originally published September 16, 2013

If you have that unquestionably weird itch to be famous, all you need to do to scratch it is make an ass of yourself on a reality show or release a viral sex tape unto the world wide wanking web. But it used to require work. And if you didn’t have the talent to sing, act, or politic yourself into the public eye, you might have had to become a notorious criminal.

Or you simply may have wanted to. For Ronnie and Reggie Kray, two twin brothers whose presence dominated the seedy side of Swinging London in the 1960’s, there weren’t really a slew of other career paths beckoning to them. They were born into violence and they carried that violence with them like a second skin. The smashidermis. Only they did it with just enough style to draw the headlines and tickle the public’s guilty fascination.

In the early 60’s, America had Charles Starkweather and his underage girlfriend – the real life Mickey & Mallory from that Oliver Stone flick. But as quirkily and repulsively romantic as some may have seen that story, those two had nothing on the Kray twins.

On October 24, 1933, Reggie and Ronnie squeezed their way into the world, landing in the crime-heavy area known as East London with all four feet on the ground and their fists in the air. They slid smoothly into the sport of boxing, which clearly helped to hone their ass-whomping skills; when they were nine, a head injury during a brotherly bout almost killed Ronnie.

At the age of 19, both boys were called up for national service. Their older brother had had his name called a few years earlier and went into hiding rather than ship off to WWII. But this was 1952 and there was no war to run from. Still, national service would take the boys away from their gang, and that just wasn’t cool. Fortunately, they figured out a clever way to get out of it.

Actually, they just left. A few minutes after reporting for duty. The corporal in command followed them, but Ronnie decked him in the chin. Then the twins beat up a police constable who was sent to arrest them. They were finally brought in the next day and court martialed, earning the dubious distinction of being among the last prisoners to be held in the Tower of London. After throwing tantrums, dumping their latrine bucket all over one guard and a hot kettle upon another, burning their bedding and smashing a vase over yet another guard’s head, they were finally released with dishonorable discharges.

By the time they’d reached their last night in lockup, the brothers were sharing cider and cigarillos with the young servicemen in charge of guarding them. Their inherent charm and astonishing commitment to absolute bad-assery had earned them some strange breed of respect among those who were supposed to be protecting the world from them. The brothers knew they’d found their calling.

So now they had criminal records, which meant their careers as professional boxers had come to an end. But they had plenty of connections with the East London underworld. If you remember those early scenes of Goodfellas, that’s what I imagine the Kray brothers’ lives to have been like through the 1950’s. Hijacking, robbery, arson… I don’t know how strong a presence ethnic organized crime had in East London back then, but it seems as though the Krays were building their own little empire. In 1960 Ronnie spent a little time behind bars for running a protection racket, one of the oldest gangster gigs in the big book o’ crime clichés.

Around this time the boys were becoming just as well known around London’s West End. They kept their noses clean in that neighborhood, but their reputations preceded them like a bubbly trumpet fanfare. They weren’t just criminals, they weren’t just gangsters, they were working their way up to kingpins. And they were also club owners.

Owning a nightclub and getting photographed with the right people did wonders for the Kray brothers. Judy Garland, George Raft, Frank Sinatra – they were in the same social circles as these A-listers. When a journalist reported that Ronnie was having an illicit affair with Lord Robert Boothby, it was Boothby who threatened legal action. Ronnie and his brother threatened a much more sinister action, and after a retraction and financial settlement, no newspaper would dare to report on their nefarious (or potentially scandalous) goings-on.

The police would snoop around, but of course no witnesses were willing to step forward and point a finger in the Krays’ direction. They had political clout too – the brothers were untouchable. Or so it seemed.

The problem with feeling untouchable is that you’re usually not. But that belief that you have the world fooled with rose-colored wool yanked down over their glassy, unfocussed eyes can lead you to be careless. Such was the case with the Kray twins, and that spelled bad news for a number of other people.

That’s Frank Mitchell, also known as “The Mad Axeman”. The Krays helped Mitchell escape from prison in 1966, though rumor has it Mitchell’s mental disorder made him ‘difficult to deal with’ while he was hiding out with the brothers. The Mad Axeman was never heard from again.

George Cornell allegedly called Ronnie a “fat poof” around Christmas, 1965. A few months later, Ronnie shot Cornell in a pub in Whitechapel. Again, no witnesses would come forward.

Jack “The Hat” McVitie was a member of the Kray squad, but he’d failed to deliver on a hit, despite having taken the payment for the job. Reggie used a carving knife to send Jack off to Hat Heaven.

It took a few years for Inspector Leonard “Nipper” Read to build his case against the Krays, but by 1968 they were ready to roll the dice and haul the gang into custody, hoping witnesses might actually speak out if the brothers and their entire crew were already behind bars. It worked. Reggie, Ronnie, and 14 of their “business associates” were convicted to life in prison.

Ronnie, who had been certified insane, died of a heart attack in Broadmoor Hospital in 1995, at age 61. Reggie was released from prison in August of 2000, just a few weeks before his bladder cancer killed him. Their legacy is a bucket-load of violence, a towering pile of curious and strange stories, and a TV movie made about them in 1990, starring the brothers from the band Spandau Ballet as the Kray brothers. I swear, this much is true.

So yes, we have more peaceful roads open to us now if we want to become famous. But the difference here should not only be measured in spilled pints of blood. Fifty years later, a story about Kim Kardashian will be uninteresting, tedious and culturally shameful. At least the Krays were interesting.

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