After Ben Siegel was assassinated, in June 1947, the Syndicate’s East Coast bosses put Mickey Cohen, Bugsy’s one-time enforcer, in charge of their Southern California rackets. Later that year, Cohen moved his headquarters into a deluxe private office suite in a storefront building at Palm Avenue and Holloway Drive on the Sunset Strip. The next few years, as he ruled his multimillion-dollar underworld empire from the Strip, would prove to be the pinnacle of Mickey’s career. By 1951, after having survived two attacks by gun-wielding would-be assassins — including one who entered his offices and blew the head off one of his bodyguards — and a series of bombs set off at his home, Cohen would finally be run to ground by an IRS investigation that ended with a sentence to federal prison.
Memories of Cohen had faded until recently. If he was remembered at all, he was thought of as a caricature of a mob thug, the enforcer who operated in Siegel’s shadow. He started coming back into his own in 2008, in a seven-part series on the LAPD’s Gangster Squad, written by Paul Lieberman, that became the book, Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles , published in 2012, and the movie, “Gangster Squad,” which was released earlier this year. In 2009, Cohen’s life was treated in a dual biography with his nemesis, LAPD Chief Bill Parker, in John Buntin’s L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City.
But Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster, by Tere Tereba, published in 2012, stands apart. It is a meticulously researched, fast-paced recounting of Cohen’s journey from rags to riches, gangster-style. It traces Cohen’s rise — from Boyle Heights street kid to stick-up artist in Cleveland and Chicago, who eventually became Los Angeles mob goon and bookmaker, then Hollywood celebrity who spent his evenings hobnobbing with movie stars in Sunset Strip nightclubs — and his fall — from tax investigations and stints in federal prison to his post-prison return to celebrity, though diminished, back out on the scene in Los Angeles — with a level of detail not found anywhere else.
Some of the information Tereba reveals here includes:
- The secret life of Mickey Cohen’s demure wife, La Vonne.
- Shirley Temple’s encounters with Mickey Cohen.
- Details of Bobby Kennedy’s war against Mickey Cohen.
- Cohen’s statement made in Alcatraz about his involvement with California politician, and future president, Richard Nixon.
- How the income tax evader became, in 1962, the first and only prisoner ever bonded out of the infamous Alcatraz prison — with a sitting U.S. Supreme Court judge signing his bond.
- How Cohen became involved in the internationally notorious events that began with the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a domestic terrorist group, in 1974.
In his review for the Wall Street Journal, Tim Nolan wrote that “[in] the words of his gifted biographer Tere Tereba, [Cohen] was ‘a dangerous man, full of bluster, violence, charm, greed, grandiosity, obsession, deception, chutzpah, and occasionally self-realization.’ [She] dubs him ‘the most brazen and colorful gangster of them all…’
“Judging from Ms. Tereba’s account, there wasn’t much he wasn’t complicit in. Blackmail, extortion, prostitution, loan-sharking, black-marketeering and narcotics were said to be among the business pursuits of this 5-foot-5 villain, whose lifelong motto was: ‘Anything to make a buck.'”
More from Nolan in the Journal:
The author does a superb job of tracing the ins and outs of Hollywood’s gang world in the 1940s and ’50s. Along the way, she provides indelible glimpses of such figures as notorious Cohen associate Johnny Stompanato (whose actress-wife testified in divorce court that he tried to strangle her mother when she mislaid his handkerchiefs). Cohen gang-member Willie “Stumpy” Zevon “handled volume bets and dice games and had an infant son later famous as ’70s rock star Warren Zevon.” Cohen’s 1959 companion, stag-film-star-turned-stripper Candy Barr, was “a dirt-poor, down-home girl from a Texas whistle-stop.” Ms. Tereba writes. “What she lacked in proper education, she made up for in carnal knowledge.”
Even with such a supporting cast, Cohen had the leading role: He emerged unscathed from nearly a dozen attempts on his life and unindicted from murder scenes at which he was present, all the while remaining a public figure: making the rounds of the Sunset Strip’s hot spots at night, hanging out by day at his own Brentwood ice-cream parlor…
Ms. Tereba brings flair and a tone of appalled fascination to her thorough and lively study of “the man who plundered Los Angeles” before dying of stomach cancer in 1976. The man himself was modest about the disproportionate West Coast fame he achieved. “See, I have been blown up in the Hollywood way,” Cohen wrote in his autobiography. In any other city, he would have just been “an ordinary high-rolling gambler.” But, he concluded—as had so many other L.A. observers, from Raymond Chandler to Evelyn Waugh—”it’s a different situation out here.”
What really sets Tereba’s biography apart, however, is the wealth of new information about Cohen that she uncovered in her research. She found a cache of interview transcripts, excerpts of which she published for the first time, that allow Cohen’s voice, his Brooklynese patois, to come ringing through. She also discovered new information about an illness that afflicted Cohen’s health at an early age, a titillating revelation about Cohen’s wife, LaVonne, that will surprise anyone who has taken LaVonne’s image as a demur Brentwood matron at face value, as well as many other facts that have not been that have not been revealed anywhere else.
For more information: Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster