Born in New York City, Micky Cohen (September 4, 1912-July 29, 1976) grew up in Los Angeles, where he drifted into crime at an early age. Despite his small size, he proved to be good with his fists, and briefly returned to New York City to pursue a boxing career. Realizing that he lacked the skill to succeed as a boxer, seventeen-year-old Cohen embraced the life of crime. Satisfying his love of fashion through robbery, Cohen’s indiscriminate preying angered numerous powerful gangsters, first in Cleveland and then Chicago. When Bugsy Siegel advertised for muscle to help him take control of organized crime in Los Angeles, Cohen returned home in 1937. Awed by Siegel’s style and wealth, Cohen gradually calmed down and became Siegel’s right-hand man. When Siegel was killed in 1947 because his investors in the Flamingo Casino thought that he was skimming money, Cohen succeeded him as kingpin of Los Angeles. Although he survived several assassination attempts by Jack Dragna, a rival gangster, Cohen’s flamboyant nature and failure to conceal his wealth attracted the attention of the IRS, and he was sentenced to prison for five years. Following his release, Cohen continued his criminal career. Unlike most leading gangsters, Cohen embraced media attention, becoming a national celebrity. Having failed to learn his lesson, Cohen was convicted a second time. Released in 1972, he developed stomach cancer and died four years later.
Mickey Cohen was born in Brownsville, New York, a predominantly Jewish ghetto, between 1913 and 1914, although the actual date of birth is unknown. Believing that there was no future living in a violent Jewish ghetto in an anti-Semitic city, Cohen’s widowed mother took her family to Los Angeles when Cohen was three. The life was better, it was warmer, and they lived in a house, not in a cold-water tenement, but there were still an abundance of criminals. Despite New York’s reputation, Los Angeles had a much higher homicide rate. Cohen grew up in a poor melting pot of immigrants from different ethnic groups. Busy providing for the family, his mother was unable to not keep him off the streets, and his aggressive personality soon attracted the attention of bootleggers and numbers runners. Working in the still in his brothers’ pharmacy, he was arrested at age seven, and saw his brother contact a connected family member to make the charges vanish, which introduced Cohen to the magical power of the “fix.” Although he became familiar with life on the street, he did not actually receive a real education, and could not read or do sums. An enterprising boy, he was a good fighter, so he held on to a prime street-corner to sell newspapers. Attempting to rob the box office of a local movie theater, an adolescent Cohen was caught and spent seven months in reform school.
Released from reform school on condition that he meet weekly with a “Big Brother,” Cohen lucked out because his big brother was a fight referee who quickly realized Cohen’s potential as a fighter, and scheduled Cohen for illegal prizefights. Cohen trained by hiring out as muscle for newsboys who wanted to keep their lucrative spots. Following his brother Harry to Cleveland, he juggled boxing with a budding career as a gangster, earning money as free-lance muscle. Cohen eventually did well enough that his brother arranged for him to be sent to New York to train for a professional career. He ended up at Lou Stillman’s Gym, a famous gym, where many of the local gangs would meet peacefully during matches. Boxing was a rough way to earn a living, and many washed-up boxers naturally found work with the various gangs. Sixteen-year-old Cohen ate it up. Although he trained diligently and was extremely tough, he never advanced beyond journeyman levels, partially because he simply did not want to be a boxer. It hurt, it was dirty (Cohen had become compulsive about cleanliness) and it did not pay that well.
Since the only people Cohen encountered with real money were gangsters, he quit boxing, moved back to Cleveland, and tried to start a full-time career as a gangster. When the Italian gangs refused to admit a Jew, he responded by robbing gambling houses and whorehouses, and soon had a small crew. Constantly buying expensive clothes and hats, he needed a never-ending stream of money, which motivated the incessant robbing. After holding up a place that paid protection to the mob, Cohen was told that he could keep robbing if he avoided designated places and performed favors for the mob when requested. Unfortunately, Cohen had trouble following even these simple rules. Following a blatant transgression, he decided to move to Chicago to start over.
Al Capone ruled Chicago in 1931, having broken his last major rival, Bugs Moran, during the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre two years earlier. Cohen was quickly hired, and when he killed two men who were trying to shake down a casino under Capone’s protection, a delighted Cohen found that he was released from jail as soon as Capone’s representative appeared. Capone took a shine to the little gangster, who actually resembled the much bigger Capone, and brought him into the inner area of the underworld.
Bugsy Siegel’s Right-hand Man
Gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel had become wealthy during Prohibition, and thanks to the skill of associates like his friend Meyer Lansky, he remained wealthy. Hoping to start over as a legitimate businessman, he moved to LA in 1934, and entered the elite. When half of his fortune disappeared in the stock market, Siegel informed his former associates that he was back in the crime business. They were happy since there were too many bit players in LA, and the biggest, Jack Dragna, was failing to gain control of the territory. Dragna was informed by Lucky Luciano that Siegel was taking charge. Naturally, Dragna was displeased, but Siegel was simply too important and too connected to resist directly. Other, smaller gangsters were willing to disregard Siegel’s authority, so Siegel advertised for muscle. One of the applicants was Cohen, whose violent habits had proved too violent even for Chicago. Connections with the Cleveland mob, run by Moe Dalitz and Lou Rothkopf, had brought Cohen to the attention of Meyer Lansky, who recommended him to Siegel.
Instead of changing the habits that had gotten him into trouble with very dangerous men, Cohen followed the same approach in LA. Neglecting to contact Siegel, the man he was supposed to work for, newly arrived Cohen recruited a couple of helpers, and began robbing places. Some of those establishments paid protection but he simply did not care. When he robbed a place under Dragna’s protection, Siegel summoned Cohen for a meeting, and told him to return the money. Refusing, Cohen found himself arrested, and spent nine days in jail until Siegel arranged for him to be released. Brought to the office of Siegel’s attorney, Jerry Giesler, Cohen met with Siegel and Johnny Roselli, a senior Chicago gangster, who represented both Dragna and the Outfit (Capone’s organization) in Chicago. Cohen proved that he was not completely insane by cooperating, and started to work for Siegel to bring East Coast-style order to LA. Cohen admired money, clothes and class, and Siegel had an abundance of all three, so a stunned Cohen made a sincere effort to improve himself, at least his manners. Although an independent operator, Cohen genuinely respected Siegel and followed his lead, carrying out jobs when requested.
The first target was Eddy Neales, who had resisted Siegel’s attempts to buy into his extremely profitable gambling business. Cohen happily started hitting Neales’ gambling clubs, and Neales found that the LAPD had already been bought by Siegel. A local enforcer named Jimmy Fox was enlisted by Neales, but was shot by Cohen during a meeting. Cohen was arrested but avoided prison when Fox lived and refused to press charges.
However, Cohen’s attempt to enter the bookmaking industry encountered an obstacle when he discovered the hard way that a deal with one part of the LAPD did not include other departments, which would happily arrest him and close down his business.
When a grand jury member and his chief investigator were nearly killed by bombs because their investigation of corruption threatened the cozy relationship between the police, gangsters and city hall, which was called the Combination, an angry public refused to accept the LAPD’s accusations that the men had staged the bombings in order to gain sympathy. A recall motion resulted in the election of Fletcher Bowron, a crusading judge, as mayor, in September 1938. Determined to eradicate the Combination, the new major’s first step was to force Chief Davis to step down. A former bootlegger who had clashed repeatedly with the Combination was persuaded to provide a list of names of corrupt police officers, in exchange for the opportunity to replace the Combination once it had been destroyed. Using the list as a lead, an ex-FBI man was hired to tap their phones, and enough evidence was obtained to push them all into early retirement. Seeing a major change in the political winds, many gangsters simply relocated to Las Vegas.
Bystanders during the battle against the Combination, Siegel and Cohen were beneficiaries because all of their rivals had been crushed or chosen exile, leaving the underworld to them. In fact, the LAPD was blissfully unaware that Bugsy Siegel, a major East Coast gangster, was living in their city until a New York City detective thought it would be funny to tell the chief investigator of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office in 1939.
Siegel was arrested on August 17, 1940, after testimony from two hit men working for Murder, Inc linked him to the murder of former gangster Harry Greenberg, who had reacted to a fall in the pecking order by threatening to talk to New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey. However, the key witness, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a leading hit man for Murder, Inc., was also a key witness for a case in New York, and the New York DA’s office was initially unwilling to take the risk of sending their valuable witness across the country. Anxious to avoid the embarrassment of Siegel being released because the main witness could not testify, they agreed to transport Reles to LA but he died on November 12, 1941, after falling from the window of the hotel in New York where he was being guarded. Although the official cause of death was suicide, he was most likely killed by a policeman paid by the Syndicate. Siegel’s trial was dismissed for lack of evidence. The only consequence was that the LAPD had their eye on him and he was evicted from the Hillcrest Golf Club, where Siegel had regularly played golf with studio moguls and movie stars.
Meanwhile, Cohen continued to build up his gambling operations in the county, where his presence was more welcome. However, Cohen had dangerously underestimated Jack Dragna, believing that Dragna was comfortable as a lieutenant of Siegel, roughly equal in authority to Cohen. Possessing a haphazard knowledge of the politics of the underworld, Cohen did not grasp that Siegel represented New York, and Dragna had ties to Chicago. Furthermore, the Jewish-Italian alliance worked in New York City but could not be transplanted to LA. Although Siegel was a higher-ranking gangster than Dragna, Chicago and New York were reluctant allies, not partners. In particular, the Outfit in Chicago resented Siegel’s insistence that all LA bookies use his wire service, instead of the service operated through Chicago, which was supervised by Dragna and Johnny Roselli. Cohen further aggravated a delicate situation by administering a public beating to one of Dragna’s partners, who he believed was a stool pigeon, after seeing him talk to a policeman. Even Siegel felt Cohen had gone too far, and told his young protege that if he wanted to move up, he would have to accept the need to do business with the police.
Famous as a ludicrous tipper, Cohen routinely changed expensive, tailored suits several times a day. Motivated by a desire to hang out with the better people of society, Cohen was also monitoring the mob’s take of the illegal casinos that operated in a number of fancy dinner clubs. Expanding his gambling business, Cohen became so successful that he bribed the local police chief and opened a small-scale casino in Burbank, near the Warner Brothers studio lot, which provided a steady flow of clients. At the same time, Cohen and Siegel had formed links with the major studios and their stars, creating a unique culture in LA. Cohen had become a fixture in the LA nightlife, hanging out with celebrities like Robert Mitchum, Errol Flynn and Ben Hecht.
While lower-level gangsters like Cohen loved the fact that LA and the county were divided into many different jurisdictions and municipalities (46 just in LA County), Siegel found the need to deal with so many police chiefs and mayors exhausting, but an attempt to organize city-wide operations failed. Fed up with the grief of handling an endless stream of petty officials, Siegel became interested in Las Vegas, lured by the success of the recently built El Rancho Vegas. Cohen would handle LA for him.
As Cohen’s power grew, he successfully fended off a number of rivals, both local and out-of-town. Actually, fended off is an inaccurate description. He killed them or had them killed.
Several gangsters were killed during the period 1945-46, and the police believed that they had clashed with Cohen, but could not prove it. Actually, the police had little idea of how the gangsters were organized, they only knew that the sudden increase of dead men with lengthy rap sheets meant that someone was trying to increase his territory. Later, it became clear that the victims had resisted Cohen’s attempts to expand his gambling empire. Fed up with the rise in gang murders, Mayor Bowron told police chief Horrall to rid the city of gangsters. Bowron suggested bringing in police officers from New York City who were accustomed to dealing with gangsters, but Horrall preferred to use in-house resources.
Lieutenant Willie Burns was assigned to recruit a group of police officers to focus on the gangsters. Only eight of the original eighteen detectives invited to join the squad accepted. James Kennard, Benny Williams, and Archie Case were big men, the muscle. Jerry Thomas had a photographic memory, and Conwell Keeler had received a bad leg in the war, but he could pick locks and plant bugs. O’Mara was brought in as a leader, and he brought his partner Dick Hedrick. The squad did not have an official office, and the members were still officially registered to their previous stations. Gangsters from out of town would be taken up to Mulholland Drive, which had a fantastic view of the city, to emphasize that LA was not New York, Chicago or Cleveland. Part of the emphasis involved placing a gun next to the hood’s head in the dark and asking if he was about to sneeze. Lacking an office, the squad’s records were kept in a slim notebook that Keeler carried in his suit jacket.
The newspapers found out about the squad in November 1947 when they arrested a limo full of six suspected gangsters from Cleveland and Detroit. The men were escorted to the state border after their pictures were taken. The reporters had been informed in order to counter articles about the increasing number of undesirables who had appeared in LA, as well as to send a message to gangsters in the mid-West and the East coast.
The Fall of Bugsy Siegel
Siegel and Lansky had invested in Billy Wilkerson’s Flamingo Casino in March 1946. A year later, Wilkerson quickly moved to Europe to stay alive after he disagreed with Siegel’s interpretation of their relationship. Siegel gained control but proved that he knew nothing about building or operating casinos, so the cost exploded from the original $1.2 million to over $5 million. Understandably displeased by the rising costs, his investors and friends in the Syndicate also suspected that his girlfriend Virginia Hill was stashing funds in Switzerland, but he refused to apologize over wasting their money.
In fact, Siegel had increasingly become a dangerous liability, who attracted too much attention at a time when his peers in the Syndicate had adopted a more low-key approach. Worse, he had become embroiled in a conflict with the Outfit. After the Outfit had gained control of a competing wire service, they expected Siegel to close his wire service, which he was unwilling to do unless he received $2 million. Well-aware that the Outfit’s reaction would involve guns, bullets and dead bodies on the street, Siegel immediately met with Cohen on June 20, 1947 in order to prepare for trouble, but he gave no indication that he thought that he might be a target, believing he was too high-level. He was wrong. While sitting at home with two friends, bullets suddenly broke through the living room window, killing Siegel instantly. The LAPD’s first suspect was Cohen, and it seems impossible that the assassination could have occurred in LA without his knowledge, even if he was not an active participant. There is no doubt that he benefited from the hit, since he took over in LA, while Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum immediately assumed control of the operation of the Flamingo.
Cohen enjoyed hanging out with celebrities, and he had a financial interest in several the top clubs, so rising singers and comedians often sought his favor to get bookings at his clubs or to receive help with their careers when dealing with the studios or the unions. By that time, he operated out of an expensive haberdashery, and routinely travelled with his entourage in three Cadillacs. By 1947, Cohen’s power had reached such a level that when screenwriter Ben Hecht sought a contribution for the Jewish groups fighting in the Palestine, Cohen held a charity dinner where he forced roughly a thousand gangsters and underworld members to donate a total of $200,000 to the Irgun.
Cohen had married LaVonne Weaver, a petite dance instructor and model, in 1940, and she had proved to be the perfect wife, accepting her husband’s late-night escapades and the knowledge that he was frequently seen in the company of the attractive young women who were the necessary social lubricant for meetings with visiting gangsters and other notables. However, the constant threat of assassination was wearying, especially since the couple could not just sit in the living room watching television with the lights on like their neighbors. Like many wives, LaVonne wanted a proper house at the end of the war, so Mickey had a house built in Brentwood, the hottest new neighborhood. Unknown to him, the LAPD Vice Squad had ensured that every room in the house was wired, so the police were able to listen to his conversations, and Cohen talked a lot, spending hours every day on the telephone handling business. The bugs had been placed by electronics expert Russ Mason, who became angry when he was not paid and ran another line to his own listening station. The bugs were unnoticed from April 13, 1947 to April 28, 1948 when Cohen’s gardener discovered the wire by accident.
Aware that his usual henchmen would be of little help, Cohen contacted Jimmy Vaus, an amateur electronics wizard who had helped the LAPD vice squad develop wiretapping equipment but became disillusioned when the police department made no effort to reward him for his contributions. Having become known for his ability, Vaus attracted the attention of Mickey Cohen, who proved to be far more generous. When Cohen promised that he would not be required to break any laws, Vaus agreed to work for both the police and Cohen in late 1948. In his defence, the wiretapping that he had previously performed for the vice squad had been illegal, since they never had warrants when they broke into people’s homes to place the microphones. Vaus swept the house for bugs, but Cohen did not remove the bug, he just stopped discussing business in the house. The newspapers eventually learned of the bugs, and the District Attorney was furious, because he had not been provided information to make a case against Cohen or even informed, which made it look like the Vice Squad was simply gathering information for a shake-down. In fact, transcripts of Cohen’s conversations were rumored to be for sale, and the Vice Squad quickly learned that Mason had sold them.
Watching the escalating scandal from the sidelines, the Gangster Squad observed the need to have an internal, trustworthy electronics expert, and Keeler was that man, having grown up playing around with shortwave radios and any piece of machinery he could put his hands on. Keeler was valuable not just for his own ability but his contacts with sound and electrical engineers working for Naval Intelligence and the C.I.A., who were developing electronic surveillance devices for overseas operations that did not need a wire, so there would be no danger of a suspicious Cohen finding a wire in the wrong place. Instead, the bug was connected to a transmitter that sent a signal to a receiver located a couple of blocks away. The only problem was that the bug needed batteries, and the batteries needed to be replaced. An opportunity appeared when Cohen bought the most expensive television on the market. The squad convinced the repairman to bring along a member of the squad, who promised Cohen weekly visits to maintain the set, which would be used to replace the batteries. Eventually, the squad was given an office and a trustworthy secretary, so the information from the notebook was transferred to index cards.
When police officers arrested one of Cohen’s key aides and attempted to blackmail Cohen, Vaus recorded the extortion. Cohen’s lawyer announced that he had recordings of police officers extorting Cohen, which convinced the county grand jury to schedule an investigation after the upcoming mayoral election. Shortly after Mayor Bowron was smoothly re-elected, the corruption scandals began to surface during the grand jury’s investigation, and Chief Horrall was forced to retire. Horrall was replaced by recently retired General William Worton as emergency police chief.
Unsure of how the department operated, Worton turned to Inspector William Parker, who was highly regarded by the growing number of new recruits who had served in the military, and knew of both his military record and his efforts on behalf of policemen who were veterans. Inspector Parker was made Worton’s special assistant, in an obvious attempt to replace Assistant chief Joe Reed, believed to be the key organizer of corruption in the department. Parker was then put in charge of a new department, Internal Affairs, created to clean up the department once and for all.
Irritated by the continued freedom of Cohen, Worton unleashed the LAPD on the diminutive gangster. Having carried out covert operations himself in his military career, Worton was comfortable with the Squad’s existence but wanted a different man to lead the squad, so he chose Captain Lynn White to instill military-style discipline in the squad in October 1949. White was given an office next to Worton, but the squad was now called Administrative Intelligence. Although none of the charges stuck, the steady surveillance made it difficult for the gangster to conduct business. The main foundation of Cohen’s business was control of roughly five hundred bookmakers in LA, which generated a huge income. When the Special Crime Study Commission on Organized Crime finally succeeded in pressing the state attorney-general to disconnect the wire provided by Western Union for Cohen’s company, the bookmaking industry took a major hit.
Sunset Strip Wars
More important, someone in the underworld was making a concerted attempt to kill Cohen, even though he had received permission from Frank Costello, the leading gangster in the nation, to take over Siegel’s operations. Cohen’s personal security enabled him to survive the hits, but several of his henchmen were killed over a period of several months in 1949, and Cohen still had no idea who was behind the attacks. Dragna should have been the obvious suspect, but Cohen refused to believe that Dragna resented Cohen’s succession of Siegel’s position, an error with near-fatal consequences. Cohen had chosen to locate his new haberdashery and HQ on the Strip because it was officially under the authority of the easily bribed county sheriff. Surviving an assassination attempt in front of his house when he was pulling into the driveway, he escaped by lying on seat driving blind. Cohen was finally wounded on July 20, 1949 in the middle of the night while waiting for cars to pick up his entourage at one of his favorite hangouts. One member of his crew died, columnist Florabel Muir was lightly wounded, and a special agent for the Attorney General’s Office was badly wounded. Half of Cohen’s house was destroyed by the bomb on February 6, 1950, but he survived because he happened to be sleeping in his wife’s bedroom, which was untouched.
Despite the constant police harassment and frequent assassination attempts, Cohen continued to live an extravagant lifestyle, routinely traveling with a huge entourage that were chauffeured in Cadillacs. Celebrities enjoyed his company, while successful businessmen and executives sought out invitations to dinner because he provided access to tickets to sports events, restaurants and celebrities.
When William Parker became Chief in 1950, it seemed likely that he would drop the squad since he had placed his most trusted aide, Captain James Hamilton, in charge of the unit and told Hamilton to begin transferring the men to other departments. However, O’Mara impressed Parker by finding out that Cohen was travelling to Texas, and alerting the Texas Rangers, who promptly evicted Cohen from the state. The squad would stay but they were now called the Intelligence Division and the Tommy Guns were put away. The Intelligence Division, with a staff of 37 was divided into three teams: background checks to monitor the attempts of criminals to infiltrate legitimate businesses; the airport unit, where three men trained to memorize mugshots scanned recent arrivals for out-of-town gangsters; and the third unit handled surveillance, and it was open surveillance in order to harass the suspects into leaving town, while making it difficult for them to have a normal life. They realized that they did not fully understand the underworld, and did not even know who were the real bosses. Was Cohen really the head in LA or was he merely a front for the real powerbroker? At the same time, the gangster squad continued to lean heavily on newly arrived gangsters to explain firmly that LA was not Cleveland, Chicago or New York.
Cohen’s problems had increased. Aside from constant harassment from the LAPD, he had become so famous that he was asked to leave several cities during a vacation, and Senator Estes Kefauver had targeted him for his Special Senate Committee on the Investigation of Syndicated Crime in Interstate Commerce, known as the Kefauver Committee. Unlike other gangsters who relied on the Fifth Amendment or hid behind elaborate front companies, Cohen openly denied every allegation in blunt terms. “I ain’t never offered no policeman a bribe.” “I never pistol-whipped anyone.” Claiming to earn a modest living from gambling, he lived a life of luxury beyond the imagination of most people but he had never been convicted of income tax fraud. The committee was in LA for a week in 1950 and left without having made any effective accusations against him, but the hearings were televised and his entertaining performance helped expand his celebrity beyond LA to the national scene.
Parker’s police force had a new target when Cohen’s lawyer was killed shortly after attending a meeting on how to handle a grand jury investigation into Cohen’s holding company for his wire service. The LAPD traced the abandoned weapon to two freelance gunmen who had recently been murdered. Suspecting Dragna’s men, the police pulled Dragna’s entire crew into a hotel where they were harshly interrogated for three days and held without access to lawyers but were unable to obtain a confession, even though one of Dragna’s men did confess to the crime almost thirty years later.
The Gangster Squad hassled Dragna the same way that they did Cohen, stopping him several times a day, making him empty his pockets, and openly following him. However, the squad could not find any excuse to arrest him. When Cohen’s house blew up, the newspaper headlines talked about the Cohen-Dragna Gang War, which destroyed Dragna’s successful record of staying out of the news. Unable to bug Dragna’s home, members of the squad bugged the apartment of Dragna’s mistress, placing a bug in the bed’s headboard with the wire going down to the building’s basement. Since they did not hear anything useful about crimes, they decided to bust Dragna for sexual perversion, which in the 1950’s was oral sex. He received thirty days in jail, and the squad hoped that they might have weakened his standing in the underworld. They also tried to deport him back to Italy.
Senator Kefauver’s committee and the grand jury had obtained enough evidence to press the Bureau of Internal Revenue to charge Cohen with income tax evasion. He was genuinely vulnerable, since his legitimate sources of income had been frozen, his lawyer had been killed, his lawyer’s partner had brain cancer and his accountant had died of a heart attack. Determined to prove that he was wealthy and avoiding paying his taxes, the prosecution called more than a hundred witnesses who testified about expensive items they had sold the Cohens. In early July 1951, several days after Dragna was arrested on morals charges, Cohen was sentenced to five years in prison and close to $300,000 in back taxes, fines and trial costs. When Cohen tried to delay matters with an appeal, Parker arranged to have Cohen transferred to a city jail. Four days of solitary confinement convinced Cohen to drop the appeal, and he was transferred to a federal penitentiary.
Since Cohen was in prison and Dragna had been weakened, the Gangster Squad hoped to eliminate illegal gambling in the city. New operators like Jack Whalen, Lloyd Woods and Chuck Cahan had moved into the business, filling the vacuum left by Cohen and Dragna’s organizations, especially after the state government forced Western Union to close the Continental line. Posing as telephone linemen or termite inspectors, Keeler and other experts bugged several houses and offices used by Cahan’s gang, and arrested Cahan and fifteen members of his gang in April 1953.
When Cahan appealed his conviction, the California Supreme Court ruled in 1955 that their bugging techniques were illegal, and evidence acquired this way could not be used in court. At that time, breaking and entering did not apply to police. Bugging required authorization by the head of the department or the district attorney, but the authorization was usually obtained after the bugs had been placed. In California, evidence obtained illegally was still admissible in court. However, the Supreme Court ruled in 1953 that wiretapping was illegal, infuriating Parker, who greatly relied on wiretapping, even though he had been caught bugging two city councilmen. Parker even enlisted Dragnet to have a feature film-length episode where series lead Detective Joe Friday relied on wiretapping.
Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a new member of the squad, became friends with Jack Whalen, an enforcer for bookies, when Whalen was impressed by the Wooters’ courage in confronting the much bigger man during an arrest.
Cohen was released from prison on October 9, 1955. Prison had been a harrowing experience for Cohen, and he resolved to never go back. When screenwriter Ben Hecht sought help for a script for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, Cohen showed him the autobiography that he was writing. Claiming that he was determined to go straight, Cohen opened a chain of florists, but the LAPD continued to monitor him. The Treasury Department was also interested, since Cohen had not paid his back taxes but still managed to spend hundreds every night in clubs. LaVonne and he divorced relatively soon after, amicably. Having been the wife of a gangster for eighteen years may have simply become too much.
Assigned to watch Cohen’s new business which sold plastic plants, Wooters and wiretapper Bert Phelps figured out that Cohen’s enforcers pressured people to buy plants from Cohen or their business would suffer. The squad knew that Cohen was still involved in extortion, but they were not sure if he had regained his former power.
Cohen went through a string of strippers as girlfriends but the relationships never worked out, despite repeated claims that he would marry each one.
Billy Graham had arrived in LA in 1950 to hold a series of old-fashioned tent revival meetings, and attracted many converts, largely due to heavy promotion by William Randolph Hearst’s media empire. Vaus attended a meeting and became a born-again Christian, finding the courage to tell Cohen that he would be going straight and would no longer work for him. To Vaus’ surprise, Cohen accepted the news graciously, and even agreed to meet Graham himself, after which Graham began a serious effort to convert Cohen.
Having become a nationally famous religious crusader by 1957, Graham decided to target New York City for his next crusade, and he made a major effort to have Cohen as his star convert. Graham’s backers offered Cohen $15,000 to attend the event at Madison Square Garden and another $25,000 if he converted. Attracted by the attention, Mike Wallace invited Cohen to be a guest on his interview show, The Mike Wallace Interview, on May 19. The interview ended with Cohen calling Parker a degenerate and claiming that the chief of police was corrupt, which led to Parker suing ABC until the network issued an official apology. Then Cohen refused to convert if he had to give up his friends with ties to the underworld, which begs the question of whether he was using Graham to improve his image or whether Graham was using him to attract viewers to his crusades.
The death of Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen
Wooters did not fit the image of a typical member of the Squad but he was able to obtain information that led to the arrest of bookies connected to Cohen. Unknown to the rest of the squad, Wooters had obtained this information through Whalen, who was using Wooters to weaken a rival.
Whalen had been moving in on Cohen’s territory, and had finally pushed too hard. His connection to Wooters had proven useful to both parties but Wooters had been kicked off the squad a month earlier for unethical behavior, although he claimed he was simply going easy on a bookie to get an informant about Cohen. Whalen told Wooters on December 2, 1959 that he would have a showdown with Cohen that night, and Wooters passed on a warning to the squad, hoping that they would catch Cohen in the act. Actually, Whalen simply wanted to collect from two members of Cohen’s entourage, since they had refused a previous demand to pay off their marker. While Whalen famously relied on his size to collect debts, he knew that Cohen’s entourage was a different matter, so he arranged for two other men to serve as backups. Leaving his backups in the bar portion of the restaurant, Whalen walked alone into the dining room where Cohen and his entourage were eating. Whalen was immediately shot but no one in the bar could see who did it. A couple of members of the squad had been observing the restaurant but left before the shooting because nothing had happened.
Both Parker and Captain Hamilton arrived to oversee the investigation, along with every available officer from Homicide and Intelligence, since the case involved both Cohen and Whalen, a major bookmaker. Three pistols were found near the parking lot, and it turned out that two of them were guns that O’Mara had paid one of Cohen’s men to sneak out to be tested and then replaced.
Six days later, Cohen announced that he had convinced Whalen’s killer to turn himself in, so Sam LoCigno appeared at LAPD headquarters where he was arrested by Parker after saying “I’m the man that shot Jack O’Hara in self-defense.” After a trial where the prosecutor tried and failed to widen the trial to include Cohen, LoCigno was convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Hard to believe, but it was the LAPD’s first successful conviction of a mobster in two decades. However, the verdict was over-turned a year later on appeal, and LoCigno was set free. It seemed to be a victory for Cohen but LoCigno had weakened while serving time before the appeal and told the police where the murder weapon could be found. Even better, LoCigno had admitted that he was not the killer, but he refused to give the identity of the actual killer. The new trial convicted LoCigno of voluntary manslaughter. Judging by Cohen’s later remarks, he himself probably killed Whalen, and paid LoCigno to take the rap.
Things were not going well for Cohen since intensive investigation by the LAPD, Treasury Department and FBI had accumulated enough evidence of Cohen’s wealth to charge him with income tax evasion in September 1960, just after LoCigno’s first murder trial ended. Cohen had made himself vulnerable by becoming a public figure and throwing money around but refusing to pay his taxes, as if daring the government to arrest him. Having beaten the charges before, he may have felt that he could beat the same charges again. Unlike the other major leaders of the syndicate who had hired tax attorneys to form shell companies to move money so that it had no paper trail to be traced, while still providing them with a legitimate income, Cohen remained the same. However, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy had made the arrest of Cohen a priority, and he pushed the FBI to be more proactive.
A parade of 194 witnesses was produced, including several stripper-girlfriends, who testified about Cohen’s lavish treatment, while numerous others admitted that they had loaned thousands of dollars to an ex-gangster with no income other than a small share in an ice cream parlor. Aside from his addiction to ice cream, and the need for repeated, lengthy showers that used up all of the hot water in his apartment building, Cohen still managed to have a luxurious apartment, and pay the bills for his entourage when he went out every night to expensive clubs. His obsession with cleanliness required twenty-one Kleenex boxes a week, and two large cans of Johnson’s baby powder. However, he constantly insisted that he lived off loans from friends who believed that he would be back on his feet one day.
Relying on the same story a second time did not have the same result. Cohen was sentenced to fifteen years, eligible for parole in five years, but he would serve his time in Alcatraz. The DA offered Cohen parole if he would give state’s evidence against mobsters higher up the food chain, like Paul Ricca and Tony Accardo, but he refused. Three months were spent in harsh conditions at Alcatraz until he was released on bail while his appeal went through. Unfortunately, the Whalen case had been re-opened. The case went to trial but the jury was dead-locked and the judge declared a mistrial on April 10, 1962. However, his appeal in the IRS failed less than a month later, so he went back to Alcatraz on May 14, and he would not be eligible for parole until December 1966.
Although he had avoided the gas chamber, he had to return to Alcatraz before being transferred to a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he took over the cell, cushy job and a few luxuries like a hot plate and a radio, of Vito Genovese. Kennedy had hoped that the prison sentence would encourage Cohen to be more cooperative, but when the attorney-general paid a surprise visit to Cohen just as he was about to go into the shower, a nude Cohen simply picked up a towel and proceeded with his shower. Cohen stayed out of trouble but found himself the target of an insane prisoner who escaped medical supervision on August 14, 1963 and bashed Cohen’s head in with a lead pipe, leaving him partially paralyzed. Cohen’s lawyers sued the government for $10,000,000 for failing to keep him safe, but after a trial in late January 1966, he received $110,000, payable upon his release.
Cohen was released from prison on January 6, 1972. A herd of newsmen had gathered to cover the event, but eleven years of prison and a near-fatal attack had made Cohen an old man. The LA he remembered had disappeared, replaced by ghettoes populated by sullen teenagers.
Although too old for crime, Cohen still had sufficient connections and influence in the LA gambling world that he was able to live well. However, he continued to claim that he survived on loans from friends because the IRS was carefully monitoring his income and would seize a sizeable percentage of any reported income. Cohen had become a celebrity, who frequented popular nightspots and would be greeted by stars like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., when he took beautiful young women to watch boxing matches.
When William Randolph Heart’s grand-daughter was kidnapped and then became a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), Hearst turned to Cohen, who had always admired Hearst. Cohen represented Hearst in dealings with the SLA and seemed close to making a deal, until Patty’s parents told Cohen that Patty would probably be sent to jail if she re-appeared. An angered Cohen immediately ended his involvement, refusing to help put anyone in jail.
Believing that his stomach problems were simply an ulcer, Cohen discovered that it was cancer. Most of his stomach was removed on October 1, 1975, and it appeared that he had made a full recovery. His autobiography finally appeared later that year, but it was clear that he had censored himself, whether to put a gloss on his own reputation or because he knew that powerful politicians and movie stars would not relish their secrets being exposed. However, he died from stomach cancer in the summer of 1976.
Gangster Squad (2013)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer, starring Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling
Ruthless gangster Mickey Cohen controls Los Angeles in 1949, but a squad of police officers, called the Gangster Squad, is formed to end his reign, working outside the law.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Directed by Curtis Hanson, starring Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce
Three LAPD officers investigate a web of corruption that ties together gangsters, city hall and the police department.
Directed by Barry Levinson, starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening
New York gangster Bugsy Siegel moves to Los Angeles, where he falls in love with both Hollywood and Virginia Hill, a courier for the mob. A brief visit to Las Vegas gives him the idea of building a luxurious casino in the desert.
L. A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City-John Buntin, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.
A fascinating book, it is a pleasure to read. Buntin employs the personal stories of two men on opposite sides of the law, William Parker and Mickey Cohen, to tell the history of Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1960s. A startling range of celebrities make cameo appearances, from obvious choices like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky to the celebrity preacher Billy Graham, screenwriter Ben Hecht and reporter/interviewer Mike Wallace. There are no heroes in this story, just people struggling for power. Parker believed he was the best choice to be police chief and devoted all of his efforts to improving the police department while overcoming rivals. The book focuses more on Parker than Cohen because Cohen never recovered his full power after his jail term, becoming more of a celebrity gangster than the dominant gangster of LA.
Celebrity Gangster: The Incredible Life and Times of Mickey Cohen-Brad Lewis, New York: Enigma Books, 2007.
William Parker is introduced simply as a police chief who refused to play ball with Mickey Cohen, but none of his crusade to modernize the LAPD is discussed. Billy Graham devoted a great deal of time and effort to the attempt to convert Cohen, but that is relegated to a few skimpy paragraphs. Aside from giving little emphasis to many key events in Cohen’s life and failing to provide any context for the political situation in LA, Lewis is not a very good writer. It is not painful to read, but it is far from being a page-turner.
Gangster Squad: Corrupt Cops. The Mob. And the Battle for Los Angeles-Paul Lieberman, New York: Thomas Dunn Books, 2012.