The Twin Gangsters Who Ruled London
Tom Hardy stars as twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray in Legend. And the real-life duo was something else, hobnobbing with Sinatra, running drugs, and murdering at will.
“They were the best years of our lives,” said Ronnie Kray in his 1993 autobiography My Story. “They call them the Swinging Sixties, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were rulers of pop music. Carnaby Street ruled the fashion world…and me and my brother ruled London. We were fucking untouchable.”
It was a hell of a run. Ronnie and Reggie Kray, identical twins born in 1933, ran nightclubs and gambling spots, rubbed elbows with Frank Sinatra (for whom they provided a host of bodyguards during an English nightclub tour), Judy Garland, George Raft, Jean Shrimpton, and heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, broke bread with American Mafiosos, inspired a shelf of books and even wrote three themselves (a collective memoir and an autobiography apiece), had sex with British politicians, murdered rival gangsters with impunity, and dominated British tabloids for nearly two decades.
Their portrait was taken by celebrity photographer David Bailey, the inspiration for David Hemmings’s character in Antonioni’s Blowup, and they were very nearly the last prisoners held at the Tower of London.
Brian Helgeland’s Legend, with Tom Hardy playing both Reg and Ron in performances worthy of a pair of Oscar nominations, is merely the latest film about the brothers. You could have a Kray Brothers’ festival with all the movies, documentaries, plays, TV shows, and rock songs that followed in their bloody wake. And they would have loved it.
In 1990, Gary and Martin Kemp were Ron and Reg in Peter Medik’s The Krays. Earlier this year, a low-budget British film, The Rise of the Krays, with Simon Cotton and Kevin Leslie, was released; the companion Fall of the Krays is soon to open. In the latest documentary, The Krays: Kill Order, you can thrill to actual interviews with the lads. There was even a musical, 1977’s England England by Snoo Wilson and Kevin Coyne, which starred Bob Hoskins and Brian Hall.
In his song “London,” Ray Davies told listeners “Don’t forget the Kray twins.” Kray wanna-be Morrissey asked, rhetorically, “Reggie Kray, do you know my name?” and “Ronnie Kray, do you know my face?” in “The Last of the Famous International Playboys.” Stricken by Reggie’s death in 2000, Morrissey sent a huge floral wreath.
Though the brothers never achieved household-namedom in America, many know of their comic incarnations, the Piranha Brothers, in Monty Python’s fake BBC pseudo-documentary.
The most dynamic British power couple of the ’60s was born in Hoxton, Middlesex, England, to parents of Jewish, Irish, and gypsy descent. Reg was the oldest, born 10 minutes before Ron. As one friend of the family said, “They were rotten from birth.” At age 9 they got into their first big fight—with each other. They very nearly saved England a lot of strife by rubbing each other out. The bloody fight ended with Reggie’s head cracked open.
As schoolboys they took up boxing, developing skills that would come in handy later on. One of their favorite tricks was the “cigarette punch,” leaning forward to light someone’s cigarette, then following with a left hook that jammed the lighter into the smoker’s teeth.
In 1952, they reported for conscription into national service with the Royal Fusiliers, but walked out of the recruiting station when they realized they would be required to take orders. Ronnie belted the corporal in charge, breaking his jaw, and the brothers walked back to the East End. The next day, British Military Police, with the aid of billy clubs, brought them in and gave them to the Army. They went AWOL, punched out a bobby at a bar, were court-martialed, and sent to military prison. This brought them even more distinction: They were among the last prisoners to be held at the Tower of London. After assaulting several guards, including a sergeant on whom they emptied their latrine bucket, their Army careers were done.
Over the next few years they compiled a gaudy rap sheet for protection racketeering, hijacking, and armed robbery. Through sheer ruthlessness they acquired their first nightclub and began their empire. Their charm and eerie charisma quickly transformed them into celebrities. An Irish friend of mine, John Boyle, was once introduced to the brothers through a friend’s father, a police inspector who used the Krays to rat on petty criminals who operated in their area.
“‘Lads, I would like you to meet two acquaintances of mine: Mr. Ronald and Mr. Reginald Kray.’ So we make our howdeedoos, and Reggie says, ‘How are you lads?’ and is hale and well met. Ronnie, on the other hand, never smiles and stares at each of us and says, ‘Nice to meet you’ to each of us, but never blinks an eye! Not once during our two- or three-minute conversation. It scared the bejeebers out of me. I didn’t know these blokes from Adam, but one of them scared the bejeebers out of me.”
As they expanded their operations through intimidating—and in some cases eliminating—potential rivals, their unmitigated violence provided the British press with reams of great copy about unnamed brothers who used carving knives on their enemies’ fingers and red hot pokers into backsides of “squealers and rats.”
One street punk had the temerity to complain about the condition of the fruit at a market run by the brothers’ mum, Violet. When the police found him, he was babbling hysterically with his left ear and part of his nose missing. Thirty years later, says one Krays biographer, the man was still in dire need of psychiatric care.
As the Krays’ reputation spread, most who owed them money decided to play ball, no matter what the cost. Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund and perhaps the preeminent British artist of his time, reportedly rang up half a million pounds in gambling debts and was said to have painted and sold his work to stay alive.
Every police investigation of the Krays ran up against the “East End wall of silence.” In one famous circumstance they had an unexpected ally: the law firm which represented a British peer.
Ronnie was gay—“I’m homosexual,” he told a journalist while in prison, “but I’m not a pouf”—and Reggie was bisexual—“Not gay,” he once said emphatically, “bisexual.” The Sunday Mirror found evidence that Ron had had an affair with Conservative politician Robert Boothby, though no actual names were mentioned. Boothby threatened a lawsuit, and the Mirror sacked the editor, printed an apology, and made a hefty out-of-court settlement.
In 2009, Channel 4 proved the allegations were true in a documentary, The Gangster and the Perverted Peer. Later, Ron’s politics changed, and he was rumored to have had an affair with a Labour Party MP, Tom Driberg.
But for all their flamboyance, the Krays were not that good at gangstering. In 1968, pressure brought to bear by a Scotland Yard inspector, Leonard “Nipper” Read, resulted in the arrest of the Krays and 15 of their gang, known in the British press as “The Firm.” The charges had to do with, of all things, a series of botched attempted murders, but the arrests emboldened witnesses to murders they hadn’t botched.
Ron and Reg were sentenced to life imprisonment and became Britain’s most famous celebrity jailbirds, giving interviews, writing books and articles, and even making money (a reported $225,000) for acting as advisers for the 1990 feature film, The Krays. There was a steady stream of famous guests, including Richard Burton (who based his gangster in 1970’s Villain on the brothers) and James Fox (who took notes for his thug in Nicholas Roeg’s Performance).
Ronnie died in 1995 at age 61. Reg, who became—you guessed it—a born-again Christian, outlived him by five years.
And, by the way, there was a third Kray brother, Charlie, six years older, who reportedly nailed as many people’s feet to the floor as his younger siblings but didn’t quite have their flair for PR. Oh well, as Janet Margolin said about Woody Allen’s bank robber in Take the Money and Run, “It’s all about publicity. It’s not who you kill, it’s who you know.”