Meyer Harris Cohen
September 4, 1913
|Died||July 29, 1976 (aged 62)|
|Resting place||Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery, Culver City, California|
|Height||5 ft 5 in (165 cm)|
|Title||"King of Los Angeles"|
Meyer Harris "Mickey" Cohen (September 4, 1913 – July 29, 1976) was an American gangster, boxer and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles during the mid-20th century.
Mickey Cohen was born on September 4, 1913, in New York City to Jewish parents. Cohen's parents immigrated to the US from Kyiv. He was first raised in New York City, moving with his mother and siblings to the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles at an early age. At 8, he earned money as a newsboy, selling newspapers on the street. One of his brothers, either Louie or Harry, would drop Mickey off at his regular corner, Soto and Brooklyn Streets (now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue). In 1922, Mickey was sent to reform school for petty crimes including shoplifting and theft.
As a teenager, Cohen began boxing in illegal prizefights in Los Angeles. In 1929, the 15-year-old moved from Los Angeles to Cleveland to train as a professional boxer with the alias of 'Irish Mickey Cohen'. His first professional boxing match was on April 8, 1930, against Patsy Farr in Cleveland. It was one of the preliminary fights on the card for the Paul Pirrone versus Jimmy Goodrich feature bout. In a match on June 12, 1931, Cohen fought and lost against future world featherweight champion Tommy Paul. Cohen was knocked out cold after 2:20 into the first round. It was during this contest that he earned the moniker "Gangster Mickey Cohen". On April 11, 1933, Cohen fought against Chalky Wright in Los Angeles. Wright won the match, and Mickey was incorrectly identified as "Mickey Cohen from Denver, Colorado" in the Los Angeles Times sports page report. His last fight was on May 14, 1933, against Baby Arizmendi in Tijuana, Mexico. He finished his career at 8-8 and 5 draws – 8 wins, 2 by knockout, 8 losses, 4 losses by knockout and 5 draws.
In Cleveland, Cohen met Lou Rothkopf, an associate of gangster Moe Dalitz. Cohen later moved to New York, where he became an associate of labor racketeer Johnny Dio's brother, Tommy Dioguardi, and as well as Owney Madden.
During Prohibition, Cohen moved to Chicago and became involved in organized crime, working as an enforcer for the Chicago Outfit, where he briefly met Al Capone. During this period, Cohen was arrested for his role in the deaths of several gangsters in a card game.
After a brief time in prison, Cohen was released and began running card games and other illegal gambling operations. He later became an associate of Capone's younger brother, Mattie Capone. While working for Jake Guzik, Cohen was forced to flee Chicago after an argument with a rival gambler.
In Cleveland, Cohen worked once more for Lou Rothkopf, an associate of Meyer Lansky and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. However, there was little work available for Cohen in Cleveland, so Lansky and Rothkopf arranged for Cohen to work with Siegel in Los Angeles.
In 1939, Cohen arrived in Los Angeles to work under Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. During their association, Cohen helped set up the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and ran its sports book operation. He also was instrumental in setting up the race wire, which was essential to Vegas betting. During this time, Cohen met prostitute Lavonne Weaver (working alias Simoni King), and the couple married in 1940.
In 1947, the crime families ordered the murder of Siegel due to his mismanagement of the Flamingo Hotel Casino, most likely because Siegel or his girlfriend Virginia Hill was skimming money. According to one account which does not appear in newspapers, Cohen reacted violently to Siegel's murder. Entering the Hotel Roosevelt, where he believed the killers were staying, Cohen fired rounds from his two .45 caliber semi-automatic handguns into the lobby ceiling and demanded that the assassins meet him outside in 10 minutes. However, no one appeared, and Cohen was forced to flee when the police arrived.
Cohen's violent methods came to the attention of state and federal authorities investigating Jack Dragna's operations. During this time, Cohen faced many attempts on his life, including the bombing of his home on posh Moreno Avenue in Brentwood. Cohen soon converted his house into a fortress, installing floodlights, alarm systems, and a well-equipped arsenal kept, as he often joked, next to his 200 tailor-made suits. Cohen briefly hired Johnny Stompanato as bodyguard. However, in 1958 Stompanato was killed in self-defense by Cheryl Crane, the daughter of actress Lana Turner (whom he had been dating). Cohen covered the expense of Stompanato's funeral and then gave Turner's love letters to Stompanato to the press in an attempt to discredit the worst allegations of threats and violence that Crane had alleged she suffered at the hands of the violent, womanizing Stompanato.
In 1950, Cohen was investigated along with many other underworld figures by a U.S. Senate committee known as the Kefauver Commission. As a result of this investigation, Cohen was convicted of tax evasion in June 1951 and sentenced to prison for four years.
Ben Hecht stated in his autobiography, A Child of the Century, that Cohen called him to say he wanted to do his part in helping Hecht raise money to support Menachem Begin's Irgun in its activities. Cohen called together a parlor meeting of business associates and had Hecht address them on the importance of the cause. Each person was then asked to call out a sum he would donate. In some cases, Cohen told a donor "that's not enough," and they upped the pledge. Later, when Cohen was arrested, he called Hecht from prison to ask if he had access to some cash to help with his bail. When Hecht apologized, Cohen politely said goodbye, and they never spoke again.
When he was released in October 1955, he became an international celebrity. He ran floral shops, paint stores, nightclubs, casinos, gas stations, a men's haberdashery, and even drove an ice cream van on San Vicente Boulevard in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, according to author Richard Lamparski.
In 1957, TIME magazine wrote a brief article about Cohen's meeting with Christian evangelist Billy Graham. Cohen said: "I am very high on the Christian way of life. Billy came up, and before we had food he said—What do you call it, that thing they say before food? Grace? Yeah, grace. Then we talked a lot about Christianity and stuff." Allegedly when Cohen did not change his lifestyle, he was confronted by Christian acquaintances. His response: "Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians; why not a Christian gangster?"
In 1961, Cohen was again convicted of tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz. He was the only prisoner ever bailed out of Alcatraz; his bond was signed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. After his appeals failed, Cohen was sent to a federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. His heavily armored Cadillac from this period was confiscated by the Los Angeles Police Department and is now on display at the Southward Car Museum in New Zealand. On August 14, 1963, during his time at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, inmate Burl Estes McDonald attempted to kill Cohen with a lead pipe. In 1972, Cohen was released from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he had spoken out against prison abuse. He had been misdiagnosed with an ulcer, which turned out to be stomach cancer. After undergoing surgery, he continued touring the United States and made television appearances, once with Ramsey Clark.
Cohen died at age 62, of complications from stomach cancer surgery in July 1976. He is interred in Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.
What particularly enraged Cohen was that Turner refused to pay for her ex-lover's funeral and Cohen had to foot the bill. He bought a cheap wooden coffin for Stompanato. Then, he vindictively gave the press Turner's love letters to Stompanato.