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

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Mickey Cohen was a “dangerous man, full of bluster, violence, charm, greed, grandiosity, obsession, deception, chutzpah, and occasionally self-realization…”

You would think this nutshell appraisal would aptly sum up the notorious and colorful mob boss, but Tere Tereba enhances her painstakingly researched and vividly rendered Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A’s Notorious Mobster, with another observation: “…he understood his time and place. Mickey Cohen was about Los Angeles.”

Indeed, as much as Chicago had Al Capone and New York Lucky Luciano, “the pudgy, squat-legged former prizefighter” Mickey Cohen was, Tereba also notes, “as much a part of the local color as movie stars, palm trees, and smog.” The judiciously infused sense of place plays out well, so that Los Angeles comprises more than just the setting—it is virtually another character. Granted, it is of the dark and gritty, hardboiled and corruption-plagued variety we’ve come to know from detective stories, crime hearings, tawdry Hollywood exposes, and sensationalistic tabloid headlines and photos. But as a warts-and-all study of a figure who is mostly all warts, Mickey Cohen chronicles the Brooklyn-born gangster—he had moved to California while a teenager—in a criminal career from hardscrabble Boyle Heights to higher-rung Brentwood, between the late 1940s and ’76.

From early stints as a racketeering newsboy, gambler, stick-up artist, and boxer, Mickey made his way to Los Angeles for good in 1937 and had quickly jockeyed for—and attained with the endorsement of Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello—the position held by his mentor, Hollywood hood Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, before Siegel’s 1947 murder in which, according to Tereba, Mickey was complicit. But taking over gambling, prostitution, and drugs in Los Angeles as the “King of the Sunset Strip”—the title of the book’s Act II–also meant that Mickey had his own experiences at the wrong end of a gun or two, dodging many bullets and sure death in at least a dozen assassination attempts. But though Mickey seemed to uncannily pop up from murder scene to murder scene, crime site to crime site, all he was ever imprisoned for was tax evasion. It no doubt helps to have corrupt cronies in the police department, though he and LAPD Chief William H. Parker would become bitter enemies after Mickey defamed the city’s top cop as a “known alcoholic … a sadistic degenerate of the worst type” on Mike Wallace’s Nightbeat TV show in 1957.

Not without his chummy–if sometimes lethal–charms, Mickey could never resist the spotlight. The flashy publicity-seeker was always poised for power grabs, but also ready for his close-ups and above-the-fold press coverage: “When it came to money and ink,” says the author, “Mickey Cohen was insatiable.” He made the social-swirl and talk show rounds, hobnobbing with Hefner or Sinatra or such, usually in the company of his starlet or stripper girlfriend du jour such as Candy Barr (“What she lacked in proper education, she made up for in carnal knowledge,” Tereba writes). The “celebrity mobster” also hammed it up on Merv Griffin and occasionally provided color commentary for boxing matches. In addition, he seemed to relish his time engaging in words of ill will and wit with his tireless foe Senator Robert Kennedy in televised hearings investigating labor racketeering corruption and mob infiltration of businesses.

Sometimes the shoulder-rubbing is unforeseen and surprising: Tereba has an evocative anecdote about actress Barbara Bain, baby daughter in tow, encountering Mickey–whom she didn’t personally know–at the underworld overlord’s latest front in his Brentwood ice cream parlor, “slumped back from the edge of the chair, like a boxer in his corner … shouting [for] ‘rum raisin.’”

Mickey Cohen is permeated with these kinds of intriguing L.A.-centric accounts as the author deftly negotiates the goings-on and hangers-on surrounding Mickey, whether they involve tinsel town luminaries or the main mobster’s entourage, the “dese-dems-and-dose characters” and “seasoned assortment of sinister criminals consisting of ex-convicts, muscle guys, bust-out gamblers, and killers.” Send lawyers, guns, and money, indeed!: Willie “Stumpy” Zevon was best man at Mickey’s wedding, in charge of volume bets and dice games (no—no bets on the Cohen marriage, an ultimately losing hand), and father of exemplary though not always mellow L.A. rock artist the late Warren Zevon.

The most infamously and scandal-plagued individual and incident, however, involved bodyguard Johnny Stompanato, hunky ladies man whose duties “involved beautiful women and, allegedly, big money blackmail.” His rocky relationship with actress Lana Turner took a turn for the deadly, however, when during a fight with Turner, he was stabbed to death by Turner’s teenage daughter, who was found to be acting in self-defense.

Going from moving pictures to big picture events with national implications, perhaps the author’s most compelling and persuasive conjectures, without going over the conspiratorial edge, concern Mickey Cohen and organized crime’s links to Richard Nixon, and also to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, “a case of many roads that led to L.A.” In addition to ties to Jack Ruby, the killer of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the accounts include some well trod ground, such as that involving sex- driven parties with Marilyn Monroe at JFK brother-in-law Peter Lawford’s Santa Monica beach house. But Mickey comes more enmeshed in relation to the “bevy of discreet party girls at Mickey Cohen’s beck and call,” some of whom, according to him, “discussed with me what was going on at … the [beach] house.”

The biography segues seamlessly into the last chapter of both Mickey’s life and of the book, sadly but aptly entitled “Relic.” Tereba shines here too in bringing into play a little social and cultural history as the ‘60s and ‘70s see changing times and the increasing advent of baby-boomed youth culture overrun in Los Angeles. Cohen might’ve missed out on the societal sea change going on outside his prison walls, but upon being released in 1972 after 10 years behind bars, he couldn’t help but notice a difference. One thing for certain: this isn’t your godfather’s Sunset Strip anymore. Many of the old hangouts were either gone or had become rock clubs. “The music and drugs were hard,” the author says. “Zeppelin, glitter rock, cocaine, and heroin. Frequenting the scene were baby-faced nymphets and big-haired rockers wearing theatrically-streaked black makeup, spandex, and sequins.”

Mickey may have been able to take heart, however, in the fact that his reemergence into society was well-timed with the release of the immensely successful The Godfather movie, spurring an interest in vintage gangland. “Suddenly,” the author says, “fedora-wearing mobsters were as popular as Bowie and backgammon.” But ultimately, the good ol’ bad days could not be recaptured. Mickey’s rambling autobiography was a flop, though it illustrated his life, Tereba notes, “like a netherworld version of P.T. Barnum.” Furthermore, Mickey acknowledges that changing times has passed him by: “My heyday is long past,” he told the Los Angeles Times before his death in July, 1976. “That heyday was a study in violence.”

As a study of a man of violence—fittingly illustrated throughout, with a beneficial Cast of Characters, ample end notes, and Selected Bibliography–Mickey Cohen is a meticulously-documented biography and incisive social history of breadth and depth. It is a cohesive, cogent, and well-structured exploration of both an obsessive mobster and his inextricable link with the city in which he made his home and caused some harm. Moreover, Tere Tereba splendidly and expressively presents many strands of the Mickey Cohen story without leaving any loose ends or redeeming considerations, however minor. She delves into the material in a matter-of-fact manner—there’s little that’s warm and fuzzy about the subject to get so psychobabbly speculative about—while still offering a wide-ranging and well-considered chronicle of a captivating man with duplicitous impulses.

Photograph: Tere Tereba “looking like Hedy Lamarr”

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