3 min

The Kray twins

The violent gangster brothers who ruled 1960's London fancied other men

Ronnie Kray was certainly gay, though his twin brother, Reggie, is harder to pin down. Credit: Sissydude

Tom Hardy is set to play not-terribly-heterosexual gangster twins in the film Legend. To be released in 2015, the film deals with two real-life gangsters, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who dominated London’s underworld in the 1950s and ’60s.

Based on the book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, by John Pearson, the film covers the pair’s close relationship and their transformation from scrappy slum rats to nightclub royalty in swinging London’s swanky West End.

When dishonourable discharges from the army for violent behaviour — after being jailed for going AWOL, the twins terrorized the guards, pouring feces on their heads, handcuffing them and setting fire to the bedding — and criminal records terminated their budding boxing careers, the twins made a career out of crime.

They started The Firm, the foremost organized criminal enterprise in London at that time. The gang’s CV included armed robbery, arson, racketeering and assault. They gradually took over the booming nightclub scene in the West End, and by the early 1960s, the twins were making what would today amount to almost $18 million Canadian.

Ronnie was probably schizophrenic and certainly gay. Laurie O’Leary, author of A Man Among Men, a biography of Ronnie Kray, says that the gang had few objections to Ronnie’s sexual orientation. “Even if they objected, Ron just smiled at them and told them they didn’t know what they were missing,” O’Leary says in a 2001 interview with The Guardian.

“Ron discussed his homosexuality with only a very few people, but put simply it was a part of his nature he discovered, explored and enjoyed,” O’Leary says. “He was at ease with it. It did not seem to conflict with his ‘tough guy’ image or cause him any problems on any level.”

Reggie’s orientation is harder to pin down. There were many indicators that he might also be gay, or at least bisexual. Recently, Freddie Foreman (now 83), a former enforcer of The Firm, claimed that Reggie was actually gay and that Reggie’s marriage to Frances Shea was a sham. “That poor girl was a trophy wife, nothing more,” Foreman says in a recent interview with the Daily Mail. “He certainly did not love her like a husband loves a wife. They never had sex.”

Shea and Reggie married in 1965. Two years later she killed herself. It has been suggested that one of the brothers forced her to take the pills that killed her.

As club owners in the West End, the twins rubbed elbows with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and artist Francis Bacon. When a tabloid alleged that Ronnie was having a sexual relationship with Lord Boothby, a Conservative politician, threats against the paper, both physical and legal, forced the paper to back down (a 2009 BBC documentary, The Gangster and the Perverted Peer, confirms the allegations about Ronnie and Boothby).

It was an example to other media outlets: don’t mess with the Kray twins. Fear of scandal discouraged the Conservative Party from pushing very hard for any investigation into the Krays. This along with the pair’s growing celebrity only encouraged them.

In Ronnie’s autobiography, My Story, he wrote, “they were the best years of our lives. 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.”

Then one day Reggie decided to kill Jack “The Hat” McVitie, who had failed to fulfill a contract to kill somebody for the Krays. Allegedly egged on by his brother, Reggie invited McVitie to a party that wasn’t actually happening, and when McVitie arrived, Reggie tried to shoot him in the head. The gun didn’t fire, so he stabbed McVitie to death. In 1969 the twins were sentenced to life in prison.

“I’m certain that Ronnie had lovers inside prison,” O’Leary says.

Ronnie died of a heart attack in 1995 at Broadmoor Hospital, where he was held after being certified insane. Reggie was released from prison in 2000, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He died soon after.

Foreman, who was convicted of getting rid of McVitie’s body, is advising Hardy on how to play the twins for Legend, from Reggie’s “quizzical look” to Ronnie’s tendency to “stare into space.”