Tuesday, August 16, 2011

End of an East End era

Sloshing through Central Park. 4:10 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011. Overcast and cooler all day with some more rain forecast. Friends called from California and Florida asking about the rainfall. Sitting here in the city, there was no sign of accumulation. I was surprised to read in the morning that JFK got more than 8 inches of rain, almost three times the monthly average, in one 24 hour period.

If you didn’t see yesterday’s Diary, just to recount: for these last two weeks of the summer month, we’re gonna try to lighten our editorial load a bit by re-publishing some Diaries from eight-nine-ten, even eleven years ago.

Ronnie and Reggie in their teens. Their grandfather, Jimmy “Cannonball” Lee interested them in amateur boxing. It might have been the elder seeing an outlet for their extreme rambunctious and ferocious energy. At 19, they turned professional, never having lost a bout.
Today’s Diary is about the Kray twins. Although many have never heard of them they were famous in the UK especially in the 1960s and the era of the Beatles and Carnaby Street scene. Their celebrity came as night club owners, but in real life they were gangsters. Bad, dangerous, scary, nasty, vicious, murderous monsters. Such monsters that anyone who came across them was afraid of them.

I learned about them like a lot of other Americans when the film “The Krays” was released in 1990. A friend of mine who was British had worked on the picture and had invited me to a screening. She’d told me they were young London mobsters who knew everybody.

I never forgot them after seeing the picture (which is very effective). I learned more about them afterwards. The twins were inseparable, united in their trouble-making as well as oddly competitive. They were murderous and often engaged in torture over anything that slighted them, and one of them, Ronnie, was paranoid schizophrenic at times.

Ronnie Kray was also homosexual and the brothers’ venture into London nightclub life provided easy conduits to men of wealth and power – political power, who were ready, willing and able. One of Ronnie’s sexual friends was Baron Boothby, a conservative British politician who got around and had a very active bisexual life. His affair with the wife of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan gave him access to the very top of the power structure.

Boothby had also married twice and fathered children with women from other affairs. His homosexual activity included other politicians and members of the Establishment and involved group activities as well as liaisons with men who also served as spies for various countries, parties, governments. So we should not be surprised to learn that two punks who were hotheaded and even crazy were characters in the dramas in the corridors of power. Nor should it surprise any of us to think such things are any different anywhere where men and women work and play.

Ronnie Kray and Baron Boothby. The baron, an important public servant, so to speak, was cavorting with a known criminal and highly suspected brutal murderer, when this photograph was taken of the two. Their relationship was based on sex but extended politically. As these things do.
Homosexuality was still criminal activity in the UK in those days, but the powers that be protected their friends. More than once Boothby’s influence and connections protected the criminal behavior of the twins. And more than once were people involved who held high ranking positions, especially in government.

Eventually, although not before a record of brutal murders and tortures had taken place, the boys were brought to trial, convicted and given life imprisonment. Ronnie spent his days in Broadmoor Hospital, a high-security psychiatric hospital in Berkshire where he died in 1995 at age 62. Reggie was released from prison five years later, very ill with cancer. He died eight weeks after that, age 67.

In the June 15, 2001 edition of NYSD, we published this obituary from the Daily Telegraph of Reggie Kray:

The Other Side of Paradise:

Some of you may know about or remember the film quite a number of years ago about those two violently criminal English twin brothers, the Krays. The last of them died last year and history was briefly re-told in this obituary that appeared in the London Daily Telegraph.

End of an East End era as Reggie Kray dies

Reggie Kray was the last of the big-time East End gangsters and his death finally closes the book on a grim legend.

Years after the 1969 murder convictions and life sentences of Reggie and his twin brother, Ronnie, books and a hit film continued to entrench their infamy. The Kray twins were both the brains and the brawn behind "the Firm", which specialised in protection and extortion rackets and established a Mafia-style grip on the capital's underworld in the 1960s.
Amateur boxers Reggie and Ronnie Kray with their mother Violet Kray (FOX PHOTOS/ GETTY IMAGE).
Reggie was born, 45 minutes after Ronnie, in Bethnal Green, east London, on October 24, 1933. Their father, part Irish, Jewish, gypsy and Austrian, was a second-hand clothes dealer. Their mother, Violet, made them the centre of her world. They worshipped her in return.

By the time they were 17, the twins had honed their violent instincts and become professional boxers. Both were dishonourably discharged from National Service in 1954, after having spent much of their time in the forces in military prisons.

Within two years the twins had established the biggest criminal racket in London's East End, with the homosexual and psychopathic Ronnie as the violent, dominant force and Reggie providing the business brains.
Ronnie and Reggie as schoolboys. All grown up.
Their elder brother, Charlie, was also involved in the gang to a lesser extent, leading to the well-known photograph of the three shaking hands in a menacing display of brotherly love.

Reggie opened the Double R (for Reggie and Ronnie) nightclub in 1956 and made a semi-legitimate success of it, leading to speculation that his brother may have been his "bad angel" and led him astray.

The cult of celebrity that saw the Beatles worshipped in the 1960s would also see the Krays become stars in their own right.
The twins with their parents Violet and Jimmy 'Cannonball' Lee.
Reggie and Ronnie with their elder brother Charlie (middle).
If you're intrigued by this story, get the movie: The Krays.
The more they acted like Hollywood-style hardmen the more they became the archetypal British "showbiz gangsters".

They were well-known figures in West End society, and rubbed shoulders with the rich and well-known, appearing in public with the actresses Judy Garland and Diana Dors, the actor George Raft and the journalist Lord Boothby.

Their evident power and liking for sharp foreign suits even earned them a place in the portfolio of the photographer David Bailey, his portrait of the menacing icons of designer violence has become the best known picture of the twins.
"A bounder," the Queen Mother recalled Boothby in a 1991 interview, "but not a cad." Here he is with Ronnie Kray, having been introduced to him by the man on the right, Leslie Holt, known as an East End cat-burglar, whom Boothby met in a gambling club and had an affair with. Again, another example of the judgment of the man in his position of power and authority (and influence). What's new?
Reggie married 19-year-old Frances Shea in 1965, but two years later she committed suicide.

Fame did not blunt the twins' appetite for their vicious business, however. It was Reggie who invented the "cigarette punch", throwing a left uppercut when his victim opened his mouth to accept a cigarette. The logic was that an open jaw breaks more easily.

But as their power increased and Ronnie became increasingly uncontrollable, the Krays's world began to implode.

Ronald Kray toasting Reggie Kray and Francis Shae at their wedding, 1965. Francis committed suicide two years later.
The Blind Beggar pub where Ronnie fatally shot George Cornell.
The flat in Stoke Newington, north London where Reggie stabbed Jack "The Hat" McVitie to death.
During a feud with a rival gang, Ronnie shot George Cornell dead in the saloon bar of the Blind Beggar pub in the Mile End Road, east London. Cornell had called Ronnie a "fat poof" and by their murderous logic it could not go unpunished. Reggie then stabbed Jack "The Hat" McVitie to death in a flat in Stoke Newington, north London, because he had threatened his twin brother.

The murders were committed not for financial gain or even because the victims posed a major threat. It was purely because they had thumbed their noses at the Krays.

Within months it was all over. The twins were convicted of the respective murders at the Old Bailey in 1969 and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a recommendation that they should serve not less than 30 years. Ronnie, who was also present at McVitie's killing, was also convicted of his murder.

The trial judge, Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, said: "In my view, society has earned a rest from your activities." The twins were finally out of the public eye - but they were never forgotten.

Ronnie, who had a history of mental troubles, served most of his sentence at Broadmoor special hospital.

Reggie was incarcerated in Blundeston Prison, Suffolk, then Maidstone Prison and later Norfolk's Wayland Prison.

In 1982 the public got a glimpse of the twins when they were allowed out, closely guarded, to attend the funeral of their beloved mother.

Despite, and partly because of, their lengthy incarceration, the twins continued to be a source of huge fascination, spawning books and in 1990 a film called The Krays, starring brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, former members of Spandau Ballet.

The infamous partnership ended in March 1995, when the 61-year-old Ronnie died of a heart attack. His coffin was carried in a coach pulled through Bethnal Green by six black horses as the East End turned out in force to send him off. The scene was witnessed by Reggie, who was allowed out of prison in handcuffs to attend his twin's funeral, and brother Charlie.

Roberta Jones and Reggie Kray.
The first reports that Reggie might be gravely ill came in July 1996, although the gangster, then 62, dismissed speculation that he was suffering from stomach cancer.

Roberta Jones visited him at Maidstone jail in 1996. Reggie married her just a year later, on July 14, 1997, in a prison ceremony. Members of the Kray family and other guests attended the ceremony. The night before the wedding, residents near the prison and inmates inside saw a spectacular 30-minute laser show organised by Kray in celebration of the big day.

Two years later Reggie's brother Charlie was admitted to hospital after suffering a suspected stroke. Charlie had been jailed in 1997 for masterminding a £39 million cocaine smuggling plot. He died in April this year at the age of 73 in St Mary's Hospital, Newport, Isle of Wight, near Parkhurst Prison.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, agreed to release Reggie Kray from a life prison sentence on compassionate grounds in August when it was discovered he was suffering from terminal bladder cancer. Kray left Wayland Prison, near Watton, Norfolk, and spent several weeks in hospital before transferring to a Norwich hotel where, in the honeymoon suite and with his wife by his side, he died in his sleep on Sunday.

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