LONDON – Heard the one about the lord, the gangster and the prime minister’s wife?
An old scandal from the 1960s re-emerges in lurid new detail from declassified British intelligence files featuring prominent politician Lord Boothby, his mistress, who was the wife of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and notorious racketeer Ronnie Kray.
They reveal that Kray had procured Boothby a young gay lover, that Kray and Boothby were both “hunters of young men” who had attended illicit parties together, and that Boothby’s hidden life was causing concern in the highest echelons of government.
Boothby, a Conservative, was elected to parliament in the 1920s, resigned from a ministerial job in the 1940s over his role in a financial scandal, but continued in politics and was elevated to the House of Lords in 1958.
It was an open secret among London’s chattering classes that he was the long-term lover of Lady Dorothy Macmillan, whose husband Harold was Conservative prime minister from 1957 to 1963.
An entry in Boothby’s MI5 file, dated October 1940, said he was “very fond” of Dorothy and the pair “see a great deal of each other”. Harold Macmillan was “closely concerned”, it added.
That side of Boothby’s life remained unknown to the wider public, however, and by the 1960s he was a household name due to his frequent appearances on television chat shows.
In July 1964, Boothby’s career almost blew up in a sensational scandal when the Sunday Mirror newspaper alleged that he was in a gay relationship with Ronnie Kray, who with his twin brother Reggie ran one of London’s major criminal networks. Homosexuality was illegal at the time.
Admitting that he had met Kray to discuss some potential business but denying any affair, Boothby threatened the Mirror with a lawsuit, obtaining 40,000 pounds ($62,000) and an “unqualified apology”. Press coverage quickly petered out.
But the MI5 files on Boothby, released on Friday, show there was more to his dealings with Kray than he acknowledged.
The matter was considered so serious that the head of MI5, Roger Hollis, was summoned to a secret meeting with Home Secretary Henry Brooke, who conveyed ministers’ fears that “this might develop along the lines of the Profumo affair”.
This was a reference to the mother of all British sex and politics scandals, a saga involving a young topless model who had been involved with both a secretary of state for war in Macmillan’s government and a Soviet naval attache.
Hollis was able to reassure Brooke that despite his close ties to Macmillan’s wife, Boothby did not have access to government secrets, so national security was not at stake.
“A KINKY FELLOW”
That did not stop the spooks from accumulating a wealth of details about Boothby, whom they described as “a kinky fellow”.
One agent reported that Ronnie Kray and Boothby had been to some illicit gay parties together, but noted that “they are not likely to be linked by a queer attraction for each other: both are hunters (of young men).”
MI5 wrote that the Kray twins had asked Boothby “if he would like them to provide him with a nice young chauffeur whom they described as pleasant and fair-haired”. The man was former boxer Leslie Holt, alias “Johnny Kidd”, one of the Krays’ men.
Boothby employed Holt as his part-time chauffeur, gave him an E-type Jaguar car and even took him to the opera, “which is rather bold”, according to a wry comment from MI5.
“They are genuinely attached; this is no fly-by-night affair,” wrote the agent of Boothby and Holt.
The affair ended badly, however, when Boothby sacked Holt a few months after the Mirror story. MI5 heard from a source that a furious Holt wanted to “blow the story in the press” but had been threatened by Ronnie Kray on Boothby’s behalf.
In the event, Boothby paid Holt 2,000 pounds, let him keep the Jaguar, and the lid stayed shut on the peer’s secret life.
That was a remarkable achievement, given Boothby’s well-documented propensity for gossip.
An earlier part of his MI5 file includes a curious exchange of notes, written on paper from a waiter’s notepad, between Boothby, then a junior minister, and an MI5 agent who happened to be dining at a nearby table in a restaurant in March 1939.
“If you will forgive me for saying so, you are talking too loud and too much,” the agent wrote, trying to be helpful.
“I certainly do not forgive such a piece of unwarranted impertinence,” Boothby scribbled back furiously. “I happen to be a Minister of the Crown, and I would have you know that we are not yet a Nazi state; that the methods of the Gestapo do not apply in this country.”
(By Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Stephen Addison)