Mickey Cohen on the Record – Talking With Author Tere Tereba

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Photo: Tere Tereba’s “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster.”

 


Note: I have been talking with author Tere Tereba about her book “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster.” Was he nothing more  than a hot-tempered, foul-mouthed little thug who threw around his money? Tereba found a more nuanced portrait. Here’s what she has to say. And we would especially like to salute Tereba’s patience in waiting for us to complete this piece. Between a full-time job and regular columns for The Times, we’re stretched very thin these days.

L.A.  Daily Mirror: Tell us a little bit about yourself:

Tere Tereba: I’ve had a long career as a fashion designer, I’ve been in an Andy Warhol movie, Bad. I’ve written journalistic pieces, and now I’ve written a book that tells for the first time  the complete story of the L.A. underworld from Prohibition to 1976, as seen from the POV of the city’s top  mobster, Mickey Cohen. I guess you can say I’ve had an upper-world version of  Mickey’s diverse career path: newsboy, pro boxer, thug, gangster, mob  boss, celebrity.

I was born not far from Cleveland, a city which readers will learn from my book had much impact on L.A., purely because of Mickey Cohen. He spent time there in his teens and early 20s and developed lifelong and life-altering relationships in Cleveland. Many of his  colleagues, from mob bosses to hoodlums, came to Los Angeles after his rise.

I felt very comfortable doing the book, I think  because I was so familiar with the terrain.

In Los Angeles, I’ve been to  most the hotels, restaurants and clubs that are in the book, beginning when my  parents were taking me around, then later on my own. I have seen many of the  locales in several incarnations. I know these streets that I write of  firsthand. I believe it gives the book a feel of authenticity. Mickey Cohen’s  L.A. are the same streets that are the core of my life.
During the time that I was writing the book I made it my goal to gain access to as many homes  and buildings as possible that were part of the story. It was extraordinary  when I was successful and was able to see how these personalities really  lived. In several cases the homes had not yet been changed. In the book I give the addresses of the locations. Most are still exist.

I also had access to many people who knew the participants in the book. Several of them have now passed away.  Hearing them tell their stories was illuminating and helped me draw a fuller, more profound picture.

Mickey Cohen

DM: Tell us a little bit about your childhood in  L.A.

TT: There wasn’t much traffic, and there were some empty lots.I remember when the Brown Derby  was a hat-shaped restaurant on Wilshire. I loved the club sandwiches at a  place on Wilshire in Santa Monica, Toed Inn. Yes, that’s how it was spelled  and it was a big green toad and you entered through the mouth.

I just looked at Toed Inn on Google. Like so many things on the web, it shows only an early incarnation on Channel Road. I just unearthed a beautiful menu that I have kept all these years as a souvenir. From years after the Channel Road location, the menu shows Toed Inn’s address to be how I remembered it; it was located at 12008 Wilshire, West L.A. The  phone number was Arizona 9-6712.

There were many used-car lots on the major boulevards. Melrose and Rodeo Drive seemed sleepy and dusty, like part of small town. There were listening booths where you could sample the records at  Wallach’s Music City, on Sunset and Vine. Sy Devore’s men’s shop was just  north of Wallach’s.

Frank Sennes (a showman from Warren, Ohio  where I was born) was highly visible, literally, on the Sunset Strip. His name  appeared “above the title” at Ciro’s, my father pointed out. Frank Sennes’  Ciro’s was one incarnation of what is now The Comedy  Store.

DM:
So what were you early impressions of Los  Angeles? What was it like to grow up here at that  time?

TT:
Blazing sun. Different types of palm species than the varieties I had seen in Florida. A cold Pacific. Warm days, chilly  nights.
Low humidity and no mosquitoes.

DM:
I see you have done a variety of things  in your life. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

TT:
The first thing that was  published was “Goodbyes” (or maybe it was “Goodbye,” I don’t exactly recall)  for Jim Morrison. This was very early. I was asked to write it by the editor  of Crawdaddy, Raeanne Rubenstein, immediately after his death — in memoriam.  She was a mutual friend of Pam and Jim Morrison. She was aware that I had just  spent a great deal of time with them in Paris, until literally a few days  before his death. She had liked him very much, and wanted to show a true  picture of him. I had my observations to offer. Whenever I saw him, the entire  time I knew him, he was always in a very clean, serious and upright mode, sort  of like the UCLA student that he once was. There were other sides to him, as we all know, that I never was exposed to. I’m glad I was asked to write this  piece, and I’m happy that I followed through, although it was extremely  painful to do. At least a snapshot of Jim in those last days is documented. He  deserved to be seen as really he was.

Later I did interviews for  Interview magazine, quite a few over many years. That went with the  territory of being an Andy Warhol insider. So did my so-called “acting.” Being  in the movie, Andy Warhol’s Bad, was not a career move. It was done for  fun. As it turned out, I didn’t find it to be fun at all. I didn’t enjoy the  process, and I never had plans to pursue acting as a profession.
I find it amusing when I occasionally see myself  described as an actress.

But I liked writing and remained open to finding a subject that would completely engross me. It was not until I began to unearth the story of Mickey Cohen, and through him the L.A. Underworld, did I see a topic that could interested me for the long haul. I began in  2000.

DM:
When did you first hear about Mickey Cohen?

TT:
I only had a subliminal concept of Mickey Cohen until the 1990s. His name was dropped in many Hollywood books I’d read over the years like Child Star by Shirley Temple Black, and Dino: Living High In The Dirty Business of Dreams by Nick Tosches. Kevin Starr also mentions him in a few of his of books on California history. And there are many others. But I really knew nothing substantive about him or the L.A.  underworld. He was definitely present in the book,The Last Mafioso, a book about mobster Jimmy “The Weasel” Frattiano that he participated in, which was in my library. I had read James Ellroy’s fiction where Mickey also appears. (I’m delighted that Ellroy has endorsed my book in his classic alliterated style).

I saw him portrayed in films: very effectively by  Harvey Keitel in Bugsy, and he starts off L.A. Confidential. And there’s Ruben Blades as “Mickey Nice” in The Two Jakes, written by insider Robert Towne.

I’ve been an voracious reader my entire life. I can’t be without reading material, even for a second, and I love all types of books and have very diverse interests. I loved traveling with tiny paperbacks by Raymond Chandler. The series I had had really great covers (not the usual noir look, mine had highly stylized yet timeless illustrations, published in the early 70s. Unfortunately, they’re mainly torn apart now). I reread these after I researched my book to identify the underworld figures Chandler was inspired by. That was a very satisfying experience.

I already had a deep knowledge of Hollywood history, and I had been reading mob books beginning with The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano (Luciano participated in the book, but for some reason it wasn’t released until 1975 I think, although he had been dead for more than a decade). I read it when it first came out and it became a favorite. I was amazed and fascinated by this story. When I started delving into the history of the L.A. Underworld and really began learning about Mickey Cohen, I came to realize that the Luciano book was in fact a primer for mine. Mickey Cohen was a second-generation mobster directly associated with the Luciano family and the nationally syndicated Combination (the business concept where mobsters of different ethnicities worked together to profit, rather than war) that Luciano instituted. Of course Benny Siegel, Lansky and Frank Costello were Luciano’s partners from the beginning. And these men would sponsor Mickey Cohen.

In my book readers get the story of all the players that comprised the L.A. Underworld (and the links to the national syndicate): Mickey’s story is the device for telling it. Until my book, the L.A. Underworld has remained elusive. For obvious reasons it was a hard story to unwind. I deliver plenty of revelations, and new versions of events that have previously been whitewashed.

Mickey Cohen

DM: So where and when did you start your research?

TT: As I said, I began my research in the year 2000. I went  into my own library first and checked indexes and bibliographies. I already had a book, All-American Mafioso: The Johnny Rosselli Story, that I picked at random a few years before at Vidiots in Santa Monica for pleasure reading. City of Nets. I began pulling in books from the period, like Florabel Muir’s [“Headline Happy” – DM], the middle-aged newswoman who was Mickey’s confidant—and more. There’s a book about his handler and Ben Siegel associate, Champ Segal, written by his lawyer brother in flowery Victorian style. Among other things, it has a scene in it describing a handball game between Ben Siegel and Meyer Lansky (this material actually humanizes these mythic criminals). And another by Harold Conrad who had great first-hand stories of Siegel, Lansky and Costello. Of course, I had Thicker n’ Thieves very early, and MC’s autobiography.

I asked people about him. I ran into so many that had Mickey Cohen stories, and that remains true until this day — he really got around.

I also had many Bugsy Siegel stories. My own doctor was mentored by his physician brother, Maurice Siegel, M.D.
It wasn’t long before I saw that Mickey Cohen and the L.A Underworld was an amazing, complex and virtually untold
story. I began the research in earnest and started to write. I wrote many drafts, constantly refining and adding new material.
I finally used about 200 vintage books. Countless newspaper and magazine articles. The FBI file of Meyer Harris Cohen (more than 1,700 pages, with many extras included) and those of ten other interlinking mob figures, as well as FBI files of Lana Turner, Beth Short, Walter Winchell and others. Many FBI memos and articles appear in my book. Warren Olney III’s first California crime report and one from a decade  later. I went into the files at UCLA and USC, using dates of major events and other participant’s names to find rare photos and articles. I spoke, never about cases, with two Cohen lawyers.

I acquired MC’s deposition from the Kefauver hearing, which in edited form appears in the book. I particularly like that chapter because the reader gets the real voice of Mickey Cohen as he’s being interrogated by senators about his life and businesses. I got his divorce records, which I didn’t use. Unpublished biographical writing (that MC participated in) by the legendary Ben Hecht was invaluable. It’s part of the permanent collection at Chicago’s Newberry library.

And I used the Mirror blog, Larry. It’s great.

I received information that had never been used, right up to the time of publication. No stone went unturned.
I think the previously unseen documents and photos really make the book.

Mickey Cohen

DM:
Tell us what you find so interesting  about Mickey Cohen. In the news stories, he sometimes seems like nothing more  than a hot-tempered, foul-mouthed little thug who throws around his money.   Did you discover sort of the unknown, gentler side of Mickey Cohen?

TT:
Mickey Cohen is all of what you said — and more. Yes,  he often seemed to live like a cliché.

But humans are not just black and white and cookie-cutter. I think that even the most obviously despicable members of  society have nuanced personalities. He was complicated — so was the way he was forced to function because of the existing set-up here. Without a doubt, I find him extremely interesting. Indeed, it’s not difficult to make a case about Mickey Cohen being “interesting.”

A self-creation, Mickey Cohen made himself into a real life “Hollywood” gangster — deadly, brazen and florid. He got more ink than major stars. How he managed that is interesting in itself; in the book I tell how he created his image, and even his wife’s image (who had a previously unknown and shocking back-story), while always protecting the hidden powers behind him.

Were his acts of charity for show or real? Why was he apparently so interested in how he was perceived by others and in “elevating” himself? At other times, why did other’s perception of him seem not to matter at all?

I reveal a devastating disease that plagued him from when he was a teenager and definitely would have contributed to erratic  behavior.

I love the many new and vivid characters readers will meet: from members of his crew, to powerful lobbyist Artie Samish, underworld power Jimmy Utley (who was Mickey’s arch-enemy) and speaking of enemies, there’s “Happy” Meltzer, the Judas of the Mickey Cohen saga.

I deliver the Nixon document that MC spilled to the government, the RFK story, and how MC was the first and only prisoner bailed out of Alcatraz (a sitting US supreme court justice signed the bond).

I think my book challenges the reader to ponder the true nature of this dangerous and complicated little Angeleno who managed to  captivate, corrupt and terrorize Los Angeles for a generation. After reading my book, a more complete version of L.A.’s history is there to ponder.

DM: Did you speak with anyone who knew him? Sandy Hashagen, for example?

TT:
I spoke  to many people who knew him, but not her. One source who knew him from the early days was Budd Schulberg. He first met him in the late 1930s at the Malibu Colony, long before he was “MICKEY COHEN.”

DM:
And what was their general take on him?

TT: Everyone knew he was dangerous. He was the mob boss of L.A. — and hardly trying to hide it. He lived his life in Technicolor and wide screen. Sometimes his life seemed like a cartoon, often it was Grand Guignol. But for all the apparent openness, like a studio fixer he carefully hid so much.

Most of the people that were my sources liked him or were at least intrigued by him. He could be funny, self-deprecating, and had a warm way about him that they say could taken as  “charming,” or more precisely described by the Yiddish word, haimish.
An important figure close to Mickey told me that his one of his great  advantages was his uncanny ability to “read” people: It seemed there could be a Mickey Cohen for everyone. If that didn’t work there were other, less savory, methods to “win” one over.
No studio ever produced a more colorful, self-starting star. He was the best “actor,” in Hollywood. Perhaps, Ben Siegel was even better — but he was no longer in the competition after 1947.

There were nightmare stories and ruined lives. I tell many. I’ve tried to deliver a very even-handed portrait of this outrageous   character whose movements, whims, compulsions and desires finally effected the very fabric of this town for many decades.

DM:
Paul Lieberman’s Gangster Squad series in The Times strongly implies that the father of Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen was  behind the attack on Mickey Cohen in prison, in revenge for Whalen’s killing.  What do you think?

TT:
It’s a possibility, but I think highly unlikely when all the circumstances are examined.

Mickey’s FBI file does note that there were reports that Fred (The Thief) Whalen was talking vengeance, and was said to be staking him out at a hangout just east of the Strip. It was reported that Mickey’s dog, Mickey Jr., was killed by a car. But there was talk that the dog was  a victim of foul play.

Holes can be poked in the theory that the elder Whalen was behind the Atlanta prison attack. It happened more than three years after Jack Whalen was killed, and the attacker, Burl Estes McDonald, had severe mental problems and a history of attacking other prisoners. He was housed in a separate building from the non-violent prisoners, and had to make his way into the area where Mickey lived, so it was not easy to pull off.

Mickey won a landmark case when he sued the U.S.  government for not protecting him. If there was information that it was a hit, from any corner, not just a crazed convict — certainly the government would have used that information.

The money that convicted tax evader Mickey Cohen won in the suit was garnisheed immediately and went toward paying a portion of his outstanding bill to the IRS.

DM: Any final thoughts?

TT: I found it amazing that over decades of lawlessness, MC went to trial in Los Angeles for offenses ranging from
disturbing the peace, to assaulting a federal officer, to the murder of Jack Whalen, to name just
a few — without one conviction. Other than a minor conviction for misdemeanor bookmaking in 1942,
which kept him in county jail for a few months, like his idol, Capone, he only served prison time for income
tax evasion.

I find the degree of corruption that existed here shocking. MC merely continued and expanded it. We live
in a region that was arguably more corrupt than Capone’s Chicago. And the pervasive presence of the
national crime syndicate — and its members — has been ignored by writers and historians, or blatantly whitewashed. No one seems to know the story of L.A.’s underworld, or the well hidden players. Its as if organized crime didn’t exist in Los Angeles.

The fact that as late as the 1960s, political figures the likes of RFK, Richard Nixon (on the eve of his presidential bid
in 1968), as well as a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice (who signed MC’s bond — making him the first, and only,
prisoner ever bailed out of Alcatraz), all had MC weighing heavily in their thoughts. This is mind-boggling to me.
In the now dozen years of research (I still look at new information about the subject),
the story of MC and the L.A. underworld, never ceases to fascinate me.

I could write five volumes on the subject and still have surplus material.

My final take: This city allowed Mickey Cohen to happen.

Los Angeles is both Babylon and Byzantium. Paris is know as the Blonde Whore — perhaps L.A.
is Platinum Blonde.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Books and Authors, History, Hollywood, LAPD, Mickey Cohen and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Mickey Cohen on the Record – Talking With Author Tere Tereba

  1. Mary Mallory says:

    Wow! Sounds like a fascinating book.

  2. Sarah says:

    Thank you for all your hard work on this column. I always look forward to reading it every day.

  3. Pingback: Tere Tereba : Los Angeles » L.A. Connections…

  4. I’ve read the book, and it IS fascinating. A great slice of L.A. history!

  5. Robert Wunderlich says:

    George Wunderlich was my father. He was the best father.I. feel Blessed for giving me my mom and dad.May he rest in peace. Until mom gets there JUST KIDDING..Lol..GOD BLESS.my uncles Fred Whalen, Gus Wunderlich, Aunts Bobbie Von Hurst. Lillie Wunderlich, Cousin James Whalen The Enforcer.Cousin John F. Von Hurst..

  6. Cal and Lulu says:

    On the night of June 20th 1947, I vividly remember like it was last night, we were all awakened by the noisy activity of Beverly Hills Police squad cars. At least 3 of them, directly in from of our house at 9939 Robbins Drive. Mickey Cohen lived directly across the street. (9938 1/2 in the second floor apartment). Everybody that heard the commotion instinctively knew that whatever it was it had to do with Mickey. We weren’t sure if the cops thought that Mickey had actually killed Ben Siegel or if they were there to protect him from the same assassin/s that had killed Ben in a house on Linden Drive, about a mile, or so away. For a time, then BHPD Police Sgt. John Hankins lives in an apartment directly adjacent Mickey and his wife Lavonne. My parents and other residents lived in the fear that one of us would somehow get caught in the crossfire of some kind of gang altercation. I knew Mickey Jr. (Mickey’s Dog, a little black Boston Bull terrier), because one time Mickey had given me .60¢ to walk him, around the block on Durant Dr. and back. I thought my mother was going to have a heart attack that day, when she found out where her 7 year old boy had come into a fortune! Sixty cents was a lot of money to a little kid in 1947. It seemed that it wasn’t too long after the incident that Mickey moved over to a place on Beverly Drive by the Will Rogers park, just north of Big santa Monica Blvd, only to have the whole front of his residence demolished by a bomb that someone had planted. Those were interesting times. I haven’t read Ms. Tereba’s book, I would like to however. Mickey wrote his autobiography soon after he was released from Federal Prison. His book was fascinating. By chance I saw him once right after he got of prison, at a restaurant called Gatsby’s, on San Vicente, (no longer there). He purportedly lived in an apartment in Brentwood. He looked pretty frail. Ah yes, interesting times.

  7. Chloe Weiss says:

    Sammy Lacino (not sure of spelling) served time for the some part of the death of Jack, maybe for the gun, I do not remember. He did not serve long and I remember him well as he was a rude and nasty guy. Mickey was always polite to me and welcomed me to sit with crowd when he was out in the evening. He kept Sam on a fairly tight leash and it was widely believed that Sam was the actual trigger-man. I met Jack (John Whalen) when I first came to Hollywood. I was only 16 or 17 and hooked up with his crew. Jack had or ran a little bar and we hung out there, went out to breakfast after hours and the police were constant companions. Rocky (Lou Lombardi) an ex-fighter and one of Jack’s crew was a good buddy of mine. Jack was nice initially but had ideas for me that I did not care for. He was very tough and scared of no man or woman. He was a con man and the first of that ilk that I ever met that I remember. I just think Sammy deserved a mention. Gearge Perry (Piscatelli) played some part in this but I have forgotten exact details. CW

  8. Barry Grossman says:

    I never met my Cousin Mickey and didn’t find out about his past until I was much older. My family in Brooklyn would mention him as being a gangster, but never went into detail. My grandparents would say, “oy, he was bad and so was his hoodlum buddy Tutsie Herbert,” in Yiddish and broken English. I didn’t have a clue who they were talking about. I would have made the trip to LA to meet him and I’m sure he would have loved to see family. When I visited Alcatraz I saw his room, although from a distance as access wasn’t allowed for visitors. We spoke to one of the historians/employees there and mentioned that Mickey was a relative. She said I looked a little like him and wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not! I am amazed at all the movies and TV series about Mickey. I can’t read enough about Mickey. The closest we came to gangsters was the murder of my cousin’s brother-in-law, Arnold Shuster. He was gunned down in 1952 after he snitched on the whereabouts of bank robber Willie “The Actor” Sutton and his subsequent murder by the Gambino crime family. I know Mickey was as my grandma said “a bad guy,” but I wish I met him!!!

    • lmharnisch says:

      Thanks for writing. Don’t believe all the stuff you see of him blowing away half of Los Angeles with a Tommy gun (ala “Gangster Squad”). That’s all Hollywood nonsense.

      • Cal and Lulu says:

        Mickey wrote an autobiography. We used to have it, but either gave it to someone or misplaced it. Have you read it? He says some pretty startling things in it. We agree that these Hollywood portrayals of his involvement in LA are manipulated by the script writers to enhance their particular piece. The latest, LA Mob’s casting of Mickey and his almost “sweet” demeanor is certainly not the man we remember, although he always seemed kinda likable in a weird sort of way. His power was overrated in a sense, but then again it might have been underrated. I read somewhere that while he was incarcerated in Alcatraz, he never ate a “prison meal” and that every afternoon/evening, a boat pulled up at the dock at Alcatraz with his dinner that had been made at the Blue Fox Restaurant in San Francisco. We wonder if that can be documented?
        If true, that might imply that Mickey still had some power, even while residing in the penitentiary.
        Your thoughts?

      • lmharnisch says:

        According to John Buntin (author of “L.A. Noir”), Cohen’s “autobiography,” “as told to John Peer Nugent” is much different than the draft of an autobiography done by Ben Hecht in the 1950s and now with the Hecht material at the Newberry Library in Chicago. It was done after Cohen was whacked in the head while in prison, so it may not be entirely reliable. There is also Tere Tereba’s book on Cohen.

        As always, my first and preferred resource is the newspapers, which spilled oceans of ink in covering Mickey Cohen. Oddly enough, Cohen’s FBI file isn’t online, like those of many others in organized crime who were under FBI surveillance.

        It’s evident from the FBI’s file on Bugsy Siegel, for example, that they were keep close tabs on him, were tapping his phones, following him, etc.

      • Cal and Lulu says:

        We would surmise that you know that BHPD had an apartment in the building directly next door to Cohen’s ( 10 or 15 ft. with eye/earshot ) when he lived on Robbins Drive. The BHPD apt was occupied by Sgt/Det. John Hankins for a year or so before Cohen moved to his Beverly Drive location. When Mickey moved the BHPD, according to Hankins, found evidence of dozens of telephones in the apartment. When Mickey would enter or leave the apartment there were at least two, and sometimes more bodyguards escorting him to his “armored” Cadillac. According to Hankins, the BHPD would routinely follow Mickey to the BH/West Hollywood city line (Sunset & Doheny) and the LA cops would take up the vigil from there.

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