Cohen in the 1970s, shown here with Alice Vaus, the wife of Jim Vaus, Cohen’s former wiretapper who later became an evangelist (Source: willvaus2.blogspot.com)
September 4, 2013, marks the 100th birthday of Mickey Cohen, the colorful, outrageous and flamboyant mob boss who controlled the eastern syndicate’s multimillion-dollar interests in Southern California for a generation until his death in 1976.
Here, by the numbers, are key facts about Cohen’s life, all taken from Los Angeles underworld expert Tere Tereba’s definitive bio, Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster:
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.
Brent X. Mendoza at TheSunsetStrip.com:
THESUNSETSTRIP.COM:The new book, what initially sparked your interest in Mickey Cohen? Was it your time on The Strip and growing up in Hollywood?
TEREBA: That’s part of it; I wanted to know about the L.A. underworld. We know about the organized crime from everywhere else, but was there not an underworld in L.A.? So my book essentially takes you all the way back to prohibition when Mickey Cohen was a very small child, and it takes you through 1976, and much of it plays out on The Sunset Strip.
I didn’t know that that was going to happen… After uncovering history from ten years of research and going over documents and rare photos, I found I was able to finally deliver a realistic look at L.A.’s underworld, which hadn’t ever been done before. So it really started with me being curious and then I realized that this is an extraordinary story and it’s never really been properly, or even partially, told.
I was fascinated, and shocked by it all… There were literally multiple shootouts on The Sunset Strip; there were shootouts in Brentwood, on Sunset in Bel Air that didn’t make the papers, downtown L.A. Gang war was raging from 1946 to 1950 on the streets of L.A. all surrounding Mickey Cohen…and what I uncovered was a much more involved story of what was going on with Bugsy Siegel being a major Hollywood socialite and how he goes to war right before he was assassinated in 1947. He starts a war with J. Edgar Hoover… All sorts of things going on right around where I live and where I went about my daily business. All of this history around me that had never been put together in one document and exposed.