Of the many characters caught up in the 1960s sex and spying saga of the Profumo scandal, Mandy Rice-Davies, who has died aged 70 of cancer, managed to turn the celebrity that the whole affair brought to best effect.
While others lost their reputations and jobs – and her friend the society osteopath Stephen Ward lost his life – Rice-Davies traded on the publicity to work as a singer, an actor, a nightclub owner and a novelist before settling down to comfortable life in Florida and London with her third husband, the businessman Ken Foreman.
She was always happy to step vivaciously back into the spotlight to relive her past. When Andrew Lloyd Webber announced plans in 2012 to stage a West End musical based on Ward’s life, Rice-Davies was initially privately sceptical but soon became one of his closest collaborators and a very public champion of the show.
On stage, the actor Charlotte Blackledge perfectly captured the bubbly, irreverent, devil-may-care attitude that Rice-Davies never lost. The musical’s director, Richard Eyre, said of his experience of working with her: “She forgets nothing and regrets nothing.”
If the public’s interest in the Profumo scandal was waning – Stephen Ward closed last March after a four-month London run of disappointing houses and mixed reviews – once it had been insatiable. In June 1963, Rice-Davies made a headline-grabbing appearance at Ward’s trial for living off immoral earnings. She claimed that among her lovers had been Viscount (“Bill”) Astor, on whose Cliveden estate the Conservative politician John Profumo, holder of the non-cabinet post of war secretary, first began his infamous sexual liaison with Rice-Davies’s close friend Christine Keeler, who was simultaneously bedding a Soviet naval attache. It was put to Rice-Davies in the witness box that Astor denied her allegation. “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” she quipped.
The remark dominated the front pages the next day, damned Astor in the public’s eye (he was to die three years later, a broken man), and ultimately earned Rice-Davies a place in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (between Jean Rhys and Samuel Richardson). The writer Ludovic Kennedy left a memorable first-hand account of Rice-Davies in full flow in the witness box. “Astride her golden head sat a little rose-petalled hat, such as debutantes wear at garden parties ... Her simple, grey, sleeveless dress accentuated the impression of modesty ... until one looked at it closely. Then one saw that the slit down the front was only held together by a loose knot – when she walked one could see quite a long way up her leg ...”
The truth of her allegation was never firmly established. The court case ended in August 1963 with Ward’s suicide, before a verdict could be reached on charges relating to £200 Astor had given Ward towards the rent on the flat where Rice-Davies lived. Astor’s widow, the 1950s model Bronwen Pugh, was subsequently able to demonstrate that on the dates in November 1962 when Rice-Davies alleged the affair had taken place, her husband was elsewhere. But by then the legend had grown so potent that the actual details mattered little.
Marilyn Rice-Davies was born in Llanelli, south Wales. The family moved to Solihull, near Birmingham, when her father left the police force to set up a tyre business. Marilyn’s precocious good looks saw her working, at the age of 15, as a model at the city’s Marshall and Snelgrove department store. She soon afterwards headed for London for more of the same – appearing, for instance, in 1959 at the Earl’s Court motor show, draped over the newly launched Austin Mini. She also became a showgirl at Murray’s cabaret club in Soho (heavily featured in the Lloyd Webber musical).
In the buttoned-up atmosphere of the late 1950s, this was a demi-monde where pretty young women, usually from the wrong side of the tracks, could meet wealthy, older and often aristocratic men. Among Rice-Davies’s conquests were the property racketeer Peter Rachman and, she alleged, the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. She also befriended Keeler, another of the showgirls. It was, she later claimed, “dislike at first sight”, but despite their very different characters the two became close collaborators, usually alongside Ward, who delighted in introducing them to his rich clients.
It is one of the many ironies of the Profumo scandal that Rice-Davies never met Profumo, but once the affair made headlines she was constantly in the news. While the more vulnerable Keeler often seemed dazed by the publicity and uncertain of what she was saying, 19-year-old Rice-Davies was in her element, giving interviews likening herself to Nelson’s lover, Lady Hamilton, posing for cameras and taking every chance she was offered.
She became for some an icon of the swinging 60s. In 1964 she recorded an EP and released The Mandy Report, a comic-style memoir of her rise to fame. Once the interest in her began to wane, she decamped to Israel with her first husband, Rafi Shauli. In the 70s, she helped him found the country’s first glossy magazine, and ran nightclubs and restaurants, all of them branded Mandy’s. She also appeared in various Israeli films, before returning to Britain in the 1980s to try her hand as an actor. It was not a great success, but she made cameo appearances in Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1986) and later in Jennifer Saunders’s Absolutely Fabulous.
By this time, a second marriage was already behind her (she claimed in her insouciant way that it had lasted only a few hours and she couldn’t remember the Frenchman’s name) and she had a young daughter, Dana. In 1987 she married Foreman, chief executive of an American waste management group, and two years later published a novel, The Scarlet Thread.
Now calling herself Marilyn Foreman, immaculately turned out and looking substantially younger than her years, she began moving in new circles. Vice-president of her husband’s company was Sir Denis Thatcher, husband of the prime minister, and on her desk at their London home in Belgravia she had a framed picture of herself with Denis and Margaret while on holiday in Florida; the Foremans also had a home in Miami.
“My life has been one long descent into respectability,” she once remarked. At the launch of Stephen Ward, she claimed not to have talked to Keeler for almost 50 years. “I don’t think she liked me,” she giggled.
She is survived by Ken and Dana.
• Mandy Rice-Davies (Marilyn Foreman), showgirl and nightclub owner, born 21 October 1944; died 18 December 2014
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
Have something to tell us about this article?