New Book on Mickey Cohen Shows He Wasn't Just a Notorious Gangster -- He Was a Folk Hero

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Thu, Jul 5, 2012 at 6:00 AM
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Here in the breezy capital of bland, blond celebrities, it's hard not to feel a pang of regret after reading Tere Tereba's engrossing new book, Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.'s Notorious Mobster (ECW Press, Toronto), that Los Angeles lost one of its few genuinely colorful personalities when the gangster died here in 1976.

Cohen's charisma was off-kilter but undeniable: To Angelenos in the 1950s, he was a shady but humorous character, a "high-stakes gambler" who maybe hung out with too many lowlifes. Straight out of Central Casting in a huge fedora, striped zoot suit and five o'clock shadow, Cohen was in reality an explosively hot-tempered, trigger-happy thug whose motto, "anything to make a buck," really meant anything dishonest and occasionally lethal.

As chronicled by Tereba, a former Interview magazine writer and bicoastal Warholite, Cohen undoubtedly had a hand in the deaths of a lot of people, including rival mobsters and even some "pals" during his 25-year reign as king of the L.A. rackets. Charming, but not a nice guy.

Looking back, the problem was that Mickey Cohen's persona was too damn lovable. The consensus seems to be that "everybody" loved him: not only headline-happy reporters but crooked LAPD cops and sheriffs (many of whom actually worked for him) and, most importantly, the public. As veteran TV newsman Pete Noyes reminisced decades later, "Down deep, Mickey Cohen fascinated the public."

Who wouldn't love a homegrown, dese-dem-'n'-dose-spouting Jewish kid from Boyle Heights who'd come up the hard way? Plus, as a strong-arm extortionist, pimp and bookmaker, Cohen was wildly successful, and everybody loves a winner. That he was an eccentric who would rather kiss a dog than his wife, tawked outta da side of his mouth and fed pasta to his bib-wearing pet bulldog at restaurants was just the icing on the cake.

Tereba's book sets the stage by recounting gangster-crazy Hollywood's earlier fascination with Cohen's associate, movie star-handsome Bugsy Siegel, who came out west in 1935 to gain control of illegal "vice" activities in L.A. The movie elite loved drinking and gambling at mob-run casinos like the Clover Club on Sunset, where titillating proximity to real-life crime sent glorious chills up the spines of producers David O. Selznick and B.P. Schulberg. Following Siegel's assassination in '47, it was Cohen (a Peter Lorre character to Siegel's Humphrey Bogart) who effectively took over the vice game in L.A.: prostitution, illegal gambling and, of course, "dope."

The densely packed narrative digs into the ensuing turf wars with rival mobsters that left the city on edge and Cohen, each time, amazingly unscathed.

Tereba, who spent much of her youth on Sunset seeing bands like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, didn't set out to write a book on Cohen per se. "I wanted to write a history of the L.A. underworld," she says, "which had never been done before, and this book really tells, for the first time, the complete story. But Mickey Cohen became the logical focus." Utilizing declassified FBI files, Tereba uncovered tons of info, including the fact that Cohen contracted gonorrhea at 18, possibly accounting for his obsessive hand washing and daily, two-hour-long showers.

Born Meyer Harris Cohen, "the Mick" was dirt-poor, but even as a child he was driven to make money no matter what it took, including a precocious and violent first offense at age 9: Armed with a baseball bat, he attempted to rob the box office of a downtown movie theater. (That Cohen, who was always rolling in dough, never learned to count is one of many darkly comic revelations of this book.)

Other juicy tidbits include a detailed account of the deadly romance between Lana Turner and Cohen's pal Johnny Stompanato (well-endowed and popular with women but always broke) and a mind-boggling cash-for-votes deal between Cohen and the young Richard Nixon.

Cohen's Teflon image in the eyes of an endlessly forgiving public (and judicial system) reminds us that Americans in the '50s were just as enamored of criminality as we are today, and that the wink-wink attitude that finds organized crime to be charming did not begin with the Godfather flicks.

Cohen eventually served time for income tax evasion, but the people still loved him. Publicity-crazy from birth, he knew how to play that game.

"See, I have been blown up in the Hollywood way," he once said. "In ... Boston or New York, I would have been ... lost in the shuffle, an ordinary high-rolling gambler. It's a different situation out here."

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