Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.'s Notorious Mobsterby Tere Tereba
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Mickey Cohen: The Life and Times of L.A.'s Notorious Mobster is a seductive, premium-octane blend of true crime and Hollywood lore that spins around a wildly eccentric mob boss. When Bugsy Siegel was executed, ruthless Mickey Cohen, a former pro boxer and cunning provocateur, took over criminal activity in L.A., a move sanctioned by Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello. Attaining immense power and dominance, from the late 1940s until 1976 the semi-literate Angeleno became an above-the-fold newspaper name, accumulating a remarkable count of more than 1,000 front pages in Los Angeles papers alone, and hundreds of articles in national and international periodicals.
Cohen's story and the history of mid-century L.A. are inextricably intertwined, and author Tere Tereba delivers tales full of high life, high drama, and highly placed politicians, among them RFK and Richard Nixon, as well as revelations about countless icons, including Shirley Temple, Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, and the Reverend Billy Graham. Meticulously researched, this rich tapestry presents a panoramic look at the Los Angeles underworld and immerses the listener in a dark, decadent, and dangerous side of Hollywood that has not been fully revealed until now.
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The Life and Crimes of L.A.'s Notorious Mobster
By Tere Tereba
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2012 Tere Tereba
All rights reserved.
BOYLE HEIGHTS BOYCHIK
"If anyone called someone a kike, spic, or wop in our neighborhood, we would beat his head in." Mickey Cohen
Among waves of Jewish immigrants escaping the poverty and anti-Semitism experienced in czarist Russia, Mickey Cohen's parents, Max and Fanny, made their way to the United States in the first years of the twentieth century. Indigent, uneducated, and unable to speak the language, the couple settled into the ghetto neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Max Cohen "was in some kind of import business with Jewish fishes," as Mickey would later describe his father's occupation. There were already five children in the household, three older boys and two small daughters, when Meyer Harris — called Mickey — arrived on September 4, 1913. Max died two months later. His youngest child had no memory of him. Told his father had been a good provider who adapted quickly in America, Mickey Cohen later portrayed his father as a man of religion and integrity. "According to the rest of the family," he said, "he was orthodox in his faith and very orthodox in his attitude toward the sanctity of the family and home."
Left with six children, and little else, in 1915 Fanny boldly embarked to Los Angeles, America's newest city. Leaving the older children with relatives, Mickey, barely two, and Lillian, his four-year-old sister, accompanied her.
By then, Los Angeles had already tasted boom times. Founded in 1781 by Spanish missionaries, the region was controlled by Mexico beginning in 1821, until it became a territory of the United States after the Mexican-American War of 1846. Dramatic change would not happen until decades later, when in 1876 the Southern Pacific Railroad transformed the geographically isolated cow town. With the opening of the railroad, commerce began to flourish, making Los Angeles a viable destination for tourists and settlers. Then oil was discovered. With people flooding the area, real estate development and speculation took off.
Located eight miles west of downtown, Hollywood was one of scores of new hamlets that sprang up in the patchwork of empty land, orange groves, and oil and bean fields that defined the sprawling, yet sparsely populated, city of Los Angeles. Using his political clout, William H. Workman, who later became mayor of the city, proposed a development for the white-collared middle classes two miles east of downtown. After a bridge linking the area to the central city was built across the Los Angeles River, ground was broken in 1875. Situated on a bluff, with commanding views of downtown to the west, the community of Boyle Heights was born.
Boyle Heights was Fanny Cohen's destination. By the time she arrived, due to discriminatory residential laws and escalating prices in other areas, the neighborhood had devolved into the city's melting pot. Populated by immigrants, mainly Eastern European Jews and also Mexicans, Italians, Russians, Japanese, and Chinese, the narrow streets were dotted with tiny one-story houses. The rundown frame cottages were no different from those in the oldest sections of Hollywood or the shotgun shacks of Venice-at-the-Sea, the beachside village at the end of the Pacific Electric's Red Car line. But culturally Boyle Heights developed a much different tone.
Los Angeles was home to the largest Jewish population west of Chicago, and Boyle Heights had grown into a sun-drenched variation of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Yiddish was spoken in homes and on the streets, and all types of establishments catered to the needs of the residents. Brooklyn Avenue, the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, was lined with tiny shops and signage in Yiddish: religious bookstores; kosher butchers and bakeries; delicatessens and groceries stores, pickle barrels outside the doors. Observant Jews, dressed traditionally — men in long black coats, yarmulkes covering their heads, full beards, and curling sideburns — walked the heat-baked streets to the Breed Street Shul, looking as they had in centuries past. Filled with the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of the old country, Boyle Heights was a suburban shtetl inside the boundaries of the country's fastest growing city.
The established gentry of Los Angeles was strictly WASP — and highly prejudiced — even when it came to the extraordinarily wealthy Jews of Hollywood's burgeoning movie colony. Boyle Heights was considered the city's Jewish slum.
A tiny woman who spoke little English, Fanny Cohen was accustomed to a harsh existence and adversity. She had experienced the dangerous odyssey from her native Kiev to New York, her young husband's death, and the difficult journey across America to the Pacific coast. Mickey remembered his widowed mother as a "tremendous woman." Settling into rented rooms in a two-story stucco building at 131 North Breed Street, she opened a mom-and-pop grocery. After establishing herself, she sent for her older children. Mickey's earliest memory was stacking cans in his mother's shop: "I can still remember wiping the dust from the canned goods. We always had food on the table and Ma always managed to keep us in good clothes, but it was real tough." With keen survival instincts, during Prohibition Fanny looked the other way when her older boys put a still in the small drugstore they had opened with a licensed pharmacist.
Without the influence of a father and with his hard-working mother constantly occupied, Fanny's youngest child had little supervision. Living within walking distance of the downtown business district, Bunker Hill, Chinatown, Little Italy, and Russian Hill, Mickey began exploring the streets of L.A.
Each day his brothers would drop him off at the corner of Brooklyn and Soto, at the center of Boyle Heights' block-long commercial district. Instructed not to speak, the tiny boy sat on a stack of newspapers, legs dangling. Not yet six, he hawked the Los Angeles Record. Mickey remembered himself as quiet and bashful: "My job was to sit there on the papers, and somebody would come by and take a paper and drop the money in my hand. I graduated to do business with a delicatessen man who used to trade me hot dogs for a paper. I was really looking to make a buck at a very early age."
Mickey Cohen began his formal education as a social outcast. Eleven years his senior, his brother Harry was a surrogate father and corrupting influence. He had already exposed his youngest sibling to gambling, bootlegging, and assorted chicanery by the time Mickey was enrolled at Cornwell (now Sheridan) Elementary School. Harry took the child with him on all-night gambling forays, telling him to stay in the car and sleep. He taught him how to make gin in the drugstore.
Rarely in class, Mickey described his education: "Although I entered the first grade in September 1918, my frequent absences from school caused by my desire to hustle an extra buck for my family, kept me in the first grade for a year-and-a-half. In June of 1922, I was still in B-3."
Failing to learn the basics, Mickey couldn't read, write, or count beyond five until he was nearly thirty. Like a Dickensian street urchin transported to sunlit California, when he wasn't peddling papers he hung out at the neighborhood pool hall. Racking balls for pool hustlers, he worked passing bets and bootleg liquor. Sampling tobacco and alcohol, he would never be tempted by these vices. He didn't enjoy the taste.
His first legal run-in happened at age eight. Caught by Prohibition officers at the gin mill behind his brothers' drugstore, he dropped a plate of hot food on the officers as they bent over to inspect the still. Taken to juvenile hall, he was booked for bootlegging. He would later boast his debut offense was fixed by his brother Louis's political connection.
His brother Sam was a devout Jew and the family's disciplinarian; to straighten out his troubled young sibling, Sam enrolled him in an Orthodox Jewish Hebrew school. A half-hour into his first day there, Mickey disrupted an assembly by turning the lights on and off, and he smacked another student in the mouth. The rabbi sent him home. He called the family, telling them that Mickey had been expelled and could not return.
Soon thereafter he was caught with a crate of peanut candy he had stolen from a factory that was located near the family drugstore. As punishment, juvenile authorities sent him to Alvarado Special. The reform school was located next to a junior high, where a chain-link fence separated the school yards. There the law-abiding boys and the juvenile delinquents would face off, exchanging taunts.
Armed with a baseball bat, he was apprehended after attempting to hold up the box office of the Columbia, a downtown theater. Mickey was then sent to an even tougher reform school, located in an old redwood building atop Fort Hill, high above downtown. He would later remember the syllabus was nothing but woodshop and baseball. Severe beatings with a bicycle tire, "for any old thing," were a common practice. He spent seven months of his tenth year incarcerated there.
Mickey then began selling papers in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, where his growing capacity to fight became an asset. He later boasted, "I hung around the Newsboys Club at Spring and Court Streets and became rather adept at whipping other newsboys who challenged my rights to profitable corners." Streetwise vendors, who paid high premiums for coveted corners, began hiring Mickey Cohen as protection.
Spending day and night downtown, in the shadow of the tall buildings that lined the ten-square blocks of Los Angeles's vibrant central business district, at Seventh and Broadway, and Eighth and Hill, Mickey peddled a Hearst tabloid, the Los Angeles Examiner. The more sensational the headline, the better the small black-haired boy liked it. "Ex-tra, Ex-tra, Get Your Red-Hot Ex-Trah!" he'd shout. Major stories — the dramatic story surrounding the death of President Warren G. Harding, the thrilling Dempsey-Firpo fight, and the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved local oil-magnate Edward Doheny and Washington politicos — were memorable headlines. The double-extras carried premium value; guaranteed to sell out, they commanded a greater price. Mickey often slept in the men's room at the Examiner's headquarters, waiting for the first sheets to roll off the press.
He was allowed this privilege because of a relationship he developed with James H. Richardson, the Examiner's city editor. A man who would later play a key role in Mickey Cohen's life, during the 1920s Jim Richardson was in the throes of alcoholism. In exchange for the early editions, Mickey aided the newsman, sometimes helping him to sober up, sometimes delivering bootleg booze to him. It became known that little Mickey Cohen, who by then had two other Jewish kids and a Mexican boy working for him, had first access to the papers.
With a natural sense of humor and a warm and generous streak, Mickey was well liked by many in the close-knit environment of Boyle Heights. The kids in the neighborhood — Jewish, Mexican, and Italian — got along well. It wasn't until later, at the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Olympic Auditorium, that Mickey first heard racial slurs. "If anyone called someone a kike, spic, or wop in our neighborhood, we would beat his head in," he explained.
After his legal run-ins Mickey was put on probation. His brother Sam got him a job at a dress-manufacturing firm, Hunt, Broughton, and Hunt. Mickey's main duty was running errands for Mrs. Hunt. Mickey remembered the Hunts as kindly "elite people," who had warm feelings for him, the illiterate kid from the ghetto. Boxing referee Abe Roth, a well-regarded figure in the local sports scene, volunteered as his mentor in the Big Brother program. Lunching with him on Saturdays, Roth trained the street-brawler in the sport of boxing, giving the fatherless boy pointers on technique and introducing him to Queensberry's rules.
When he was eleven Mickey began boxing in three-round amateur fights all over L.A. He fought in Compton, Watts, and East Los Angeles. Fighting to protect downtown corners by day, he had bouts nearly every night. Losing very few matches, the boy grew confident of his boxing skills.
At thirteen, Mickey easily won the city flyweight title at the American Legion Newsboy's Championship and saw his name in print for the first time. Occasionally, the Hunts would drive him to his matches in their big Cadillac sedan. He fondly remembered them betting on him and how they showed him off. The boxers he idolized were Mushy Callahan, Bud Taylor, and Jackie Fields, Boyle Heights's 1924 Olympic gold medalist, who was born Jakob Finkelstein.
Mickey loved boxing, but he loved "hustling" more. From selling papers downtown and candy and sodas at the Olympic to scalping tickets, he hustled constantly. The hustling brought him what he wanted most: money. Penny by penny, nickel by nickel, dime by dime, dollar by dollar, money bought him things his mother could never afford. He began outfitting himself. His first purchase was a pair of socks from a department store. He treated girls to ice cream, and eventually he managed to acquire a jalopy before he was old enough to drive. Money meant everything to him: material possessions, respect, and attention. Mickey dreamed of more.
Hidden from his mother, his money, mainly dollars, was kept in a bankroll. When Mickey was twelve, Fanny accidentally found a roll of nearly two hundred dollars. Thinking he "must have robbed a bank," she called her son Sam to discipline the wayward boy. The strait-laced older sibling thrashed Mickey.
By fourteen, Mickey began taking over key corners he once protected. If the vendors didn't capitulate to his demands — and work for him — he would beat them. If there was a way to steal money, he was happy to do that, too.
Young Mickey Cohen's credo was simple and never changed: "Anything to make a buck."CHAPTER 2
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
"He liked to dress well and would spend his last twenty dollars on a hat." Fight manager Eddie Borden, speaking Of Mickey Cohen
Now fifteen, Mickey's world began rapidly shifting. His family life changed abruptly with his mother's remarriage. Mickey decided to become a professional prizefighter and his brother Harry volunteered as his manager.
On July 1, 1928, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the sports page about an upcoming professional fight at the Olympic Auditorium. Entitled "Denver Boxer in Local Debut," the piece was about Mickey Cohen, purportedly eighteen, who had an extensive professional record. In fact, the boxer fighting at the Coliseum was a seasoned young pro from Colorado, named David Cohen, who also used the nickname Mickey. The confusion surrounding the fight caused truant authorities to begin looking for the underage boxer from Boyle Heights.
Perhaps as a response to the confluence of events and to join Harry who had moved back East, Mickey packed his belongings, telling his mother he was going to the beach. Instead, he ran away from home. He hitchhiked and rode the rails across the country with hobos. Traveling to Pittsburgh and Detroit, he finally joined Harry, who was living in Cleveland. While Mickey was on his journey, the stock market crashed — driving the country into the Great Depression.
The Cleveland in which Mickey arrived was not the city we know today. Cleveland was then the nation's fifth-largest city. Located in northeastern Ohio, on the southern shore of Lake Erie, the city was a manufacturing giant. Rich, dynamic, and gray, the steel town had experienced decades of tremendous prosperity. During the 1920s, Cleveland's unique location fostered a booming parallel economy.
Prohibition was a federal law in America. Canada faced certain Prohibition bans, but the law was decided locally. Across Lake Erie, in Canada, the manufacturing and selling of alcohol for export was completely legal. The U.S.-Canadian border sliced across the middle of the long, narrow lake, and the close proximity made Cleveland a major repository of high-grade Canadian spirits. Smuggling became big business. The money and power at stake became so immense that by the late 1920s and into the early 1930s there was gang war over territory and spoils in Cleveland.
Excerpted from Mickey Cohen by Tere Tereba. Copyright © 2012 Tere Tereba. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
--Jonathan Eig, author, Get Capone
--Lee Server, author, Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing
--Kevin Starr, professor of history, University of Southern California
--T.J. English, New York Times bestselling author of Havana Nocturne and The Westies
--Gus Russo, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, The Outfit and Supermob
Meet the Author
Stage actress Kate Reading has been a freelance narrator for over twenty years. She has received multiple Audie Awards and nominations, as well as numerous Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine, which has named her Narrator of the Year and, for two years running, Best Voice in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
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If you lived in Los Angeles in the 50's & 60's and you want to know a little more local crime history behind yesteryears headlines, you'll love this book. The story of those days flowed loaded with juicy nuggets and trivia. I didn't want it to end (I'm sure Mickey would have wanted it to go on for at least several more chapters too). It briefly brought back to life a lot of colorful and shady (downright muderous) characters from that era. I strongly recommend.
Very good book. Lots of LA history of the 50's 60's and the best book on Mickey Cohen i have read