Meyer Harris “Mickey” Cohen (September 4, 1913 – July 29, 1976) was a gangster based in Los Angeles and part of the Jewish Mafia, who also had strong ties to the American Mafia from the 1930s through 1960s.

He is best known perhaps for his intense rivalry with fellow Los Angeles mobster Jack Dragna.

In the movie “Gangster Squad”, released January 2013, Cohen is played by Sean Penn.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

That’s fiction, Hollywood-style.

These are some of the historical facts:

Cohen’s Early Life

Mickey Cohen was born on September 4, 1913, into an Orthodox Jewish family living in the Jewish Brownsville section of Brooklyn. His mother Fanny (who was widowed in September 1914), had emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine.

At the age of six, Mickey was selling newspapers on the street; his brothers Louie or Harry would drop him off at his regular corner, Soho and Brooklyn Streets.

Fanny moved her family to Los Angeles. In 1922, petty crime landed Mickey in reform school there.

Mickey the Boxer

As a teenager, Cohen began boxing in illegal prizefights in Los Angeles.

In 1929, the fifteen-year-old moved from Los Angeles to Cleveland, to train as a professional boxer. His first professional boxing match was on April 8, 1930 against Patsy Farr in Cleveland, Ohio.

On April 11, 1933 Cohen fought against Chalky Wright in Los Angeles, California. Wright won the match and Mickey was incorrectly identified as “Mickey Cohen from Denver, Colorado” in the Los Angeles Times sports page report.

His next major fight was on May 14, 1933 against Baby Arizmendi in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.

On June 12, 1931 Cohen fought and lost a match against World Featherweight Champion Tommy Paul, having been knocked out cold after 2:20 into the first round. It was during this round he earned the moniker “Gangster Mickey Cohen”.

Gangster Mickey Cohen

In Cleveland, Cohen met Lou Rothkopf, an associate of Moe Dalitz.

Cohen later moved to New York, where he became associated with Tommy Dioguardi, the brother of labor racketeer Johnny Dio, and with Owney Madden.

Finally, Cohen went to Chicago, where he ran a gambling operation for the Chicago Outfit, Al Capone’s powerful criminal organization.

Prohibition and the Chicago Outfit

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 that went wrong.

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 Mattie Capone, Al’s younger brother.

While working for Jake Guzik, Cohen was forced to flee Chicago after an argument with a rival gambler.

Back in Cleveland, Cohen again worked for Lou Rothkopf, an associate of Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. However, there was little work available for Cohen in Cleveland, so Rothkopf arranged for him to work with Siegel in California.

Life with The Bug Man

In 1939, Mickey Cohen was sent to Los Angeles by Meyer Lansky and Lou Rothkopf to work under Bugsy Siegel.

During their association, Mickey helped set up the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, and ran its sports book operation.

He was also instrumental in setting up the race wire, which was essential to Vegas betting – a Nevada attraction perhaps only second to the Hoover Dam.

In 1947, the crime families ordered the murder of Siegel due to his mismanagement of the Flamingo Hotel (some postulate that Siegel or his girlfriend Virginia Hill were 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 ten minutes. However, no one appeared and Cohen was forced to flee when the police arrived.

The Dragna Rivalry

Cohen’s violent methods came to the attention of state and federal authorities investigating the operations of Los Angeles mobster Jack Dragna.

Dragna resented the high profile which Cohen had enjoyed under Ben Siegel’s wing.

During this time, Cohen faced many attempts on his life, including the bombing of his home on posh Moreno Avenue in Brentwood.

Cohen 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 also briefly hired bodyguard Johnny Stompanato before he (Stompanato) was killed by actress Lana Turner’s daughter.

Cohen bought a cheap coffin for Stompanato’s funeral – and then sold Lana Turner’s love letters to Stompanato to the press.

Mickey’s Later Years

In 1950, Mickey Cohen was investigated (along with numerous other underworld figures) by a US 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.

When he was released in October of 1955, he started again, and became an international celebrity.
He sold more newspapers than anyone else in the country, according to author Brad Lewis.

His appearance on television with Mike Wallace in May of 1957 rocked the media establishment.

Cohen 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 Mickey Cohen’s meeting with evangelist Billy Graham.

Allegedly, when Mickey did not change his lifestyle, he was confronted by some 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.
During his time on “the Rock,” another inmate attempted to kill Cohen with a lead pipe.

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.

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 U.S., and making television appearances.

Mickey Cohen died in his sleep in 1976, and is interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Time to put this one to bed, too.

I hope you’ll join me, for our next story.

Till then.