Bronwen Astor: Scandal & Lady Astor

She was the Kate Moss of her day - until the Profumo affair broke and she turned to the life of the spirit. Only now, she tells Peter Stanford, is she able to talk about the furore that began around her Cliveden pool
Click to follow
The Independent Online

She was the Kate Moss of her day, the top supermodel of the late 1950s. Then, in 1960, amid the sort of press hullabaloo that today greets a Hollywood wedding, she gave it all up to marry the son of Nancy Astor and become chatelaine of Cliveden, one of Britain's great stately homes. Within three years she was at the centre of one of the biggest political scandals of the century. The Profumo affair was said to have started at her swimming pool. Following this and the premature death of her husband Bill in 1966, Bronwen Astor retreated from the public eye.

This is only the second time she has spoken to a newspaper since. The spur is a film she has made with Renata Keller and Lee Chalmers; Astor is one of nine successful career women who have shared their thoughts on what the world will look like for their sex in 2200. The resulting documentary, The Future Speaks Ruthlessly Through Her: Visionary Dialogues With Modern Women, also features the PR guru Lynne Franks; Paula Benson, the designer; and Mona Siddiqui, theologian and broadcaster. But it is Astor's participation that will raise eyebrows - for two reasons.

The first is her decision to break her long silence. And the second is the nature of her remarks. "For my generation," she says in the film, "the big thing was to have a career, but for my daughters it has been to be a mother." She seems to speak of the past with some regret. Yet in the 1950s, Bronwen Pugh was a role model of women's liberation, initially as one of the first female announcers on BBC TV, and then as the catwalk queen of Paris, muse to the French designer Pierre Balmain. Balmain described her as one of the five most beautiful women he had ever met.

But why shun the limelight for so long? And why agree now to step back into it? The answer to the first question, she explains, is the 1960s sex-and-spying scandal that carries the name of the then Secretary of State for War, Jack Profumo. He lied to the House of Commons about his entanglement with a girl, Christine Keeler, who was also bedding a Soviet military attaché.

"I felt labelled," Astor recalls, "that people were talking about me behind my back when I came into a room, that they all believed I was somehow to blame for the scandal." In her day, she explains, there had been a clear distinction between model-girls - well-brought-up young women who took to the catwalks - and models, often a polite phrase for those who were selling more than clothes. In the hysteria that accompanied Profumo, her past was equated with Keeler's present and she was ostracised. "Enough time has passed now," she says. "Profumo is history and I feel as if I have got over it."

There is a more pressing reason for her re-emergence. Over the past four decades, she says, there have been occasions when she had the urge to speak out, "but I didn't feel up to it, or felt people wouldn't want to listen. So I suppose I just ran away." What made her stand her ground this time was the fact that the film-makers are closely linked with the new life she has built for herself as a psychotherapist, and her future - she is training to be a "spiritual director". Like Astor, Keller and Chalmers are connected to EnlightenNext, an international educational, not-for-profit organisation led by American teacher Andrew Cohen.

"A documentary reflecting on the future of women is part of what I see as a new emphasis on inner life," she says. "People of no particular religious background are searching for some sort of spiritual, ethical and personal morality."

At the same time as she was being hailed as "Balmain's husky Welsh mannequin" on the catwalks of Paris, she was embark- ing on a spiritual journey through prayer and by reading Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit theologian. It was only after her husband's death that she felt able to make a more public affirmation of her faith by converting to Catholicism, though she is hardly the most orthodox Catholic.

Or orthodox in any other way. When Balmain first hired her, critics said she was too tall and angular and couldn't walk like a model should. Like Kate Moss, her special appeal redefined the criteria. Today, as she sits talking, you can still see in her extraordinary blue eyes, strong cheekbones and air of detachment what it was that so captivated the French couturier.

She spent the 1970s with her two children in a religious community based around the ideas of the Christian Charismatic Renewal Movement. Later she trained as a psychotherapist but continued to welcome religious hermits to live in her grounds.

At 76, it is very impressive that Astor is considering retraining for a new career at all. When many of her contemporaries are winding down, she retains her optimism despite the traumas of her life so far. Or probably because of them. "I never regret what has happened. I look forward. The past - well, that is just how it was."

For more details of 'The Future Speaks Ruthlessly Through Her', contact: EnlightenNext, 13 Windsor Street, London N1 (020 7288 7000; enlightennext.org/london)

Biography: The model who found religion

Born in London in June 1930, the third daughter of a Welsh County Court judge, Bronwen Pugh trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. After modelling in London for the likes of Charles Creed and Hardy Amies, she was appointed in 1954 as the on-screen continuity presenter on BBC Television. She joined Pierre Balmain's design house in Paris in 1956 and was his favoured model until 1960, when she became the third wife of Viscount Astor of Cliveden. His death in 1966 saw her leave Cliveden with her two young daughters. She converted to Catholicism in 1969, spent the 1970s with a religious community near Godalming, and went on to train as a psychotherapist.

Comments