Skip to main content

Mickey Cohen

Crime Files
Mickey Cohen

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.

The Aftermath

“I started rooting - you know, sticking up joints - with some older guys. By now I had gotten a taste of what the racket world really was - the glamour, the way they dressed, the way they always had a pocketful of money.” - Mickey Cohen“I didn't kill anyone that didn't deserve killing in the first place.” - Mickey Cohen


29 July 1914 - Mickey Cohen born in Brownville, New York1947 - Takes over Bugsy Siegel’s West Coast operations1950 - First sent to prison for four years due to Senate Select Committee findings1961 - Sent to Alcatraz prison for tax evasion1972 - Released from Springfield prison in Missouri1974 - Becomes involved in Patty Hearst kidnap saga1976 - Dies peacefully at his California home

The Arrest

Cohen went to prison a second time for tax evasion in 1961. He was sent to the notorious Alcatraz prison in San Francisco bay for fifteen years. After the ‘crumbling dungeon’ closed he was transferred to a prison in Atlanta where he suffered a vicious attack from a disturbed prisoner with an iron bar and was left partially paralysed.After leaving Springfield prison in Missouri in 1972, the now ageing former mobster took retirement and spent his twilight days travelling the country visiting old friends. But one headline grabbing incident brought him back into the limelight again in 1974 when nineteen-year-old heiress, Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. The SLA was a group of American terrorists who targeted the Hearst empire due to its wealth and power as the country’s leading newspaper empire.Cohen was approached by the Hearst family, due to his ‘background’ with the underworld but despite his efforts to pin down the people responsible for kidnapping Patty, the situation came to nothing. Cohen also backed out of further developments when it transpired that Patty was not interested in returning home and may herself be imprisoned for terrorist activities.His last remaining years were spent at his home in California where he died peacefully in 1976.

The Crimes

Cohen’s first taste of being part of the gangster fraternity was when he started working for the Chicago Outfit. Throughout this volatile period he met Al Capone and even worked as an associate with Mattie Capone, Al’s younger brother.For Cohen, meeting Capone was akin to a fan meeting their favourite movie star. He said, "I walked into his office kind of awed, because I was a young kid anyway, walking into the office of Al Capone. He did something which was a very big thing for me, he kind of held my head and kissed me on both cheeks.”Capone thought highly of Cohen and promised to back him up in anything he was interested in. Mickey’s role was to run illegal gambling and card games venues which finally led to a violent shootout between rival racketeers and prompted Cohen’s exile to California. Before he left for the Sunshine State Cohen experienced the first of what would be many assassination attempts when he was shot at by rival hoods while wearing his favourite camel hair coat. Shortly after this, mainly because there wasn’t enough for him to do, Cohen went to LA.Cohen was ill-educated, semi-literate and pugnacious. He was the perfect foil to Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, and together as a team they were an effective extension of the East Coast Syndicate of gangsters on the West Coast. Before Cohen entered the frame, the money making machine from illicit activities on the West Coast was small fry until Bugsy and Cohen turned it into a lucrative operation that encompassed a deadly mix of gambling, narcotics and controlling the unions.West Coast Gangster Mickey flourished on the West Coast and appeared to have more lives than a cat. He didn't realise it at the time, but the places he was robbing were mob-controlled carpet joints - the illicit nightclubs and casinos that predated Las Vegas.Despite Hollywood being noted for its decadence and the place where all the gangster flicks were made, actual racketeering in the town was thin on the ground. The main mobster operating in this territory at the time was Jack Dragna whose speciality, apart from setting up off-shore gambling venues on boats, was a protection racket where he would send in men to threaten people and then get the victims to pay up to have Dragna chase away his own men.Dragna’s big problem as far as the East Syndicate was concerned was that he was from the old generation, limited in his abilities and not adept at putting the frighteners on his enemies. When Cohen and Bugsy arrived in California, Dragna hated the idea of playing second fiddle on his own patch, especially when the interlopers were pushing an alternative wire service for bookies.Cohen v Dragna In 1947, when Bugsy was assassinated by a sniper while sitting in a bungalow, Jack Dragna decided to take on Cohen who was primed to take over operations.Cohen & Hollywood As the Syndicate man on the West Coast, Cohen began meeting with the movers and shakers of Hollywood and the top politicians of Los Angeles. He ingratiated himself with the beautiful people, making friends with top Hollywood studio bosses and actors including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. Cohen allegedly even stepped in and saved Davis from receiving a punishment beating, on the orders of a Columbia studio boss, for dating actress Kim Novak.But when Cohen wasn’t canoodling with the gliterati he was exploiting them. One of his specialities was blackmailing movie stars who had secrets, mainly sexual, that they’d rather keep hidden from public knowledge. Cohen arranged for the lovemaking of his targets to be surreptitiously filmed and recorded.One of his victims included Lana Turner, who he recorded making love to gangster wannabe John Stompananto in a motel room. The latter would later become a good friend of Cohen’s and be at the centre of a major headline grabbing murder scandal. Cohen’s secret recording of the pair having sex became a much sought after entertainment piece and made Cohen a good deal of money.Even J. Edgar Hoover was aware of Cohen’s sideline business that kept him both respected and feared by many of Hollywood’s most famous actors and studio figures.But now that Bugsy was dead, Jack Dragna considered it was open season on Mickey Cohen. Several attempts were made on his life including shoot-outs in the streets, restaurants and even a bomb that was detonated at his home but failed to injure anyone. After several more lucky escapes the war precipitated by Dragna attracted the attention of the Senate Select Committee on Organised Crime in Interstate Commerce.Ironically, the outcome of the Committee’s findings in 1950 was that Cohen was indicted, tried and convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to four years in federal prison.Lana Turner One of the most colourful episodes of Cohen’s life was his association with the scandalous Stompanato and Lana Turner affair.Johnny Stompanato was a friend of Cohen’s and although not a fully-fledged member of the mobster team, could be best described as an opportunist and discreet gigolo who seduced rich women with his macho looks and surfeit of testosterone.Stompanato’s relationship with the movie star Lana Turner was known to be a tempestuous one, in which the couple would often brawl and then make up once the dramatics were over. Cohen himself was no soul mate of Ms Turner’s and according to his autobiography she would often blame him for Stompanato’s many walk-outs on her.When news reached Cohen one night that Johnny had been killed by Lana’s daughter, the scandal took a particularly personal twist when Turner declared in the press that she feared Cohen would take revenge on her. According to Cohen, Turner used the studio to create an image of her life with Stompanato as one of abuse. He retaliated by disclosing intimate letters Turner had written to Johnny demonstrating how obsessed she was of him. In the end Turner’s daughter was found not guilty and Cohen maintained that the real killers, indicating rival hoods, had got away with murder.

The Key Figures

Key Figures Al Capone: Cohen’s first boss in the Chicago Outfit Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel : Mickey Cohen’s boss on the West Coast Jack Dragna : Cohen’s arch enemy on the West Coast Johnny Stompanato : Lover of Lana Turner and Cohen’s friend who was murdered William Randolph Hearst : Newspaper magnate and friend of Cohen