called Mariella, or Maria, Novotny. Different sources give her different places of birth – London, Sheffield, Prague – but most agree that she was really called Stella Capes. She almost certainly wasn’t the niece of former Czech President Antonin Novotny as she claimed, nor had she spent four years in a Soviet camp. But what’s undeniable is that she lived quite the life.

It was Novotny who hosted the infamous Man In The Mask orgy in an apartment in Hyde Park Square in December 1961, where various members of high society consorted with glamorous woman such as Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler. Novotny, who called the party The Feast of Peacocks after what had been served for dinner (she also cooked badger), spent much of the evening wearing a corset in bed with a whip and six men. Stephen Ward, the mysterious society osteopath, was there wearing socks and nothing else. Everybody else – among them actors, MPs and judges – was naked except for a man wearing a gimp mask, who was tied between two pillars and whipped by everybody on entry. There has been much speculation as to his identity, with names including minor royalty and Cabinet Ministers, but he has never been named.

The Feast Of The Peacocks became public knowledge after featuring in Lord Denning’s 1963 report into the security implications of the Profumo Scandal. This was written in the wake of Conservative Minister John Profumo’s resignation from the Cabinet following revelations regarding his relationship with Keeler and Keeler’s relationship with Soviet naval attach Eugene Ivanov.

This was not the first political scandal Novotny was at the centre of. Wherever she was born, she had moved to London in 1958 to become a model, and was soon performing as a topless dancer in Soho.

In 1960, she married. Her husband, Horace ‘Hod’ Dibben was in his 50s and moved in serious company. He ran the Black Sheep Club in Piccadilly and knew both the Duke of Kent and the Krays. He was a sado-masochist and a friend of Stephen Ward. Through Hod, Novotny met Harry Towers, a mysterious and sinister figure, who persuaded her to go to New York for some modelling work.

Novotny was soon operating as a prostitute in New York, with Towers as her pimp. Before long Towers had introduced her to Peter Lawford, the film star and John F Kennedy’s brother-in-law whose main responsibility was to find willing women for the insatiable President.  Novotny was soon sleeping with JFK. On one occasion she and fellow prostitute Suzy Chang were asked to dress as nurses, with JFK the patient.

In May 1961, Novotny was deported from the US, returning to London on the Queen Mary where she began hosting her memorable parties. Guests are said to include everybody from Bobby Moore to Felix Topolski. She was also introduced by Ward to both Ivanov and Profumo before Keeler, but nothing developed from this. Novotny believed she had been used to ‘get’ JFK and was wary of the same thing happening again. Keeler was not so smart.

When the Profumo Scandal broke, JFK was said to be fascinated by it, demanding to be kept informed of ongoing events, at least in part because of his own tenuous connection. Robert McNamara, the US Defence Secretary, knew all about the President’s dalliances with this prostitute who claimed to be from Eastern Europe and said ‘he felt like he was sitting on a bomb’. On June 23, one American newspaper even hinted at the President’s involvement, until his brother Robert Kennedy forcefully intervened and the story was dropped. Nobody picked it up and the President took his secret to the grave.

What to make of this? Some believe the fact Novotny was connected to JFK and Profumo was no coincidence and here you could go down a rabbit warren of theories and counter-accusations. One argument is that Novotny was part of a honey trap operation, run by Lyndon Johnson’s office by Towers and Ward with the assistance of the sex-obsessed FBI, aimed at blackmailing powerful men in Britain and America. Others claim it was a KGB sting – Novotny claimed Czech heritage and Chang was Chinese – and Towers was using his women to try to infiltrate the United Nations. Still others  say Ward and Towers were working for MI5 to entrap Ivanov. Conspiracy journal Lobster has more. This stuff could drive you insane.

Novotny later worked for the police in same capacity, and was used to help bring down gangster Charles Taylor. She died of an overdose in 1983. Some, including Christine Keeler, claim it was murder. Novotny had attempted to write a book about her life shortly before her death, but mysterious things kept happening to her and the ghostwriter, causing them to nervously end the project. After her death, her house was burgled and her diaries disappeared.

She did write a book in 1971. It is a fictionalised account of her adventures called King’s Road and one of the worst books I’ve ever read. You can get it on Amazon for 14p.