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