Esmeralda’s Barn in London, England initially flourished under the ownership of twin brothers and gangsters, Reggie and Ronnie Kray. The place to be seen in the West End, famous politicians and celebrities frequented it — such as actress/author Joan Collins, actor George Raft, singer Judy Garland, actress Barbara Windsor, along with painters (and compulsive gamblers) Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
Then former boxer William Ives worked the door. Cy Grant was the resident singer. Others who performed at the club included Noel Harrison, Lance Percival, even a young Eric Clapton, who was in the band, Casey Jones & the Engineers, at the time.
Then Reggie went back to prison (he’d gotten out sometime in 1961), leaving Ronnie to run amok at Esmeralda’s. And he did.
He began extending credit beyond the house limit and to people for whom it was beyond their means. This left the casino having to cover whatever Ronnie’s thugs couldn’t collect. This new credit policy opposed that of the manager, Laurie O’Leary, who knew that carrying huge losses for too long would put a gambling house out of business.
When the markers amounted to £2,000 in one week [about $5,700 then, $46,000 today], O’Leary mentioned it to Ronnie, who laughed, not understanding the nuances of running a gambling club. Desperate, O’Leary offered the twins £1,000 a week to stay out of the operation. Ronnie, speaking for himself and Reggie, refused.
O’Leary quit and opened a casino of his own, and his wealthy following made his place their new haunt.
“His club was soon what Esmeralda’s Barn would have been — one of the four top gambling clubs in London,” wrote John Pearson in From The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins.
Ronnie hired a different manager but banned him from having any say over credit. With the elite patrons leaving and Ronnie extending credit to almost anyone, the clientele soon became comprised of “playboy gamblers, gambling addicts, chancers and the chronically in debt,” according to Pearson. “Violence crept in. Several drunken losers at the Barn were thrown down the stairs, and occasionally Ronnie instructed East End villains to call on members he considered ‘cheeky’ about their debts. What happened then was not his business: if somebody was hurt, an empty flat smashed up, this had nothing to do with him.”
The other West End gambling clubs that popped up in the interim also cut into Esmeralda’s decreasing profits. When the second manager tried to discuss the casino’s continuing to lose money, Ronnie told him he worried too much and replaced him with his own uncle, Alf Kray.
The Twins Are So Done
Eventually, Ronnie’s interest in Esmeralda’s waned, and he filled his time with other activities away from the property. When out of prison, Reggie focused primarily on expanding his West End casino protection extortion business. In 1963, the twins permanently left Esmeralda’s Barn, which was in debt and owed back taxes.
Today, the Berkeley Hotel stands where the casino once did.