A very sordid sex scandal: Lord Boothby

A very sordid sex scandal: Lord Boothby slept with young men, consorted with the Krays, and had an affair with Macmillan’s wife — all the while protected by an Establishment

  • Daniel Smith explores the conspiracy of silence surrounding Sir Robert Boothby
  • The British politician and Ronnie Kray shared a love of sex with young men 
  • He also seduced his contemporary Harold Macmillan’s wife, Dorothy Cavendish 
  • Parliament, the Press and security services feared an embarrassing scandal

BOOK OF THE WEEK

THE PEER AND THE GANGSTER   

by Daniel Smith (History Press £20, 256pp)

When a Sunday paper, tipped off by Scotland Yard, printed a story in 1964 about the illicit relationship between a member of the House of Lords and an East End gangster, Sir Robert Boothby immediately sued, even though names weren’t named. He argued that he was ‘the prominent peer’ mentioned.

Arnold Goodman, the solicitor who became involved, issued threats and insisted on a retraction, and Boothby received an out-of-court settlement of £40,000 (£800,000 in today’s money).

When the Home Secretary and Chief Whip confronted Boothby, he said of Ronnie Kray, who had in fact visited his flat in Eaton Square: ‘I knew then, and know now, nothing of his background. He seemed an agreeable chap.’

Daniel Smith examines the conspiracy of silence surrounding Sir Robert Boothby (pictured), in a fascinating new tome 

Boothby also categorically assured his superiors he was not an active homosexual (homosexuality was a criminal offence at the time) and had never attended saucy parties.

Boothby, says Daniel Smith, ‘had been casting a web of lies’.

For some years, he’d been going to boxing matches and underground nightclubs owned by the Kray twins, and he was ‘just the sort of gent to appeal to Ronnie Kray’s sensibilities’. What the men particularly had in common was ‘their shared love of sex with young men’.

In 1959, at one of the Krays’ clubs, Boothby met a 17-year-old, Robert Bevan, whom he dined at an expensive restaurant and then took to ‘a late showing of Gigi’, before going back to his Eaton Square flat for the night.

Boothby then accused the boy of stealing his watch. The case came before the Magistrates Court. ‘Who was Bevan to cast doubt on the account given by a peer of the realm?’ asks Daniel Smith rhetorically, capturing the deferential assumptions of the times.

Another 17-year-old, James Buckley, was sent to Borstal for stealing Boothby’s chequebook — though it was later found still locked in Boothby’s desk. Then there was Leslie Holt (pictured, above, with Boothby and Ronnie Kray), a young croupier who was to die under anaesthetic ‘during an operation to remove a verruca’. Boothby had bought him an E-type Jaguar and took him to the opera.

Boothby, then, was a regular user of young male prostitutes, often manipulating the law to stop them squealing, and he also participated in orgies at the Krays’ home in Hackney.

All this, we are told, was monitored by MI5, who knew Boothby to be a liability.

Daniel questions if the Government kept quiet about Sir Robert Boothby because they couldn’t afford an embarrassing scandal. Pictured L-R: Lord Boothby, Ronnie Kray and Leslie Holt

The Krays, too, had been under surveillance and, in spite of a frightening increase in their ‘lawlessness, extortion, blackmail and intimidation’, police records went missing, witnesses disappeared and they got off scot-free.

The big question is: why was there such a conspiracy of silence between parliament, political parties, the Press and the security services?

Smith’s theory is that, just months after the Profumo affair (and Boothby even sat for a Stephen Ward portrait), the Government simply couldn’t afford yet another embarrassing scandal.

For his part, Boothby knew ‘his life could not bear too much close examination’, and that his existence was ‘a precarious house of cards’, so the strategy devised by Goodman, the ‘puppet master’, was not to defend, repudiate or address the story but pre-emptively to shut it down and throttle discussion. The Government, in its turn, pursued a policy of ‘passivity and deniability’.

And why did the Opposition not kick up a stink? Harold Wilson, indeed, colluded with the cover-up as he didn’t want his own relationship with Marcia Williams, who ran his office and was, says Smith, his ‘mistress for many years’, coming under scrutiny. There were also issues involving Labour MP Tom Driberg, who liked anonymous sex ‘in doorways, public toilets and phone boxes’, and who was another one protected by the authorities, including MI5.

Sir Robert Boothby who was knighted in 1953, seduced his contemporary Harold Macmillan’s wife Dorothy Cavendish in addition to participating in orgies at the Krays’ home. Pictured: Boothby and Ronnie Kray

‘Boothby and Driberg had grown used to leveraging their social contacts to smooth things over when their private lives threatened to cause problems.’

Evidently, a person’s status as VIP or grandee got them out of tight corners. The idea was that they needed to be ‘saved from public shame’ for the greater good of the party or governing class.

Boothby was even looked after by the police when he was blind drunk in a gutter. ‘There was an unwritten rule: Boothby was not to be picked up and arrested if found.’ Though the impression he liked to give was that of ‘a loveable elder statesman of British politics’, Boothby was actually a ‘decadent, gambling adulterer’ whom his cousin Ludovic Kennedy called ‘a s**t of the highest order’.

Boothby, born in 1900, knighted in 1953, made a Life Peer in 1958, liked fancy restaurants and fine wine. ‘His expensive tastes extended to a passion for gambling,’ and he was often in debt. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he did no work and was known as ‘Palladium Boothby’ because he liked a sexual performance twice nightly.

He was Conservative MP for Aberdeen at the age of 24. His parliamentary contemporary was Harold Macmillan, whose wife, Dorothy Cavendish, Boothby immediately seduced. ‘Dorothy had thighs like hams,’ he said gallantly. He also said she ‘reminded him of a caddy he’d once ravished on a golf course’.

THE PEER AND THE GANGSTER by Daniel Smith (History Press £20, 256pp)

They did ‘very little to disguise the nature of their relationship’, and the Press never breathed a word.

Boothby did his own bit to muzzle the Press, telling Beaverbrook, the newspaper baron: ‘Don’t let your boys hunt me down. Because I am not going to let go of public life.’

The lesson Boothby learned early was that if you are brazen, you can behave as you please. Yet for all his sound and fury, he never achieved high office.

As a junior minister, he was sacked for making murky deals with Czechoslovakian refugees seeking their assets frozen during the War: there was an ‘informal understanding’ that Boothby would receive a percentage.

In this book, there is a sensational item or allegation on every page. When the Krays were in prison, they ran a bodyguard business on the outside; one of their clients was Frank Sinatra.

Boothby was the real father of Macmillan’s daughter Sarah, who committed suicide in 1970, her life blighted by alcoholism. Boothby’s lover at Oxford was Michael Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Boothby died in 1986 from a heart attack. By then he’d been married for nearly a decade to a ‘glamorous’ Sardinian lady, 34 years his junior. ‘Don’t you think I’m a lucky boy?’ he’d remarked on his wedding day.

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