Beyond 'Gangster Squad': The Real Mickey Cohen
Mickey Cohen was larger than life. I know. I’ve “lived” with him for a decade…
Working on my book, Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster, I was hip-deep for years in innumerable rare documents, photos and remembrances. Appearing as if plucked from central casting (a union he eventually controlled), in his flashy suits and custom-made elevator shoes that hoisted him to 5 foot 5, the strutting King of the Sunset Strip was unique in the annals of the underworld—Mickey Cohen lived his life in the headlines. For appearances, that is. A superb manipulator and inveterate liar, what Cohen presented about himself for popular consumption were carefully devised stories—smoke screens to mask his true activities and protect his cohorts. Many of these concoctions are false history still believed today.
Mickey Cohen personified the appetites and ambitions of the City Noir that he serviced and exploited with the abandon of a hyena. Like his idol and role model Al Capone, he forged an empire of his own.
He became a bona fide celebrity and a showman whose sole product was Mickey Cohen. Dangerous, violent, brazen yet cunning, Mickey was outrageous. Complex. And finally—inscrutable. Wildly compulsive, he was a perfectionist obsessed with germs, his only fear. The real Mickey Cohen scrubbed his hands more than a hundred times a day. And Cohen was no ladies’ man. That was more self-serving promotion. He was into unconditional love from pets.
Watch Mickey Cohen's mini bio:
A pro boxer in his youth, Cohen went to seed with success. Squat and pudgy, as the mob boss of the richest, most hedonistic territory in the land, he indulged himself, subsisting on ice cream, pastries and anti-acids. No drugs, alcohol or tobacco touched his lips. He was addicted only to making money and spending it, and to the siren song of his own celebrity.
Brought from Brooklyn to L.A. by his widowed mother as a toddler, Meyer Harris Cohen’s first memories were of the city whose underworld he would control until his death in 1976. Growing up poor in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles’ tough melting pot during Prohibition, he was an incorrigible truant who by age ten had spent two stints in reform schools. Hawking newspapers downtown, he was ironically illiterate, but mastered well the art of the street con.
After running away from home at fifteen, he picked up his swagger in the fight clubs of Cleveland, then the nation’s fifth largest city. Lifelong connections with major underworld players were forged there, and in New York and Chicago. Newsboy, pro boxer, underworld-connected thug and armed bandit—that was the arc of his Depression-era youth.
In his early twenties he began working for the legendary Bugsy Siegel in L.A. While the handsome mob boss played the role of Hollywood socialite, coarse, vulgar Mick took the part Siegel once had: enforcer. Their efforts brought syndicated crime to Los Angeles. Out were the local racketeers, who partnered with cops and politicians. By 1940, Angel City was a world silently dominated from afar by Lansky and Frank Costello and Mick’s own Mafia family, the Milanos of Cleveland.
Why did Cohen idolize Al Capone? Find out by watching the Chicago mobster's rise to power:
In 1947, when Siegel was assassinated, Cohen became L.A.’s boss. The sensational and still unsolved execution of Siegel took place directly under the noses of the LAPD’s new and secret Gangster Squad—while Mick was under constant surveillance. Gang war raged when Cohen disrespected the local don. Mickey held press conferences and survived 11 assassination attempts. He warred with the cops, too. Indicted and tried for everything from murder to public cussing, he proved to be untouchable and bulletproof. His sybaritic Hollywood life continued non-stop until the bean counters of the IRS finally incarcerated him—twice, for tax evasion.
Mickey Cohen’s real life was lived in Technicolor and widescreen. It was epic, baroque, Shakespearian (there’s an Iago), Machiavellian, even Biblical – with its own Judas and Reverend Billy Graham. Mob royals, Lana Turner, Shirley Temple, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon and Robert F. Kennedy, among other luminaries, mixed it up with him in relationships that often proved toxic.
Now Sean Penn is portraying him in a major Hollywood movie, Gangster Squad, which premieres today. Like L.A. Confidential, it’s a cop story set in 1949. Fittingly, Mickey Cohen plays Angel City’s arch villain. It has a great cast and fine production values and lots of firepower. But don’t expect it to deliver the real Mickey Cohen or the real players and stories of the L.A. underworld…
A final fact. For the last twenty years of his life, Mick pitched his story as a movie. His choice for the lead? Who else, but the real Mickey Cohen!
Interested in learning about the mobster sans the fiction? Go to MickeyCohenBook.com for more details.
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