The Story of Cliveden
It was the summer of 2004. After a splendid and breathtaking tour of the English and the Scottish Lake Districts with the Siddiques, we were in London on a short visit before traveling across the pond to Washington. An old friend of mine, Rezaur Rahman generously invited us to lunch and an afternoon at the Cliveden Castle in Berkshire. The drive in his BMW took us about forty-five minutes, most of it through highway, though the last fifteen miles or so were through the green countryside.
A legitimate question could arise in most people's mind: why go so far for a lunch during a brief visit to London and why do we care about a place called Cliveden? After all, there were plenty of fine close-by restaurants in London. There were two very good reasons: the history of the place and a scandal that was attached to its name in 1963.
Cliveden is over 300-years old. Dedicated to the pursuit of 'pleasure, power and politics', it was built in 1666 by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham. The house hosted many British Monarchs, including Queen Victoria. In 1892, it was bought by William Waldorf Astor, a rich American. In 1906, he gave it to his son and daughter-in- law, Nancy Astor. Nancy was born in Virginia, USA. She was a dazzling society hostess, who became the first woman member of parliament. Nancy Astor regularly entertained the rich and the famous of the world. Her guests included Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt. Field Marshall Ayub Khan, the then President of Pakistan was once her guest. Cliveden is unique in its architecture and interiors, combining extravagance and refinement. It is on 375 acres of formal gardens and parklands and provides panoramic views over the beautiful Berkshire countryside and the river Thames. For us, to be there, even for lunch, was an experience of a lifetime.
Now we come to the other reason for visiting Cliveden. Those who were old enough to read newspapers and the Time magazine in the early sixties are surely acquainted with the so-called 'Profumo Affair.' During 1960-63, Lord John Profumo was the Secretary of State for War (minister) in the conservative cabinet headed by Harold Macmillan. Profumo was secretly having an affair with a woman of low reputation, Christine Keeler. She also happened to be the girlfriend of the Senior Naval Attache at the Russian Embassy in London, Yevgeny Ivanov. The plot thickened when a host of VIP names surfaced in the same scandal. Profumo had first met Keeler at a party at the Cliveden in 1961.
The impressive place had exquisite dining facilities. The rooms had classic and heavily upholstered furniture and Brussels tapestries. Many of the rooms had paintings of important persons, including a stunning portrait of Nancy Astor painted by the famous British painter, John Sargent in 1908. We had drinks in one room, appetizers and lunch in another and then coffee in a third room-everywhere with excellent and attentive service. There is a library where one can pass a quiet and restful time. When my host asked me to look at the list of expensive drinks, I handed it back to him, muttering only the generic name of my choice. I left the rest of the ordering to him. The luncheon menu was impressive, both in terms of what it offered and the cost of the items. It does take awhile to cook a fresh hot item, so we ordered early. The first two rooms had excellent views of the garden and the expansive lawn with fountains at the back of the house. After finishing lunch and dessert, we rested for some time indulging in delicious chocolates and coffee in the huge lounge.
Walking around the garden and the fine lawn, mostly green grass with large trees at the periphery, was a delight, though a slight drizzle did spoil some of our pleasure. There was the 'famous' indoor swimming pool and an outdoor pool on one side of the front yard. I was not aware of the dress code at the pool, but the outdoor pool was shielded from public view of visitors, drivers, and the servants by a decorated latticed wall. It was the large indoor pool, where the contemporary newspapers reported that high dignitaries had their swim along with Christine Keeler.
When the affair was exposed to the press, questions were raised in the British parliament. Profumo's conduct and lack of discretion concerning matters involving national security, as well as his deceptive answers to colleagues in the parliament compelled him to resign from the cabinet and the parliament in 1963. Christine Killer became famous and I remember that she serialized a frank account of her exploits in the popular tabloids for a large sum of money. Eventually, based on this story, a movie titled 'Scandal' was produced. No doubt, faces of many members of the British upper class turned red and some of them retired from active public life. As for John Profumo, he kept completely silent about the affair, later devoting himself to charitable works. In recognition of these services, he was awarded the CBE. His wife, actress Valerie Hobson stayed with him throughout. Profumo died only a few months ago in March 2006. .
During our drive back to London, we tried to visualise the days of glamour and glory of Cliveden, where high-level and intellectual conversations by Chaplin, Shaw, Churchill, Roosevelt and the like were regular occurrences. We also reminisced about the notoriety that Cliveden gained in the early sixties when it sometimes hosted gatherings of people, some of whom later indulged in questionable activities. Indeed, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham who built the house a long time ago had 'pleasure, frolic and extravagant diversion' in his mind. In a way, his wishes were fulfilled.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington
(R) thedailystar.net 2006