LONDON, Mar 10 (Reuters) Britain's biggest postwar scandal began with a naked prostitute swimming languorously down the pool at one of the country's finest stately homes.
Among the high society party guests around the pool of Lord Astor's Cliveden country estate in Berkshire, one man was watching her with particular interest -- John Profumo.
Profumo was a rising star in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's government, a Harrow and Oxford-educated socialite who had been appointed minister for war in 1960.
The swimmer was 19-year-old showgirl Christine Keeler, one of several young women who regularly attended lavish parties organised by society doctor Stephen Ward.
Their brief affair was to touch off one of the biggest scandals ever to hit British politics, a salacious brew of sex, politics and hypocrisy played out against a background of Cold war paranoia.
For one of Keeler's other lovers was a Soviet naval attache.
No breaches of security were ever proved, but the mere conjecture of Keeler extracting secrets from Profumo in the bedroom and passing them on was enough.
The affair ruined Profumo, helped bring down Macmillan's government and produced one of the swinging 60s' most evocative images -- a black and white photograph of the naked Keeler straddling a chair and staring at the camera.
Keeler, who has described in her autobiography how she used to attend high society dinner parties ending in sex romps, said she slept with both Profumo and the attache Eugene Ivanov in 1961.
Profumo told the House of Commons in March 1963 that there had been ''no impropriety'' in his relationship with Keeler. Just over two months later he admitted he had lied and resigned.
He drew widespread praise and admiration for his work to raise funds and combat poverty, alcoholism and homelessness at Toynbee Hall in the heart of London's working class East End.
''I want to work here seriously and I want to forget the past,'' he said on starting his new life in 1964.
Profumo never spoke in public about the scandal which had been his undoing, even when he learned that a film was being made about it. ''I have remained silent for 22 years. I intend to continue doing so,'' he said in 1987.
But the film ''Scandal'', released in 1989 to widespread critical praise, prompted controversy and condemnation by Profumo's friends who said he should be left in peace.
A well-groomed, balding man with a reserved and courteous manner, John Dennis Profumo was born on January 30, 1915, into a family of former Italian aristocrats who settled in Britain.
He became the youngest member of the wartime parliament after his election in 1940.
During World War Two he served as an officer in North Africa and Italy. In 1945 he became the youngest brigadier in the British army and Chief of Staff of the British military and diplomatic mission in Japan.
In less than two decades of political life he was Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, Undersecretary at the Foreign Office, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and finally Secretary of State for War, a post he held from 1960 until his resignation three years later.
In 1954 he married former actress Valerie Hobson, who stuck by him throughout the scandal. She died in 1998. They had one son.
REUTERS SY RK2030