Valerie Hobson: Not quite the saintly wife she seemed

As a veteran of horror films including Bride Of Frankenstein and Werewolf Of London, Valerie Hobson was known for emitting screams so bloodcurdling that Universal Pictures kept recordings of them for use whenever a script called for a damsel in distress.

Yet it was her stoicism that came to the fore in her real-life role as the long-suffering wife of shamed cabinet minister John Profumo. And never were her thespian skills more tested than on the evening of June 18, 1963.

That was two weeks after her husband’s resignation as war minister following revelations of his affair with 19-year-old Christine Keeler, a topless showgirl and would-be model who had also been sharing her favours with a Soviet diplomat.

John Profumo pictured dancing with his wife Valerie Hobson during the Conservative Party annual conference in Scarborough in October 1960

John Profumo pictured dancing with his wife Valerie Hobson during the Conservative Party annual conference in Scarborough in October 1960

John Profumo pictured dancing with his wife Valerie Hobson during the Conservative Party annual conference in Scarborough in October 1960

As the sex and espionage scandal which ensued threatened to topple the Conservative government of the day, the Profumos came out of hiding in the countryside and returned to London.

In her headscarf and white gloves, Valerie appeared calm and composed and, as they pushed through crowds of photographers outside their home in one of the beautiful terraces surrounding Regent’s Park, she reached for her husband’s hand and guided him towards the front door.

Newspaper pictures of that defining moment saw her forever freeze-framed as the epitome of a loyal Tory wife; an image cemented by her refusal ever to discuss the affair.

Yet Valerie was, by her own admission, far from the blindly devoted spouse she seemed. And this makes her portrayal in The Trial Of Christine Keeler, the BBC drama series about the Profumo scandal, which got under way on Sunday, all the more intriguing.

Profumo had an affair with 19-year-old Christine Keeler (pictured)

Profumo had an affair with 19-year-old Christine Keeler (pictured)

Profumo had an affair with 19-year-old Christine Keeler (pictured) 

The producers have promised to tell the story through ‘a female gaze’, with Hobson appearing in every one of the six episodes.

So what might we learn about the woman who was at the centre of one of the greatest political scandals of all time, but remains a footnote in history? Born in 1917, she grew up in Hampshire, one of two daughters of a penniless Royal Navy captain whose addictions to alcohol and gambling saw the family frequently impoverished.

Her mother, who took a job in a hat shop to make ends meet, faced the ignominy of seeing her jewellery sold to pay off her husband’s debts. For many years they had no home of their own, staying in the spare rooms of various relatives, or as paying guests in lodging houses.

Money was certainly something Valerie never had to worry about once she married the fifth Baron Profumo — a Harrow-educated war hero and multi-millionaire whose family had made its immense fortune as the owner of the Provident Life Insurance company.

They met thanks to her childhood ambition to follow a career in showbusiness. The young Valerie was adamant that her future would be on screen and, despite her father’s varying fortunes, she persuaded her parents to send her to dancing classes in London twice a week.

Later, she went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and from there followed a film career which saw her appear in some of the best-loved British movies of the Forties, including Kind Hearts And Coronets with Alec Guinness and Blanche Fury with Stewart Granger.

Ben Miles (left) and Emilia Fox (right) playing Profumo and Valerie in the TV adaption The Trial Of Christine Keeler

Ben Miles (left) and Emilia Fox (right) playing Profumo and Valerie in the TV adaption The Trial Of Christine Keeler

 Ben Miles (left) and Emilia Fox (right) playing Profumo and Valerie in the TV adaption The Trial Of Christine Keeler

Her greatest success would be as the grown-up Estella in David Lean’s 1946 classic, Great Expectations, with the director assuring her that her glacial beauty made her exactly the right woman for the part.

‘Estella is a woman without a heart: dead, unable to feel,’ he said. But off-screen, Valerie Hobson was clearly very capable of emotion.

In 1939, then aged 21, she had married Sir Anthony Havelock-Allan, the heir to the baronetcy of Lucknow and a distinguished film producer who was 14 years her senior and would later have such classics as This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter to his credit.

An insight into the extraordinary course of their marriage was given by the Mail’s Michael Thornton, who in 2006 reported on having seen a remarkably frank and, to this day still unpublished, manuscript written by Sir Anthony.

In it, he described the moment a doctor told them that their first child, Simon, who was born in 1944, had Down’s syndrome.

Ben Miles and Sophie Cookson playing Profumo and Christine in The Trial of Christine Keeler which aired last night

Ben Miles and Sophie Cookson playing Profumo and Christine in The Trial of Christine Keeler which aired last night

Ben Miles and Sophie Cookson playing Profumo and Christine in The Trial of Christine Keeler which aired last night 

The Trial Of Christine Keeler (BBC1) is based on facts behind the Profumo Scandal of the early Sixties. Pictured: Sophie Cookson as Keeler

The Trial Of Christine Keeler (BBC1) is based on facts behind the Profumo Scandal of the early Sixties. Pictured: Sophie Cookson as Keeler

The Trial Of Christine Keeler (BBC1) is based on facts behind the Profumo Scandal of the early Sixties. Pictured: Sophie Cookson as Keeler

‘Valerie didn’t look at the doctor, she looked at me and let out a cry I will never, ever forget,’ wrote Sir Anthony. ‘For a year, Valerie was a zombie. She hardly spoke.’

Simon went to live in a home for children with learning disabilities, where Hobson continued to visit him every fortnight until his death in 1991. Nonetheless, his birth appears to have marked a turning point in the relationship, with both husband and wife taking a series of lovers.

While the women in Sir Anthony’s life included Grace Kelly (later, Princess Grace of Monaco) and actress Kay Kendall, who went on to marry the actor Rex Harrison, Valerie’s wealthy paramours included a Marquess, a leading member of the Sainsbury grocery family and, of course, John Profumo.

She and Profumo met in 1947 after he had been entranced by one of her performances on a London stage. But, although he seems to have become immediately besotted by her, Valerie was reluctant to leave her husband straight away.

Keeler is shown as a 19-year-old 'showgirl' with a knack for stirring up trouble and who loves the effect she has on men. Pictured: Cookson as Keeler goes for a swim before undressing

Keeler is shown as a 19-year-old 'showgirl' with a knack for stirring up trouble and who loves the effect she has on men. Pictured: Cookson as Keeler goes for a swim before undressing

Keeler is shown as a 19-year-old ‘showgirl’ with a knack for stirring up trouble and who loves the effect she has on men. Pictured: Cookson as Keeler goes for a swim before undressing 

In 1950 — the year that Profumo was elected as the Tory MP for Stratford-upon-Avon — Valerie and her estranged husband met for a final tryst. ‘It was a hot summer afternoon and we made love,’ recalled Sir Anthony.

The result of that liaison was a second son, Mark, who was born in 1951 and is today a retired judge.

His parents divorced the following year and, after Profumo married Valerie in 1954, he raised him as his own — later referring to him in his will as ‘my very dear stepson’.

Their own son, David, was born in 1955, but their facade of happy family life belied the fact that Profumo — known to his friends as Jack — soon started to cheat on Valerie, possibly using late-night parliamentary sittings as his cover.

This was something of which she was well aware, according to the late Lord Balfour of Inchrye, who was married to Profumo’s sister, Mary, and who persuaded him to do his first and only interview following his fall from grace.

‘Christine Keeler was by no means the first,’ Balfour said at the time. ‘[Valerie] had caught him out in a number of affairs.’

Ben Miles, as the Secretary of State for War John Profumo, strolls around a hedge to find Christine emerging from the swimming pool and shedding her costume

Ben Miles, as the Secretary of State for War John Profumo, strolls around a hedge to find Christine emerging from the swimming pool and shedding her costume

Ben Miles, as the Secretary of State for War John Profumo, strolls around a hedge to find Christine emerging from the swimming pool and shedding her costume 

The first episode of the new BBC drama showed Profumo’s first glimpse of Keeler, standing naked at the side of the outdoor pool in the grounds of Viscount Astor’s Cliveden Estate in the summer of 1961.

Valerie, who was also there as one of the guests at the weekend house party, is supposed to have asked her husband to hand the teenager a towel and then, according to Lord Balfour, given him a warning.

‘When Keeler came on the scene, Valerie was suspicious and she presented him with an ultimatum: ‘If I find you have been having another affair, I shall leave you and divorce you for adultery.’ ‘

That she meant what she said became apparent two years later, when there was mounting evidence that Profumo had lied to Parliament about his relationship with Christine Keeler, saying that there was ‘no impropriety whatsoever’.

Original: The real Christine Keeler was photographed wearing a swimsuit as she relaxed on a sun lounger in 1963

Original: The real Christine Keeler was photographed wearing a swimsuit as she relaxed on a sun lounger in 1963

Original: The real Christine Keeler was photographed wearing a swimsuit as she relaxed on a sun lounger in 1963

But his resignation was becoming inevitable, and it was during a weekend break in Venice at the end of May 1963 that Profumo finally confessed everything to Valerie. She is supposed to have said: ‘Oh darling, we must go home now just as soon as we can and face up to it.’

Yet shortly afterwards, with the scandal about to break, Anthony Havelock-Allan claimed that she called him in the middle of the night, ‘distraught and desperate’ and with an astonishing proposal.

‘If you will agree to remarry me, I will leave Jack and divorce him,’ she said. But Havelock-Allan gently turned down her suggestion and added some advice.

‘If you walk out, it won’t give you any credit and people will think it’s rather a betrayal — but if you stick by him, people will say what a wonderful woman.’

In PR terms, it made excellent sense, with Valerie emerging as the very stoic heroine of the saga. Yet there can be no doubt that it was at the expense of her own happiness.

Two years later, the Profumos moved to a countryside retreat in Hertfordshire, where, according to their son David’s memoirs, ‘a shadow fell’ on Valerie’s spirits as her husband spent long hours in London, devoting himself to volunteering at Toynbee Hall, an East End charity for the homeless.

‘No longer a star and now denied the subsequent glamour of the political stage, she had lost her audiences . . . and her husband was again so busy that she was left to her own devices,’ he wrote.

‘She had not perhaps envisaged how often his work would make him late back from London, or require him to spend the night in town; the occasional notes from an anonymous well-wisher claiming that he was seeing a girl in the East End did not help the situation, either.’

As her son describes, Valerie found comfort from time to time in visits from Anthony Havelock-Allan, who had ended his career on a high with the 1970 film Ryan’s Daughter and was living with a wealthy American woman. By then, Sir Anthony was in his 70s and Valerie in her late 50s and, although David Profumo does not spell out what happened during those visits, it was sufficient to make him wonder ‘how my father could put up with such a situation.

‘The fact seems to be that he had no respect for Tony and never regarded him as any kind of lingering threat: he coolly tolerated his continuing presence in my mother’s life only because contact with him diverted some of her pent-up emotional pressures.’

In public, meanwhile, the Profumos maintained their appearance of togetherness. Although the espionage scandal had to some extent turned them into social pariahs, they continued to be guests of Winston Churchill’s son Randolph and of the Queen Mother, and their star returned to the ascendant when Profumo was awarded the CBE for services to charity in 1975.

‘At social occasions, Hobson, still every inch a star, would make an entrance, sweeping in ahead of her husband,’ wrote Michael Thornton. ‘Profumo followed meekly behind, looking for all the world like her butler.’

If they seemed trapped together in a dysfunctional web of their own creation, it was not all pretence. Valerie, in a letter to her husband on their 15th wedding anniversary in 1969, gushed: ‘Never once since I met you have I been bored; never once have I not wanted you. And never once, even for a moment, have I not loved you with all my heart.’

Such sentiments were rather rebuffed when, towards the end of her life, she told a close friend: ‘I never really loved Jack. I married him as a safe haven for myself and my children.’

But the truth is perhaps more clear in a letter, recently uncovered, that she wrote to her son David: ‘People say you cannot truly love two men,’ she said. ‘But you can — and I have.’

That was a secret she kept up right until her death in 1998, aged 81.

In convincing the world that she had always stood by her man, it seems Valerie pulled off perhaps her most demanding acting job of all.

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