It is not often that a phrase lives on through the decades because it captures a seismic and irreversible shift in the cultural and political mood. When it came with confidence from an 18-year-old with “a natural aversion to unhappiness”, employed as a hostess in a Soho nightclub, in the intimidating setting of the Old Bailey, it couldn’t have more clearly flagged up that the deference shown to the patricians of the upper classes was no more. A new era was on the horizon.
It was 1963. Marilyn “Mandy” Rice-Davies, who died on Thursday of cancer, aged 70, had been called to give evidence in the trial – and scapegoating – of society osteopath Stephen Ward, who committed suicide before the trial’s end. He was accused of living off immoral earnings. Rice-Davies’s friend Christine Keeler had been sleeping with the secretary of state for war, John Profumo, who subsequently lied to parliament about the affair, and the Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov.
Rice-Davies, told by counsel that Lord Astor had denied having slept with her, memorably replied: “He would, wouldn’t he?”, a phrase that entered The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. At the time of the “toffs and tarts” trial, abortion was illegal, as was homosexuality. “No Blacks” was a common sign in the windows of houses letting rooms. Tolerance, social justice and equality were absent from a social hierarchy that firmly kept “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate”.
Rice-Davies’s refusal to doff her cap, her cheek and self-possession were ahead of the curve. Within five years of the trial, young feminists were marching in the street; London had been rebranded “Swinging”; legislation had brought in a more liberal regime. Rice-Davies subsequently became an actress, author and successful businesswoman. Social mobility was then alive and well. She and her third husband, Ken Foreman, holidayed with Margaret Thatcher.
Of course, four words didn’t trigger a revolution but they remain a powerful, witty and evocative milestone on the route to social change.