The Peer And The Gangster: A Very British Cover-Up
The History Press £20
Like Jeremy Thorpe, Alan Clark, Jonathan Aitken, Lord Lucan, Captain Hook and our current Prime Minister, Bob Boothby was an Old Etonian renowned for his wit and charm.
He wore an over-large bow tie, a watch-chain on his waistcoat and a pink carnation in his button-hole, all three of them telltale signs of a bounder.
Gangster’s paradise: Lord Boothby and Ronnie Kray in 1969; he spoke up for the Krays in the House of Lords
He spoke in a rich baritone and drove a series of flash cars. He delighted in seducing other men’s wives, but his natural inclination was to have rough sex with lads off the street. Nevertheless, he was successful enough in conquering his inhibitions to pursue a long-standing affair with Dorothy Macmillan, the wife of his old friend and future Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.
‘Dorothy has thighs like hams and hands like a stevedore, but I adore her,’ he once confided to his cousin, Ludovic Kennedy. He told Tony Lambton, another public-school rogue, that Dorothy reminded him of a caddie he had once had a fling with on a golf course.
Elected an MP at the age of 24, he was tipped for the top. This prediction proved groundless. Though he remained an MP for 33 years, he never rose any higher than Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food. His colleagues sensed that he was not to be trusted, their suspicions justified by a series of hushed-up scandals involving sex and money. Nevertheless, he ended his life a member of the House of Lords, regularly prognosticating on current affairs and appearing on chat shows and panel games.
Like many people described as ‘great characters’, Boothby was a chancer. A star of TV and radio – he was introduced on his This Is Your Life as ‘Peer of the Realm, Titan on Television, Man of Independent Spirit’ – he combined public charm with private seediness. Ludovic Kennedy described him as ‘a s*** of the highest order’.
The Peer And The Gangster concentrates on his association with Ronnie Kray, the most dangerous of the Kray Brothers’ gang. The backgrounds of the two men could not have been more different. Ronnie was brought up in the East End of London, and fast identified himself as a violent psychopath. When he was a child, his astute if tactless Auntie Rose looked at his heavy brow and told his mother that it was an indicator that he was ‘meant to hang’.
Aged 17, he punched a policeman in the face. Five years later, he shot a man in the leg for trying to muscle in on a protection racket. After a visit from the Krays, the man decided not to bring charges. The following year, Ronnie received a three-year sentence for grievous bodily harm. In prison, he was formally certified insane.
Ronnie was homosexual. He told his first biographer, John Pearson, that, to keep his little secret in the family, he had for a time conducted a sexual relationship with his brother Reggie. With the joint exceptions of his mother and his Auntie Rose, he regarded all other women as ‘smelly, dirty creatures’.
Bob Boothby was drawn to working-class thugs. Ronnie Kray was drawn to the high life. They first met in 1963, introduced by the boxer and cat burglar Leslie Holt, who ended up dead in dodgy circumstances, having apparently been given an overdose of anaesthetic in an operation to remove a verruca.
The peer and the gangster would hang out together either at the Krays’ club Esmeralda’s Barn in Knightsbridge, just around the corner from Boothby’s flat in Eaton Square, or at Ronnie’s high camp flat in Hackney, with its 3ft-high ebony elephant, and its revolving electric fire that ‘at the press of a button, could retract into a wall to be replaced by a kitsch display of artificial blooms complete with a miniature waterfall’.
It seems that they did not have a sexual relationship, but that Kray procured young men for Boothby. At Kray’s all-night parties in Hackney, Boothby would watch porn films and ‘live-action sex shows’, and Ronnie would introduce him to a succession of teenage boys. ‘Go on, be nice to Lord Boothby,’ Ronnie would say to each boy, ‘or I’ll give you a f***ing slap.’ Members of the Kray Gang used to refer to Boothby as ‘The Queen Mother’; Ronnie’s mother Violet, no respecter of rank, called him ‘the funny old man with a bow tie’.
By way of a thank you, Boothby would take Ronnie Kray to lunch at White’s, London’s snootiest gentlemen’s club, where, then and now, women are refused membership. What an odd couple they must have appeared: or – who knows? – perhaps White’s was in those days full of peers of the realm tucking into roast partridge and all the trimmings in the company of East End villains.
Anyway, in 1964, the Sunday Mirror got wind of their association, and printed a front-page headline ‘PEER AND A GANGSTER: YARD PROBE’. The accompanying story declared that a ‘prominent peer’ and ‘household name’ and a ‘leading thug in the London underworld’ were involved in a homosexual relationship.
Boothby was not named, but word swiftly got around that he was the peer in question. Summoned before the Conservative Home Secretary, Boothby maintained that he barely knew Kray, and had met him only twice for a few minutes to discuss a building project in Nigeria. ‘He seems an agreeable chap, but I had no opportunity of judging his character or his financial standing… It seems to be a frightening thing that rumours of this kind can be given currency by the gutter press.’
IT’S A FACT
Before they were gangsters, Ronnie and Reggie Kray had a love of verse: both wrote poetry in their youth, as a childhood friend recalled.
Boothby followed this up with a letter to The Times, declaring it ‘a tissue of atrocious lies’ and adding: ‘I am not by nature thin-skinned, but this sort of thing makes a mockery of any decent kind of life, public or private, in what is still supposed to be a civilised country.’
With the help of the Labour leader Harold Wilson (who was later to help Jeremy Thorpe in much the same way), Boothby then engaged the elephantine Establishment lawyer Lord Goodman to extract an abject apology – ‘any imputation of an improper nature against Lord Boothby is completely unjustified’ – and £40,000 (getting on for £1 million in today’s money) from the Sunday Mirror.
But Boothby’s association with the Krays did not stop there. How could it? They now had him under their thumb.
Over the coming months, he wrote to the US ambassador asking for an American visa for Ronnie, and spoke to the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police on his behalf, assuring him that Ronnie was ‘now successfully engaged in business which was absolutely legitimate’. A letter from Boothby’s comically named manservant Gordon Goodfellow to Ronnie Kray ends up by reassuring him that his Lordship is ‘a great friend of the Editor of The Times’ and that if there is any further trouble from Scotland Yard, ‘he will be glad to do what he can’.
A year later, the Krays were in custody on charges of demanding money with menaces. Shameless as ever, Boothby spoke up for them. ‘It may interest, and encourage, you to know,’ he wrote to Ronnie on House of Lords paper, ‘that I have had a great many letters congratulating me on the stand I took in the House of Lords on your behalf.’
By 1969, the Krays were in the dock of the Old Bailey charged on two counts of murder. It has been ‘strongly rumoured’, says the author of this tantalising book, ‘that Boothby’s Sunday Mirror pay-out significantly contributed to the defence fund’. Halfway through giving evidence, Ronnie Kray said: ‘If I wasn’t here I could be having tea with Judy Garland, or having a drink with Lord Boothby.’ At this point, the judge, Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, ordered him to shut up.
The Queen Mother apparently described Boothby, bafflingly, as ‘a cad but not a bounder’. This book proves he was both, and much else – liar, perjurer, thief – besides. Without his plummy voice, his Etonian background, his bow tie, his pink carnation and friends in high places, he would have ended his days in prison. Instead, he was regarded as a born entertainer, a great orator and a bit of character.
Surely, that could never happen these days – could it?