British mobster's burial is fit for a king

March 30, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The streets of the East End were filling with kids and grandparents, shoppers and photographers, all following the six black-plumed horses, the Victorian glass hearse awash with flowers and the 27 Daimler limousines on a final journey from funeral home to church.

Yesterday, Ronnie Kray -- mobster, murderer, paranoid schizophrenic -- was given a funeral fit for a king.

For a few hours, it was just like the 1960s, when Ronnie and his twin brother, Reggie, ruled the East End underworld and became folk heroes. Like the Beatles and Carnaby Street, the Krays had become part of London's fabric, carousing with boxers, singers and politicians. They were wise guys with Cockney accents, the subjects of 11 books, a musical and a movie.

They were also murderers who in 1969 were sentenced to life imprisonment. But yesterday the mayhem of the past went ignored, because an era was approaching its end.

Reggie Kray, 61, a stooped, gray-haired figure in a dark suit, was let out of jail to attend his brother's funeral. He wore a gold watch and a silver-colored handcuff. The other handcuff was around the wrist of a policeman. Wherever Reggie Kray appeared before the crowd, he drew cheers.

"The Krays were bad boys who for some reason became some sort of heroes, like the old American West with Jesse James," said Winnie Cracknew, 63, who paused from her shopping to watch the funeral.

"Some say they were famous because of the good deeds they did in the community," said Rose Stone, 70, who waited two hours to see the hearse. "Some say they hurt people. I don't know.

"But things were a lot better in the 1960s when they were around. The streets were a lot safer."

With the Krays, fact easily blends into colorful myth. The legend surrounding Ronnie was summed up in a tabloid headline: "OK, he was an evil killer but he never swore at old ladies."

Raised by their mother, Violet, to become amateur boxers, the Krays became mobsters who ruled the East End through fear and force.

In business, Ronnie was the brawn; Reggie, the brains. Unpredictable violence became their calling card as they watched over their gambling and protection rackets.

They also had a scent of glamour that still comes through in black-and-white photographs -- earnest, young working-class men in matching dark suits, white ties and monogrammed handkerchiefs.

In the world in which he traveled, Ronnie earned additional fame by being open about his homosexuality, long before others were willing publicly to do the same. Indeed, because of "the potent mixture of money, violence, sex, madness and nostalgia," the Independent newspaper has observed, "he will not be forgotten."

But the truth is, the Krays were lousy gangsters. They reached for power that was beyond their grasp. Eventually, they were jailed for the murders of fellow gangsters George Cornell and Jack "The Hat" McVitie.

"You were born to hang," Ronnie's Aunt Rose told him when he was a boy.

Instead of hanging, Ronnie withered away. In 1979, he was certified a paranoid schizophrenic, and he served out his sentence under heavy medication in Broadmoor prison. He died of a heart attack March 17 at Wexham Park Hospital.

Yesterday, 140 mourners prayed for the soul of Ronnie Kray.

As a Frank Sinatra recording of "My Way" echoed through St. Matthew's Church, the pallbearers wheeled in Ronnie's dark oak coffin, covered in white and red carnations arranged in the shape of a cross.

"Ron had great humor, a vicious temper, was kind and generous," Reggie Kray said in a prepared statement read to the congregation. "He did it all his way, but above all he was a man -- that's how I will always remember my twin brother Ron. God bless."

After the service, the mourners followed the horse-drawn hearse on the 12-mile trip from the East End to Chingford Mount Cemetery. They laid to rest Ronnie Kray beside his mother's grave, near a maple tree, on a cold spring day under a bright blue sky.

Reggie Kray left behind a 4-foot-high message made of white chrysanthemums: "To the other half of me."

When the graveside service ended, most of the mourners went to a pub for a celebration.

Reggie Kray went back to jail.

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