Books by People I Know: “How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward”

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In 2014, I was performing in a Costa Rican production of The Glass Menagerie. During a rehearsal, I was standing backstage and decided to introduce myself to Caroline.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a writer,” Caroline said, in her elegant English accent.

“Oh,” I said, thinking she meant blogger or diarist. “What do you write?”

Then Caroline threw me a curve-ball: In the 1980s, she co-authored a bone-rattling account of the Profumo Affair, which, in Great Britain, you might compare to the Watergate Scandal, except that there were a lot of sex parties involved. Caroline’s account, How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward, was a total coup: Few people involved in the Profumo Affair had ever spoken openly about it. The book was a bestseller. It blew the scandal wide open. Years later, the book would inform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Stephen Ward.

Caroline and I have become great friends ever since, and we admire each other a great deal. I could gush about Caroline forever: She’s a world-traveler, a humanitarian, a thespian, a journalist, and a loving mother. She has done more in a lifetime than any hundred regular people combined. You can read about her mind-blowing experiences on her blog.

As for Stephen Ward, here’s the review I wrote on Goodreads a couple of years ago, still as accurate as ever:

Six months ago, I had never heard of Stephen Ward, and when I asked my parents (who were cognizant middle schoolers when Ward went to trial), they drew a blank. In general, Americans know little about the Profumo Affair. Indeed, unless the scandal has “gate” tacked onto the end of its most notorious personage or locale, we tend to ignore it. “Wardgate” just doesn’t have the right ring.

This is a good thing, because it means an American 34-year-old can read “How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward” without any preconceptions. If you know nothing, skip the Wiki-history and start the book on page one, happily innocent. Milquetoast critics love to say that a book “reads like a thriller,” but in fact “Stephen Ward” IS, essentially, a thriller, and in the most spectacular sense: There are call-girls, slimy businessmen, Russian spies, and more famous names than you can shake a Oscar at. Figuratively, the story is a tragedy of blood — instead of pandemic death, as in a Shakespeare play, character assassination kills everyone involved. But the road to perdition is long and complex, and because it’s filled with sex, fistfights, and car crashes, the elaborate plot is also titillating.

At the heart of the book is the eponymous Stephen Ward, English osteopath and general enigma. Like any good biography, Ward’s personality is richly recreated, and a remarkable personality it was. Ward’s life was filled with contradictions: He loved American freedom, but he became famous among English aristocrats. He thrived in the city, but he escaped to the country whenever possible. He worshiped women and constantly surrounded himself with highly erotic girls, but he wasn’t himself very sexual. He was a methodical physician with an exceptional talent for art. He abhorred English class structure, but he was happy to defend its newly democratic values to a Soviet official and even provoke heated debate. He loved wild parties, but he particularly loved coffee.

For me, much of the pleasure of “Stephen Ward” was reading about an extinct zeitgeist: London in the 1960s. British culture had reached such a remarkable crossroads, where Mod fashion and sexual liberation and postwar personality crises and decayed government and predatory tabloids and Cold War gamesmanship all collided in the same city at the same time. Britons seemed unable to reconcile their gentlemanly days with their (literally) orgiastic nights. Sixty years later, it is impossible to imagine a well-dressed physician having casual sleepovers with a bevvy of teenaged girls, especially when Ward was the Dr. Oz of his day — living publicly and befriending every celebrity in sight. Ward now seems so innocent, hanging out with exotic dancers and Communist officials, earning and spending money without a care. It’s a peculiar case of Russian roulette when the player doesn’t realize he’s been aiming a loaded gun at his own temple for years.

On the surface, reading about the Profumo Affair anticipates our hyperactive obsession with celebrity scandal, and if it was ever revealed that Dr. Phil (to use another famous caregiver) routinely let Selena Gomez sleep at his place, all the while hanging out with a shifty Iranian “attaché,” we might imagine the fallout. Yet 21st Century people have become experts in the ways of scandal. We only express shock because we follow our cultural script; in reality, bedroom shenanigans have become so routine that we mostly just snicker with schadenfreude. Ward faced charges that now sound strange (“immorality offenses”), and “the establishment” is much more complex than it once was, but the repercussions of Ward’s trial nearly toppled the social order. No more group sex, no more poolside flirtations in the privacy of country homes. The party, it seems, was over.

Stylistically, “Stephen Ward” is a frank and often eloquent book. The story is interesting by nature, but Kennedy and Knightly perfectly married encyclopedic fact and colorful anecdote, and the result is burbling suspense, as if John le Carré had tried his hand at historical nonfiction. The story involves so many characters and spans so many years and locations that it feels like a TV miniseries — any given chapter is packed with insults, lawsuits, and a Silver Screen cameo. We learn, in the end, that the backward-thinking British aristocracy was willing to do anything to save face. Twenty years after these events, it’s remarkable that Kennedy and Knightly had the courage (or even the resources) to reopen an ugly wound and bleed it clean. The value of “Stephen Ward,” in its reissued form, is its cautionary theme: Posh society can be exciting and fashionable, but the stakes are also high. A mild-mannered physician can threaten an entire nation, just by having the wrong friends, or sketching the wrong muse.

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