CategoryBooks

Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster, by Tere Tereba

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.

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The Garden on Sunset, by Martin Turnbull

The Garden on Sunset by Martin Turnbull

In Woody Allen’s 1985 film, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” one of the characters in the film within the film — a black-and-white drawing-room comedy-romance from Hollywood’s golden age — breaks through the fourth wall and emerges from the screen so he can experience the real world.

A new, ongoing series of novels written by Martin Turnbull and set at the Garden of Allah Hotel in Hollywood do just the opposite. They transport readers through the literary fourth wall back in time so they can experience life as it may have been in Hollywood’s golden era.

Relying on rigorous period research and a powerful imagination, Turnbull has created a fully realized, unromanticized vision of this bygone world. In The Garden on Sunset, the first in the series, we get the glitz and glamour inside the Movie Colony as well as the grit and grime of the grim world outside the Colony’s imaginary gates.

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Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez, by John Boessenecker

University of Oklahoma Press, Sep 24, 2010 – 471 pages

Google Books:

Tiburcio Vasquez is, next to Joaquin Murrieta, America’s most infamous Hispanic bandit. After he was hanged as a murderer in 1875, the Chicago Tribune called him “the most noted desperado of modern times.” Yet questions about him still linger. Why did he become a bandido? Why did so many Hispanics protect him and his band? Was he a common thief and heartless killer who got what he deserved, or was he a Mexican American Robin Hood who suffered at the hands of a racist government? In this engrossing biography, John Boessenecker provides definitive answers.

Bandido pulls back the curtain on a life story shrouded in myth — a myth created by Vasquez himself and abetted by writers who saw a tale ripe for embellishment. Boessenecker traces his subject’s life from his childhood in the seaside adobe village of Monterey, to his years as a young outlaw engaged in horse rustling and robbery. Two terms in San Quentin failed to tame Vasquez, and he instigated four bloody prison breaks that left twenty convicts dead. After his final release from prison, he led bandit raids throughout Central and Southern California. His dalliances with women were legion, and the last one led to his capture in the Hollywood Hills and death on the gallows at age thirty-nine.

From dusty court records, forgotten memoirs, and moldering newspaper archives, Boessenecker draws a story of violence, banditry, and retribution on the early California frontier that is as accurate as it is colorful. Enhanced by numerous photographs — many published here for the first time — Bandido also addresses important issues of racism and social justice that remain relevant to this day.

Nazimova: A Biography, by Gavin Lambert

Alfred A. Knopf, Apr 7, 1997 – 420 pages

Google Books:

A major rediscovery – a full-scale biography – of the electrifying Russian-born actress who brought Stanislavksy and Chekhov to American theatre, who was applauded, lionized, adored – a legend of the stage and screen for forty years, and then strangely forgotten. Her shockingly natural approach to acting transformed the theatre of her day. She thrilled Laurette Taylor. The first time Tennessee Williams saw her he knew he wanted to be a playwright (“She was so shatteringly powerful that I couldn’t stay in my seat”). Eugene O’Neill said of her that she gave him his “first conception of a modern theatre.” She introduced the American stage and its audience to Ibsen’s New Woman, a woman hell-bent on independence. It was a role Nazimova embodied offstage as well. When she toured in a repertory of A Doll’s House, The Master Builder, and Hedda Gabler from 1907 to 1910, she earned the then unheard-of sum of five million dollars for theatre manager Lee Shubert. Eight years later she went to Hollywood and signed a contract with Metro Pictures (before it was MGM) and became the highest-paid actress in silent pictures, ultimately writing, directing, and producing her own movies (Revelation, Stronger than Death, Billions, Salome). Four years later she formed her own film company. She was the only actress, other than Mae West, to become a movie star at forty, and was the first to cultivate the image of the “foreign” sophisticate, soon to be followed by Pola Negri, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich. Gavin Lambert was given exclusive access to her unpublished memoirs, letters, and notes. And now fifty years after her death, eighty years after her ascendancy as a giant figure to the American public,Lambert has brilliantly re-created the life and work of this complex, dark, glamorous, and important figure.

The Garden of Allah, by Sheilah Graham

Sheilah Graham’s The Garden of Allah, a history of the famed hotel that anchored the eastern end of the Sunset Strip, is a must for any reading list on the history of Hollywood’s golden age in general and the Strip specifically. Graham unfolds the story of the hotel in roughly chronological order, but she was a gossip columnist, so the book reads like a series of columns, many of which focus on gossip and anecdotes (a number of which involve society people who are long forgotten) — rather than a comprehensive history of the hotel.

Kirkus Review:

More Hollywood gossip glorified by all the beautiful people that were, and since columnist Graham is usually just grateful to have known them all, she rarely indulges in tit for tattletale. The Garden of Allah, originally Alla Nazimova’s home, was converted into the main house (you were nobody if you stayed there) and twenty-five villas back in 1926. It seems to have offered opulence, poor maid service, late afternoon and all night festivities and an open “”liquor closet.”” It would be hard to say whether anyone has been left out of the hotel register–it would seem not–but Miss Graham concentrates on that benign presence, Robert Benchley (two chapters), one of course on “Scott” [Fitzgerald] who didn’t really belong there, a less kindly inset on Dorothy Parker, with later comers Bogart, Sinatra, Faulkner, etc. closing the book before the Garden of Allah became just a residence for hookers and a tatty specter of its former self. The book will be illustrated and it will be read even if much of it is a reprise from what’s around in the public domain.

The Garden of Allah was published in 1970 and is out of print, but used hardbacks are widely available, including from Alibris.

Hollywood Confidential: How the Studios Beat the Mob at Their Own Game, By Ted Schwarz

There is no aspect of early 20th century Los Angeles history that was more important than the influence of mobster and racketeers on the city’s commercial and civic institutions. Ted Schwarz’ Hollywood Confidential is a great source on the history of the entwined and entangled relationships among the mob, both homegrown and the East Coast transplants, the city and the Hollywood studios.

The subtitle says it all: “How the studios beat the mob at their own game.” Schwarz shows that the early 20th century mobsters and movie moguls came up from the same pool recent immigrants, mostly by way of New York City. In the 1930s, when the mob syndicate set its sights on Hollywood, the mobsters they sent to Los Angeles soon realized that, in the moguls who ran the town, they had finally met their match.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book:

Hollywood Confidential is the first truly in-depth look at the sexy, humorous, violent, and tragic history of the mob in Hollywood from the 1920s, when Joe Kennedy decided to buy a motion picture company, to the 1980s when the last vestiges of mob influence were revealed through investigations of former Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan and his union backers. The revelations continue into the 1980s when the major studios were no longer important, the independents were on the rise, and it was no longer possible to buy, bribe, or blackmail in a meaningful way. There were deals and bad guys, but the mob as it existed was finished in Hollywood.

For more info: Taylor Trade Publishing

A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age, by Richard Rayner

In the 1920s and ’30s, the city of Los Angeles was controlled by a group of powerful racketeers known informally as the “City Hall gang.” They were so infiltrated into civic institutions of Los Angeles that they profited from just about every activity or endeavor the city undertook. The racketeering networks, which were complex and confusing at the time, have only becomes slightly easier to understand with the passage of time.

In A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age, Richard Rayner leads us through these labyrinthine goings-on with the style and pace of a novel. Here’s how Rich Cohen described the book in his review for the Los Angeles Times:

In his brilliant new book, A Bright and Guilty Place, Richard Rayner has given us, finally and definitively, the nonfiction equivalent of the Raymond Chandler classics that fell like hammer blows in the middle of last century: Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye, The Big Sleep. Chandler turned fact, the criminal underworld of Depression-era Los Angeles, into fiction, and now Rayner, by a strange Didion-like alchemy, has turned fiction back into fact. Not to say he has dug up the story behind the story, as a reporter might profile the real white whale, but that he has run the world of Chandler through the machine a second time, the result being utterly truthful, fantastic and new.

He had a “pencil moustache and a gorgeous quality about him,” writes Rayner. “Reporters likened him to John Barrymore, to John Gilbert, and later to Clark Gable.” But by the end of the story, Clark, the golden boy, having fallen in with a bad crowd, finds himself prosecuted by his own office, on trial for double murder, the shooting deaths of local crime boss Charlie Crawford and newspaperman Herbert Spencer…

The background of this murder is the book’s real subject, Los Angeles in its defining moment, the late 1920s and early 1930s, which, according to Rayner, who writes an online column for The Times’ books section, is when the city’s “personality was fixed.”

A Bright and Guilty Place is stuffed with incidents and alibis. As in the novels of Chandler, every two-bit walk-on gets his description and back story, the result being a landscape crowded horizon to horizon, as rushed and overpopulated as a marketplace. It is like one of those paintings by the photo-realists in which every face, even those deep in the background, is drawn in exaggerated detail. Like a baseball game in high def. Nothing is allowed to blur into distance. At times, this brings on a kind of vertigo, the heat of overstimulation, like the not unpleasant aura seen before the migraine.

The title, by the way, comes from Orson Welles: “Los Angeles — a bright and guilty place.”

For more info: A Bright and Guilty Place at Doubleday

Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons

Before World War II, there were quite a few nightclubs on the Sunset Strip where gay people were welcomed and accepted — which is not to say these were gay bars as we know them today. There are quite a few references to the presence of gays and lesbians on the Strip back then in Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons — including performers Bruz Fletcher and Rae Bourbon and club owners Jane Jones and Tess Wheeler.

Kirkus Review:

An exceptionally literate, overstuffed chronicle of gay Tinseltown.
In alternating sections on Los Angeles lesbians and gay men, historian Faderman (Naked in the Promised Land, 2003, etc.) and freelance journalist Timmons, respectively, deliver an exhaustive account. Beginning in the 1880s, both groups migrated in droves from less liberal locales to freewheeling, anonymous Southern California, and a supportive, unified community emerged even as laws against sodomy and “masquerading” (i.e., cross-dressing) kept guard over the city’s bedrooms. These enterprising pioneers were soon followed by vaudeville exiles who flocked to Hollywood and built its entertainment foundation. Post-Prohibition nightclubs catered to such “sexually flexible” entertainers as Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney and Mae West…
Vital intellectual fare brimming with fascinating history.

Publisher’s Description:

The exhortation to “Go West!” has always sparked the American imagination. But for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people, the City of Angels provided a special home and gave rise to one of the most influential gay cultures in the world. Drawing on rare archives and photographs as well as more than three hundred interviews, Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons chart L.A.’s unique gay history, from the first missionary encounters with Native American cross-gendered “two spirits” to cross-dressing frontier women in search of their fortunes; from the bohemian freedom of early Hollywood to the explosion of gay life during World War II to the underground radicalism set off by the 1950s blacklist; and from the 1960s gay liberation movement to the creation of gay marketing in the 1990s.


For more info: University of California Press

West Hollywood, by Ryan Gierach

Written by Ryan Gierach, the editor of WeHo News, an online weekly newspaper, this book from the “Images of America” series is an invaluable resource on the history of West Hollywood and the Sunset Strip.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book:

West Hollywood, which began as Sherman, a rail yard town, played an integral role in creating the Hollywood film industry while it grew up alongside the fashionable Beverly Hills to house the service industries needed by these wealthy neighbors. During Prohibition, the still unincorporated area was the site of the entertainment industryís watering holes and gambling parlors, and nicknames such as the Sinful Drag, the Adult Playground, and ìHollywood’s Soul were bestowed upon West Hollywood’s world-famous Sunset Strip, where today’s visitors can still dance in the footsteps of legends like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. As time marched on, the predominantly renter, Jewish, gay, and senior citizen residents of the progressive-minded area determined to step out of the shadows of nearby communities and create a city of their own, an effort that caused some controversy but resulted in the incorporation of West Hollywood in 1984. Since incorporation West Hollywood has been a beacon of hope, drawing refugees from Russia and around the world to its tolerant streets.

For more info: Arcadia Publishing