It was while giving evidence at the trial of the society osteopath Stephen Ward in 1963 that Mandy Rice-Davies uttered perhaps the most famous retort in British legal history.
Lord Astor, she was told, had denied that the two of them had had an affair. “He would, wouldn’t he?” she replied. It was a remark that became a potent symbol of changing times. As Rice-Davies put it earlier this year, “It was the age of deference, wasn’t it? People still doffed their caps. I’m afraid I have no deference.”
Ward, whose clients included Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor, was accused of pimping Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler; they both denied that they had been call girls, although in a memoir, Secrets and Lies, Keeler described Rice-Davies acidly as “a true tart”. The activities of the immensely well-connected Ward had come to light during the Profumo affair, which almost brought down the Macmillan government. Before sentence was passed, Ward killed himself with an overdose of barbiturates.
Mandy Rice-Davies was born in Carmarthenshire and raised in Solihull; her father was a policeman who left the force to open a tyre business, her mother a former actress. When she was 15 she secured a modelling job at Marshall and Snelgrove department store in Birmingham, then the following year was “Miss Austin” at the Earls Court Motor Show.
She was 19 when she met Keeler at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho, where they were working as showgirls, entertaining London’s upper crust. Keeler got to know Ward, and at a pool party at Lord Astor’s country mansion, Cliveden – scene of many a riotous posh party – he introduced her to the War Secretary John Profumo, with whom she had an affair which lasted a few weeks.
But another dangerous liaison Keeler enjoyed was with a Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov, who Ward had also introduced her to, and the resulting collision of sex, wealth and national security rattled the establishment and fascinated the nation. Profumo initially denied everything in a statement to Parliament, but soon caved in and admitted the truth. He resigned and exited public life, taking up charitable work, for which he received a CBE in 1975.
Once the Profumo affair had subsided, the lives of Keeler and Rice-Davies took wildly divergent paths. Keeler was convicted of committing perjury during Ward’s trial and went to jail; she has lived a somewhat solitary life and was never able to shake off her notoriety; for Rice-Davies there ensued what she described as “a slow descent into respectability.”
Crucially, unlike Keeler, she left Britain, escaping the Profumo fall-out, becoming a night club singer and marrying an Israeli, Rafi Shauli. She converted to Judaism and opened nightclubs and restaurants in Tel Aviv, as well as acting in some Hebrew-language films. Neither marriage nor faith endured, however, and a second marriage, to a caterer, Charles LeFevre, lasted six months – “He was a Frenchman,” she said. “That says it all.” Her first marriage brought a daughter, Dana, a modelling agent. A third marriage, to Ken Foreman, an American waste management executive, in 1988, was a happy one and lasted until her death.
Rice-Davies parlayed her part in the historic events of the early Sixties into a media career, appearing in a number of television programmes and films, including Julien Temple’s 1986 film Absolute Beginners, which featured a character based on the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman, with whom she had had an affair, as well as Absolutely Fabulous on TV in 1994. In Scandal, Michael Caton-Jones’s 1989 film about the Profumo affair, she was played by Bridget Fonda, who deftly captured her sparky personality, and in 2013 she lent her support to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation. She played herself last year in Well, He Would, Wouldn’t He?, a Radio 4 play about her life.
In 1986 she was interviewed during the publicity campaign for Absolute Beginners; she had a novel due to come out, had just been appearing in a touring production of No Sex Please, We’re British and was a chat-show staple. “Slowly but surely,” she said, perhaps optimistically, “I’m changing notoriety into fame.”
In 1989 the novel, The Scarlet Thread, came out, and she was then invited by the broadcaster Libby Purves to take part in an expedition recreating the boat trip of Three Men in a Boat, commissioned for Punch by its editor, Alan Coren. Purves recalled how she “immediately spotted that this Rice-Davies was a woman to go up the Amazon with.” She added, “only Mandy’s foxy charm saved us from being evicted from a lock for being drunk on pink Champagne.”
Today Keeler suffers from emphysema and lives in sheltered accommodation. The two hadn’t spoken for three decades, Rice-Davies said this year. “For some reason she doesn’t like me, maybe because I lived abroad and escaped a lot of the obvious prejudice she suffered.”
Keeler put it more forcefully in her memoir, writing bitterly, “There was always a shock on her face whenever she thought she might have to do more than lie on her back to make a living. Or swing from chandeliers. Everything about her said ‘I Want to Marry a Millionaire’ – she might as well have carried a placard ... She had the odour of aspiration about her. ”
At a dinner party Rice-Davies was sitting next to a psychiatrist, who told her, “You must be a very complex person.” She replied, “No, I’m four or five different people, and they’re all very simple.” Although she made a fulfilling life for herself following her role in the scandal that shook a nation, she never quite shook off the shadow of John Profumo. “If I could live my life over, I would wish 1963 had not existed,” she once said. “The only reason I still want to talk about it is that I have to fight the misconception that I was a prostitute.”
Rice-Davies died after suffering for a short time from cancer. As for her famous phrase, it can be found in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Marilyn Rice-Davies, model, showgirl, singer, actress, club owner, restaurateur and author: born Pontyates, Carmarthenshire 21 October 1944; married 1966 Rafael Shaul (divorced 1971; one daughter). 1978 Charles LeFevre (divorced 1978), 1988 Ken Foreman; died 18 December 2014.Reuse content