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.
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.