Reg and Ron Kray were the OTHER Glimmer Twins of the Swinging Sixties in London. Notorious gangsters, murderers and sadistic club owners, they were the yen to Mick and Keith’s yang but, for a time, they were part of the same hip milieu. The Krays gave organized crime a ‘respectable’ patina, as their nightclubs’ clientele included the likes of Judy Garland, George Raft, Sonny Liston, Princess Margaret, Lucian Freud and anybody who wished to see and be seen in Swinging London. Catherine de Leon looks at the OTHER side of the Krays and ponders their dubious hipster legacy.
When you think of the Swinging Sixties in London you think go-go boots, miniskirts, geometrics and gloss, all with a soundtrack so indelible that it lives on today some 55 years later: Beatles, Stones, Who, Dusty Springfield, Walker Brothers, and on and on. This sudden explosion of color was a postwar revolution so big that it redefined the whole world and radically changed moral and artistic perspectives. The British Invasion was not just about music. It encompassed film, art, fashion, and social mores, and it was reflected everywhere, from the East End slums to Buckingham Palace. Even organised crime was given a new face and a new image that, like London itself, “swung like the pendulum do”.
As skirts got shorter, hair longer, music louder, and lyrics bolder, it was clear that this was not just where the action was; this was where the money was, and the money was attracting a whole other element. Along with the rise of Cockney working-class chic, and the upper class jockeying to mix with the most notorious, something insidious was sneaking under the wire. The Kray Twins, Reg and Ron, were gangsters made stars whose rise and fall was defined by the decade that gave them fame.
In the early 1960s, England was a simmering tea kettle, and four working class lads from Liverpool brought it to a boil. John, Paul, George, and Ringo came from a northern industrial port city that was unique from the rest of the country, proud of its working class, its unions, its docks, its multiculturalism and its “Scouse” culture. The Beatles charmed the world, and that charm and wit was purely “Scouse”. “Scouse” to Liverpool is what “Cockney” is to London; maligned and misunderstood by the outsider, but worn with pride as a badge of individuality by its tribe.
The British Invasion was not just about music. It encompassed film, art, fashion, and social mores, and it was reflected everywhere, from the East End slums to Buckingham Palace. Even organised crime was given a new face and a new image that, like London itself, “swung like the pendulum do”.
What started in Liverpool became global once it hit London, and why not? London, the capital, was teeming with youth from all over the country able to live cheaply enough in a city with that “right time /right place” vibe. Coffee and milk bars transformed into rock and blues clubs, old Victorian warehouses became art and photography studios, and Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon infused the stark geometrics of pop art into hair and clothing trends. British film sharp-focused its lens on the working class. Movies like A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Alfie, Georgy Girl, and To Sir with Love brought cloistered working-class boroughs’ culture and slang into national and international consciousness.
Georgy Girl (1966)-Original trailer:
Americans began calling girls “birds” and even the upper-class toffs in the stockbroker belt of Surrey tried their hand at Scouse phrases and Cockney rhyming slang. Twiggy, born Leslie Hornby in Neasden (North London), was the face and silhouette of the decade, and Michael Caine, the son of an East End fishmonger, was an international heart throb.
The working class who dropped their H in the South and rolled their R in the North had arrived, Everyone wanted to be them, or be near them, even if it meant hanging round the docks or walking along the cobbles once tread by Jack the Ripper. The acceptability that the Beatles were exporting to the rest of England was a catalyst for a major change on the world stage that opened the door to a new kind of hero and widened the playing field for those who had always taken their exclusion for granted. The Sixties spawned a revolution as much for the working class as for the young. It also left the door ajar for a new kind of gangster; sleek, modern, and all too aware of the power of “public image”. Reg and Ron, the Kray Twins, were born for this moment.
Identical twins Reginald and Ronald Kray were born in London’s East End on October 24, 1933, with Reg the elder by 10 minutes. Like the coming Working-Class and Rock ‘n’ Roll Revolutions, they sprang from the rubble of war. In a time and place where infant mortality was high, particularly among twins, Reg and Ron were spoiled and doted on by their mother, Violet, who was blind, deaf, and dumb to their misdeeds, and always told them that they could have whatever they wanted.
Television interview with Ronnie and Reg Kray, at the peak of their ‘Clubland’ empire :
Both Krays were inherent narcissists and Mama’s boys, but Ron was more violent and unpredictable, eventually diagnosed as psychotic with paranoid schizophrenia. As they grew, the twins engaged in bullying and strong-arm tactics in the classroom and on the playground. That which wasn’t given—a shilling in childhood or a nightclub in adult years—was simply taken by brute force and intimidation. They were surrounded in family life predominately by women who cooed over them and enabled them. Their only male role models were their father, Charlie Sr., a draft dodger hiding in cupboards and cellars during and just after the war to escape imprisonment, and their maternal grandfather, Jimmy “Cannonball” Lee, a famed boxer and street entertainer who taught the twins the skills of the ring. As teens, the two boys boxed semi-professionally; Reg was good enough, some said, to have turned professional. As they became men, rather than move toward some sort of legitimacy as fighters or promoters, they used their boxing skills as tools of intimidation (along with brass knuckles, knives, and machetes) to instill fear in business owners and rival gangs.
On their own patch, the Krays may have exemplified thuggery, but to the rest of the world, their 15 minutes of fame began as East End club owners who tried to conquer the West End, Cockneys who mixed with the toffs and swung with the stars. But, in reality, they were the dark side of the brightly-colored pop optics that defined Swinging London in the ‘60s.
Before the Krays, English organized crime, with few exceptions, was not a high-profile affair and gangland bosses could never be confused with legitimate businessmen. They were denizens of the slums, lurking in the shadows, wearing their battle scars with pride. They sported knife wounds across their faces, not custom-made tailored Italian suits with monogramed accessories. They were also identified as factions of undesirable ethnic minorities, Jews and Irish, and this drew bolder lines that should not be crossed. Reg and Ron put a Mary Quant lip gloss sheen on the idea of organized crime by calling their gang The Firm and crafting an image of young, charming, and impeccably dressed local East End businessmen who not only protected the residents of the area from nefarious “gangs” but also served as Robin Hoods, supporting widows, orphans, wounded veterans and old age pensioners alike. But, it has been alleged that the Krays seldom put their hands in their own pockets. They went into pubs and social clubs, intimidating people to “donate”, then made said donations in their own name.
They were the dark side of the brightly-colored pop optics that defined Swinging London in the ‘60s.
As the Krays began to build The Firm, they started out as an East End protection racket mob, flexing its muscles (and machetes) to acquire ownership of the very establishments they “protected.” The first, taken over in 1954, was a billiards hall called The Regal, in Mile End.
Other venues followed. The Kentucky, in Stepney, was frequented by celebrities of the day, East Enders who had made good, and others who dared to cross the invisible line. The club and members of staff were featured in the award-winning film Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963). The film starred the late Barbara Windsor, a blond bombshell who today is best known as Peggy Mitchell, owner of the Queen Vic pub in the long-running soap opera, East Enders. Windsor was a real Cockney; she didn’t just play one on TV. She frequented many Kray establishments, and even dated the Kray Twins’ elder brother, Charlie, also a gangster.
Scenes from Sparrow Can’t Sing (1963), with the theme song performed by Barbara Windsor:
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Their Double R Club in Bow, started by Reg and elder brother Charlie while Ron was “away,” hosted many a celebrity and was the place to be in the East End. Later, when Reg was “away” and the management was left to Ron, the club went into freefall and eventually failed. When Reg returned and saw what his brother had done, all hell broke loose. But, when the dust settled, they cast their eyes toward the West End.
Reg and Ron put a Mary Quant lip gloss sheen on the idea of organized crime by calling their gang The Firm and crafting an image of young, charming, and impeccably dressed local East End businessmen
Meanwhile, all roads crossed in Soho, an area of London where the best restaurants stood side by side with strip clubs, peep shows, and other seedy establishments. All sorts of clandestine dealings took place to the backdrop of the “new music”. The tables were occupied by emerging “everyones”; artist Lucien Freud and members of Parliament rubbed shoulders with mods and rockers, petty thieves, and organised crime henchmen, some of whom were connected to The Firm. Princess Margaret and peers of the realm started flowing in as well, sharing cocktails and having tete-a-tetes with “fascinating” underworld characters and future stars. They would make their pilgrimages from Soho to the East End under the cloak of darkness to discover “the source,” which they found charming and dangerous while knowing little about the vice, violence, and murder bubbling just below the surface.
Preserving this moment in time for posterity was photographer David Bailey, who also came from poverty-stricken East London. His iconic photos captured the essence of the Swinging Sixties, and his most famous subjects included model Jean Shrimpton, actors Terrence Stamp and Michael Caine, the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithful, and yes, Reg and Ronnie Kray.
The twins loved their newfound fame. They were meeting people like Judy Garland, who sang “Over the Rainbow” for their mum, Violet. They were socializing with the first Scarface of film, George Raft, and hosted American boxer Sonny Liston.
By the mid-Sixties, they owned two more venues, not in the wild outposts of the East End, but in the ritzy West. They opened a casino called Esmerelda’s Barn in Kensington, and a hip club in Soho called The Hide-A-Way. Flashbulbs were popping everywhere, and the Krays were making their mark on Clubland. Unbeknownst to their fans who considered the twins “just a couple of lovely lads in tasty whistles [Cockney rhyming slang: whistle and flute = suit] ‘oo was always good to their mum” serious harm was being done. From witness tampering, extortion, and aiding and abetting prison escape to torture and murder, the Krays were not your average neighbourhood boys made good. One might think that taking part and pleasure in violent acts like branding people’s faces, using knives to give people “permanent grins,” and other means of torture would be the Achilles heel to bring them down. It was, however, Ronnie’s sexual appetites that would undo them by the end of the decade.
Princess Margaret and peers of the realm started flowing in as well, sharing cocktails and having tete-a-tetes with “fascinating” underworld characters and future stars
Despite the sexual liberation ushered in by the Sixties, the acceptance and legalisation of homosexuality had not moved on much further than where it was during the time of Oscar Wilde. Kept on the down-low everywhere, it was an open secret in the corridors of Westminster and pubs of the East End. Although not approved of by the establishment, and considered a weakness in the East End, it was protected and kept secret within its ranks.
Ronnie Kray was an “out” gay man which was very unusual and controversial at the time. Reg was rumoured to be bisexual, but was engaged to, and would eventually marry a neighbourhood girl named Frances Shea. She was the sister of a Kray associate who, it was said, had rebuffed Reg, so he took Frances instead. Ron’s tastes ran to very young men. His other proclivities were brutish. He liked to hurt people in bed and out, and he loved to put this on display in sex clubs and the orgies he hosted. There were no class distinctions drawn at these gatherings. Everyone was equal, as long as you could afford something in black leather and knew how to keep your mouth shut. This was a place where Ministers of Parliament, such as Lord Robert Boothby and Tom Driberg, could really let their hair down.
Ronnie Kray met Lord Boothby through Leslie Holt, Boothby’s gay lover who also just happened to be a professional cat burglar from Stepney. Ron was keen to get power, prestige and loads of money for his pet project: a housing and factory project in Enugu, Nigeria. Though Boothby did not invest in Ronnie’s project, they continued their relationship, which involved procuring young men and attending orgies together. And, of course, photographs were taken and leaked to the press, which had long been looking for a reason to bring Boothby down. The ruling government at the time was Labour, and Boothby was a Tory. Burt then Labour Party insiders discovered that Tom Driberg, a Labour MP and friend of Boothby’s, also attended Ron’s parties. Thus, Labour, the intelligence agencies, and the police did what they could to protect Driberg and Boothby from getting caught with their trousers down, which included a full-scale printed apology and retraction, plus financial restitution to Boothby from the press. This matters not for its salaciousness, but because it gave Reg and Ron the trump card they needed. They had a lot on Boothby, and every time they were brought into court and threatened with jail, he was their own personal “get out of jail free” card.
This free pass for the Krays, along with the publicity that accrued from the nightclub scene, made them famous and cemented their hero status. Now they seemed untouchable, and this sense of invincibility gave Ron license to become further unhinged and run amok. Members of The Firm were getting uneasy. There were rumblings of plots to kill the twins, whose personal and professional lives were beginning to unravel. Reg’s marriage was hanging by a thread. His wife, Frances, suffered from depression, which was exacerbated every time there were problems with the law. It seems she was beginning to realise that her husband wasn’t “just” a club owner after all.
The simmering kettle was now on the boil. The rivalry between the twins and the Richardson gang of South London was escalating. The violence came to a head when Ron strolled into the Blind Beggar Pub in the East End and shot Richardson associate George Cornell in the head in front of a room full of witnesses. allegedly because Cornell had called Ron a “fat poof”.
Though Ron avoided prison—due largely to witness tampering—Frances Kray committed suicide and Reg went over the edge, culminating in his stabbing to death a Firm associate named Jack “The Hat” McVitie. Adding to his transgressions, Reg also aided in the prison break of Frank Mitchell whom the twins later allegedly killed but whose body was never found. The government could no longer turn a blind eye. Detective Inspector Leonard “Nipper” Reed finally had what he needed to arrest the twins. One by one, members of The Firm testified against them, and in 1969, the twins were sent away for 30 years.
The year 1969 was the death knell of Swinging Sixties London. Brian Jones died. The Beatles were breaking up. Reg and Ron Kray were “inside” for what was likely the rest of their lives. People no longer saw the world through rose-colored glasses covering kaleidoscope eyes. But legends live on, and those who rise to the rhythm of rock ‘n’ roll are propelled forward in time to the same beat.
The result: The pop culture that was born in the ‘60s has kept the Krays’ legend alive through the ensuing six decades. Shades of the Krays can be seen in the film Performance, which starred Mick Jagger (the writers used an associate of Ronnie Kray’s, David Litvinoff, as a consultant on the film).
Performance (1970)-original trailer:
Though not written about them per se, Reg and Ron’s legend springs to mind when we hear Squeeze’s “Cool For Cats”, and Elvis Costello’s “Clubland”.
“Clubland”-Elvis Costello & the Attractions:
Roger Daltrey of The Who was an advocate for early release of the twins from prison, and was originally involved in bringing the Krays’ story to the big screen. He eventually sold his rights to the story, and the 1990 film, The Krays, starring Gary and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet as the twins, was released. Every retro Mod from Paul Weller onward can tip his hat to Reg and Ron’s style.
The Krays (1990)-Trailer:
The Kray twins, the worst of London, were created by the best that London had to give. The Swinging Sixties may be over, but the Legend of Reg and Ronnie Kray lives on.
Ronald Kray, while serving his sentence at Broadmoor, died of a heart attack on March 17, 1995. He was 61 years old. Reginald Kray, diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer in 2000, was given compassionate leave and released from prison. He died on October 1, 2000. He was 66 years old.