June 29, 2012 1:27:55 PM
Gangster Mickey Cohen would have been proud of his cinematic afterlife. He was portrayed by Harvey Keitel in Bugsy, and by Paul Guilfoyle in LA Confidential. It won't be long before Sean Penn plays him in Gangster Squad, which will probably be his greatest celluloid apotheosis. Movies have portrayed gangsters for decades, but they have usually been the New York or Chicago version; Mickey Cohen was a hometown Hollywood hero, or antihero. It may be that the upcoming movie will get his biography spot on, but in case you find that unlikely, you might want to look beforehand into Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.'s Notorious Mobster (ECW Press) by Tere Tereba. This is the first book by Tereba, who is a fashion designer and has written for Andy Warhol's Interview (and been a film actress for him). It is rough, florid, lively, and detailed, with plenty of celebrities in supporting roles and lots of Hollywood scandal. Tereba sums Cohen up as "a dangerous man, full of bluster, violence, charm, greed, grandiosity, obsession, deception, chutzpah, and occasionally self-realization." Unlike many of his brother gangsters, Cohen loved the limelight, so Tereba has had plenty of material to draw upon (she says it has been her work of ten years) including interviews, an autobiography, and an unfinished biography by screenwriter Ben Hecht. It is an appalling and fascinating story.
Cohen was born in 1913 in Brooklyn of Jewish parents who had recently fled czarist Russia. His father died shortly thereafter, and his mother took him and his brother to the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. His schooling was almost nil, and he remained nearly illiterate and with few math skills. (Even in his younger days, he was the head of a group that would do armed robberies. "I was in charge of dividing up the score," he recalled, "but I was handicapped by not being able to add or subtract. So I made the boys divide everything into equal piles and that was my substitute for arithmetic.") He sold papers, and he fought other newsboys over turf. The rabbi sent him out of Hebrew school when he punched another student in the mouth. He had early experiences with incarceration, starting at age eight when he assaulted a cop.
He took his scrapping skills to Cleveland and did a few years of professional boxing. By his own admission, he wasn't very good, but he made a name for himself there as a gambler, robber, and strong-arm protection man. He was in Chicago too late to meet his idol, Al Capone, who was in prison, but he liked to tell people about how the two of them had met. When he returned to Los Angeles in 1937, he was supposed to report to Ben "Bugsy" Siegel, but that wasn't Cohen's plan. "Work... that's what being with Benny would be like," he concluded. They were introduced only after Cohen held up bookies that were in Siegel's employ, and Cohen had to be threatened with force to give the money back. Siegel didn't like Cohen's insubordination, but recognized that the hothead could be useful to him. Cohen was Siegel's man for strong-arming or eliminating competition as Siegel took control of Sunset Strip. Siegel overextended himself in branching out to Las Vegas (or he was skimming money from operations there) and his assassination, sanctioned by higher mob bosses, was carried out in 1947. Tereba says that Cohen was complicit in the plot against his boss, and indeed, he took over Siegel's Los Angeles operations.
Cohen's rule was heavy-handed; there were narcotics, extortion, blackmail, prostitution, and more, and he made good on threats to keep underlings in line. His aggressiveness wasn't universally approved of even among his peers; it is hilarious that the Mafioso Johnny Rosselli complained, "That Mickey Cohen is a disgrace to organized crime." Cohen explained to Mike Wallace, in one of the many interviews he gave later in his life, "I never killed a guy who in my way of life didn't deserve it." He made plenty of enemies, and survived being a target for hit men. He was lucky time and again. In 1950, a huge bomb tore apart his home in fashionable Brentwood, but it had rolled under his bank-sized safe which deflected much of the blast and saved him. When he was implicated in crimes himself, he had a high-paid and influential legal team. He was not convicted of the violence or criminality of his underworld dealings. The feds were able to get him into prison a couple of times for the old standby, tax evasion, but nothing else stuck. A long-time foe was Robert F. Kennedy, who in 1959 during a Senate hearing on labor-union corruption, became infuriated with Cohen's lack of cooperation and refusal to answer questions. Kennedy finally asked, "What does it mean to have someone's lights put out?" The brash and flippant Cohen replied, "Lookit, I dunno what you're talking about, I'm not an electrician... I got nuthin' to do with electricity." The future attorney general was so stung by the derision he leaped toward Cohen as if to strike him, but his colleagues grabbed him and forced him to cool down.
All through his career, Cohen liked being the center of attention. He had various fronts for business, and one of them was his own ice cream parlor. He might have made the rounds of the hot spots on the Strip, but he really enjoyed hanging around and making ice cream sundaes; he did not smoke, drink, or use drugs. He was funny and affable, and generous. A journalist admitted that he knew Cohen was manipulating him, but could do nothing about it. "He was a showman. Oh, I know he killed people and he was a Yiddish momser [contemptible person] and he was just plain no good... But mostly I liked Mickey because he was fun." Others felt the same way. Robert Mitchum and Sammy Davis Jr., for instance, showed up at a trial to be character witnesses for him. Frank Sinatra sought his advice when his girlfriend Ava Gardner was seeing Cohen's fellow-hood Johnny Stompanato. As befits a biography of a Hollywood mobster, there are plenty of stars making cameo roles. More surprising is that Billy Graham is here, trying more than once to make a convert of the Jewish mobster. Cohen enjoyed the attention he got from this, but neither Graham nor Jesus changed his life.
He was to have an arc of a career, slowing down and eventually dying of stomach cancer quietly in his bed a the age of 62. It was a horrendous, astonishing life. He was just another mobster, but he made himself successful within the underground on his own terms, and along the way he enjoyed a lot of expensive clothes, women, and ice cream. The distinctive part of his life was that it was superficially overt; he courted publicity. Everyone knew that even if he was intermittently amiable, he was a murderous rat, and yet there was almost nothing that his fellow mobsters or law enforcement could do about it. Tereba has uncovered aspects of his life, like his germ phobia, that have not been revealed before, and her book has much to tell about Los Angeles crime and crime-fighting (or lack thereof) from prohibition until Cohen's death. Cohen would have loved this lurid and entertaining account, and that his movie will be coming soon to a theater near you.