The Krays – the kings of the ’60s casino scene
Think of the Kray twins and plenty of things come to mind, many of them pretty unpleasant. Spilt blood, broken bones, dead bodies, shallow graves – violence and its repercussions are what predominate when Ronnie and Reggie are up for discussion.
But beyond their commitment to thuggery, Ronnie and Reggie had insatiable appetites for ambition. It was this that led them to try and strike an allegiance with the New York Mafia. And then there was London’s burgeoning legitimate gambling scene. Sure, they’d long taken an interest in off-track bookmakers and unlicensed casinos, but with the introduction of new gaming laws in1961 came the opportunity to get they craved most – class.
The twins’ improbable bid for respectability began with the purchase of Esmerelda’s Barn (above) in 1960, a den of iniquity that they soon transformed into Knightsbridge’s first high-end casino. Quite how the brothers came to buy the establishment is a source of great debate. Biographer John Pearson suggests that the Krays took possession of the place after attempting to extort money from slum landlord Peter Rachman. Meanwhile, Ronnie and Reggie’s elder brother Charlie insisted that he was crucial to the deal going through.
Whoever was responsible, Esmeralda’s soon became the place to be seen in the West End. Those who frequented the casino included Judy Garland and Johnnie Ray, both of whom would grow very close to the boys. And so would peers of the realm such as Bob Boothby and Howard ‘Effing’ Effingham. Indeed, it became quite common for Ronnie Kray to be seen dining at the House Of Lords with his new, upper-class affiliates.
As John Pearson explains in the peerless The Profession Of Violence, most celebs came to the club simply to play a few hands and enjoy a drink and a dance. There were those, however, who found themselves tied to the Krays after accepting the brothers’ ‘generous’ lines of credit. The country’s most acclaimed living artist Lucien Freud was one such unfortunate. Likewise Francis Bacon was often to be found propping up the bar at Esmeralda’s, the class he brought to the establishment a means of clearing his debts.
The epicentre of London nightlife from 1960 to 1963, Esmarelda’s popularity waned in the wake of other West End venues opening such as Peter Cook’s The Establishment. Since they now had considerably bigger fish to fry, Ronnie and Reggie sold the venue in 1963. Go looking for it now in Knightsbridge and, in its place, you’ll find the five-star Berkeley Hotel.
If 50 years have elapsed since Ronnie and Reggie Kray were British casino royalty, their claim to this and other less salubrious titles will be renewed come 25th January. That’s the DVD/Blu-ray release date of Legend, the Kray biopic written and directed by Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential) and starring Tom Hardy in the dual roles of Ronnie and Reggie.
Naturally, it’s safe to assume that the twins’ most notorious acts provide the core of the action. But Legend isn’t simply a film about the murders of George Cornell and Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie. Indeed, one of the film’s key locations is a certain casino in London’s fashionable Mayfair. Yes, half-a-century after it shut, Esmarelda’s Barn is back in business.
Legend is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 25th January.