Murder Incorporated

Friday, May 05, 2006

Meyer "Mickey" Cohen

In Jungian psychology, the "shadow" is the part of the unconscious that contains all of those characteristics the conscious mind considers dark or bad. If the conscious mind thinks aggression is wrong, then the shadow is the part of the personality that is aggressive. Jung believed this was how we cope with having to act in ways we would prefer not to. A healthy personality has a shadow and soul in balance.

Mickey Cohen was Ben “Bugsy” Siegel's shadow. Ben was tall, handsome, suave and welcome in the elite Hollywood circles. He mixed with the glitterati, courted royalty and bedded starlets while his shadow -- Mickey -- was picking their pockets, robbing their safes and breaking their bones.

In so many ways they were opposite sides of the same coin. Both were violent men, out of place in the Hollywood environment. They liked many of the same things: good food, fine clothes, beautiful women, shined shoes. But where Benny was able to submerge his dark side and present a more acceptable persona, Mickey was what he was. He was loud, boisterous, and pedestrian. He made no apologies for his lifestyle and his lack of refinement. Together, Mickey Cohen and Benny Siegel were an effective extension of the East Coast Syndicate on the West Coast. They changed organized crime in the West from the backwater Unione Siciliano-Black Hand penny-ante operations that had existed under the old-style Mustache Petes into the multimillion dollar industry that controlled narcotics, gambling, unions, and politics.

After Benny was punished by his Syndicate partners for skimming from the Flamingo project, Mickey Cohen was left alone as the mob's West Coast muscle and easily filled Ben's shoes. He didn't have the flair of Ben Siegel, but Mickey Cohen had a style all his own. Mickey flourished on the West Coast and appeared to have more lives than a cat. He was shot at, bombed, arrested, imprisoned, threatened, and like the fighter he started out as, Mickey kept coming back for more. In the end, he outlasted all of his enemies and went out if not on top, then pretty darn close.

Because organized crime seems to be an East Coast phenomenon, Mickey Cohen never really got the recognition that he deserved. That's a shame because Mickey was a bit of a rarity. In a business where most guys end up in a prison cell or at the wrong end of a gun, Mickey Cohen managed to avoid both of those pitfalls.

One of the reasons Mickey didn't get the recognition that other men he worked with did was because Mick was a second-generation mobster. Just like no one remembers the people who arrived in America on the next boat after the {Mayflower}, Mickey showed up in Chicago long after Al Capone had seized control of the underworld and by the time Mickey came west to join Ben Siegel, Bugsy had already infiltrated the extras union and shown Jack Dragna who was boss in California.

Mickey's rise to power came after the heyday of the Jewish mobsters. Meyer Lansky was well-established in Havana and the Southeast and was looking forward to retiring. The carpet joints were flourishing in Louisiana, Frank Costello was firmly ensconced as the prime minister and there was really no New World to be plundered. The Conquistadores had come and gone and it was Mickey's job to oversee the operations that had been put into place.

He did that with the skill and practice of a journeyman gangster. Mickey may not have been an A-list racketeer, but he was efficient and ruthless at his craft. Like Sam Giancana in Chicago, he paid his dues as a hired gun, worked his way up the chain of command and saw the traps and tricks that had foiled those in front of him. By the time he was in position to run his own operation, Mickey Cohen was as adroit and cunning as the men he succeeded.
Even though the trail had been blazed before him, Mickey Cohen's rise to the top wasn't easy. He had to pay his dues, and he got his start in the rackets like a number of other wise guys: in the ring. The things that make a good pug and a good gangster are similar. An imposing presence, tough fists and a chin that can take a punch are important characteristics for a racketeer, although the imposing presence is mostly for character.

Many of the mob's toughest characters were small men who made up for their diminutive stature with guts and heart that belonged in guys twice their size. Meyer Lansky and Lepke Buchalter are two that come to mind, although this trait is not limited to Jewish gangsters. The Westies' Mickey Featherstone wasn't all that big and he was known for his rock-solid fists and the tenacity of a Jack Russell terrier.

Current Genovese family leaders Punchy Illiano and Quiet Dom Cirillo both got their starts as boxers, as did another Genovese member, Li'l Augie Pisano. Illiano earned his nickname because of his boxing background -- and those who know him insist he is anything but "punchy." For his part, Cirillo faced Jake "Raging Bull" La Motta in the ring several times, although he was less than successful.

Mickey Cohen was born hustling. A Brownsville, New York, native -- the same neighborhood that gave the world Abe Reles and many of the Murder, Inc. troop -- Cohen was whisked away from the poverty of that Brooklyn slum before he was six years old and moved with his mother and older siblings to the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, where his family operated a drug store.

Of course, this being Prohibition, the Cohen pharmacy, in the middle of a Russian Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, operated one of the countless small-time gin mills in the area. As a boy, Mickey served as a deliveryman for his brother's moonshine operation, which resulted in his first pinch at 9 years old. The charge was smoothed over by his brother's connections and nothing came of it, but the seed had already been planted in Mickey's mind.

"I got a kick out of having a big bankroll in my pocket," he said in his biography. "Even if I only made a couple hundred dollars, I'd always keep it in fives and tens so it'd look big. I had to hide it from my mother, because she'd get excited when she'd see a roll of money like that."

Successful hustling, whether it's bootlegging, selling newspapers or swag, requires moxie and the fists to back it up, and that's how the preteen Mickey discovered he liked to box. Although the sport was illegal in California and even more so because he was so young, Mickey found many different ways to get in the ring. Along with the money it gave him, he found he also liked the respect he earned.

As he grew, Mickey continued boxing and with the blissful ignorance of youth, his thoughts turned toward becoming a professional. The skill was there, as were the promoters who saw something special in the young teen. The only problem was that 15-year-old Mickey Cohen's mother didn't know he was boxing at all.

"One day, the butcher stopped my mother -- who didn't talk real good English -- and said to her, 'Mrs. Cohen, you must be proud your boy's boxing for the championship.' So she says, 'What's this boxing?' "See, she didn't know nothing about boxing or that sort of thing."
Mickey won the championship and that sealed it in his mind. With the blessing of his older brother, he told his mother he was "going to the beach" and headed east to become a prize fighter. Fate had other ideas.

Mick bounced around the Midwest for a while and landed in New York, where he met some of organized crime's toughest characters. Tommy Dioguardi, brother of the labor racketeer Johnny Dio, was a fight fanatic, as was Owney Madden, the New York killer who would end up running the mob's resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

"Owney was a really a guy to respect and admire -- quite a guy, a man of his word," Mickey recalled later. "His faithfulness to his own kind is the strongest thing a man can have, and if Owney felt that you were an all right person, there wasn't nothing that he wouldn't do for you."
A bad bout with featherweight world champ Tommy Paul ended Mick's boxing career when the champ knocked him so senseless he wandered out of the ring and was on his way to the dressing room before anyone could catch him.

"I began to see that I really didn't have it to be great in the ring," he said. "So then I decided I'd had enough of the fight business and everything else."
A washed-up pug with no education whose only friends are gangsters has few choices in life. That's where Mickey found himself after his fight with Tommy Paul. He fell back on the only thing he knew -- hustling. "I started rooting -- you know, sticking up joints -- with some older guys," he said. "By now I had gotten a taste of what the racket world really was -- the glamour, the way they dressed, the way they always had a pocketful of money."

He didn't realize it at the time, but the places he was robbing were mob-controlled carpet joints -- the illicit nightclubs and casinos that predated Las Vegas. "Later on I learned that we were lucky to pull it through," he recalled. "Because we didn't even give a thought to whose joints those were. We were stepping on the toes of the outfit."

Fortunately for Mickey, the mobsters whose toes were crushed realized the rough talent he had and set him straight. After a killing he preferred not to talk about -- "statute of limitations and all that," he said -- Mickey moved from Cleveland to Chicago, where he later met Al Capone.
In the Windy City, Mickey, working as muscle in a card room, learned how influential the Outfit had become. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and when a couple of thugs died in a shootout, Mick was pinched.

"I certainly ain't gonna get out right away," he thought to himself, and laid on the bench to sleep. A telephone call from his goombah, Egan's Rat member Spike Hennessey, to a police captain changed that and Mickey was out on the streets without having to post bail. The charges then seemed to disappear.

"These guys were notorious anyway, and besides they had a piece on them," Mickey explained.
It was after that that Mickey met Al Capone for the first time. "I walked into his office kind of awed, because I was a young kid anyway, walking into the office of Al Capone," he said. "He did something which was a very big thing for me -- he kind of held my head and kissed me on both cheeks."

That greeting solidified Mickey Cohen's place in the Chicago Outfit and led to bigger and better things, mostly on the gambling side of the Outfit's operations. Mickey was soon running card games and then craps tables and supervising other mobsters. He was close to Mattie Capone, Big Al's younger brother, and with Mattie's backing Mickey found he could get away with things other mobsters couldn't.

"Al intimated to me like if I found something to get into, he would back me up, you understand."
While he was working under Greasy Thumb Jake Guzik, Al's bagman, Mickey experienced the first of what would be many assassination attempts. Not surprisingly, the details of the attack were etched firmly in Mick's mind.

"I had on a camel hair coat that, boy, I was really in love with," he recalled. "It had big check in it -- not loud check -- and I think this was the second time I had worn it. So when they came by shooting, I didn't even fall because I didn't want to get my coat dirty!"

A beef with another gambler made Mickey leave town and for a while he was working back with Lou Rothkopf in Cleveland, a close friend of Meyer Lansky and Benny Siegel. There wasn't enough work for a guy like Mickey in Cleveland, so Lou and his friend Joe Gentile suggested Mickey head west to work with Ben.
For years, Bugsy Siegel's presence in Los Angeles served as a firewall between Jack Dragna and Mickey Cohen. But Ben wasn't going to be around much longer, and when he was gone, Dragna had no trouble finding the courage to feud openly with Mickey. When Ben headed to Nevada with Virginia Hill and a couple million of his mob friends' dollars, Mickey stayed in southern California to oversee the Syndicate's operations there."Vegas and I disagreed, so I had to push myself to go there," Cohen wrote. "But I had an understanding with the Cleveland people that being out this way, I would make myself available from time to time in Las Vegas for pieces of work."

The day before Siegel's 1947 execution, he met with Mickey to discuss the situation in the West. The Flamingo's opening had already been a disaster and the casino was limping along woefully, although it was beginning to turn a profit as the law of large numbers caught up with the players and the casino edge began to take hold. Still, Mickey knew that Ben suspected his time was at hand. He asked about the armaments the operation had in Los Angeles and what shooters loyal to him were on hand.

"There's no doubt that Benny felt there was some kind of come-off going to take place," Cohen said. "I guess he wanted to be prepared for it, but he wasn't prepared soon enough."

Before Ben had a chance to set up a defense, he was shot to death as he sat in a Southern California bungalow. The long-range sniper was so accurate, his shot blew one of Ben's eyes clear across the room. No one was ever arrested for the hit, although Mickey had his suspicions of who ordered it and who fired the shot. Because he wanted to stay alive even after retiring from the rackets, Mickey mentions no names in his autobiography, but he suggests that the hit was done without pay as a favor for the men who requested it.

Immediately after the hit, it was business as usual. Moe Sedway and Doc Stacher took over the Flamingo hours after Ben was killed and Mickey received his own orders from the Syndicate.
"I took over from Benny right away on instructions from the people back east," he said. "Naturally, I missed Benny, but to be honest with you, his getting knocked off was not a bad break for me. Pretty soon I was running everything out here."

As the Syndicate man on the West Coast, Mickey began meeting with the movers and shakers of Hollywood and the top politicians of Los Angeles. He did favors for Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Studios and for Frank Sinatra, who was hot for Ava Gardner, but was being beaten out by Cohen gunman Johnny Stompanato. Mickey developed lifelong friendships with men like Sammy Davis Jr., and stepped in to defend Davis when Cohn wanted Frank Costello to have the entertainer whacked for dating Kim Novak. Another relationship, which was to have ramifications much later in Mickey's life was his friendship with William Randolph Hearst, who ordered his Los Angeles Times editors to stop referring to Cohen as a "hoodlum" and to start calling him a "gambler."

But none of the Hollywood types or even the police commission in his pocket could help Mickey when Jack Dragna declared war.
Before Bugsy's bones were cold in the ground, Dragna began plotting against Mickey Cohen. It was now or never, Jack reasoned, and he pulled out all the stops to get Mickey out of the way. A combination of uncanny luck on Mickey's part and incompetence on the part of the Dragna crew made the War of the Sunset Strip look like a Hollywood comedy.

One of the first salvos was fired as Mickey was heading home to Brentwood and was ambushed. Under fire from shotguns and Tommy guns, the hit looked like one of those unbelievable scenes in a movie where the bad guys open up on the star with a platoon of heavy weapons, yet the star manages to avoid every shot. In Mick's case, it was really happening. As the glass exploded from his Cadillac, he lay on his side and managed to steer his car up Wilshire Boulevard without hitting anything.

"I'm probably at my coolest in an emergency," he said. "The minute I sensed what was happening, I fell to the floor and drove that goddamn car all the way down Wilshire with one hand. I probably couldn't do it again in a thousand times." He escaped with just a little damage from flying glass.

Twice Dragna tried to get Mickey in his home, the first time using a bangalore -- a long, tube-like explosive device used by the military to clear barbed wire and beachheads -- but the TNT failed to detonate. The next time, a dynamite bomb exploded beneath the Cohen house, but the blast was directed away from the living space by a concrete floor vault that shielded Mickey and his family.

"Actually, the neighbors got it worse than I did from the concussion," he recalled. Sharpshooting hit men were only slightly luckier. Once as Mickey and several friends were sitting in a crowded after-hours diner, a Dragna shooter opened up with a .30-06 rifle and hit Mickey in the arm, tearing away much of the flesh. Buckshot from another gunman ripped through the diner, striking a couple of innocent patrons, injuring them slightly. Unfortunately, Neddy Herbert, a longtime friend of Mickey's, was killed in the shootout.

Another shooter was even less fortunate. Mick was coming out of a joint and was walking toward his new Caddy. He bent down to examine a scratch on the fender and as he did so, felt a bullet whiz past his head and ricochet off the car. The gunman didn't stick around for another shot.

In 1950, the war attracted the attention of the Senate Select Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, better known as the Kefauver Committee. Mickey was subpoenaed to testify before the commission and was lambasted by New Hampshire Senator Charles Tobey.
"I remember the old senator kept calling me a 'hoodlum.' He really used some terms that were uncalled for, from a senator in that type of thing," Cohen said. "Is it not a fact that you live extravagantly, surrounded by violence?" the New Hampshire senator asked Mickey. "Whaddya mean 'surrounded by violence,'" Mickey replied, indignant. "People are shooting at me!"

The exchange and appearance did little for Mickey and based on the findings of the Kefauver Commission, he was indicted, tried and convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to four years in federal prison


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