Meyer Harris "Mickey" Cohen was part of the second generation of gangsters that came after the likes of Al Capone and the old Mustache Petes. He is unlikely to get star billing when it comes to popular lists of the world’s most notorious mobsters. This is mainly due to the fact that by the time Cohen reached his prime as a mobster, the gangster world had already been sewn up by major figures whose names and reputations have gone down in history.
But Cohen, despite lacking charm and sophistication, was a ruthless, adroit and successful racketeer who appeared to have more lives than a cat going by the amount of times he escaped assassination. However, it is his association with Hollywood’s glamorous set, such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and powerful newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, that has helped shape the view that the world of show business is never too far away from the shady tentacles of the underworld.
Cohen’s main claim to fame within gangster history is that he was Ben “Bugsy” Siegel's shadow, a darker alter-ego of the more glamorous racketeer. What Cohen lacked in refinement he made up in brawn and aggression. Where Bugsy was the kind of handsome and suave bad boy who was invited to parties and to socialise among Hollywood’s elite, Cohen was content playing the hard-man bruiser, who wouldn’t think twice about breaking someone’s bones. His personality and part in American racketeering history is even immortalised in James Ellroy’s gangster novels and movies such as ‘Bugsy’ and ‘LA Confidential’.
Mickey Cohen was born in Brownville, New York, a Brooklyn neighbourhood that, despite its current chic and regentrification, was then synonymous with gangsters of the age. But at six years old Cohen, his mother and older siblings, left their impoverished slum for Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, where his family operated a drugstore.
Later, after traveling around the Midwest he went back to New York, where he fell in with some of organised crime's most notorious characters such as killer Owney Madden and Tommy Dioguardi, brother of the labour racketeer Johnny Dio.