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London, England

The Star Tavern

The bar where "The Great Train Robbery" was planned was once a nexus of high society and low morals 

If the walls of the Star Tavern could talk, they would’ve been subpoenaed long ago. The Great Train Robbery, the Profumo affair, and countless other shady glories hatched in what is now a well-to-do London pub.

Built in the early 19th century for servants of the wealthy in its posh Belgravia neighborhood, the Star may have been destined to meld “West End glamor and East End skulduggery” in the 50s and 60s when a hard-bitten gambler named Paddy Kennedy took it over. Known for indiscriminately swearing at customers, Kennedy sometimes singled one out for an entire evening of nonstop insults he called the “special treatment.”

His incredible clientele loved it. Bing Crosby. Princess Margaret. The gambler John Aspinall. Peter O’Toole. Safe-blower and British double agent Eddie Chapman. Lucian Freud. Thief George “Taters” Chatham. Diana Dors. Scotland Yard commander Wally Virgo. “Chelsea Scallywag” Bobbie McKew. Kennedy served them all - though he was quick with quite physical ejections when he deemed it necessary.

High-class to lowlife, each side reveled in its exposure to the other. The tavern’s website claims that “gentleman robber” Peter Scott once stole jewelry (and perhaps underwear, as was his way) from Sophia Loren worth £200,000 before bellying up to the bar. He took out a wad of cash and remarked, “I hear poor Sophia has been robbed.” A man the regulars called “Boss” turned out to be the newly divorced Maharaja of Baroda, Sir Pratap Sinh Gaikwad, who was once the richest man in the world. He was always happy to buy a round.

Such was the scene for one of the bar’s most infamous episodes. In 1961, an affair between War Secretary John Profumo and 19-year-old aspiring model Christine Keeler scandalized fair Britain. Profumo resigned in 1963 when the truth came out, and the aftershocks likely led to the ouster of his Conservative Party by Labour in 1964. The Star was said to be a prime rendezvous point - and not just for Profumo and Keeler. “London Lotharios pulled their sports cars up to the door to display their latest girls,” is how one contemporary described the scene.

If you do make it to Belgravia’s underworld landmark, don’t neglect the upstairs bar. The Star’s most notorious criminals never did. Paddy Kennedy was particularly strict about who could access that room, and for good reason. As the fake suitcase of cash and model trains on the shelves of alcohol today make kitschily clear, this room is where the Great Train Robbery took shape.

In August of 1963, a 15-strong gang hijacked a mail train in Buckinghamshire and made off with £2.6 million (over £40 million today), still one of the biggest British heists ever. Most of the leaders did decades in jail. The gang’s playboy mastermind Bruce Reynolds planned the caper with Buster Edwards and other cronies in the friendly, dingy confines of Paddy Kennedy’s second-floor lair. The tavern’s website offers this memorial today:

“Reynolds, who co-ordinated the robbery, regularly drove his Aston Martin from his Streatham home to meet Edwards and one or two other members of the gang in The Star to go over details during the run-up to the robbery.  Four was the maximum number to meet in public at any one time, in case the police were observing them. Reynolds’ friend, Terry Hogan, introduced him to The Star following the Eastcastle Street mailbag robbery of 1952 in which they both took part. Reynolds felt he’d broken through into the upper echelons of the criminal fraternity… here in The Star.”

Now, Paddy Kennedy is long gone. He’s said to have died in a home run by the Licensed Trade Charity (set up for pub industry workers), penniless on account of unlucky horse bets. The pub is quieter and cleaner but no less worth a visit - it even won the Evening Standard Pub of the Year award in 1992.

Stop by, grab a pint, and plot away. Best of luck avoiding the wrath of Paddy’s ghost.

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