Late author and screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote this account as part of an unfinished biography of Mickey Cohen in 1958-9. It is published here by permission of his widow, Rose Hecht.
I am full of hair-raising information told me by an ex-underworld king-pin named Mickey Cohen. How he shot, slugged, gouged and swindled his way from rags to riches. How he preyed on society as a stick-up man and crooked gambler, how he corrupted its guardians and strutted for a long time in the nation’s headlines. In addition to facts, I have a knowledge of this disorderly man that may be a deep one. I feel I know him as well as I know Macbeth or the blonde Borgia.
Looking on what I know about this rambunctious law-breaker and headbreaker, I find myself diverted, relaxed, even pleased by Mickey Cohen and his fie-fo-fum activities. They represent a certain sanity in a lunacy-whirling world -the sanity of the criminal. All other human matters change, grow complex and undecipherable-what is good, what is noble, what is pious, what is progressive. The criminal alone remains a constant. It is his pleasure to break laws and hold society in contempt. As he was in the tribal civilization of thirty thousand years ago, so he is in the civilization of, oil interests, hydrogen bombs, and the disintegration of human thought into political jabberwock.
I am far from alone in my concept of the criminal as a relaxing bed-time story. He has been putting the U.S. happily to sleep since World War I. If not for the criminal and his endless bang-banging villainy on movie and television screens, in fiction and newspaper headlines, it is quite possible the U.S.A. would have had a nervous breakdown-or rather a worse one.
Another engaging side of Mickey Cohen is that he is no product of “Our Times.” From a literary point of view this is a considerable virtue. He is not the victim of our economic or political system, or even its revoltee. He is, in fact, totally uncritical of these galaxies.
The criminal has no hates or fears - except very personal ones. He is possibly the only human left in the world who looks lovingly on society. He does not hanker to fight it, reform it or even rationalize it. He wants only to rob it. He admires it as a hungry man might admire a roast pig with an apple in its mouth. He is the presocial part of us-the Ape that spurned a collar.
The criminal in the time of his lawlessness is one of the few happy or contented men to be found among us. He has a blood lust, an exploding temper, a savage pleasure in breaking heads. But in a criminal his blood lust is business equipment. He uses it as naturally as a banker uses a frock coat. And if he has other neuroses than a need for bloodletting, these are equally untroublesome. He lives his primitive instincts (called neuroses by society) to the hilt. While he remains a criminal he is as free of conscience pangs as the most right-doing of bookkeepers. He eats well, sleeps well, lives well, and his only disadvantage is that he may die ahead of his time from an enemy bullet, the gas chamber or electric chair.
When I was a newspaper reporter in Chicago, I saw a dozen men executed by hanging. Those of them who had been urged into murder by misplaced loves or accidental rages were usually numb with the terror of dying. It was otherwise with the authentic criminal. He usually faced death casually- as does the Ape.
With these preliminary broodings out of the way, I feel more eager to investigate the brawling life of one of the Republic’s most colorful, and, for a long time, most successful criminals, Mr. Cohen.
Mickey was born in Brooklyn, 1913, of immigrant and orthodox Russian Jewish parents. Four sisters and a brother awaited him.
Two months later the father died and Ma Cohen parked four of her brood with relatives. With daughter Lillian at her side and Mickey in her arms she headed westward. She settled in Los Angeles and opened a small grocery store in Boyle Heights, the toughest and grittiest area of the city.
Ma Cohen was a good and pious woman as Sam, her husband, had been a pious and kindly man. Her kin were equally God-fearing and law-obeying. Yet mysteriously out of this religion and honest family a criminal emerged.
Mickey’s criminality began at the age of 3, long before environment could start shaping him . At that age he earned his first nickels as a newsstand helper. His duties were to sit on the stacks of newspapers, protecting them from the winds and grabbing hands of Boyle Heights. Becoming aware of the valuables he was pinning down, Mickey started swapping them, furtively, for candy and hot dogs.
“I was really looking to make a buck at a very early age,” Mickey puts it.
At the age of 7 he became a bootlegger, making gin in the rear of a drugstore and peddling it to a grateful clientele. A hundred street corner fights marked the next three years, during which Mickey became a fixture in the First Grade of the Cornwall Elementary School. His education collapsed in the Second Grade. He was to remain unable to read, write or count beyond five until in his twenties.
At the age of 9 Mickey selected his career. He went on his first heist and held up the box office of the Columbia Theatre, using a cudgel as a persuader. This is one of the psychological curiosities presented by my subject’s story. He took to burglary and violence as a duckling takes to water. No Jewish morality, no family decency had touched his spirit. He launched his attack on society as if sired by a long line of pirates.
The youthful bandit was nabbed and locked away in a reform school on the top of Fort Hill in Los Angeles. Here for seven months he was walloped monotonously with a bicycle tire- “For any old thing,” says Mickey.
A year later Mickey was out on probation. He lunched with the Big Brothers once a week. His Big Brother was Abe Roth, the prize fight referee. Roth coaxed the Mickey violence into the ring. He was fighting four rounders in his 12th year, and training for these events in wild and bloody street corner combats with the vulpine youth of Boyle Heights. Mickey’s ma remarried when he entered his teens-and Mickey was off and away. The home roost was suddenly tabu- “My ma didn‘t even know anything about me in them early days except that I was a prize fighter,” says Mickey.
Cleveland was Mickey’s stop. His brother Harry was doing well in Cleveland with a small drugstore. Mickey crawled out from under a freight train and invaded the Ohio metropolis. Brother Harry became his manager and Mickey fought scores of four-rounders as a fly-weight, bantam-weight and featherweight. From the ring Mickey stepped into a career of armed burglary and general muscle work. Mickey puts it- “Around 1932 I sought a new means of livelihood.” It was more than money-making that attracted the young pugilist, is my notion. The predatory glee that stirred in the 9-year old soul of the Columbia Theatre robber took full possession of the Cohen ego. Mickey got together a troupe of his own and went “on the heavy.” The phrase means stick-ups with guns.
“What kind of weapons did you use?” I asked Mickey.
“Every kind,” he said. “Pistols, shotguns, Tommy guns. Whatever was handy. We specialized in gambling joints, cafes and whore houses. In one bookie joint I raised two hundred people.” [”Raising” people was lining them against the wall with their hands in the air.]
Mickey’s troupe of seven muscle boys regarded him as their leader. In 1933, by the exercise of fierceness, fearlessness and lawlessness, Mickey established himself as one of the most important burglars of Cleveland and one of the most valuable hoods for the Cleveland racket and murder gang called the “Hill Mob.”
Lawlessness is the debatable word in Mickey’s early rise. He broke laws, but they were the laws of an alien civilization. What made him successful, actually, was keeping and enforcing the laws of the only society he knew, the underworld. In this world, cutthroats were prime ministers, and robbers were nobility:
Like any Horatio Alger hero, Mickey aspired to a chummy nod from his betters. And Mickey’s betters were the finely dressed ex-killers, now pot-bellied and flashing with diamonds, who bribed the high police officials and politicians and put the screws on the town. And who sat at the “round table” where decisions were made on head-breakings and “put outs.” (Put outs were killings.) Mickey carried out sentences against such undesirables.
In Cleveland, Mickey earned his underworld sobriquet, where a nickname is a sort of title. It shows your personality has registered. Mickey became known as “the Jew Boy.” Most of his associates were Italians. He jabbered Italian and looked Italian so the title “Jew Boy” was a sort of distinction.
I tried to figure out why, and couldn’t. Mickey explained- “The big ones in the operations are never referred to by name. They are called Charlie C or Charlie the Mick or Wop Tony. Likewise the terms Mafia or syndicate or mob are never used except by newspapers and police. No reference is ever made to an organization at all. It is only a meeting of the minds. The insiders refer to it as the people. Like, that’s the way the people want it. On occasion one of the considered heads of the Mafia is referred to as the Mahoff.”
After four years of Cleveland activity that included some 200 heavy stick-ups -Mickey calculates he committed 380 heists before quitting- he turned an eye to greener fields, Chicago. It was not entirely a matter of choice. The heat was on Mickey. The Hill Mob found it too trying to keep its protégé out of police custody. The people gave him a letter of recommendation to Chicago, and kept him on the payroll. A hood in those days, 1933, received $15 per diem for part-time services.
With the police on his trail, lamster Mickey moved to Chicago. After a short hitch in a Capone gambling casino, Mickey set up as a crooked gambler on his own. He opened a dice game in the Loop, the kind called a “flat store” or a “bust out” in which the clientele has no more chance of winning than of overthrowing the United States.
During these Chicago years Mickey also doubled in his black mask and Tommy gun. When dice suckers ran low there were always “scores” to be made in poorly defended drugstores, tailoring establishments or any terrain with a cash register. The “scores” were not always handsome, and Mickey and his troupe sometimes pulled three heists in a single day to keep solvent. So adroit was Mickey as a heister that there were no arrests.
“I lived from one heist to another,” said Mickey. “The only thing I really wanted money for was a new hat. Sometimes I would buy two hats in one day for 50 bucks apiece. I was so crazy about buyin’ hats that on a number of occasions I spent my case money for the purchase.” (Case money is “eating money,” or the last C note in the wallet.)
In 1937 Mickey returned to his childhood home, Los Angeles. Here, with two companions-one of them a white-haired fellow in his sixties - Mickey heisted two or three places a week. The trio made good scores. Their work became known and a number of tough boys enlisted under wild boy Cohen’s banner. Mickey lived in a good hotel, drove a fine car, had himself measured for one flossy suit after another, bought scores of cream-colored Stetson hats for $50 a throw, had his shoes made “personally,” flashed a roll and gave $5 and $10 tips to waiters, bus boys, newsies, cabbies, doormen and other members of his social world.
During this stick-up rampage Mickey ran into a philosopher named Nick the Greek. Nick was a classy professional gambler. He fascinated the young burglar with stories about a sect in India whose members lived to be 180 years old, due to eating the right kind of bread and breathing correctly.
One afternoon, the philosopher told his Brown Derby Restaurant disciple, “You’re doing it all the hard way. A smart kid doesn’t have to go on the heavy to make a living.” And Nick the Greek led Mickey to a race track.
Up to this point, my subject had never seen any horses unattached to wagons. But in three days Mickey was a racetrack bookie. He took up a position at the track rail a few yards away from the Pinkerton detectives on guard against any such unlawful activity. But there was so glowering an air to this new operator that the Pinkertons bided their time before molesting him.
“I didn’t even know it was illegal,” Mickey explained. “How you goin’ to figure it’s illegal to bet in one spot when a short distance from that same spot 50,000 people are shovin’ their money across a betting counter in open sight?”
Nevertheless, Nick the Greek convinced his protégé that the laws of the land, however cockeyed seeming, were as they were, and persuaded him to take cover as a bookie.
A remarkable era of lethal violence bloomed for the Los Angeles underworld. In three years, Mickey was Bookie Czar of the West Coast. Under him was an army of strong-arm henchmen and millions of dollars were rolling in; most of them rolling out again for “the fix.”
There was no organization behind Mickey. No syndicate Mahoffs guided or eased the way for him. Mickey did his own fixing. His pockets bulged with available $1000 bills.
In the time of Mickey’s Czardom, one of his cohorts (Nate S.) said to me proudly of himself, “I have been 35 years in organized crime- and never a black mark against me.”
Mickey’s reign, though briefer, was from the same point of view reasonably feckless. He paid off on the dot and to the nickel. He fixed fights and let his pals in on the take. He operated hideaway gambling rendezvous where the dice, wheels and cards were as on the level as any operator could afford to have them. On the side he beat up Nazi propagandists, staked bums to binges, never overlooked the birthday of a policeman’s kid, paid medical bills for all wounded supporters and was good for a touch from anybody who smiled and said, “Hello, Mickey.”
Despite these good deeds, innumerable gun battles blazed around the beneficent bookie Czar. A dozen or so of Mickey’s closest friends were killed in these shootings and an equal number of the opposition bit the dust. Mickey himself escaped destruction on the average of once a month. His house and office quarters were blasted by bombs. During this time of give and take havoc, the police kept pinching Mickey on “suspicion of carrying concealed weapons.” In one Sunset Boulevard engagement, Mickey was wounded in the shoulder and his hospital convalescence enabled Hollywood to concentrate on movie making.
Although most of the carnage took place on public highways, only one citizen bystander was hurt. A newspaper woman was nicked in the rear while interviewing Mr. Cohen as he was leaving a fashionable restaurant.
After a dozen or more killings there were some experimental arrests by the police but no trials or convictions. With bullets flying almost nightly up and down Sunset Boulevard, the police contented themselves with denouncing Mickey Cohen as an undesirable citizen.
“They don’t know what they’re talkin’ about,” Mickey said to me during these warlike days. “Since I have been in charge of the program there has been a definite reduction in the crime of this city. All the types of people who would under previous conditions be bustin’ people’s heads in dark alleys and breakin’ into respectable homes for robbery are now on my payroll and don’t have to do that sort of thing to make a living. I been a boon to this town. And I’ll tell you somethin’. Despite the attitude of the police, there are a lot o’ people beginning to realize that fact.”
Mickey might have continued conferring his favor indefinitely on Los Angeles, if the U. S. Government had not intruded. Mickey was arrested and tried for income-tax defection (“the only crime in my whole life of which I can say I am absolutely innocent”). He served three years, eight months and sixteen days in McNeil Island Penitentiary and came home to “go straight.”
“When I was on the Island [McNeill Prison],” says Mickey, “I saw things I couldn’t believe myself. And I thought I’d seen everything. The middle of the night, a fella a couple cells down starts screamin’. I call the guard and we go together to see what’s the matter with the guy. The light in his cell don’t turn on and the guard has to use a flashlight. The screamer is lyin’ in a pool o’ blood two inches deep. When the guard investigates he discovers that this guy was tryin’ to give himself some fun by stickin’ an electric light globe up his behind. In the middle of his enjoyment the globe had busted.
“He got a black mark for destroyin’ government property,” says Mickey. “The things that went on! I’ll tell you about ‘em.
“There was one fella, an Eskimo, who was doin’ time for eatin’ up his wife. ‘Since when is that a Federal offense?’ I asked the Warden. The way it actu’Ily happened was the couple was stranded on an ice cake and the husband got so hungry he killed her and consumed her. I talked to this Eskimo. He had no feelin’s on the subject.”
Mickey is reminiscing with me now about his days in Cleveland. There was a girl there, a redhead named Georgia. A hundred and eighteen pounds, with a beautiful face and fine disposition. Mickey, the wild heister, had never held a girl in his arms, even for dancing. “How about whores?”
“I never entered a whore house, except to heist it,” says Mickey righteously.
Sexual virtue is not unusual among gangsters. They do a lot of “sublimating” with gun and fist. Prize fighters are also often models of chastity. Getting your head punched for years deadens the nerve endings and is likely to make fornication as vague as parthenogenesis. There are exceptions, but women cut small ice in the underworld. Its heroes look for praise from their own sex who can better appreciate the cunning and daring of a stick-up, or the fierceness of a pistol whipping.
Mickey was not only virginal toward sex, but also toward booze, tobacco and drugs. He was stranger to all delights but one-violence. Flattery lay only in a grin of approval from “the people.”
There was also a first pal in Cleveland -Hooky. “He was my right arm,” says Mickey, still. “He weighed 190 pounds and was built like a bull. A rough lookin’ guy, you would say. No two people were ever any closer than me and Hooky. He was always silent unless spoken to. And he called women all by the same name-‘goil.’ ‘Hello, goil’ was as far as he talked to them. He’d refused to go to school when he was 5. From then on nobody could make Hooky attend any school. He had four brothers. They lived in New York with his parents. He was devoted to his family and always sent his mother from $500 to $5,000 on her birthday.
“Hooky was always at my side in Cleveland. If I bawled anyone out, from that moment on Hooky was mad at them. If there was a piece of work to be done, Hooky stopped eating, drinking and sleeping till it was done.” Hooky stayed Mickey’s best friend until he was shot dead in Los Angeles. He jumped in front of Mickey and took a bullet in his gut that was meant for the Bookie Czar.
Then there was Georgia.
“I lived with Georgia like man and wife for eight years,” says Mickey. “She never made any attempt to reform me. Anything I done was correct with her.” “Was she a gun moll or underworld type such as we see consorting with gangsters in the movies?” I ask.
“No,” Mickey answers. “She was a regular decent type of woman and also Irish. The only thing wrong about her was she made the mistake of fallin’ in love with a crazy young punk such as I was. But I treated her excellent.”
Mickey goes on with his Cleveland idyll. Georgia cooked like a chef and the house was clean as a hospital. She tended Mickey’s growing wardrobe and never let him go out with a wrinkle in his coat or a handkerchief that didn’t go with his socks. With all this she took care to stay a real looker. There was only one flaw to Georgia. She kept asking every once in a while to get married.
“I don’t go for marriage,” Mickey explained to her. “I can’t stand the very idea of it.”
It was a quirk that Mickey was never entirely to outgrow-even after nine years of a later marriage.
“I don’t know what it is to this day,” says Mickey, “but I always had a phobia against marriage. Tucked away in my mind was always that I’d promised myself as a youngster never to get married.” “Why did you make that promise?” “For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you,” Mickey answers.
“Was it because you didn’t like sex?”
“To tell the truth, I don’t go for it much,” says Mickey. “I ain’t changed in that phase. When I was runnin’ the rackets in Los Angeles some fellas came to me to take over the whore houses of the city and organize them on a sound basis. They showed me what an easy take it would be. But I pushed them of the store. I would have nothing to do with anything involving whores. I ain’t a moralist but that has always been against my grain.”
“Girls very often like me and seem attracted to me, and I find them also attractive, at times. It’s talkin’ to them that’s the hard part. You break your back to be a gentleman when you take a girl out. They like the respect you got for them. So the next day she says, You know, last night you didn‘t talk to me at all.’ ‘I didn’t have nothin’ to say to you,’ 1 try to explain. ‘I can’t make conversation out of nothin’.’”
Never did a less likely candidate for an underworld crown ever enter Los Angeles. Still unlettered, still unable to add or subtract and still relying on a gun for a livelihood, 25-year-old Mickey arrived in L.A., unheralded. With him was 60-year-old Joe G., a former figure man for Capone. Old Joe was an able accountant and efficiency expert. When Capone would open a new joint he would turn it over to Joe to run.
Mickey persuaded this elderly major domo to go on the heavy. They holed up together in a modest Los Angeles hotel and fanned out over the town as a team of heisters. Other operators soon joined them. Heisting is a talent that is a bit hard to praise from any point of view but a heister’s. But I would not be giving my subject his due did I fail to point out this talent.
I have listened goggle-eyed to Mickey’s stories of his Los Angeles stick-ups. There were 80 of them. And never an arrest. It goes to show. The pickings were so good that Mickey notified his right arm. Hooky finished a Passover feast with his family in New York and Mickey met him at the Santa Fe station.
“You gonna have it good here,” Mickey said. Hooky smiled and nodded. He was happy to be at Mickey’s side and he never left it till he died.
Armed robbery is, with murder, the oldest and most often practiced crime in human annals. Paleontologists like the witty professor Herbert Wendt read its tale in the fractured fossil skulls of a million years ago. Heisters who had just learned to walk upright entered the caves of Spain, and “raised” the Missing Links cooking dragon meat in the hills of Java. Hunting, sex and robbery were the three original occupations of homo sapiens when his jaw still held a monkey outline.
I have felt, listening to Mickey Cohen’s story, that he was obviously a throwback. How else account for such an opposite fact as this? While Mickey, gun in hand, was leaping at the flanks of society, his brother Sam, in the clothing business, refused, despite business reverses, to go through bankruptcy. He paid off every one of his creditors to the penny. The gesture cost him $300,000. It wiped him out and he died.
“Did you call your mother when you came to Los Angeles?”
“Just to tell her I was in good health and makin’ a livin’ in the ring,” says Mickey.
“Did any of your family suspect you were a criminal?”
“Nobody suspected,” says Mickey, “not even the police.”
My Cohen conversation has been interrupted. My subject is all over the Hollywood front pages and making headlines as far off as Kettle Falls, Minnesota.
The 13-year-old daughter of a movie star has stabbed her mother’s lover to death with a kitchen knife-in her mother’s bedroom. The dead lover was Johnny Stompanato, a close friend of Mickey’s, or as the press puts it-“a notorious Cohen hoodlum.”
Mickey got into the story a little deeper by giving the movie star’s love letters to the press. They revealed she had really loved his friend Johnny and not been horridly pestered by him, as the newspaper columns had it. Then Mickey insisted on buying his friend a bronze casket and returning his body to his white-haired, grieving mother in Wheaton, Illinois.
The newspapers, led by the Davy Crockett phalanx of movie gossip columnists, were disgusted with Mickey for his “crude publicity-seeking gestures.”Stompanato’s 13-year-old killer was exonerated by the law. Her movie star mother was covered with editorial condolences. Ex-marine and moony-lover, Johnny Stompanato was given a good-riddance-to-bad-rubbish heave-ho by the press. And Mickey Cohen, not without considerable effort on his part, emerged as the only villain of the piece.
In such a crisis as Stompanato’s murder, Mickey Cohen has a high red-herring value to the press. He has the return firing-power of a cap pistol. Besides, he doesn’t mind publicity. He is inclined to look at his name in a headline as if he were seeing himself dressed up and doing the honors at a party.
My conversations with Mickey have moved to Hollywood night clubs- the few in which he still rates ringside service. We are in a large, crowded one this night. Music plays louder than artillery fire. Comics work for laughs. Dancing girls cavort and jiggle. The blue joke and the flying crotch vie for approval. Nightclubs are Mickey’s family parlors. He wanders among them after midnight. He listens to the jokes and watches the near-nudes with a gloomy look.
Occasionally, he jumps up and walks briskly to another table and holds a two-minute talk. He returns and resumes his stare at the floor show. At least once .an evening somebody in a tuxedo comes beaming to our table and after a burst of Auld Lang Syne fellowship puts the bite on Mickey for a double saw-buck. “The fella claimed he knows me,” says Mickey wonderingly. “To tell you the truth I never saw him before.” Before dawn comes, Mickey will have said a terse, “Hello, how are ya?” to a cast of call girls, pimps, idling hoods, legal shysters, cons and some “legitimates,” white and colored. In the old days there were deep, moody conferences with these night-prowlers.
The night clubs hold memories for Mickey of crooked deals and derring-do. The deals and the derring-do still buzz at certain tables. The underworld has not retired with Mickey. He tells me who some of the buzzing ones are and I make a point of forgetting their names and doings. That way lies the land of libel.
“Ya tired?” asks Mickey.
“Not much doin’ tonight,” he scowls. ·•Ya ever know M-‘s joint in Chicago?”
“No. After my time.”
“Very lively spot,” says Mickey, “and still goin’ good.”
“Is crime as widespread as It used to be?” I ask.
“I mean, haven’t the gangsters and mobsters sort of died out of late?”
“Don’t make me laugh,” says Mickey. “I could name you 500 fellas engaged in action right tonight.”
1 asked him not to.
“You can take it from me,” says Mickey, “that what is called the underworld is on the increase.”
By Bill Gilson
Bill Gilson, a KTTV reporter, is the only Los Angeles newsman to interview Mickey Cohen since his release from prison. The following report is based on his conversation with the former mobster last month.
Eleven years in federal prison have made a shambles out of the Mickey Cohen an earlier generation of Southern Californians knew and enjoyed during his more sinister salad days. The Mickey Cohen who came home to Los Angeles in January of this year is a physically broken man; reduced by the attack of a fellow inmate from a preening, prideful gangster to a graying, faltering cripple wearing borrowed clothes.
But being allowed to return to Los Angeles was “like being born again,” he says, after spending over a decade of his life in federal penitentiaries in California, Washington, Georgia and Missouri.
The face of the city has changed drastically since Cohen was imprisoned in 1961 for federal income tax evasion, and so have the people. Clothing styles are for another time and place than the era the once elegantly-dressed Cohen left behind, flanked by federal agents, his hands cuffed in front of him.
“They’re not for me, those clothes,” Cohen said of the brightly hued styles worn by today’s male. He looked down at the mis-matched sweater and trousers he had borrowed from his brother, Harry. “This is the first time I’ve worn the same clothes two days in a row. One of the things I was looking forward to was getting dressed when I got out. But I’ve just got to wait and get myself together and get my clothes.”
Cohen still has the fetish for cleanliness he had during his heyday as the reputed king of the Los Angeles gambling underworld. He still washes his hands several times a day and repeatedly dry washes the curved handle of the gold-toned, tri-tipped cane he needs to lean on these days in order to move even haltingly.
Cohen said he knows ‘nothing about that crippling attack except what he was told later in court during the trial of a damage suit he brought against the federal government. (Although he won the suit, he claims he hasn’t yet seen a penny of the nearly $200,000 judgment.)
The lead-pipe armed assailant, according to Cohen, was known to prison authorities to be mentally out of step with other inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution at Atlanta, Ga. Cohen said he had never met the man before, nor to his knowledge had he ever seen him before. Yet the inmate scaled a 12-foot wall in the exercise yard at the Atlanta prison, dropped to the floor of the compound in which Cohen was relaxing, and bludgeoned the Los Angeles mobster to the ground with a lead pipe.
Cohen’s skull was crushed. He was in a coma for several long weeks, a coma which prison medical authorities for a time believed would deepen into death. When he finally emerged from unconsciousness he was partially paralyzed, in need of intensive medical care. And bewildered. “This is not to brag, but I was
considered one of the best-liked prisoners anywhere I was, either Alcatraz or Atlanta. Even the warden asked me, ‘Mickey, how in the hell can something like this happen to you? You’re one of the best liked guys in prison.’”
Cohen has not consciously surrendered to his infirmities. The high-pitched voice is still tough, his thinking process apparently not impaired by the injuries. But there is an unexpected turn to some of the concerns he expresses.
For instance, can anyone imagine a Mickey Cohen of the ‘40s or ‘50s talking about prison reform? Today he says he feels it is his “duty as an American” to make those thoughts known, “particularly with regards to the federal system,” which he says he feels “should set the pattern.”
Keying Cohen’s concern for reform is what he characterizes as the “unbelievable” problem of homosexuality in the federal prisons to which he was assigned. Prison staff members, he said “are part and parcel of it ... they go along with it, maybe they kinda feel it keeps the population calmer.”
Anyone sentenced to prison, asserts Cohen, needs “God’s help” to escape attack by what he describes as an organized homosexual element which is tacitly sanctioned at best or ignored at worst by prison authorities. “My morals, my standards in life,” declared Cohen, “have always been kind of strong, particularly against homosexuals of any kind. And I can’t see why the things I consider wrong, or things the general population considers wrong, shouldn’t be corrected.”
Cohen’s new freedom is on a medical parole from the Federal Medical Center at Springfield, Mo., to which he was transferred following the attack on him in Atlanta. The medical release recognizes his physical inabilities, and while it makes him answerable to a local federal authority, it places few restrictions on his travels or on the persons with whom he associates.
Cohen poked an emphatic hole in the air with the forefinger of his right hand when he recalled he had told the parole board that it might as well lock him up again if it wanted him to “turn my back on the people I once knew.”
There is still a fire in Cohen when he talks about his flaps with Los Angeles police in the days before it took the Internal Revenue Service to sock it to him.
He was rousted so many times for unjailable, unprovable offenses that an official at the MacNeil Island Federal Prison in Washington state came to Cohen’s defense, claiming that Los Angeles police officials spent so much time chasing Cohen-whom he characterized as a small –time hoodlum-that they let the big-time
crooks in Southern California literally get away with murder.
Who was responsible for those years? ‘The big trouble was with former Police Chief William H. Parker,” said Cohen. “It was like he had a personal vendetta.” It was true the late Chief Parker didn’t like Cohen, nor the gambling element and the violence it incurred. Parker’s men nailed Cohen and his confederates at every opportunity, but more often than not failed to come up with sufficient evidence to take them to court.
Cohen knew as he recalled those long ago clashes that times have changed. Chief Parker is dead, victim of a heart attack in 1966. Mickey Cohen couldn’t even attend the funeral.
Now Mickey has returned as a curiosity piece in the city where his activities used to command front-page headlines. To an earlier generation that remembers him as the Mickey Cohen, he’s back, but he’ll never be the same.