Review: The Secret Worlds of Stephen Ward

Posted 7 March, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

The Secret Worlds of Stephen Ward: Sex, Scandal, and Deadly Secrets in the Profumo Affair
By: Anthony Summers and Stephen Dorril
Format/Source: Advanced reading copy courtesy of Open Road Media via NetGalley

A tour de force account of seduction, power, and betrayal in the biggest political sex scandal of its age

The Profumo Affair rocked the British establishment like no scandal before or since. The Tory war minister, John Profumo, had taken up with a teenager named Christine Keeler, who was also sleeping with a Soviet intelligence agent. The ensuing inquiry revealed a hidden underworld in which men of the ruling classes and politicians cavorted with prostitutes at orgies. The revelations shook the British government and sent shock waves all the way to the Kennedy White House. The man at the center of the storm was Dr. Stephen Ward.

Ward was a successful doctor to the rich and powerful, a talented artist who drew portraits of many of his famous patients and fixed up prominent men with young women. He was also a pawn, ruthlessly exploited by the intelligence agencies. When the Profumo Affair threatened the government, Ward became a scapegoat, hounded to death—and perhaps murdered.

For the first time, The Secret Worlds of Stephen Ward reveals the names that could not be exposed and the truths that could not be told until now.

I found out about this book through the publishers who contacted me requesting for a review. Despite having studied British history and 20th century history & politics, I actually never heard of this scandal, which sounds pretty serious and affected two (three!) nations during the height of the Cold War. So naturally my interest was piqued. I was given access to the ARC of this book in exchange for an honest opinion of it. This book was released on 25 February 2014.

The Secret Worlds of Stephen Ward chronologically follows the life Dr. Stephen Ward, his mingling amongst the upper and political classes and the events that not only affected their activities but also led to Ward’s downfall. It’s a pretty crazy course of events, one that you’d find in a movie or a thriller novel, but it actually happened. The reader learns not only how all of these developments led to the scandal–from the Kennedy administration to the showdown with the Soviet Union in the early sixties to the orgy parties that were happening behind the scenes (call me naive but I had no idea these sorts of things were going on during this time period)–but also learns how these developments raised questions about security and trust in the people who work in public office. I also had no idea that this scandal eventually brought down the Macmillan government so it was interesting to read how it played out and how it dragged the British government down as well as raised alarms in the American administration.

The book also raises questions whether Stephen Ward served as a scapegoat to cover up the more scandalous happenings amongst these circles as well as the involvement of the Soviets and what the spy community was doing during this time. There are just so many people factoring into the affair with their own motivations, some political, some not.

Because of the chronological nature of the narrative, the book covers the events leading up to and after the scandal. However I would have appreciated it if the authors had also delved a little bit on the impact of the scandal in the epilogue, how the scandal affected British politics moving forward (if at all). I read after the fact that there was a movie made back in the late 1980s about it and there are a few stage dramatisations on it (one as recent as 2013) but I wonder how prominent it factors into the public consciousness these days. Nonetheless I do appreciate how this novel sheds light on an event I was previously unaware of and on some of the more darker interactions that were happening amongst the rich and powerful.

Overall The Secret Worlds of Stephen Ward was an interesting read about an event in 20th century Great Britain that I didn’t know much about. You don’t have to be wholly familiar with the way that British politics operates in order to understand this book (and familiar figures like John F. Kennedy, Prince Philip and Harold Macmillan do cross the pages) but it can be a bit of an information overload if you’re not comfortable or familiar reading this types of books. Nonetheless it’s a great starting point if you don’t know anything about the event. I would recommend this book if you haven’t heard of this particular scandal and you are a reader of British history and politics and/or Cold War politics.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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