Mickey Cohen: Memoirs of the Good Days

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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.

“No. “

“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.

“Ya kiddin’?”

“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.”

 

Mickey Today…
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.

 

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