Meyer Harris Cohen was born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in imperial Russia, immigrated with his family to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn and reached Los Angeles’ Jewish point of entry in Boyle Heights in 1915. Up to this point, the spare details of his biography are unremarkable. But Meyer was later nicknamed “Mickey,” and his name still echoes with the larger-than-life reputation he acquired on the mean streets of Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s.
“By the end of the 1930s, the view from the top of Hollywood Hills seemed unlimited,” Tere Tereba writes in her rich, lively and fascinating biography, “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster” (ECW Press: $16.95), an account that owes something to the hard-boiled prose of James Ellroy while, at the same time, dealing in hard facts rather than superheated fiction. Not unlike an Ellroy novel, I could not put “Mickey Cohen” down.
Starting out as a newsboy at the age of 6 — young Mickey hawked copies of the Los Angeles Record at the corner of Brooklyn and Soto — he did not learn to read and write or add and subtract until he was nearly 30. He was no more successful in his brief career as a featherweight boxer. But when he became a “shtarker” — a Yiddish term used in the underworld to describe an enforcer — Cohen’s freelance activities as a pimp, a bookie and a specialist in “muscle jobs” caught the attention of mob bosses in Cleveland and Chicago. He was eventually summoned to the Hollywood YMCA to meet Benjamin Siegel, the emissary in charge of the L.A. rackets who was invariably called Ben, rather than Bugsy, to his face. “You little son of a bitch,” Siegel said to the defiant and unruly young thug. “You reflect my younger days.”
Cohen, in fact, was an upwardly mobile mobster with a canny sense of self-invention. “I just wanted to be myself — Mickey,” Cohen later boasted to screenwriter Ben Hecht at a time when the mobster had already become a celebrity in his own right and an active member of the Hollywood demimonde. “Winning a street fight, knockin’ over a score, having money to buy the best hats — I lived for them moments.” But Hecht himself saw through the self-effacement: “Young Cohen was a gangster from his toes up.”
Cohen acquired a glamorous wife and a series of ever more impressive apartments and homes in the best neighborhoods on the Westside. “Bugsy Siegel had made a mensch out of him,” writes Tereba, “and during the process Cohen grew from ambitious thug to cunning racketeer.” When Siegel was murdered by his own disaffected partners-in-crime in 1947, Mickey Cohen “took over from Benny right away,” as Cohen himself bragged, “on instructions from the people back east.”
Tereba is both a fashion designer and a journalist, and that helps explain why her eye falls on details that have escaped other biographers. Cohen opened a haberdashery on Sunset Boulevard to serve as the headquarters of his criminal operations, but the expensive merchandise on display was not merely stage dressing. “To make the proper impression and keep the tailor shop busy, Cohen’s top men dressed like fashion plates,” Tereba writes.
Cohen’s fleet of Cadillac sedans “were always navy blue, spotless, and flashing with chrome,” with souped-up engines and hidden compartments where guns and cash could be hidden. His Brentwood home featured a soda fountain where Cohen — who shunned alcohol, tobacco and drugs — liked to make hot-fudge sundaes. His beloved pet bulldog, Toughie, slept in a miniature version of Mickey’s own bed, under monogrammed bedding. The cedar-paneled closets were filled with custom-tailored suits, “some with hidden holsters built into the left shoulder linings.” Hundreds of shirts, shorts, socks, suspenders and handkerchiefs were arranged in meticulous order.
“Secretly overwhelmed by profound and deeply rooted phobias, Mickey Cohen was terrified of germs,” the author explains. “Showering and changing outfits several times a day, Mickey wore clothes a few times and gave them away. He scrubbed his hands every few minutes and touched no surface unless protected by tissues. Every day the bookkeeper replenished his bankroll with clean, crisp bills.”
The shtarker from Boyle Heights now socialized with Hollywood moguls and stars. “Whenever Judy Garland had problems with her husbands,” Tereba writes, “she went to Mickey Cohen.” He hired a tutor to polish up his manners and his vocabulary, and decorated his home with a wholly unread library of leather-bound volumes. But when Ben Hecht recruited Cohen to support the Revisionist cause during the 1940s — a notion that appealed to Cohen because he admired “Jews fighting ‘like racket guys’ to establish their homeland” — a committee of prominent Jewish leaders, including Wilshire Boulevard’s Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin and Louis B. Mayer, threatened to agitate for his imprisonment, or so Cohen claimed.
Nor were they his only adversaries. Cohen was threatened both by rival mobsters and by law enforcement agencies, and he saw them as active co-conspirators in an effort to bring him down. He survived a bombing at his Brentwood home and then appealed to his neighbors, who saw his presence in the neighborhood as “a continuous and increasing hazard to life and property.” “Mickey Cohen,” he boasted of himself, “has no intention of joining the cast of Hollywood has-beens.”
Like his longtime hero, Al Capone, Mickey Cohen finally fell afoul of the IRS on tax charges. “I got less money,” he quipped, “than when I was selling papers.” By the time he was back on the street in 1955, he was “the last remnant of an era when gangsters talked out of the side of their mouths and boasted perfect manicures.” He started calling himself “Michael,” and he opened a greenhouse where reporters watched in astonishment as he puttered with the begonias. A year later, Mickey was dead. Thanks to Tere Tereba, however, his uniquely American life story is not wholly lost to us.