In 1961, British politician John Profumo was the country’s Secretary of State for War and a rising star in the Conservative Party. Then his public image took a nosedive, after he met and had a brief fling with an aspiring model, nineteen-year-old Christine Keeler.
In and of itself, the affair was not a big deal – then as now, politicians having affairs were as common as sand on a beach. What transformed the affair into a scandal with far-reaching consequences, that destroyed Profumo’s public image and his career, was the coverup. When asked about his relationship with Keeler in the spring of 1963, Profumo told the House of Commons that there had been “no impropriety whatever“.
It did not take long for the paparazzi and tabloid press to prove that John Profumo had lied to Britain’s House of Commons about his affair with the teenaged Christine Keeler. Even then, his public image and career might have survived the hit – politicians lying to hide affairs being a dime a dozen – were it not for bad timing.
There had been a string of recent spy scandals, and it emerged that Keeler had also had a fling with a naval attache at the Soviet embassy. Ten weeks after lying to Parliament, Profumo confessed and resigned. The scandal shook the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, who resigned a few months later on health grounds. A few months later, the reeling Conservatives lost the 1964 elections to the Labor Party, and were ousted from power.
It is fortunate for Mahatma Gandhi‘s public image that his private life did not garner widespread coverage during his lifetime. One of the most revered figures of the twentieth century, Gandhi famously led India’s struggle for independence. Along the way, he perfected the strategy and tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience, and inspired other independence and civil rights movements around the world.
The ranks of those inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience included Dr. Martin Luther King, who studied the Indian leader’s methods, and put them to use in America’s Civil Rights movement. However, in his personal life, Gandhi wasâ¦ a complex man. Nowhere is that complexity more evident than in his sleeping habits.
Mahatma Gandhi liked to sleep naked with young girls. The story put out by those in his circle was that he did so in order to test his willpower and strengthen his resistance to the temptations of the flesh. In reality, it was probably less about spiritual experimentation, and more about Gandhi gratifying his primal desires.
As one of the early acolytes who shared his bed described it after his death, it was all about protecting Gandhi’s public image. As she put it: “Later on, when people started asking questions about the physical contact with women â¦ the idea of experiments was developed â¦ in the early days, there was no question of calling it an experiment“.
Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man, to put it mildly. On the one hand, he penned some of the most stirring words in advocating freedom, liberty, and equality. Jefferson’s phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has moved and inspired idealists for centuries.
On the other hand, there was the contrast between the man’s public image and his actual life. Jefferson pursued his happiness in a hilltop plantation, Monticello, leading a life of luxury that was only made possible by the labor of hundreds of chattel slaves. He also engaged in conduct that would be seen as clear-cut violent sexual criminality today. In Monticello, the famous Founding Father also abused his dead wife’s underage lookalike half-sister.
America’s third president had a creepy relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings (1773 – 1835). However, straightforward abuse might be a more accurate description than a “relationship”. Sally Hemings was a slave, kept in bondage by a brutal system in which violence, including deadly violence, was used to coerce its victims and secure their compliance. She had as much choice in submitting to Jefferson’s carnal demands as does a modern kidnapped victim, who finds herself chained for years in some psycho’s basement.
Even if she had not been a slave, there would still have been something super creepy about the age disparity between Sally Hemings and the famous Founding Father. A further contrast between Thomas Jefferson’s public image as a prominent Enlightenment figure and his actual life is the fact that he was 44 years old when he started having intimacy with Sally. She was thirteen or fourteen. Even if she had been a willing participant, it would be considered criminal today.
Sally Hemings was not just Thomas Jefferson’s child concubine: she was also his dead wife’s sister and lookalike. Sally was the daughter of a slave woman and John Wayles, Jefferson’s father in law. That made her the biological half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748 – 1782). Sally, who was nine when her sibling died, bore a striking resemblance to the deceased Martha. The resemblance only increased as she grew. Jefferson missed his dead wife, so when her lookalike sister was thirteen or fourteen, he began raping her.
In short, Thomas Jefferson abusing Sally Hemings would be an epic scandal if it had happened today, hitting just about every icky button there is, and destroying his public image beyond repair. Pedophilia? Check. Incest? Check. Violence, coercion, and assault? Check, check, and check. Adding another layer to it all is that Jefferson fathered six children upon Sally, and kept them as slaves. He eventually got around to freeing his children, but he never freed his concubine: Sally Hemings was still Thomas Jefferson’s slave when he died in 1826.
The accidental death of actor David Carradine in 2009 from autoerotic asphyxiation was weird. The end of the Kung Fu star’s life stood in odd contrast to the public image he had maintained throughout his life. However, it was pretty tame compared to the death of another famous actor, Albert Dekker (1905 – 1968).
Dekker was one of America’s greatest character actors, with a career that spanned 40 years in the theater and on the silver screen, with a filmography of over 110 credits. He won accolades for notable performances in East of Eden, The Killers, Dr. Cyclops, Kiss Me Deadly, as well as in his final acting role in The Wild Bunch. Unfortunately, he is probably best remembered today for an extremely bizarre death, whose manner stood in jarring contrast with his public image.
In addition to his acting, Albert Dekker won acclaim (eventually – at the time, it damaged his public image) for his moral courage. During the hysteria of the Red Scare early in the Cold War, he actually had the guts to stand up to and denounce the demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Dekker was one of the few actors brave enough to do so, and it got him blacklisted in Hollywood. His career was derailed for years, during which he could find no work. Eventually, the anticommunist hysteria subsided, and he returned to acting.
In 1968, Albert Dekker completed his final role in The Wild Bunch, left the set, and fell off the map. Friends and family grew worried after days passed without anybody hearing from him. After failing to show up for a date with his fiancee, fashion model Geraldine Saunders, she tried calling, but got no response. That was unusual for Dekker, whose public image as a staid and reliable man matched his private life when it came to punctuality.
So Saunders went to Dekker’s apartment and pinned a note on a door already covered by other notes from friends and acquaintances. When she returned later that evening and found things still the same, she convinced the building manager to let her in the apartment. Inside, they found the bathroom door chained from the inside, and had to break it open. There, they discovered a dead Dekker, hanging from a leather belt.
The scene of Albert Dekker’s death was so bizarre and grotesque, that his fiancee collapsed upon witnessing it. The building manager needed minutes to overcome the shock and gather his wits to call the police. There was nothing in either Dekker’s public image or private one that would have prepared anyone for the sight. He was naked in the bathtub, with a ball gag in his mouth, a scarf covering his eyes, and his hands cuffed behind his back. In addition to the belt around his neck, there was another belt around his waist, tied to a rope binding his ankles. That rope, in turn, was looped around his wrist and clasped in his hand.
Sun rays were drawn around his nipples in lipstick, which was also used to draw a vagina on his stomach. A hypodermic needle was sticking out of each arm, and his right butt cheek had two needle punctures, above which the word “whip” was written in lipstick. His body was covered in other words written in lipstick, including “slave”, “cocksucker”, and “make me suck”.
Albert Dekker’s death was initially ruled a suicide. However, after S&M toys and porn were found in his apartment, it was changed to accidental autoerotic asphyxiation while masturbating. Despite the coroner’s ruling, foul play was suspected. For one, his fiancee knew that he had been keeping $70,000 cash in the apartment to buy a new house. The money, as well as expensive cameras and filming equipment, was never found.
It also seemed incredible that Dekker could have tied himself in the manner in which he was discovered, all on his own. Whether he acted alone, or had a partner who panicked and fled after a scandalous game went terribly wrong, or he was murdered, is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Unfortunately, that weird ending that did more to shape Dekker’s public image and memory than his decades of stellar work and moral stands.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading