Just pulled a copy of The Lies of the Land off the shelf to look up this story because I’m touching on it again in something else I’m working on (watch this space!), and realised that it was one of the MANY entries that ended up on the cutting room floor. I’ve just looked back at the emails and my editor broke the news with the words “this saddens me…” even as she slashed the red pen through Andrea Leadsom and the National Coal Board (not together). I got to keep John Major shagging Edwina Currie though.
Anyway, I love this story, not least because it contains one of my favourite anecdotes (Carr) and my only known use of the word “pusillanimity”. Although, weirdly, not one of my other favourite facts, that the Krays’ official biography was written by Fred Dineage from ‘How’.
Plus the ability of rich, well-connected men to use legal action to keep things out of the headlines has been very much on my mind of late (sideways look to camera, taps nose), so here it is.
‘I am not a homosexual. I have not been to a Mayfair party of any kind for more than twenty years. I have met the man alleged to be the ‘King of the Underworld’ only three times, on business matters.’
Robert Boothby, letter to The Times, 2 August 1964
Bob Boothby had balls, you had to give him that. When the Sunday Mirror ran the front-page headline ‘PEER AND A GANGSTER: YARD INQUIRY’ in July 1964, they did not name either man. In the case of the gangster, it was because it was Ronnie Kray, who tended to set about people who annoyed him with cutlasses or white-hot pokers. In the case of the peer, it was because they were scared Baron Boothby would sue them. But the editors were, nevertheless, certain that police were investigating a sexual relationship between the two of them, and they had a photo of Boothby and Kray sitting together on a sofa at what they were reliably informed was a ‘homosexual party’. If they had been a bit better informed, they would have known that rather than each other, they had both had sex with the third man in the photo, Leslie Holt, a teenager whom Kray had provided to Boothby to work as his ‘chauffeur’. Gay sex would not be legalized until 1967, but even then the age of consent was set at twenty-one.
To issue an outright denial was thus a pretty bold move by Boothby – and a stylish one too, given that it came in the form of a letter to The Times, universally accepted as the paper of record. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t lying when he said he wasn’t gay, as he was promiscuous with women as well. Lady Dorothy Macmillan, the wife of the man who had been prime minister until the previous autumn, could have testified to it, given that the pair of them had been having an affair since 1930. But Boothby had partied with Ronnie Kray, and the Sunday Mirror had the photo to prove it. What’s more, Boothby knew there were incriminating letters in existence from the previous summer, including one inviting Ronnie – who had not yet reached the apex of his fame or his homicidal psychosis, but was working very hard on both – round to his house for ‘a drink and a chat’. Maybe because he lived in Belgravia he thought it didn’t count as a ‘Mayfair party’.
He also knew, however, that there was no appetite to make political mischief out of the matter. His own Conservative Party would do almost anything to avoid another sex scandal after Profumo. When the chairman of the News of the World, Sir William Emsley Carr, had drunkenly demanded an audience with the new prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, terrified aides rushed Carr straight in to Number 10 the next morning, only to discover he had sobered up and completely forgotten what he wanted to talk about. The Labour Party, too, wished to steer clear of the whole topic: one of their own most high-profile politicians, MP Tom Driberg, had also romped at Ronnie’s, and photos existed of him with not just one but both Krays, as well as some other handsome young men, at one of the nightclubs the twins were running. Boothby, who had been on holiday when the original story appeared, had even phoned Driberg to check what it was about. Driberg told him ‘I’m sorry, Bob, it’s you.’
Two prominent Labour lawyers, Gerald Gardiner and Arnold Goodman – the latter of whom was known as Harold Wilson’s ‘Mr Fixit’ for his ability to make disobliging stories disappear – quietly offered their services to Boothby. Two weeks on from the story, with the Mirror having failed to come up with more and now trying to make a virtue of their own pusillanimity by talking about ‘The Picture We Dare Not Print’, Boothby took a gamble.
‘The whole affair is a tissue of atrocious lies,’ he declared in his letter to The Times. Which was an atrocious lie.
But going all in paid off for him. The Sunday Mirror apologized five days later, and paid him £40,000 in damages, a record sum at the time. One of the Krays’ biographers, John Pearson, later claimed that Ronnie took a cut of the cash, as was his habit with a lot of the businesses he and his brother ‘looked after’. Pearson also said he found evidence of Boothby attending ‘East End orgies and sex shows involving criminals’ at Ronnie’s invitation, ending up in some hair-raisingly compromising situations – a glass coffee table is allegedly involved, as are ‘love beads’ – which would have left him subject to blackmail by the twins.
Certainly the Krays continued to benefit from their association with the politician. The following February, after they had been arrested on suspicion of running a protection racket, Boothby stood up in the Lords and asked ‘Her Majesty’s Government whether it is their intention to keep the Kray Brothers in prison for an indefinite period without trial,’ a situation he claimed had done infinite damage to the reputation of this country’ before being howled down by his fellow peers. And Ronnie would boast of having influential friends ‘even in the House of Lords’ who could keep him out of trouble. Well, he did, right up until he finally went to prison in 1969, after his murders got a bit too public to be ignored.
if you want to buy a copy of the actual book and paste a print-out of this page back into it, you can do so here