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.”