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July 24, 2010

Cliveden House: WEEKEND OF SEX, SPIES, LIES AND DOWNFALLS



THE Astor's sprawling Cliveden House on 150ha on the banks of the River Thames.
David Ellis

FORTY NINE years ago this month British socialites, the 2nd Viscount and Lady Astor invited some friends to their stately Cliveden House on the banks of the Thames just outside London, for a summer's weekend of partying, tennis, croquet, boating on the river, and generally having a good time.

Little would they realise that their weekend would take on dimensions greater than anyone could have imaged: it resulted in one of Britain's greatest sex scandals, a spy expose, a suicide, the downfall of one of the country's most senior Cabinet Ministers – and ultimately the fall of the government itself.

Cliveden House has seldom been out of the public eye since the first "house" was built on its 150ha (375 acres) in 1666 by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham as an escape-hole with his mistress, burned down in 1795, and its replacement destroyed by fire in 1849.

To the horror of many, including "an astonished" Queen Victoria, the now-third Cliveden House was bought in 1893 by America's wealthiest man – William Waldorf Astor, who confounded British society even more by becoming a naturalised British subject, and going on to also purchase Hever Castle that brought with it the title Viscount Astor.

Astor's wife died prematurely and in 1906 he gave Cliveden to his son, Waldorf as a wedding gift, and moved himself into Hever Castle.

The newly-weds lost no time in inviting political leaders, writers, film stars, artists and other celebrities to lavish weekends at Cliveden House, amongst them Charlie Chaplin, Mahatma Gandhi, F.D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Joseph Kennedy, T.E. Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling and aviatrix Amy Johnson.

The Astor's were generous to a fault, and in WWI built a hospital in their grounds for the Canadian Red Cross; this was dismantled at war's end, and when WWII erupted the Astor's again offered the site for another hospital

And in 1942 they donated the entire property to the British National Trust, with the proviso they could live there for as long as they wished – giving the Trust 250,000 English pounds (around AU$15.2-million today) for its perpetual upkeep.

It was in 1961 the Astor's included amongst guests Britain's then Minister of War, John Profumo and his glamorous actress wife Valerie Hobson, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, and the President of Pakistan to a summer party on the weekend of July 8th at Cliveden.

Also invited to stay in the property's separate Spring Cottage was a London society osteopath, Stephen Ward who took with him several friends including 19-year old fun-loving, Christine Keeler and a Russian Assistant Naval Attache, Captain Yevgeny Ivanov.


FUN-time Christine Keeler at the time
of her illicit relationship with Britain's
then-Minister of War, the married
John Profumo.
At one stage of the balmy July evening, Profumo and others wandered down to the swimming pool to investigate sounds of much gaiety, and it was here he set eyes for the first time on Christine Keeler; within days they were lovers.

It lasted only several months before Profumo ended the relationship, but a question was raised in parliament by an Opposition member; Profumo categorically denied any improper relationship – and was floored when Keeler sold "their" story to a London newspaper.

Worse, she revealed she had been sleeping at the same time with the Russian Naval Attache, Ivanov – who, even worse-still it emerged, was a Soviet spy.

Profumo confessed to the House of Commons he had lied, and resigned.

The British government, hell-bent to distance itself from the scandal, bizarrely charged the osteopath Stephen Ward (who'd introduced Profumo and Keeler at Cliveden House,) with living off immoral earnings from Keeler's other relationships; Ward committed suicide before his case ended.

SPRING COTTAGE in the grounds of Cliveden House
– in which Christine Keeler stayed during
that ill-fated weekend in July 1961.
The current operators of Cliveden House, von Essen hotels have put together an intriguing Profumo Affair package there on the night of July 30: a mere 497.50pp British Pounds (AU$880pp) gets twin-share, a "Scandal Tour" walk around the property with long-time "Affair" researcher and expert Rupert Gavin, a Champagne and canapé reception, and a further "inside" talk over a 3-course dinner with wine by Rupert Gavin as to what secrets of The Profumo Affair his research suggests the government is still so determined to hide.

Next morning there's full English breakfast and use of the property's indoor and outdoor pools, tennis and squash courts, gym and hot tubs.

If you'd like a stay at Cliveden House, now a stately home hotel, visit www.clivedenhouse.co.uk

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