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.
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.
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.
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
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.