Twin Peeks: Reggie and Ronnie Kray
By Robert Ecksel on March 9, 2020
The Krays might have been brutal hoodlums, but they were brutal hoodlums with style.
Reginald and Ronald Kray were identical twin brothers who terrorized London during the 1950s and ‘60s. Once described as the most dangerous men in Britain, they had a hand in murder, armed robberies, arson, hijacking, bookmaking, protection rackets, shakedowns and assaults.
Reggie and Ronnie might have been brutal hoodlums, but they were brutal hoodlums with style. West End nightclub owners of considerable renown and vaguely charming if not urbane, they lived a life of fast cars, fast women, hot blood and easy money and left countless busted noses in their wake.
“They were the best years of our lives,” wrote Ronnie Kray in his autobiography, “My Story.” “They called 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.”
The Krays entertained politicians. They mixed with mob bosses and royalty. They hobnobbed with Frank Sinatra, George Raft, Judy Garland, and Diana Dors. They even hired Eric Clapton to play at one of their clubs.
“I believe that Ron and I were predestined to become known,” Reggie wrote, “either by fame or infamy.”
Ronnie was cerebral, the Apollonian twin, the Kray who plotted violence with the precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel. He was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
Reggie ran hot. He was Dionysus on steroids. Prone to violent outbursts for no discernible reason, he was the twin without impulse control who punched first and didn’t ask questions later.
May the best man win
The Krays fought amateur. The Krays fought pro. They were never champions, but learned early on that their fists could prove useful, at least until something more was required.
The twins frequented boxing booths when they were young. They earned a few shillings here and there fighting one another, but their formal training began at the Robert Browning Youth Club in South London. Reggie and Ronnie took the #8 bus from Bethnel Green to Camberwell three times a week. Their “old man” paid for the boxing lessons.
“The first famous people we ever met were boxers,” Reggie said. “Ron and I used to spend a great deal of time in the company of boxing champions, including household names like Sonny Liston and Joe Louis.”
At the age of 12, the twins met Freddie Mills and Rinty Monaghan.
They met Jack Kid Berg. They met Ted Kid Lewis.
In 1948, Reggie, the more talented of the twins, at least as far as the ring was concerned, won the London Schoolboy Boxing Championship. He won several other schoolboy titles as well.
“I could punch hard with either hand,” he said, “so much so that I broke eleven jaws that I know of it.”
Both Krays were happy to use their fists, but “Ron and I usually had a knife on us.”
“Ron has a very kind side to his nature, even though he’s a complex character, often contradictory and eccentric,” wrote Reggie in his autobiography “Born Fighter.” “I’ve known him to be vicious when necessary. He is completely fearless.”
“I never felt sorry for anyone who got hurt,” said Ronnie. “They deserved it, otherwise it wouldn’t have happened. We’ve both been violent in our time, but we never liked it.”
The Krays turned pro on July 31, 1951, at The Arena, Mile End, in London. Reggie debuted at lightweight. Ronnie fought at welter.
Reggie won his first fight on points and had six more fights in quick succession, one in August, one in September, two in October, one in November and December, at which time his pro career ended (7-0, 2 KOs), not altogether by choice.
Ronnie’s record is somewhat less distinguished. He knocked out his first opponent. He won his next three fights, before losing a pair of fights, two months after his debut, ending his career with four wins and two losses, with all of his wins coming by way of knockout.
Their ring careers ended when Reggie and Ronnie Kray were drafted in March 1952—and it was not a good fit.
“It was deep-rooted in Ron and me at a very early age to be rebellious. That rebelliousness served me well. I have always been anti-authority.”
The Krays didn’t like the army. The army didn’t like the Krays. The twins had an aversion to taking orders and complained about everything. They hated the food. They hated the accommodations. They said they couldn’t sleep. They claimed they had headaches. They said they considered suicide.
No one bought the ruse. The twins continued to buck the system and were court-martialed and dishonorably discharged for repeatedly going AWOL and twice assaulting officers.
The Krays’ military careers, like their boxing careers, ended abruptly. Their contribution to the cultural zeitgeist, such as it was, had only just begun—and as their notoriety grew, the Krays brushed shoulders with boxing superstars.
Henry Cooper was their friend, as were Rocky Graziano and Archie Moore.
They were also tight with Barney Ross.
“He was short, thickset, and had a broken nose and grey hair,” Reggie wrote. “He always wore dark glasses.”
In 1966, Reggie visited the legendary Jimmy Wilde.
“A male nurse let us into the ward and took us to see the great man himself. He had twinkling blue eyes and a warm handshake when we met him… He was the greatest fighter Wales ever produced.”
Recalling his pal Maxie Rosenbloom, Reggie said, “Sad to say, he died in an American lunatic asylum not even knowing who he was. He had no idea he had been world champion.”
Boxing was special to the Krays, but business always came first.
“Discipline in and outside the firm was enforced by Ron and me by persuasion, reason, and by the fact that we were better at violence than the others were,” Reggie wrote. “We had mastered both boxing and street fighting. In boxing, obviously there are rules and regulations. In street fighting, there are no rules. Anything and everything goes—head butts, kicking, biting, using knees and gouging with the thumb.”
When push came to shove, the Marquess of Queensberry and his fusty old rules were less help than hindrance.
“I seem to have walked a double path most of my life,” wrote Reggie. “Perhaps an extra step in one of those directions might have seen me celebrated rather than notorious.”
On May 8, 1968, the Krays and 15 of their henchmen were arrested. They denied the many charges against them, choirboys to the end, but Scotland Yard had an ironclad case.
Less than a year later, after deliberating for six hours and 55 minutes at the Old Bailey, a jury found the Krays guilty of murder on March 4, 1969, and they were sentenced to life in Parkhurst Prison. Reggie was convicted of murdering Jack “The Hat” McVitie, himself a notorious English criminal, in 1967. When his gun jammed, he stabbed McVitie repeatedly in the face, chest and stomach with a carving knife while his brother held him down. Ronnie was convicted in the shooting death of George Cornell, a member of a rival gang, at the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel on March 9, 1966. Cornell made the mistake of calling Ronnie a “fat poof.”
A decade after he began serving his life sentence, Ronnie was transferred from Parkhurst to Broadmore Hospital, a high-security psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane at Crowthorne in Berkshire, England. He was described at the time “as a near moron in good physical condition but mentally dull. There are occasional glimpses in his behaviour of a latent violence.”
Ronnie Kray died in prison in 1995 of a heart attack at 61. Reggie died in 2000, from bladder cancer at the age of 66, after 31 years in jail.